Returning Blanks or Asterisks from a Lookup

Bob asked if there was a way to use VLOOKUP to return blanks or asterisks if the function cannot make a match in a lookup table.

Yes, this can be done, but not without making your formula just a bit more complex. The trick is to remember that VLOOKUP can operate in one of two ways. By default, it returns the next lower value to the one being looked for, if the data table is in ascending order and if there isn’t an exact match. However, you can force VLOOKUP to only return exact matches, if desired. Consider the following example:


This example searches through the lookup table (A1:B10) looking for the value 5 in the first column of the table. If it is found, then the corresponding value from the second column is returned. If it is not found, then VLOOKUP returns an #N/A error, indicating it could not locate the value. (The FALSE value as the fourth parameter indicates you don’t want approximate matches.)

The key, then, is to play off this #N/A value and build what you want returned if there isn’t a match. The following formula will return a series of five asterisks if there wasn’t a match in the lookup:


The ISNA function is used to test if the result of VLOOKUP is the #N/A error. If it is, then the asterisks are returned; if not, then the lookup value is returned. If you want the formula to return “nothing,” then you can use this variation:


This version returns a blank string if there was not a match in the lookup table. For some uses, this may not be exactly what you want. You may find it more appropriate to return a zero, and then hide zeroes in the worksheet (Tools | Options | View tab | clear the Zero Values check box). If you’d like a zero returned, then it takes only one change:


Of course, you could also use the IFERROR function to find what you need. The following variation on the formula will work just fine: