Excel Cannot Break Link – The Ultimate Guide

MikeProductivity40 Comments


If you cannot break links in Excel® then follow these steps (backup your file first):

  1. Unprotect each sheet in your problem file: HOME RIBBON – (CELLS) FORMAT – PROTECT SHEETS
  2. Break links: DATA RIBBON – (CONNECTIONS) EDIT LINKS – Select sheet then BREAK LINK
  3. Delete all named ranges to external files: FORMULA RIBBON – (DEFINED NAMES) NAME MANAGER
  4. Check all chart series ranges: Right click chart – SELECT DATA – (SERIES) EDIT. Check each series, if any ranges are in external files then cut the range from the external file and paste in to problem file. Also check chart titles and data label ranges.
  5. Save a copy of the problem file then:
    • Rename it in file explorer: changing the extension from .xlsx to .zip.
    • Navigate to the folder ‘FILENAME.zip>xl’ file and delete the folder named ‘externalLinks’.
    • Rename the ZIP file from extension .zip to .xlsx
  6. Save the file as file type ‘xls’ then back to ‘xlsx’ (or whatever the original file type was). Create a backup before trying this.

Some of these problems can be fixed with our add-in: fix and speed up Excel® files tools ADD-IN.

Lets go through each of those steps in more detail to make sure you can break links.

1. Unprotect Sheets in your Problem File

a) When the active sheet is protected and you try to edit links the BREAK LINK button will be grayed out. You will need to unprotect this sheet or go to another sheet before you try and break links.

b) If a cell within a protected sheet is linked to an external file then you won’t be able to break links. Excel® will give you a warning that the external link cannot be broken due to the sheet being protected.

Excel® won’t be helpful enough to tell you which sheet contains the external link so you may need to go searching for it. You can use our audit tools to find all cells with external links.

If you are using Excel® 2010 or later you can go to FILE – INFO. Under PROTECT WORKBOOK at the top you will see a list of any protected sheets.


Once all the sheet are unprotected you can go on the next step.

This step will succeed in breaking links unless there are “phantom links” with the workbook. We will come to these later.

The Break Link function replaces the external links in any formulas with constant values.

If you want to identify all cells with references to external workbooks before you carry out this process you can do so:

  • Press CTRL+F
  • Type “xl*]” in the ‘Find what:’ box (don’t include the inverted commas in the box)
  • Select ‘Within:’ Workbook
  • Select ‘Look in:’ Formulas
  • Click ‘Find All’

You can now check the list of links before you proceed.


To break links click DATA RIBBON – (CONNECTIONS sub menu) EDIT LINKS

You will see a list of external links that your current file is linking to. You can click each of the files and then click BREAK LINK.

If BREAK LINK is grayed out then go back to step 1 as you must still have a protected sheet in your workbook.


Hopefully you have now broken links successfully. However, if you still cannot break the Excel® link then you need to proceed to the next step.

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3. Delete Named Ranges to External Files

This is the most common type of phantom link. It is possible that named ranges used by a file are defined as a range of cells in an external workbook.

You can check these easily and delete any that refer to external files.


Select each named range that refers to an external workbook and click DELETE. If there are many named ranges then you may want to sort them by ‘Refers To’. This will group links to the same external file.

You can delete more than one named range at a time. Select one, hold shift then select the one at the end of the range you want to delete.

Note: you could use the file fix and speed up tools to delete named ranges to external files. With the tool you can choose to omit open files when deleting links to external files.



Go back to check EDIT LINKS to see if this has resolved your phantom link problem. If you still cannot break link then go on the next step.

It is possible that some of the series data used by an Excel® chart has been moved to an external file. This will create a phantom link.

Check if your file has any charts. It is possible that your workbook has hidden sheets so you may need to unhide them and check these for charts as well.

If  FILE-INFO is saying there are still hidden sheets then your file may have sheets that are ‘Very Hidden’. This is unlikely unless you or someone else has set the sheet ‘Visible’ property to xlVeryHidden in the Visual Basic Editor. Click FILE – CHECK FOR ISSUES – INSPECT DOCUMENT to find any hidden sheets. You can either click to remove the sheets. Or you can unhide them in the Visual Basic Editor (click ALT+F11). In the VBE you can click on the hidden sheet then change its visible property to xlVisible.

In each chart. Right click the chart then ‘SELECT DATA’. Click on each series then ‘EDIT’.

If you see a link to an external file in the name or values then you have found some phantom links. Go to this data in the external file, cut it and paste it in your problem workbook next to the chart.


