Using pandas.Series.unstack() method (with examples)

Updated: February 22, 2024 By: Guest Contributor Post a comment


In this tutorial, we’ll deep dive into one of the transformative methods available in the pandas library for reshaping data: unstack(). This method is particularly useful when working with multi-level indices in Series objects, where you might want to pivot a level of the (possibly hierarchical) index labels to the columns, converting the series into a DataFrame. We’ll cover the use of unstack() through six progressive examples, ranging from basic to more advanced applications.


Before we get started, ensure you have pandas installed in your Python environment. You can install pandas using pip:

pip install pandas

Basic usage of unstack()

The most straightforward use of unstack() involves a Series with a MultiIndex. Here, the method pivots the innermost level of the index labels to the columns, creating a DataFrame. Let’s start with an example where we have a Series with a simple two-level MultiIndex:

import pandas as pd

multi_index = [('A', 1), ('A', 2), ('B', 1), ('B', 2)]
mi_series = pd.Series([10, 20, 30, 40], index=pd.MultiIndex.from_tuples(multi_index))

# Applying unstack
df_unstacked = mi_series.unstack()


   1   2
A 10  20
B 30  40

In this starting example, we simply pivot the second level of our index (the numbers), creating a neater and more accessible DataFrame.

Specifying the Level to Unstack

With the unstack() method, you have the flexibility to choose which level of the multi-level index to pivot. This can help create different views of your data. Here’s how to unstack the first level:

df_unstacked_level = mi_series.unstack(level=0)


    A   B
1  10  30
2  20  40

By specifying level=0, we pivot the outermost level of the index, creating an alternative layout where ‘A’ and ‘B’ become the columns instead.

Unstacking with Missing Data

When unstacking series that contain missing data, pandas intelligently handles NaN values. Let’s consider a series with an incomplete index combination:

multi_index_missing = [('A', 1), ('A', 2), ('B', 1)]
mi_series_missing = pd.Series([10, 20, 30], index=pd.MultiIndex.from_tuples(multi_index_missing))

# Applying unstack
df_unstacked_missing = mi_series_missing.unstack()


     1     2
A 10.0  20.0
B 30.0   NaN

This example demonstrates how unstack() deals with asymmetry in the MultiIndex by introducing NaN values where data is missing, ensuring the completeness of the resulting DataFrame.

Custom Fill Value for Missing Data

One can also specify a custom fill value for missing data during the unstacking process. This is particularly useful when NaN values could be misleading or undesirable:

df_unstacked_fill_value = mi_series_missing.unstack(fill_value=0)


    1   2
A 10  20
B 30   0

By setting fill_value=0, we replace potential NaN values with zeros, ensuring there are no undefined or empty cells in the unstacked DataFrame.

Unstacking to a Different Axis

While the default behavior of unstack() pivots the index levels to the columns (axis=1), it’s possible to unstack to the index (axis=0) instead. Let’s explore an example of unstacking to a ‘wide’ format where columns become rows:

# This feature might not be directly supported as of my knowledge cutoff in 2023
# But one can achieve similar behavior by transposing the DataFrame after unstacking

df_wide = mi_series.unstack().T

Note: Direct unstacking to a different axis may not be natively supported, but this workaround achieves a similar wide format effect by transposing after unstacking.

Advanced Scenario: Unstacking Multiple Levels

In more complex datasets with multiple levels of indexing, you might want to unstack several levels at once. This requires a combination of unstack operations:

multi_level_series = pd.Series([100, 200, 300, 400, 500, 600], index=pd.MultiIndex.from_tuples([('X', 'A', 1), ('X', 'A', 2), ('X', 'B', 1), ('X', 'B', 2), ('Y', 'A', 1), ('Y', 'A', 2)]))

two_step_unstack = multi_level_series.unstack().unstack()


    A         B      
    1    2    1    2
X 100  200  300  400
Y 500  600  NaN  NaN

Through sequential unstacking, we transform a complex multi-level Series into a comprehensible DataFrame, revealing the hierarchical structure of the data in a table format.


The pandas.Series.unstack() method is a powerful tool for reshaping and pivoting data. Through these examples, we’ve seen how it can be used to transform a Series with multi-level indexing into a more accessible DataFrame format, support handling of missing data, and allow for customization according to the specific needs of your dataset. Effective use of unstack() can significantly enhance data analysis workflows.