Geographic Data

What is Geographic Data & What Formats are Used in QGIS?

Geographic data have geographic positioning information included with it, such as a road or boundary.  Some geospatial data may include attribute data that describes features found in the dataset.

QGIS can use many different formats. Two of the most common are:

  • ESRI shapefiles

The following tabs provide links to various types of geospatial files that may be used in spatial analysis.  

Aerial Satellite Imagery Data

Natural Earth Data

Natural Earth Data is first on the list because it does an amazing job to suit the needs of cartographers. All the key cultural and physical vector GIS datasets are at a global scale. The raster datasets also provide beautiful hillshade relief basemaps for your map.

The best part is Natural Earth Data is in public domain. You have the right to disseminate and modify the data in any matter.

From a cartography standpoint, it’s a no-brainer. Download Natural Earth Data now.

AdvantagesData Types
  • Download global free GIS data in public domain
  • Supported by the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS).
  • Cultural, physical and raster (basemap) data.
USGS Earth Explorer

For Earth observers seeking remotely sensed data, the USGS Earth Explorer is your sole destination.

We all know that the USGS’s new Earth Explorer gives you access to one of the largest databases of satellite and aerial imagery. But I bet you didn’t know you can download data outside of the United States.

A friendly user-interface makes accessing data simple. It even has a bulk download application. Register for a free account because this is the ultimate database for free remote sensing data.

AdvantagesData Types
  • Search for remote sensing data with a user-friendly state-of-the-art interface
  • Filter searches by time and sensors and set region of interests in map
  • Remote sensing data (Landsat, global land cover…)

Also try: USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center, USGS GloVIS, USGS GTOPO30, USGS Earthquake Hazards Program

Open Topography

Open Topography provides a portal to high spatial resolution topographic data and tools.

If you gave me a 5 second countdown to choose one GIS data type to work with for the rest of my life…. I’d probably start screaming LIDAAARRRRR! Yes, I’d be all dramatic because you gave me a 5 second countdown to respond.

We all know that LiDAR data is a rare, precious GIS resource. This is why Open Topography is so useful. It answers the question: “Where can we find LiDAR data?”

AdvantagesData Types
  • Select regions in the world and search available LiDAR data.
  • LiDAR (90% United States, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and Puerto Rico)

Global Administrative Areas

GADM database of Global Administrative Areas

GADM is a spatial database of the location of the world's administrative areas (or adminstrative boundaries) for use in GIS and similar software. Administrative areas in this database are countries and lower level subdivisions such as provinces, departments, bibhag, bundeslander, daerah istimewa, fivondronana, krong, landsvæðun, opština, sous-préfectures, counties, and thana. GADM describes where these administrative areas are (the "spatial features"), and for each area it provides some attributes, such as the name and variant names.

The current version of GADM delimits 294,430 administrative areas.
The data are available as shapefile, ESRI geodatabase, RData, and Google Earth kmz format. Shapefiles can be used for most mapping and "GIS" software. You can download a free program such as Q-GIS. The RData files can be used in R with the 'sp' package loaded.

You can download the data by country or for the whole whole world

Free Spatial Data

Country level

Download country level data for any country in the world: administrative boundaries, roads, railroads, altitude, land cover, population density.

Global level

A new file with the (2011) global country boundaries

Global climate data

See WorldClim 

Species occurrence data


Crop (genebank) collection data


Near global 90 meter resolution elevation data


High resolution satellite images (LandSat) for nearly all of the world can be downloaded here. They are in the MrSid format (note: they are in UTM projections, so you will need to project your shapefiles to UTM as well).

Global Populated Places

Two major data sources provide global populated area geographic data, including:  

1.  GeoNet Names Server

The GEOnet Names Server (GNS) is the official repository of standard spellings of all foreign geographic names, sanctioned by the United States Board on Geographic Names (US BGN). The database also contains variant spellings (cross-references), which are useful for finding purposes, as well as non-Roman script spellings of many of these names. All the geographic features in the database contain information about location, administrative division, and quality. The database can be used for a variety of purposes, including establishing official spellings of foreign place names, cartography, GIS, GEOINT, and finding places. 

Complete Files of Geographic Names for Geopolitical Areas from GNS (ISO/IEC 10646 [Unicode UTF-8] Compliant as of 18 July 2002)

We provide complete files of geographic names information covering countries or geopolitical areas. The files are not in customary gazetteer format, but are in a special format amenable to input into geographic information systems, databases, and spreadsheets, giving end users powerful capabilities for data analysis, manipulation, and display. They are offered with both names formats provided within each of the files: Reading Order format (Mount Everest) that works well with mapping applications, and Reverse Generics format (Everest, Mount) that works well with gazetteer listings. Follow the links below to learn more and to begin downloading files.

As of late September 2014, the GeoNames Pre-Positioned Country Files, both the separate and the combined, now include additional breakdown of content by Feature Classification (FC) values. For more information, refer to September 2014 Prepositioned Country File format.   

Description of Names Files for Countries and Territories Format

Downloadable compressed zip files:

Downloadable Names Files for Countries and Territories - FTP  

The GEONet Names Server (GNS) does not contain any data for the United States of America or its Dependent areas. To obtain U.S. data, please access the United States Geological Survey (USGS) Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) database of names.

