3 Types of Excel Drop Down Lists Compared

3 Types of Excel Drop Down Lists Compared

At a client’s office last week, I was selecting a pricing option from a data validation drop down list.  It had some limitations, so here are 3 types of Excel drop down lists compared.

Data Validation Drop Down

At my client’s office, the worksheet was zoomed to 75%, so we could see more of the data, and the person watching over my shoulder asked, “How can you even read that?”

Good question. Sometimes the font in a data validation drop down is so small that you can barely read the list.


Drop Down Types

Unfortunately, there’s no way to make the font size bigger, which is one of the drawbacks of a data validation drop down list.

There are other ways to create a drop down list though, and one of those options might work better in your worksheet.

We’ll compare these types of Excel drop down lists:

  • Data Validation List
  • Form Control Combo Box
  • ActiveX Control Combo Box


Data Validation Limitations

Data validation is a great feature, and you can use creative formulas to create flexible lists, such as dependent drop down lists. However, it has limitations:

  • the font size can’t be changed
  • only 8 rows are visible at a time
  • only the active cell shows a drop down arrow.

You can’t change those settings, but you can colour the data entry cells, to make them obvious to the worksheet users.

Form Control Combo Box

Instead of using data validation, you could use a Form Control Combo Box. It gives you a bit more control over the appearance of the drop down list.


You can adjust the number of drop down lines in the Form Control Combo box, so you can show all 12 months, without a scroll bar.

You can also link the combo box to a cell, so the selected item number appears on the worksheet.


The drop down arrow is always visible, so the Form Control combo box is easy for users to find on the worksheet.

The font size can’t be changed though, so the list would be hard to read on a zoomed worksheet.


Also, you can’t type in the box, so click the arrow, then select an item from the list. That item’s index number (its position in the list) is entered in the linked cell. In the screen shot above, February was selected, and a 2 is entered in cell D5.

Get the Item Name

To show the item name, instead of the item number, you can use an INDEX function in another cell.

In this example, the INDEX function returns a month name from the MonthList named range, from the row number (2) for the selected month (February).


ActiveX Combo Box

Another drop down list option is to use an ActiveX combo box. This is similar to the Forms Control combo box, but has more properties that you can adjust.


After you insert a combo box, right-click the combo box, and click Properties.


You can set the properties, such as font, font size, number of rows, and even include multiple columns.


If you know that a worksheet will be zoomed most of the time, you can use a larger font, to make the list easier to read.


This combo box can also be linked to a worksheet cell, and the value is entered in that cell, when you select an item from the list.

Also, you can type in the combo box, and the text autocompletes as you type, finding the first matching item in the list.

Combine the Drop Down Lists

To make the most of the data validation features, while allowing font changes, autocomplete and more rows, I sometimes combine data validation with a combo box.

There’s only one combo box, hidden at the top of the worksheet, and bit of programming makes the combo box appear when needed.

When a user double-clicks on a data validation cell, the combo box appears, and displays the data validation list for the selected cell. If users don’t want to use the combo box, they can simply click on the arrow in the cell, and use the data validation list.

Watch the Drop Down Lists Video

To see a demonstration of the 3 types of drop down lists, you can watch this Drop Down Lists video.