Visio File Formats

Visio has been around for over 15 years, and there have been many product versions released.  One of the biggest issues that can impact users from release to release is a file format change.  Changes in Visio's file format can be painful for customers because people must often share documents with others who are using a different version of the product.  Let's look at this issue in depth.


Until recently Visio changed its file format with every major release.  This change was not as painful for customers as it is today because most people exchanged drawings within a much smaller circle of users - usually others in the same department who would have the same version of Visio installed.  As Visio gained more customers and those customers shared their drawings with other groups, version incompatibility became more commonplace.


Visio file format history

Product version

Default file format

Backward save format

Visio 1.0



Visio 2.0



Visio 3.0



Visio 4.0, Visio 4.1, Visio 4.5


2.0, 3.0

Visio 5.0, Visio 5.0 Plus



Visio 2000, Visio 2002



Visio 2003, Visio 2007




Visio 2002 was the first major release to maintain the same file format as the previous release.  Visio 2003 once again introduced a new file format.  Visio 2007 will use the same format as Visio 2003.  Every version of Visio is capable of reading all older files.  Visio 2007 can open a Visio 1.0 document.  Generally, each version of Visio is capable of writing back one file version as well.  Thus Visio 2003 can save a file out in 6.0 format (readable by Visio 2000 and Visio 2002), but it cannot save out a 5.0 format or earlier.  When saving to an older format, some features and information may be lost if the older Visio does not support those features.


Why change the file format?  To add features and new capabilities.  Visio 2000 introduced a new file format to allow vastly larger and more complex diagrams to be created.  Internal limits on the number of shapes and other items were removed.  The most recent change for Visio 2003 was required to introduce Unicode text throughout the application, though we took advantage of the change to build in some other great features as well.


Will the file format change again in the future?  It might, but Visio must be mindful of the problems a change can cause for customers.  Word, Excel and PowerPoint have a new file format in Office 2007.  One of the things Microsoft is doing to make this transition go more smoothly is to release a compatibility update to Office 2000, XP and 2003.  Those versions can then read and write the new format.  Perhaps Visio should consider this approach.


In the meantime, how do you deal with file incompatibilities?  The first option is to have the document author save the drawing as an older file version.  A second option is for the document author to publish the drawing using the Save As Web Page feature.  If you have received a document that was created in a newer version, you can also download the free Visio Viewer to at least view and print the document.  File incompatibility can be frustrating, but hopefully you now know what versions of Visio work with each format.



Comments (6)

  1. Gordn Loots says:

    Perfect – just what I needed to know.

  2. Susan Dorey says:

    This information was very helpful. Is there any way to tell by looking at the file which version it is?

  3. Visio Team says:

    Hi Susan:

    I don’t think this can be done without writing some code to check the version.

    Mark Nelson

  4. Ankit Varshney says:

    Will i be able to open/create/edit 2007 Visio files through my Visio 2000 Version??

  5. CollinLeon says:

    I still use Visio 4.5 for a lot of drawing.  New new versions have some nice features, but for a lot of what I do, the old version works well enough.  One of the main complaints that I have about Visio is the file format incompatibility.  To convert a 4.5 file to the latest version requires you to have quite a few versions of Visio installed on your machine with each version only being able to handle the current version and a previous version.  I found this particularly irritating at a company for which I previously worked since some of the software documentation consisted of Visio diagrams that were created back when 4.5 was the most recent version.  You end up making changes to the code and then need to go and update the Visio diagrams in the documentation and you have to try to find an old copy of 4.5 in order to do it.  Even to *view* the diagrams, you need to find an old copy of Visio.  If you think that you are going to just save the diagrams in the most recent version, you need to have all subsequent versions installed on your machine.  All in all, I would say that this file format 'design' is totally braindead.  If Microsoft did that on their more common Office business software (e.g. Excel, Word, etc), there is no way that they would have become the defacto office desktop standard.  I found this page because I was looking for a Visio 4.5 viewer so that I could pass around a 4.5 drawing that I have created without having to lose resolution by sending them a PDF instead.  So far, no luck on this…

  6. Jon Kieffer says:

    After installing Visio 2007, I had trouble working with old files that I created in Visio 2000 (e.g. format painter failed). However, I found that the problems went away if I copy-and-pasted the old content into a newly created Visio 2007 file.

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