How to Learn GIS

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With its multi-faceted approach, learning geographic information systems can seem daunting. Fortunately there are a wealth of approaches you can take to get started.

Discover more about learning GIS, from structured curriculums to online tutorials and distance learning options.

How to Learn GIS

There are many different ways to learn GIS.  

The most structured is through an educational institute such as a local college or university or online via distance learning.  Those institutions provide a specific set of classes to teach students about the principles of GIS, cartography, database management, and spatial analysis.  

After students have successfully completed the coursework, either a certificate or a degree is awarded.  

These types of programs are most beneficial to students first learning about GIS or are lacking a higher education degree.  

For those students who already have a good baseline knowledge of GIS and are looking to supplement their background, individual courses are a more appropriate avenue.  

So, where to learn GIS?

Where to Learn GIS

There are different forums for learning GIS, depending on your educational objectives.  Traditional academic programs provide a GIS education that results in either a degree (bachelors or masters) or a certificate.  

Here are some tips to help you find the right GIS program:

Research colleges and universities

Look for colleges and universities that offer GIS programs. Start with colleges and universities that are well known for their geography, environmental science, or engineering programs, as they are more likely to have robust GIS programs.

Check the program details

Once you have identified a few potential GIS programs, review the program details carefully. Look for details such as the course offerings, faculty expertise, and research opportunities. Also, check if the program has any specific focus areas, such as GIS for urban planning, natural resource management, or environmental studies.

Look for degree status

Make sure you understand what the end result of the program you are taking is. Some college GIS course only give you a certificate while others provide a degree such as a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree.

Talk to current students or alumni

Reach out to current students or alumni of the program to get their perspective on the program. Ask them about their experiences with the program, the faculty, and the job prospects after graduation.

Consider location and cost

Think about the location of the college or university and the cost of attendance. Look for programs that are in areas with a strong GIS industry presence, as this can provide more job opportunities after graduation.

Additionally, consider the cost of tuition, fees, and other expenses to make sure the program is within your budget.

If you want to enroll in a structured program but can’t attend in person, online learning is becoming a popular way to learn GIS.  Many brick and mortar colleges offer an online version of their programs.

Both the classroom based and online learning tend to offer a more structured program for learning GIS.  Many of these structured programs results in either a degree or a certificate in GIS (not to be confused with certification in GIS.  Learn about the difference in this article: GIS Certification versus Certificate Programs.)

Learn GIS for Free

If you’re looking to pick up specific GIS skills, or would rather engage in a self-guided course of GIS study, there are independent learning opportunities out there.  

For a focus on learning GIS with open source GIS software, Sid Feygin reviews some GIS learning options in his article, “How to Go from GIS Novice to Pro without Spending a Dime“.  

For commercial GIS learning opportunities, you can take advantage of GIS webinars hosted by GIS vendors.  

For self-guided GIS courses that don’t cost anything, check out the Learn GIS for Free page and the Free GIS Books section.

GIS Tutorials

If you have a specific GIS task that you want to learn more about, GIS tutorials that provide step-by-step instructions are a helpful resource.

Teaching GIS to Kids

For teaching at the elementary and secondary school levels, the K-12 Education page has a collection of references and tutorials on how to teach GIS to K-12 level students.

Find lesson plans, user groups and more in the category.

Learn GIS Strategy

If you are new to GIS (Geographic Information Systems), here are some tips to get started:

  1. Understand the basics: Before you dive into the software, it’s important to understand the basic concepts and terminology used in GIS. This includes topics such as spatial data, coordinate systems, and projections.
  2. Choose your software: There are many GIS software options available, such as ArcGIS Pro, QGIS, and MapInfo. Choose one that is appropriate for your needs and budget, and invest time in learning its features and capabilities.
  3. Practice with real data: To gain proficiency in GIS, it’s essential to work with real-world data. Many governments and organizations provide free data that can be used for learning and practice purposes.
  4. Join a community: Join a GIS community, either online or in-person, to connect with other professionals, ask questions, and share your work. This can be a valuable source of learning and inspiration.
  5. Take advantage of tutorials and courses: There are many free and paid tutorials and courses available online that can help you learn GIS, including those provided by software vendors, universities, and professional organizations.
  6. Keep learning: GIS is a dynamic and rapidly evolving field, so it’s important to stay current with new software releases, technologies, and best practices. Attend conferences, read articles and books, and participate in training opportunities to continue your education and professional development.

Remember, learning GIS takes time and practice, but with persistence and dedication, you can develop the skills needed to use this powerful tool to analyze, visualize, and communicate spatial data.

This article was originally written on February 2, 2017 and has since been updated.



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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.

16 thoughts on “How to Learn GIS”

  1. I am the Deputy Director of the Special Anti Crime Unit of Trinidad and TObago (SAUTT) akin to the US FBI. I have a GIS dept set up in my unit and I need to source some basic and advanced training for one of my agents in the dept. Cpuld you recommend a suitable and qualified course and provider in the USA. Thanks very much

  2. Lt. Col. Garcia –

    Did you find training in GIS as per your inquiry above? Penn State has an online certificate and masters program in GIS and perhaps we could discuss our options in non-credit programs too.

    Our Justice and Safety Institute already does business in Trinidad and Tobago with training for the national police force so we’d be delighted to work with you on this project. Our GIS faculty and department are one of the tops in the nation.

