QGIS versus ArcGIS

Caitlin Dempsey


When considering which GIS desktop software to adopt, two of the most popular choices are Esri’s ArcGIS and Quantum GIS, also known as QGIS.  

While each option offers a suite of options which includes desktop, mobile, and web offerings, this article will focus on what some of the main similarities and differences are between ArcGIS for Desktop and QGIS Desktop.

ArcGIS and QGIS are both popular geographic information system (GIS) software used for creating, analyzing, and managing spatial data. While they share some similarities, they also have several differences.

Developer and License

ArcGIS is developed by Esri (Environmental Systems Research Institute), a private company, and is a proprietary software. To use ArcGIS, you need to purchase a license or obtain a trial version.

Free weekly newsletter

Fill out your e-mail address to receive our newsletter!

QGIS (Quantum GIS) is an open-source GIS software developed by a community of volunteers and contributors. It is free to use, modify, and distribute, making it accessible to a wider range of users.


ArcGIS is a part of the broader ArcGIS platform, which offers various tools and services for GIS, including ArcMap, ArcGIS Online, and various web applications. It is designed to work seamlessly with other Esri products.

QGIS is a standalone software that can be extended using a wide range of plugins developed by the community. It can also interact with other GIS platforms and tools but may require additional steps or plugins for integration.

Operating Systems

Esri’s ArcGIS for Desktop only runs in a Windows PC environment, although there are some hints from Esri staff that a native Mac based version is being seriously considered.  In the meantime, users with Mac computers can only run ArcGIS for Desktop using either a virtual machine setup or Bootcamp.

QGIS is cross-platform and can be installed and run on Windows, Mac, or Linux machines.

Interface and Functionality

ArcGIS has a modern, user-friendly interface with advanced tools and functionalities. It supports 2D and 3D mapping, editing, analysis, and visualization. ArcGIS also integrates with Esri’s cloud-based services for easy data sharing and collaboration.

QGIS also has a user-friendly interface, and its functionality can be extended with plugins. It supports 2D mapping, editing, and analysis, with limited 3D capabilities. QGIS has strong support for various data formats and can work with data from different sources.

Community and Support

ArcGIS has a large user base and offers extensive resources, including official documentation, training materials, and a dedicated user community. Esri provides professional support for its products, which may be important for some users, particularly in enterprise settings.

QGIS has a robust and active user community that contributes to its development, creates plugins, and provides support through forums and mailing lists. While there is no official support, there are many resources available online, including tutorials and documentation.


ArcGIS requires a subscription or a paid license, which can be a barrier for some users or organizations with limited budgets.

QGIS is free and open-source, making it an attractive option for users or organizations with budget constraints, as well as those who prefer open-source software.

In summary, the choice between ArcGIS Pro and QGIS depends on factors such as budget, software licensing preferences, required functionality, and compatibility with other tools or platforms. Both have their strengths and can be effective solutions for different GIS needs.


Since QGIS is FOSS (free and open source software), there are no licensing concerns.  QGIS can be loaded on any computer.  ArcGIS is restricted through a seat license.  Single install versions of ArcGIS are regulated through a licensing key.

Development Process

QGIS is developed has a paid core of developers but also depends in part on volunteers.  ArcGIS is a commercial GIS software package developed by paid staff members of Esri.

Loading Time

QGIS has a faster startup time than ArcGIS.


Both QGIS and ArcGIS functionality can be extended thorough scripting (Python) and plugins (or extensions in ArcGIS).


Esri has a well established knowledge base, peer support forum, and technical support system for its ArcGIS product.  

QGIS offers peer support via the gis.stackexchange.com site.  Anita Graser of the blog also notes that both user and technical support for QGIS are available via OSGeo.org’s mailing lists.


Esri still enjoys the lion share of the mainstream GIS community.  Most government and commercial agencies use Esri products over any other GIS package.  

QGIS’ acceptance is growing but is mostly popular in academic circles and in arenas where open source software is the norm.

Spatial Analysis

ArcGIS has more out of the box spatial analytic capabilities:  hillshading, to overlays, map algebra, surface approximation, network analysis.


A side-by-side test by Don Meltz measured significant performance differences in the Clip operation.  Meltz found that a clip operation on 20′ contours took over 12 hours on ArcGIS versus a little over 17 minutes using QGIS.


ArcGIS has better annotation capabilities. There are more native cartographic output options with ArcGIS.


Photo of author
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.