How to password protect an Excel workbook

At the file level, you can password-protect an Excel workbook in two ways: you can specify who can enter and who can save changes.

Editor’s note: In the video, Brandon Vigliarolo walks you through the steps of securing an Excel workbook with a password in Microsoft Office 365. The steps are similar to what Susan Harkins describes in this tutorial, first published in January 2011 and updated in March 2019.

Data security is a stepwise process with password protection at the bottom level – the file level. It’s a first step, but certainly not the only step you should take to protect confidential and proprietary data. The password that protects the Excel workbook at the file level controls access in two ways: it allows the user to enter and it allows the user to save changes. In this article, I’ll show you more than just how to password protect a workbook. You will learn what this protection does and does not do for you and how to avoid some problems.

I use
office 365

Excel (for desktop), but you can use earlier versions. There is no demonstration file – you won’t need one. You cannot add a password to a file open in the browser, and you cannot open it in the browser.

More information: Office 365 Consumer pricing and features

security protection

Before we discuss the password protection feature in Excel, let’s clarify what we mean by security. Although the terms security and protection are shrouded interchangeably, in terms of features in Excel, they are not the same thing. Security allows you to choose who enters and who does not. Protection restricts existing users. Security is access. Protection means integrity.

Set password

The first step is to set a password. You can work with any file, but for our purposes, I’d suggest an empty workbook instead of an important working file, just in case. To set a password for an Excel workbook, do the following.

  1. From the File menu, choose Save As. In Excel 2007, click the Office button and choose Save As.
  2. Under Name and type controls, click More options. (If you turn off the Backstage area, you will skip this step.)
  3. In the resulting Save As dialog, click the Tools drop-down menu (to the left of the Save button) and choose General Options.
  4. In the resulting dialog box (Figure A) You can set two passwords: one to open the workbook and one to modify the workbook. The advanced options allow you to set encryption options.
  5. Enter one or both passwords and click OK.
  6. Confirm the password(s) and click OK.
  7. Click Save.

Make sure to write down the password in a safe place, just in case you forget it.

Figure A


Enter the password and note it in a safe place.

Setting a password to open the workbook is intuitive; If the user does not know the password, they will not be able to open the file. This gives you a great deal of control if you do a reasonable job of securing your passwords. Of course, you can’t do anything about the user sharing the password, but that’s an entirely different issue. Just remember that this password only keeps users away; The user who knows this password can access all the data and can modify the data once.

See: Cost Comparison Calculator: G Suite vs. Office 365 (Tech Pro Research)

This is where the second password comes in; By setting this password, you allow users to open the workbook and view the data while withholding permission to modify anything. A user who knows this password can view and modify the data as well as save changes to the workbook.

A user who doesn’t know the second password can open and view the data by clicking on the read-only option, but it’s read-only – kind of. This user can still modify the data, but the password protected workbook will not allow the user to save changes – kind of. Here’s the deal: a user without the modified password can still view, edit, and save the changes, if the user has access. This user cannot save changes made to the protected workbook. However, the user can save the protected workbook with a new name, which certainly circumvents the process.

See: A Successful Cybersecurity Strategy (ZDNet Special Report) | Download the report in PDF format (TechRepublic)

Important considerations

Before you begin password-protecting all of your workbooks, there are three important things to keep in mind:

  • Anyone with the password to modify the workbook can also remove the password protection. Use this particular option wisely; Be careful to whom you give the password.
  • Ordinary users will not have the experience to crack your password, but anyone can buy password cracking software. Your best protection against this kind of tampering (or outright theft) is to set a ridiculously long password of random characters. Doing so won’t defeat specialized software, but it will slow them down and this delay could cause a potential cracker to put your workbook aside. On the other hand, it is sure to annoy users. Balancing the two needs can be a little tricky. For more information on this topic, read Strong Passwords – Realistic or Stressful.
  • if You are Forgot your password, you cannot enter your workbook and make changes, but you can purchase a password cracker.

Excel password protection is a great feature and fortunately, it’s easy to implement. Just don’t confuse it with sheet protection and by all means, don’t rely on it just to secure sensitive data.

See: 10 Time-Saving Excel Programs You Might Not Know (Free PDF Download) (TechRepublic)

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