Foreign geographic names data is freely available. A suitable citation note is: "Toponymic information is based on the Geographic Names Database, containing official standard names approved by the United States Board on Geographic Names and maintained by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. More information is available at the Maps and Geodata link at The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency name, initials, and seal are protected by 10 United States Code Section 425."

NGA/Office of Geomatics provides a free coordinate conversion tool (GEOTRANS).      


2.  GeoNames

The GeoNames geographical database covers all countries and contains over eight million placenames that are available for download free of charge. 



United States Cartographic Boundaries

A more complete and up-to-date set of administrative and census boundaries for the United States is maintained by the Census Bureau.  They provide shapefiles in 2 different formats:  Tigerfiles are the most complete and thus require the most memory to use.  A simplified version is available by using their Cartographic Boundary Shapefiles.

Cartographic Boundary Shapefiles
What Are They?

The cartographic boundary files are simplified representations of selected geographic areas from the Census Bureau’s MAF/TIGER geographic database.   These boundary files are specifically designed for small scale thematic mapping. 

Generalized boundary files are clipped to a simplified version of the U.S. outline.  As a result, some off-shore areas may be excluded from the generalized files.

For more details about these files, please see the Cartographic Boundary File Description page.

Download Files

Cartographic Boundary files are available in shapefile format for the 2010 Census, Census 2000, and selected geographies for other years.  File-based metadata is included in all files.

United States TIGER/Line Boundaries

A more complete and up-to-date set of administrative and census boundaries for the United States is maintained by the Census Bureau.  They provide shapefiles in 2 different formats:  Tigerfiles are the most complete and thus require the most memory to use.  A simplified version is available by using their Cartographic Boundary Shapefiles.

TIGER/LINE Shapefiles

The TIGER files are the most comprehensive set of detailed geospatial files that are provided by the Census Bureau.  The Census Bureau updates the TIGER files every year.  Technical documentation is provided.

To access TIGER/Line Shapefiles go here.

Below is a list of the types of TIGER/Line Shapefiles that are available from the Census Bureau. 

Layer Nation-Based Files State-Based Files County-Based Files
Shapefiles - Boundaries      
Alaska Native Regional Corporation   X  
American Indian Tribal Subdivision X    
American Indian/Alaska Native/Native Hawaiian Areas X    
Block   X  
Block Group   X  
Census Tract   X  
Combined New England City and Town Area X    
Combined Statistical Area X    
114th Congressional Districts X    
Consolidated City   X  
County and Equivalent X    
County Subdivision   X  
Elementary School District   X  
Estates   X  
Metropolitan Division X    
Metropolitan/Micropolitan Statistical Area X    
New England City and Town Area X    
New England City and Town Division X    
Place   X  
Public Use Microdata Area   X  
Rails X    
Secondary School District   X  
State and Equivalent X    
State Legislative District-Lower Chamber   X  
State Legislative District-Upper Chamber   X  
Subbarrio (Subminor Civil Division)   X  
Tribal Block Group X    
Tribal Census Tract X    
Unified School District   X  
Urban Areas X    
5-digit ZIP Code Tabulation Area X    
Shapefiles - Features      
Address Range-Feature     X
All Lines     X
All Roads     X
Area Hydrography     X
Area Landmark   X  
Coastline X    
Linear Hydrography     X
Military Installation X    
Point Landmark   X  
Primary and Secondary Roads   X  
Primary Roads X    
Topological Faces (Polygons With All Geocodes)     X
Relationship Files      
Address Range-Feature Name     X
Address Ranges     X
Feature Names     X
Topological Faces-Area Landmark   X  
Topological Faces-Area Hydrography      X
Topological Faces-Military Installations X    

United States Geographic Names Information System

GNIS  Geographic Names Information System

The official repository of geographic names data for the U.S. Contains information about physical and cultural geographic features of all types in the United States and defines the feature location by state, county, USGS topographic map, and geographic coordinates.

The Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) is the Federal and national standard for geographic nomenclature. The U.S. Geological Survey developed the GNIS in support of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names as the official repository of domestic geographic names data, the official vehicle for geographic names use by all departments of the Federal Government, and the source for applying geographic names to Federal electronic and printed products.

The GNIS contains information about physical and cultural geographic features of all types in the United States, associated areas, and Antarctica, current and historical, but not including roads and highways. The database holds the Federally recognized name of each feature and defines the feature location by state, county, USGS topographic map, and geographic coordinates. Other attributes include names or spellings other than the official name, feature designations, feature classification, historical and descriptive information, and for some categories the geometric boundaries.

The database assigns a unique, permanent feature identifier, the Feature ID, as the only standard Federal key for accessing, integrating, or reconciling feature data from multiple data sets. The GNIS collects data from a broad program of partnerships with Federal, State, and local government agencies and other authorized contributors, and provides data to all levels of government, to the public, and to numerous applications through a web query site, web map and feature services, file download services, and customized files upon request.

Using Web-based Maps Under Geospatial Boundary Files

Using QGIS with an internet connection enables you to pull in a web map as your base.  This base map has all of the features of the original source.  On top of that base you then can overlay additional layers of information.  QGIS enables the following sources of web maps:  

  • OpenStreetMaps
  • Google Maps
  • Bing Maps
  • MapQuest Maps