Pandas: Reading a CSV file with different number of columns in each row

Updated: February 21, 2024 By: Guest Contributor Post a comment


Working with data in Python often involves the use of Pandas, a comprehensive data manipulation library. One common task is reading CSV (Comma-Separated Values) files into Pandas DataFrames. However, challenges arise when a CSV file contains rows with varying numbers of columns. This tutorial will guide you through methods to handle such files effectively using Pandas.

Understanding the Challenge

CSV files are popular due to their simplicity, but they can sometimes lack uniformity in their structure. A perfectly structured CSV should have the same number of comma-separated values in each row. However, real-world data is messy. When encountering rows with differing numbers of columns, trying to read them directly into a DataFrame may result in errors or data loss.

Method 1: Allowing for Variable Columns

The simplest way to read a CSV with inconsistent column counts into Pandas is by using the error_bad_lines and warn_bad_lines parameters.

import pandas as pd
data = pd.read_csv('path/to/your.csv', error_bad_lines=False, warn_bad_lines=True)

This code will skip any rows that do not fit the expected schema, logging a warning for each skipped line. Although this method is straightforward, it may lead to data loss.

Method 2: Flexible Reading with pd.read_csv()

For a more nuanced approach, consider using the names argument to provide a fixed number of column headers. Pandas will fill missing values with NaN, ensuring that no data rows are skipped.

import pandas as pd
column_names = ['Col1', 'Col2', 'Col3', 'Col4', 'Col5']
data = pd.read_csv('path/to/your.csv', names=column_names, header=None)

This approach is useful when you know the maximum number of columns and are willing to handle NaN values in your analysis.

Handling NaN Values

After reading your CSV file, you might end up with DataFrame cells containing NaN values. Here’s how you can address them:

# Fill NaN with a default value
data.fillna('Missing', inplace=True)

# Or drop rows with any NaN values

Advanced Handling with Uneven Rows

Sometimes, the unevenness carries meaningful differences in data structure, which a simple read might not capture. In such cases, reading the CSV line by line and custom parsing may be necessary.

import csv

rows = []
with open('path/to/your.csv', 'r') as file:
    reader = csv.reader(file)
    for row in reader:
        while len(row) < 5:  # Assuming 5 is the maximum expected column count
            row.append('Missing')  # Fill short rows with 'Missing'

data = pd.DataFrame(rows, columns=column_names)

This method allows for customized preprocessing, including handling rows with extra columns by trimming or processing them separately.


Reading CSV files with varying numbers of columns in Pandas requires a strategic approach to avoid data loss and ensure meaningful analysis. By employing methods ranging from simple parameter adjustments to customized line-by-line processing, you can retain control over your data’s integrity and structure.