Excel Dates Won’t Change Format

Have you ever imported data into Excel, from your credit card statement, or somewhere else, and had a problem formatting the dates? And, if you try to sort that column of dates, things end up in the wrong order.

That happened to me this week, and here’s how I fixed the problem, using a built-in Excel tool.

Dates As Text

In the screen shot below, you can see the column of imported dates, which show the date and time. I didn’t want the times showing, but when I tried to format the column as Short Date, nothing happened – the dates stayed the same.

problem dates

Why won’t the dates change format? Even though they look like dates, Excel sees them as text, and Excel can’t apply number formatting to text.

There are a few signs that the cell contents are being treated as text:

  • The dates are left-aligned
  • There is an apostrophe at the start of the date (visible in the formula bar)
  • If two or more dates are selected, the Quick Calc in the Status Bar only shows Count, not Numerical Count or Sum.

Quick Calc in the Status Bar

Fix the Dates

If you want to sort the dates, or change their format, you’ll have to convert them to numbers – that’s how Excel stores valid dates. Sometimes, you can fix the dates by copying a blank cell, then selecting the date cells, and using Paste Special > Add to change them to real dates.

Unfortunately, that technique didn’t work on this data, probably because of the extra spaces. You could go to each cell, and remove the apostrophe, but that could take quite a while, if you have more than a few dates to fix.

A much quicker way is to use the Text to Columns feature, and let Excel do the work for you:

  • Select the cells that contain the dates
  • On the Excel Ribbon, click the Data tab
  • Click Text to Columns

Click Text to Columns

In Step 1, select Delimited, and click Next

select Delimited

  • In Step 2, select Space as the delimiter, and the preview pane should show the dates divided into columns.
  • Click Next

select Space as the delimiter

In Step 3, you can set the data type for each column:

  • In the preview pane, click on the date column, and select Date
  • In the Date drop down, choose the date format that your dates are currently displayed in. In this example, the dates show month/day/year, so I’ve selected MDY.

choose the date format

  • Select each of the remaining columns, and set it as “Do not import column (skip)”

Do not import

  • Click Finish, to convert the text dates to real dates.

Format the Dates

Now that the dates have been converted to real dates (stored as numbers), you can format them with the Number Format commands.

There are a few signs that the cell contents are now being recognized as real dates (numbers):

  • The dates are right-aligned
  • There is no apostrophe at the start of the date (visible in the formula bar)
  • If two or more dates are selected, the Quick Calc in the Status Bar shows Count, Numerical Count and Sum.

Check Status Bar

To format the dates, select them, and use the quick Number formats on the Excel Ribbon, or click the dialog launcher, to see more formats.

Format the numbers

Everything should work correctly, after you have converted the text dates to real dates.

Download the Sample File

To follow along with this tutorial, get the Date Format Fix Sample file from my Contextures website, on the Excel Dates Fix Format page.

Can't sort or format Excel dates? How to fix them. blog.contextures.com

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