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pandas read csv() Tutorial: Importing Data

Importing data is the first step in any data science project. Learn why today's data scientists prefer the pandas read_csv() function to do this.
Updated Feb 2023  · 9 min read

pandas is a widely-used Python library for data science, analysis, and machine learning that offers a flexible and intuitive way to handle data sets of all sizes. One of the most important functionalities of pandas is the tools it provides for reading and writing data. For data available in a tabular format and stored as a CSV file, you can use pandas to read it into memory using the read_csv() function, which returns a pandas dataframe. But there are other functionalities too. For example, you can use pandas to perform merging, reshaping, joining, and concatenation operations. 

In this article, you will learn about the read_csv() function and how you can alter the parameters to customize the output you receive once the function is executed. We will also cover the different methods available to a pandas dataframe object, including how to write pandas dataframe to a CSV file and how to quickly learn more about your data through various methods and attributes.  

Practice pandas functions with hands-on exercises from our Intermediate Python course.

Note: Check out this DataLab workbook to follow along with the code. 

Importing a CSV file using the read_csv() function

Before reading a CSV file into a pandas dataframe, you should have some insight into what the data contains. Thus, it’s recommended you skim the file before attempting to load it into memory: this will give you more insight into what columns are required and which ones can be discarded.

Let’s write some code to import a file using read_csv(). Then we can talk about what’s going on and how we can customize the output we receive while reading the data into memory.

import pandas as pd

# Read the CSV file
airbnb_data = pd.read_csv("data/listings_austin.csv")

# View the first 5 rows

read pandas initial data

All that has gone on in the code above is we have:

  1. Imported the pandas library into our environment
  2. Passed the filepath to read_csv to read the data into memory as a pandas dataframe.
  3. Printed the first five rows of the dataframe.

But there’s a lot more to the read_csv() function.

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Setting a column as the index

The default behavior of pandas is to add an initial index to the dataframe returned from the CSV file it has loaded into memory. However, you can explicitly specify what column to make as the index to the read_csv function by setting the index_col parameter.

Note the value you assign to index_col may be given as either a string name, column index or a sequence of string names or column indexes. Assigning the parameter a sequence will result in a multiIndex (a grouping of data by multiple levels).

Let’s read in the data again and set the id column as the index.

# Setting the id column as the index
airbnb_data = pd.read_csv("data/listings_austin.csv", index_col="id")
# airbnb_data = pd.read_csv("data/listings_austing.csv", index_col=0)

# Preview first 5 rows

id index

Selecting specific columns to read into memory

What if you only want to read specific columns into memory because not all of them are important? This is a common scenario that occurs in the real world. Using the read_csv function, you can select only the columns you need after loading the file, but this means you must know what columns you need prior to loading in the data if you wish to perform this operation from within the read_csv function.

If you do know the columns you need, you’re in luck; you can save time and memory by passing a list-like object to the usecols parameter of the read_csv function.

# Defining the columns to read
usecols = ["id", "name", "host_id", "neighbourhood", "room_type", "price", "minimum_nights"]

# Read data with subset of columns
airbnb_data = pd.read_csv("data/listings_austin.csv", index_col="id", usecols=usecols)

# Preview first 5 rows


We have barely scratched the surface of different ways to customize the output of the read_csv function, but going into more depth would certainly be an information overload.

We recommend you bookmark the importing data in Python cheat sheet and check out Introduction to importing data in Python to learn more. If that’s a little too easy, there is also the intermediate importing data in Python interactive course.

Reading Data from a URL

Once you know how to read a CSV file from local storage into memory, reading data from other sources is a breeze. It’s ultimately the same process, except that you’re no longer passing a file path.

Let’s say there’s data you want from a specific webpage; how would you read it into memory?

We will use the Iris dataset from the UCI repository as an example:

# Webpage URL
url = ""

# Define the column names
col_names = ["sepal_length_in_cm",

# Read data from URL
iris_data = pd.read_csv(url, names=col_names)


iris dataset


You may have noticed we assigned a list of strings to the names parameter in the read_csv function. This is just so we can rename the column headers while reading the data into memory.

Methods and Attributes of the DataFrame Structure

The most common object in the pandas library is, by far, the dataframe object. It’s a 2-dimensional labeled data structure consisting of rows and columns that may be of different data types (i.e., float, numeric, categorical, etc.).

