How to Identify Circular References in Excel

A circular reference in Excel occurs when a formula refers back to its own cell, either directly or indirectly. This creates an endless calculation loop that Excel cannot resolve, resulting in errors or inaccurate results. Identifying and removing circular references is an essential skill for Excel users working with complex formulas and large datasets.

What Causes Circular References

There are a few common ways that circular references arise in Excel:

  • A formula refers directly to its own cell. For example, cell A1 contains the formula =A1+5.
  • A chain of formulas refers back to the original cell. For example, cell A1 refers to cell B1, which refers to cell C1, which refers back to cell A1.
  • Functions like SUM or VLOOKUP include a range that contains the formula’s own cell. For example, =SUM(A1:C3) in cell B2.

Accidental circular references usually occur when copying formulas across rows or columns and forgetting to adjust cell references. They can also arise when adding new data that impacts previous results.

Consequences of Circular References

The main problem with circular references is that Excel enters an endless loop trying to resolve the calculation. This drains system resources, with the following implications:

  • Formulas return incorrect results, often showing zeroes.
  • Excessive memory usage slows down the workbook.
  • Workbooks containing circular references may crash.

For these reasons, identifying and eliminating circular references is essential for stable, accurate spreadsheets.

How to Find Circular References in Excel

Excel provides several tools to help find circular reference errors:

1. Error Checking

The Error Checking tool scans for common errors, including circular references. To use it:

  1. Go to Formulas > Error Checking > Circular References.
  2. Click on a cell address to jump to the problem formula.
  3. Check the status bar – it shows the latest circular reference.

2. Trace Precedents/Dependents

The Trace Precedents and Dependents tools show which cells provide data to (precedents) or receive data from (dependents) the selected cell.

  1. Select a cell containing a potential circular reference.
  2. Go to Formulas > Trace Precedents or Trace Dependents.
  3. Arrows show flow of data. A circular flow indicates a circular reference.

3. Evaluate Formula

The Evaluate Formula tool lets you step through formula calculations to identify errors:

  1. Select a cell with a circular reference formula.
  2. Go to Formulas > Evaluate Formula.
  3. Step through and inspect each part of the formula.

How to Remove Circular References

To eliminate a circular reference, edit the formula(s) containing the loop. Ways to fix formulas include:

  • Deleting cell references causing the circular reference
  • Using different cell references that don’t create a loop
  • Rewriting formulas to avoid circular logic
  • Replacing formulas with hard-coded values

It’s essential to check both precedent and dependent cells to identify and break the circular chain.

Allowing Circular References

In some cases, you may need to retain a circular reference intentionally to perform an iterative calculation. To permit this:

  1. Go to File > Options > Formulas.
  2. Check Enable iterative calculation.
  3. Set the maximum number of iterations for the circular calculation.

However, allowing circular references risks model stability and accuracy. Avoid enabling them unless absolutely necessary.

Best Practices for Avoiding Circular References

The most reliable approach is to proactively avoid circular references when building Excel models:

  • Double check cell references when copying formulas
  • Validate precedent and dependent cells
  • Use absolute references like $A$1 instead of A1
  • Break down complex formulas into smaller steps
  • Turn off automatic workbook calculation while building models

Careful model design can eliminate unintended direct and indirect circular references. This prevents inaccurate results and instability in Excel workbooks.


Circular references are a common challenge for Excel power users working with advanced formulas across large datasets. Mastering circular reference identification using Excel’s auditing tools allows you to resolve them quickly. Eliminating circular references through formula edits or adjustments ensures accurate, stable spreadsheet calculations and prevents system resource overuse. Avoiding enabling iterative calculations reduces model risk. With mindful model building and circular reference prevention best practices, you can create robust Excel models that provide reliable outputs.

I have over 10 years experience using Excel formulas and data models. Please let me know if you have any other questions!