If you’ve already tried to BREAK LINKS to this file then instead of the file and range (above), all you will is a list of values (below).


If this is the case then you’ll still need to cut the cells from the external file and paste in your problem workbook. The difficulty is going to be finding the cells. You don’t have a range reference in this case.

Also check the chart titles and other chart elements for external links such as this:


Other Non-Chart Objects

Other objects such as form controls or linked images may reference external files. You can check these as well before you go to the next step.

4a. Delete any external links in Conditional Formats.

UPDATE: Some links to external files can be hidden in any Excel feature that can reference sheet ranges. These features include Conditional Formats. (Thanks to Roger, Yuri and others in the comments for these additions)

Go through each sheet and select every cell. Click CTRL+A

From {Home} menu. In the {Styles} section click on {Conditional Formatting} then {Manage Rules…}.

For each of those rules: click on it then {Edit Rule…}. You’ll need to check there are no references to external files in there. If there are then then amend or delete the rule. You can learn more about conditional formatting here if needed.

You can follow a similar process for Data Validation if you still have external links. To find data validation in a sheet you need to go to the {Home} menu then within the {Editing} section click on {Find & Select} then {Go to Special}. Now select {Data Validation} then click {OK}.

If you still cannot break links then try this:

5. Save a copy of the problem file.

This is the last resort if you cannot break links in Excel®. But this will resolve any remaining phantom link problems.

The downside is that this method is breaking  external links without actually finding them. There is a chance this will impact the functionality of your workbook.

This method goes in to the file structure within the workbook to remove the link data.

  1. Create a copy of the file in which you are trying to remove the links
  2. In file explorer: right click this new file and RENAME
  3. Change the extension from .xlsx to .zip.
  4. Open this ZIP folder and navigate to the folder ‘FILENAME.zip > xl’
  5. Delete the folder named ‘externalLinks’.
  6. Back out of the ZIP folder
  7. Rename the ZIP folder from extension .zip back to .xlsx
  8. Open this file

When the file opens in Excel® you should not be asked to update links. The EDIT LINKS option should be grayed out.

Compare this new file with the original to ensure it is working correctly.

6. Change the file type to ‘xls’ then back to ‘xlsx’.

Update: this is added courtesy of the comment from Jack below. Thanks Jack.

This is the “last last” resort. Downgrade the file.

  1. Create a backup of your file.
  2. ‘Save As’ your workbook.
    1. Change the file type to ‘xls’ (Microsoft Excel 5.0/95 Workbook’
    2. Click ‘Save’
  3. ‘Save As’ again.
    1. Change the file type to ‘xlsx’
    2. Click ‘Save’

That may well fix any remaining problems.

There can be a downside to this method. Saving a file as ‘xls’ that was created as ‘xlsx’ may result in some features being removed from the file. You will receive a warning if there are any features that are incompatible with the ‘xls’ format so check that first. If there are any issues then your backup should bail you out. 

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40 Comments on “Excel Cannot Break Link – The Ultimate Guide”

  1. Thank you so much!

    I’d generated a bunch of filtered pivots from my main pivot and I kept getting a link error when I saved them separately. I can’t distribute them like that, and I couldn’t figure out where the connection was.

    Followed your instructions, and clearing the named ranges worked like charm.

  2. Thanks for all the tips.
    However, I still had that “phantom” link.
    Finally I saved the file with the downgraded extension from .xlsx to .xls.
    Then with reopening the links had disappeared.
    Maybe this can be helpful.

    1. I second this approach. All the above tricks work in most cases but for that extra sticky link, this is the only other approach, besides some possible VBA trick.

    2. Thank you so much!! The downgrading trick finally worked after hours of googling other solutions.

  3. and one more issue – Conditional formatting, which can contain formulas linked to another workbook.

  4. Thanks. I had tried all of your suggestions except for the ZIP file trick. That looked like it had real possibilities. But even that failed. I discovered the solution to my problem, which turned out to be a hidden link in a Data Validation rule. While the procedure described by user benalt at https://www.excelforum.com/excel-general/1024929-excel-file-wont-break-links.html did not exactly work, using the Find link in the Compatibility checker took me to the Data Validation cells that were problematic. I simply removed all the data validation on that worksheet and that solved my problem.

  5. This is great. I knew to do everything but rename to zip file and delete external links folder. Thanks so much!

  6. I had a link that would not break no matter what. I tried all the tips, even that suggested by the last commenter (Roger). None of this has worked to remove the link. Going back to historical versions, I was able to isolate it to two tabs in the file that had Data Validation.

