Your Guide to vCard and VCF Files: The Key to Easy Contact Sharing

Imagine being able to share your contact details with just a click. That’s what vCards offer. These .vcf files (virtual contact file) hold your profile information, ready to be shared and imported into many contact management systems (CMS). While you may not see the term “vCard” that much, the .vcf file format is very much alive, even with mobile phones.

What Is a vCard?

The easiest way to think of a vCard is as a “virtual” profile. According to the RFC spec , “the profile is defined for representing and exchanging a variety of information about an individual (e.g., formatted and structured name and delivery addresses, email address, multiple telephone numbers, photograph, logo, audio clips, etc.).“

One benefit of these “virtual business cards” is you can use them with just about any email program or contact management system. For example, an iPhone user could read the vCard you created from Microsoft Outlook or Google Contacts.

The appeal of these online cards is they are easy and efficient to exchange in email messages or applications. A user can click or import the card, and if they have a program that reads the vCard format, the data can be saved as a new contact record.

The downside is you can act on one card at a time. There isn’t a way to combine multiple vCards into a single .VCF file.

What’s in a vCard?

Most vCards contain basic contact information fields such as phone numbers and address information, but you’re not limited to those. Over the years, the standard has been revised to include new fields and data types:

  • logo
  • the date of birth of the person
  • an audio clip describing the pronunciation
  • the longitude and latitude information
  • date and time that the information was last updated
  • annotations that are often written on a business card

The key issue is whether the recipient has a contact program that uses the same fields. Sometimes, you have differences based on which vCard file version is used. Personal data, such as individual conversation records or text messages, is not included.

If you were to open the .vcf file in a text editor, you would be able to read the data, although the data labels and formatting might not be as intuitive as a CSV file.

Below is a simple test record I exported from Google Contacts using the vCard option into a text editor. As you can see on Line 2, Google is using VCARD Version 3.0 (RFC 2426). This is the most widely used format at this time, but a newer version exists.

Example of .vcf file in VSCODE.
Sample .vcf file in text editor

Most of these fields make sense, but you would never see this format on a business card. The structured file is made to be parsed by a software program.

If I were to send this file as an attachment to an email account using Microsoft Outlook, the data would come across to the correct contact fields. I need to double-click the file, and Outlook creates the contact record below. Clearly, this saves us from having to type in all the information.

vCard for Abe Lincoln convert to Outlook contact.
Converted vCard record as Outlook contact

Please note that additional fields came across from the import, such as Nickname, which shows on a different Outlook contact area.

Troubleshooting vCards and VCF File Format

Sadly, not all programs make this process as easy as you’d like, which is why you might test your own vCard first. A notable example is Gmail. If I click a vCard within an email, it doesn’t automatically add the contact to Google Contacts. Instead, it presents a dialog where I can download or save the file to Google Drive.

Options for .vcf file in Gmail.

This is an example where I need to open Google Contacts and then import the file.

Another item to remember is that even though your contact manager has a vCard option, that doesn’t mean all data fields will transfer with the file. For example, Microsoft Outlook has many contact fields that are not part of the RFC spec. And as I found out when I was writing my tutorial on how to import contacts into Gmail, many fields are optional and don’t come across. One glaring example was Microsoft Outlook does not include “Categories” in their vCards. These fields equate to your Labels in Google Contacts.

However, if I were to export a vCard from Google Contacts, I would see my “Label” tags as Categories.

vCard with Categories highlighted.

In a related fashion, some contact systems don’t include all possible vCard fields. Using Google Contacts again, I don’t see geo-positioning fields or an area for audio clips.

The last item to remember is few systems will alert you if you’re importing a file for an existing record. I added a photograph to the Abe Lincoln record in Outlook. When I exported this record and then imported it to Google Contact, it came in as new.

Imported vCard to Gmail.

Fortunately, Google does a good job of identifying records that can be merged. They also add a label to a record with the import date.

The bottom line is that vCards are an easy way to exchange contact information with other programs or people. They may not include all the data you want, but they cover the major attributes.