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Excel C API

Govert van Drimmelen edited this page May 30, 2018 · 2 revisions


The Excel C API was first introduced in Excel '95 and has continuously evolved with new versions of Excel. Excel-DNA uses the C API to integrate with Excel, though Excel-DNA add-in can also use the COM Automation interfaces where needed.

The Excel C API is documented in the Excel XLL Software Development Kit. The most coherent reference to using the C API is the book by Stephen Dalton - Financial Applications using Excel Add-in Development in C / C++.

Direct access to the C API is provided by Excel-DNA via two classes:

  • ExcelDna.Integration.ExcelReference
  • ExcelDna.Integration.XlCall


The ExcelReference class is a thin wrapper around the C API sheet reference information, and refers to a region (or multiple regions) on a specific sheet. ExcelReference has helper methods to get and set the values in the region, but for additional information, specific C API calls must be made.

Using C API calls it is possible to get the address of an ExcelReference - calling XlCall.Excel(XlCall.xlfReftext, myReference, true) - and from there a COM Range object may be constructed.


The header file in the Excel SDK that defines the C API is called XLCALL.H, so I've called the matching Excel-DNA class XlCall. It contains these functions:

  • XlCall.Excel - Calls the Excel4 / Excel12 functions of the C API.
  • XlCall.TryExcel - Same as XlCall.Excel, but returns an exact error result instead of throwing.
  • XlCall.RTD - Wrapper around XlCall.Excel(XlCall.xlfRtd, ...) for the registration-free RTD support.

The first parameter to the XlCall.Excel / XlCall.TryExcel methods is a function code that identifies the function or command. These function codes are all available as constants on the XlCall class. The other parameters are marshalled by Excel-DNA from the .NET types to the corresponding C API types. (The parameter count passed in to the Excel function from C is not required in the Excel-DNA call.) Sheet references are passed to the C API as ExcelReference objects. Missing values (that are not at the end of the call) should be passed as ExcelMissing.Value.

Excel-DNA takes care of all type conversion and memory management for the C API calls.

Hint for cleaner C API calls

With C# 6 it's possible to bring the static methods of a class into the top-level scope, simplifying the C API usage. So instead of

    var result = XlCall.Excel(XlCall.xlfGetDocument, ...);

you can write

using static ExcelDna.Integration.XlCall;
    var result = Excel(xlfGetDocument, ...);

Similarly, for add-ins made with VB.NET, the XlCall class can be imported into a file with a call to Imports ExcelDna.Integration.XlCall. Then the functions can be called without the XlCall prefix: myResult = Excel(xlfGetCell, 7, myReference)

XlCall functions

There is no single source of documentation for all the XlCall functions. To piece together the available information, it helps to think of the functions in three classes:

  • Auxiliary C API functions
  • Worksheet functions
  • Macro functions and commands

Auxiliary C API functions

These are functions like xlfRegister and xlSheetId that can only be called from add-ins. These form part of the main Excel SDK and are documented in the Excel SDK documentation.

Worksheet functions

Most of the XlCall.xlf... function codes refer to regular Excel worksheet functions, like xlfSum and is documented in the regular Excel help.

Macro functions and commands

Some information functions like xlfGet... and all the xlc... function codes refer to Excel 4.0 macro commands and macro sheet functions. These have no updated documentation, but are described in the Excel 4.0 macro help file, available from Microsoft as Macrofun.exe File Available on Online Services - but this file is not easy to open in Windows 7/8. I also found a copy of this help file converted to a .chm file, kindly made available by Theo Heselmans - Excel Macro Function Help File. I've also made a searchable .pdf version of the Excel 4 Macro Reference.pdf.

The help file documents the function in the macro form, but the names and parameters match the usage via the C API. For example, the macro function GET.CELL(type_num, reference) is called via the C API as XlCall.Excel(XlCall.xlfGetCell, 7, myExcelReference) - where the help file shows that 7 retrieves the number format of a cell. A comprehensive sample of the various GET.XXX information functions is available in the Excel-DNA distribution under Distribution\Samples\GetInfoAddIn.dna accompanied by the sheet GetInfoAddIn.xls.

Many of the C API functions have been discussed on the Excel-DNA Google group or elsewhere online, so searching on the Excel-DNA Google Group is a good start.

Known Limitations

  • xlfEvaluate, xlfGetFormula, xlfRegister string length limitations.
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