How to Indent on a Google Spreadsheet (and How Not To!)

Dave | November 16, 2022 |

Stop looking for cell-padding, margins, or any of those features you might be used to Excel. If you are trying to indent the contents of your cell, you need to either change your sheet design to use more columns, or use a handy workaround that involves a custom number format.

A list of items types in a column with header and footer text
A list that could do with the items indenting…

How to add an indent with custom number format

Google Sheets offers you the ability to format numbers in cells in pretty much any way you want. Look at the number format menu below.

Google Sheets - Format > Number menu
Google Sheets – Format > Number menu

You can format numbers scientifically, as a percent, as a date etc, and you can leave them as they are by selecting Plain text. You can even make up your own number formats, and that is what we are going to do. The option we are interested in here is Custom number format.

Select the cells you want indented and then select Format > Number > Custom number format from the menu or from the More formats button on the toolbar.

More formats button in the toolbar

Then select Custom number format and you will see the custom number format entry box.

The custom number format entry box
Adding a new custom number format

There are a lot of things you can do with custom number formats and there are some samples shown in the box. What we want to do is add a new number format by typing in the top box here, and use the @ (At sign) and add some spaces or symbols in front of it. According to the official number format documentation, the @ symbol will simply ‘Display text entered into a cell’. So if we add some spaces in front of it, we should get indented text in the cell.

Try selecting the list cells and adding a new custom number format like this: ” @” or SPACE+SPACE+SPACE+@ and then click Apply. You should see your cells indented with 3 spaces.

Custom number format indentation using '   @'
Custom number format indentation

You can experiment with number formats to indent a list in any way you like. For example:

Custom format = ">> @"
Custom format = “>> @”

The benefit of using a custom number format to indent the contents of a cell is that when you want to change the contents of the cell, you just click and type as normal, and the formatting applies automatically.

How to quickly indent cells in a Google Sheet

The best way to get indented content in a sheet is by using a custom number format. There is no shortcut to opening the menu to add a new format, you have to either use the More formats > Custom number format toolbar option or the Format > Number > Custom number format menu option.

But, once you have used a format once, you’ll see that sheets will remember that you have used it and add a new menu option for it to the Format > Number menu. So you can re-use it with a few clicks anywhere you like.

Our custom number format added to the menu
Our custom indented number format

But if you want to be quick, don’t forget our old friend Paint Format.

Paint Format
Paint Format

Select a cell that has your custom formatting, click Paint Format and then click any cells you want to apply that formatting to and it’s done.

Other ways to indent (not so good)

How to simulate indenting with a second column

If your sheet design allows for it, you could indent your list by adding an extra column, making it as wide or narrow as you want your indent to be, and typing your list in the next column over. As in this example below.

Example - Indenting with an extra column
Indenting with an extra column

This works, but it means you’re always stuck with that column at that width over the entire sheet.

Typing spaces to indent cells…

You can simply type in spaces, or spaces and symbols, before every entry in your list. This works well. The issue is that those spaces are then part of the values of the cell. You can’t get those values from any other source or use them easily in a formula unless the formula also contains the indentation. You also can’t easily copy and paste items from your list, because the values you copy will include spaces, and anything you paste won’t have the spaces applied. This isn’t the case when using the Custom number format solution above.

An example of cells indented with typed spaces.
You can type spaces to indent cells

Indenting using a formula

It’s possible to concatenate text in sheets using the concatenation operator &. So if you have a set of source cells and you want to show that data somewhere else, but indent it. Then you could use a formula like this example below where B2 is equal to SPACE + DASH + SPACE and A2 added together. B2=" - "&A2.

Indenting cells using a formula
Column B is the formula indented version of column A

This is a neat trick, but it means you can’t change the data in the list without first changing the source data.


I'm a Google Product Expert and mainly post on the subject of Google Sheets.

I've been a software engineer for over 20 years. The constant through all that time? Spreadheets.... Even though I can write programs I use them.... a lot. Sometimes there's just no better alternative!

Find out more about me here.

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