GIS File Formats

Caitlin Dempsey


There are well over 100 GIS, CAD and Remote Sensing applications on the market. Listed here are some of the more common file formats along with associated file extension (the last 3 charcters after the period in the file name).  File formats are categorized as vector, raster, imagery, and legacy GIS file formats.

GIS Software File Formats

  • MXD
    MXD stands for Map Exchange Document.  Files with .mxd are map document files created by ArcMap, part of Esri’s ArcGIS suite of desktop GIS software. More: What is a MXD File?
  • QGS
    A file with the extension .qgs is a project file created by QGIS, the open source GIS desktop software. A file with the .qgs extension is a QGIS project file.  This is the file created when saving a map project created using this open source GIS software package.  This file is a configuration file which contains pointers to the GIS data used to create a project in QGIS, styling information about those layers, and any map composer setups.

Vector File Format

Vector files are GIS data files that represent point, line, or polygon data.

  • Geodatabase
    Esri’s geodatabase file format is noted by files with a .gdb extension.  This is the recommended native file format by Esri for data storage for ArcGIS.
    KML stands for Keyhole Markup Language.  Originally developed by Keyhole and then acquired by Google, KML files are now an Open Geospatial Consortium standard. KML was originally used for viewing geographic data in Google Earth but since its adoption by the OGC, has become more widespread as a GIS data exchange format.  KMZ files are zipped files containing a main KML file and associated support files.  
  • OpenStreetMap
    OpenStreetMap, a crowdsourcing GIS data project, denotes .osm for its XML based file formats.  Files with the extension .osm.pbf denote OSM’s Protocolbuffer Binary Format (PBF), a more efficient, smaller file format intended to replace the XML format files.
  • Shapefile
    This file format originated with Esri’s old ArcView software and remains a common exchange format for many software programs.   The shapefile format is actually made up of at least three files with the same name but with the extensions *.shp, *.shx, and *.dbf.  Additional files may be associated (such as the .sbn and .sbx extensions found when a spatial index has been performed on the data).  For more technical information about Esri’s shapefile format read the Esri Shapefile Technical Description whitepaper (July 1998).

CAD Based File Formats

  • Files with *.dwg are AutoCAD files.
  • Files with *.dxf are Drawing Exchange Files.
  • Files with *.dgn are Bentley Microstation files.

Orthorectified Imagery Formats

  • A TIFF (*.tif) file with an accompanying world header file (*.tfw) are georeferenced imagery files.

Legacy GIS File Formats

  • Files with *.e00 are ArcInfo export files.


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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.