Microsoft's Excel has established itself as the leading spreadsheet software, and there's no sign of that changing. As a core part of the hugely successful Microsoft Office productivity suite, it offers a powerful set of features that can't be matched elsewhere.

However, for the full Excel experience, you'll have to pay for a Microsoft 365 subscription. This bundles it with Word, PowerPoint and several other Office apps, alongside cloud storage and regular updates.

But paying monthly when you're just using one app doesn't make much sense. Shelling out for the latest standalone version of Microsoft Office is difficult to justify too.

Fortunately, paying full price isn't your only option when it comes to using Excel. In fact, there are some methods which allow you to access it completely free of charge. 

Option 1 - Web version

Using Microsoft Excel and other core Office programs is free via the web, and all you'll need is a Microsoft account.

Head over to Office.com and click 'Sign in' to enter your details. If you don't yet have an account, choose 'Sign up for the free version of Office' and follow the instructions.

Microsoft Excel web

Once that's complete, you'll be taken to your main office homepage. From the left pane, choose 'Create' then 'Workbook' to open a new spreadsheet.

Microsoft Excel free

As you can see, there's also the option to create documents in Word and PowerPoint here, alongside Outlook and a free version of Microsoft Teams. These are all ‘Web Apps’, meaning you can only use them via your browser and not a desktop app. When you work on a file here, it will be saved to OneDrive, Microsoft's cloud storage service. 

In fact, you probably have Google to thank for this software being available in web app form, as its free Docs and Sheets software and their integration with Google Drive made it difficult for Microsoft to keep asking users to pay. 

Check out our guide to the best cloud storage services to see how both compare to the rest of the competition.

The web version of Excel is a more stripped-back version of the software, so the comparison to Google Sheets is more reasonable than the full desktop program. Nonetheless, both services should provide everything a casual user is looking for. 

Option 2 - Use on mobile

Perhaps again in response to Google, Microsoft's Office mobile applications are completely free and available across most modern smartphones, tablets and folables.

You can download the Microsoft Excel app for Android and iOS. While Microsoft understandably reserves some premium features for its Microsoft 365 subscription, the mobile apps are still very capable and offer integration with OneDrive.

Option 3 - Check if your school or workplace gets it free

Many employers offer Microsoft 365 apps to their employees free of charge. Even if your work email address ends with the name of the company, it may still be used to sign into a Microsoft account. Of course, you may be working in an office job where Excel and the like are already the defaults.

If your school has signed up to Microsoft 365 Education, all staff and students should be able access Office apps for free. To check, enter your education email address on the Microsoft website.

But if your school isn't yet signed up and you're in a position to change that, compare plans and begin the sign-up process here.

Option 4 - Pay full price

However, these free options aren't suitable for everyone. If you need more than just basic Excel functions and the app isn't available to you via school or work, the only alternative is to pay full price. 

At the time of writing, the cheapest Microsoft 365 subscription is Personal, which £5.99/US$6.99 per month or £59.99/US$69.99 per year. Stepping up to the Family plan gets 2-6 people access for £7.99/US$9.99 per month or £79.99/US$99.99 per year. Both offer a one-month free trial. 

Your other option is to pay for Office 2021, the latest standalone release. This is a one-off payment of £119.99 in the UK or $149.99 in the US. Unfortunately, there's no way to pay for Excel on its own.

Learn more in our full Microsoft 365 buying guide.