    I can be reached at 814 865-8697 or

    all the best,

    Amy Stever
    Client Development Manager
    Penn State

  3. ESIR support portal offers a lot of free training courses. Thats how i started learning GIS. All you need to do is to setup an account. Once done, you will have plenty of tutorials to explore.

  4. ESRI’s Virtual Campus, while an excellent introduction into ArcGIS, should be augmented with hands on training. There nothing like getting raw data, cleaning it up and preparing it to be imported into any GIS software. I would recommend the Post Graduate certificate at the University of Houston, main campus.

  5. This is in response to Col Garcia: I was curious as to why you would look outside for training when UWI offers a MSc Geoinformatics that is subsidised in part by the GOTT? Part of the campus curriculum consists of ESRI online courses as well. I would imagine that later on specialised training might be needed in Crime Analysis but the basics are accessible right there in Trinidad both online and onsite.

  6. I find it amusing that Colonel Garcia compares SAUTT to the FBI! Anyway COSTATT in Trinidad and Tobago is now offering an Associate Diploma in GIS.

  7. This is in response to Col Garcia: Dave is correct, UWI offers a MSc Geoinformatics, a course I graduated from last year. It is very thorough and will give you the tools to apply GIS to any field.

  8. I’d hesitate to fully recommend the programs in Trinidad, especially the one at COSTAATT. No offence, but these programs are still very young and not fully developed, and will not provide the sort of real world applications, especially to the military environment that Col. Garcia is looking for, therefore they won’t take him very far. I practiced GIS abroad in my profession after being mostly self taught and having taken a couple classes in it, I don’t have my Msc in Geoinformatics/GIS, however when I visited the St Augustine campus to express my interest in the masters program, the head of department himself suggested I check the University of Maine…nuff said.

    And Asha – mind your manners, SAUTT *is* our version FBI, they can’t operate like the FBI just yet simply because of legislation.

  9. I myself have been doing GIS for the past 15 years, I was introduced to it at the Central Statistical Office where I worked in the Mapping Section and had to do maps for various clients around the country Ministry of National security was one of them and International clients also. Five years ago I attended UWI to do the Certificate in GIS/LIS Course just to get my Certification. I found the course very interesting and most of my lecturers were not Trinidadians therefore they have extensive experience in GIS. This course has been around for a long while, it is just that it has been also offered in Universities in the Caribbean also, it is like they decide what countries they want to teach it next at. The ESRI virtual campus is very useful, you should really try it or just apply to UWI.
    I have applied at SAUTT for a GIS position because my main interest in GIS is to use it improve security things and other in my counrty.

  10. Trini GISer: The person you are referring to is not the “Head of the Dept”…and yes, he went to the University of Maine. Maybe if they ran the dept the way it is supposed to be, the degree programmes would be valuable, because they have the technology, but you can still learn and real learning comes from experience on the job. Either way, there is no guarantee that a GIS programme would be good just because it came from the US. And as for legislation..please, we live here…you really can’t compare a small 1st world country’s institution to a massive 1st world one where the law works!

  11. Liza – thanks, you just made my point for me…the legislation does not yet provide for proper action on the part of SAUTT, i.e. the law DOESN”T work, so it ain’t SAUTT’s fault they can’t operate how they want to as yet, I’m sure…but let’s not digress to politics here, my point was that Col. Garcia was drawing reference to the role of SAUTT for the purposes of perspective, therefore jeering of the Colonel was rude and uncalled for.

    Further, you made the assumption that I said that ONLY US programs are good, and that I was ONLY referring to the US. There are programs and institutions in India that rival what is being taught in the US and other first world countries. What I am saying is, Trinidad is not yet comparable.

    So relax.

  12. further, look at your own comment, where you offer study of a “Post Graduate certificate at the University of Houston, main campus”. So there seems to be some contradiction in what you are saying/recommending. I’m happy that you strongly defend UWI, but it is what it is. Remember this is a global forum, and to think local just for the sake of it is narrow minded, since we are no longer limited in our access to global resources.

  13. SAUTT is not the only agency under the Ministry of National Security that use this technology whit a view of combating the the present crime situation in the country, the Police Service already set up a GIS unit for the past years. Making it possible for the officers to make inform decisions as to where to have there resources deployed. It is also used for managing events such as our Head of Government Conference and many other activities.

  14. I would like to know when the Police Service set up a GIS unit and how efficient it is because like I said I used to work at the Central Statistical Office and I left in 2006
    and we did the maps for the Police Service. If the Police Service has a GIS Unit it is not functioning properly, I mean GIS can be useful in so many avenues and we not using it, Police vehicles should be equipped with GPS devices and many other things need to be done. Right now we should be using GIS to help focus on crime and I don’t see that being done and I would love to help because this is my passion.

  15. Since you are in Trinidad, there is an excellent institution in your region that can help you with GIS training and in particular crime mapping. It’s Mona Geoinformatics at UWI, Jamaica. I know that one of their big projects involves using GIS to do crime mapping. I think Jamaica and Trinidad have similar crime patterns so you would definitely benefit from their expertise. Their website is .

  16. For those who just want to be functional with GIS as a tool for thier job, our company, The Institute for Mapping Technology has a 2 day online course. This is designed for laymen who simply want to use GIS, not get a degree in GIS. This would be useful to police and investigative units.
    Our website is
    Yes, I should disclose I do work for them, just to be open.

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