Conceptually, you can think of a pandas dataframe like a spreadsheet, SQL table, or a dictionary of series objects – whichever you’re more familiar with. The cool thing about the pandas dataframe is that it comes with many methods that make it easy for you to become acquainted with your data as quickly as possible.

You have already seen one of those methods: iris_data.head(), which shows the first n (the default is 5) rows. The “opposite” method of head() is tail(), which shows the last n (5 by default) rows of the dataframe object. For example:



You can quickly discover the column names by using the columns attribute on your dataframe object:

# Discover the column names

Index(['sepal_length_in_cm', 'sepal_width_in_cm', 'petal_length_in_cm',
      'petal_width_in_cm', 'class'],

Another important method you can use on your dataframe object is info(). This method prints out a concise summary of the dataframe, including information about the index, data types, columns, non-null values, and memory usage.

# Get summary information of the dataframe

<class 'pandas.core.frame.DataFrame'>
RangeIndex: 150 entries, 0 to 149
Data columns (total 5 columns):
#   Column              Non-Null Count  Dtype 
---  ------              --------------  ----- 
0   sepal_length_in_cm  150 non-null    float64
1   sepal_width_in_cm   150 non-null    float64
2   petal_length_in_cm  150 non-null    float64
3   petal_width_in_cm   150 non-null    float64
4   class               150 non-null    object
dtypes: float64(4), object(1)
memory usage: 6.0+ KB

DataFrame.describe() generates descriptive statistics, including those that summarize the central tendency, dispersion, and shape of the dataset’s distribution. If your data has missing values, don’t worry; they are not included in the descriptive statistics.

Let’s call the describe method on the Iris dataset:

# Get descriptive statistics


Exporting the DataFrame to a CSV File

Another method available to pandas dataframe objects is to_csv(). When you have cleaned and preprocessed your data, the next step may be to export the dataframe to a file – this is pretty straightforward:

# Export the file to the current working directory

Executing this code will create a CSV in the current working directory called cleaned_iris_data.csv.

But what if you want to use a different delimiter to mark the beginning and end of a unit of data or you wanted to specify how your missing values should be represented? Maybe you don’t want the headers to be exported to the file.

Well, you can adjust the parameters of the to_csv() method to suit your requirements for the data you want to export.

Let’s take a look at a few examples of how you can adjust the output of to_csv():

  • Export data to the current working directory but using a tab delimiter.
# Change the delimiter to a tab
iris_data.to_csv("tab_seperated_iris_data.csv", sep="\t")
  • Exporting data without the index
# Export data without the index
iris_data.to_csv("tab_seperated_iris_data.csv", sep="\t")

# If you get UnicodeEncodeError use this... 
# iris_data.to_csv("tab_seperated_iris_data.csv", sep="\t", index=False, encoding='utf-8')
  • Change the name of missing values (the default is ““)
# Replace missing values with "Unknown"
iris_data.to_csv("tab_seperated_iris_data.csv", sep="\t", na_rep="Unknown")
  • Export dataframe to file without headers (column names)
# Do not include headers when exporting the data
iris_data.to_csv("tab_seperated_iris_data.csv", sep="\t", na_rep="Unknown", header=False)

Final thoughts

Let’s recap what we covered in this tutorial; you learned how to:

  • Import a CSV file using the read_csv() function from the pandas library.
  • Set a column index while reading your data into memory.
  • Specify the columns in your data that you want the read_csv() function to return.
  • Read data from a URL with the pandas.read_csv()
  • Quickly gather insights about your data using methods and attributes on your dataframe object.
  • Export a dataframe object to a CSV file
  • Customize the output of the export file from the to_csv() method.

In this tutorial, we focused solely on importing and exporting data from the perspective of a CSV file; you now have a good sense of how useful pandas is when importing and exporting CSV files. CSV is one of the most common data storage formats, but it’s not the only one. There are various other file formats used in data science, such as parquet, JSON, and excel.

Plenty of useful, high-quality datasets are hosted on the web, which you can access through APIs, for example. If you want to understand how to handle loading data into Python in more detail, DataCamp's Introduction to Importing Data in Python course will teach you all the best practices.

There are also tutorials on how to import JSON and HTML data into pandas and a beginner-friendly ultimate guide to pandas tutorial. Be sure to check those out to dive deeper into the pandas framework.


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