    In the end, I had to delete Data Validation in both tabs and then go to the end of the data in each tab, start with the first empty row after the data, highlight the next several using SHIFT+DOWN and then deleting those rows.

    When I did that, the link magically disappeared forever!

    So, somehow it was the combination of deleting all data validation and empty rows under the data that made the link disappear.

    Through trial and error, I learned the link would not go away unless you FIRST removed the data validation in both tabs and then delete the empty rows of data each tab. The link did not disappear until I deleted the empty rows in the 2nd tab.

    Hope it helps!!

  7. None of the above worked for me. It ended up being hidden in the data validation. Probably the same can happen with conditional formatting but that is easier to find. For validation you start by: Go To Special Data validation All. to see if any exist on that sheet. if it does you’ll have to check each cell by selecting it and selecting Data-> Data Validation and seeing rather the validation references an external cell. Many cells can also be selected and then Data->Data Validation it will let you know if one has different settings than the rest of the data validation which can be useful in finding the culprit.

  8. Thank you yuri – everything failed for me – including (surprisingly) the zip file trick. Your comment about conditional formatting was correct – a couple of tabs had conditional formatting linking elsewhere……

    click on [Home Tab], [Conditional Formatting], [Manage Rules], in the dropdown at the top [Show Formatting Rules For:] select each of your tabs in turn and look for anything that references an external sheet in either the rule or “applies to” columns.

    Once I had done that and removed the external links, I was able to delete the link in the normal way from the [Data] tab and [Edit links] button.

  9. Thank you!!! Best forum for solving this problem. I’ve been looking for a solution for months now.

  10. Thanks very much! I had tried literally everything, including removing any problematic conditional formatting / data validation issues, but nothing worked… until I tried the renaming to .zip trick. No more annoying and inexplicable messages!

  11. Jack – your suggestion was the right solution – non of the 5 points worked – but saving the file as .XLS worked – perfect.

    Thanks Morten

  12. For me, none of the article’s tips worked (however they do seem often useful!).

    But thank you Jack, downgrading the file to .xls and back to .xlsx did the trick to me!

  13. That is … just … awesome! OMG. Who knew that zipping a file exposed some of the guts of the file. I am forever humbled.

  14. Massive thanks for that – I too was forced to use the rename-to-zip method (I’d heard of renaming files to zips, but never aware it was any use…). Got me out of a Deeep hole, so big thankyou!!

  15. Thank you for this! I have been going batty over a link I couldn’t break. It never occured to me that it could be referenced in Conditional Formatting.

    Thank you!

  16. This is awesome. I had links to external workbooks in conditional formatting. All is fixed now.

  17. Who knew that the previous data manager had brought over data validation for a few, random cells! You have totally saved my department so much hassle (and made me look good in the bargain!) Thank you!

  18. Perfect, very helpful! In my case the trick with Conditional Formatting did resolve my issue.

    Many thanks.

  19. Another problem not mentioned before can be “Data Validation” pointing to other workbooks.
    You would think that if there’s list of connections to other workbooks, it should also tell you where in the current workbook it is used, but I guess it too much to ask. :-/

    Excel is just nerve wracking piece of garbage.

  20. When all of your tips failed and deleting the reference file after unzip made the file think it was corrupted, I finally succeeded with a hybrid. I believe the problem is that version history wouldn’t let go of the link even though it was no longer being used so I…

    * copied the excel file
    * renamed and unzipped the Excel file
    * searched the worksheets file for the file being referenced using Windows File Explorer search
    * Deleted the sheet that included the reference
    * rezipped and renamed the file
    * Opened the copy of the spreadsheet and copied just the filled cells of the offending spreadsheet to the (now) blank sheet of the fixed spreadsheet

  21. You have nicely summarized the usual steps needed to find external references. I recently found another source of external files that has wreaked havoc in my files, which I have not seen mentioned anywhere else. I often copy tabs between workbooks. Most of these include a Toggle button, which is used to turn highlighting on/off. Within the Properties of the Toggle button is a reference to a Linked Cell. That is where I found the External link. The search and replace function does not identify links in the Toggle Properties. Now when I copy a tab, I just need to go into that Toggle button and delete the External link.

    It would be nice if Excel simply asked permission before creating an external link, but I don’t see that happening in my lifetime. It is truly sad that Microsoft never sees fit to address problems with Excel that have been around for decades. I have struggled with unbreakable links for many years. I have sometimes used your “last resort” of converting to a zip file. That allows you to remove external links, but this can also destroy many formulas, converting them to hard inputs. Of course, Excel will not identify the broken formulas. In a very large workbook, it can take forever to track down all the blown formulas.

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