Shapefile Viewers

Caitlin Dempsey

Updated:

Listed here are shapefile viewers for viewing GIS vector data in shapefile format.

What is a Shapefile?

The shapefile format also known as an Esri shapefile, is now a common format for storing GIS data.  Shapefiles stored non-topological vector data along with related attribute data.  Shapefiles store geometry in the form of point, line, and polygon data.

Developed by Esri, shapefiles can be directly read by a number of GIS software programs such as ArcGIS and QGIS.  

Despite its singular name, a shapefile is a group of at least three basic files: .shp, .shx and .dbf.  All three files must be present in the same directory for them to be viewable.   The attribute data for a shapefile is stored in the dBASE file ending with the extension .dbf. The spatial data is stored in the .shp file and the indexing information is stored in the .shx (known as the index file).

Other optional file extensions that can accompany a shapefile is the .prj file which stores map projection information.

More: What is a Shapefile?

How to View a Shapefile

Because a shapefile is a GIS data file format, a GIS software program is the most common way to load and view this data.  If you want to be able to symbolize, edit, or otherwise manipulate shapefile data, you will need a GIS software program capable of those functions.  

For those on a budget, Esri offers a personal use license for $100 per year or you can download QGIS, an open source GIS software for free.

If you simply want to be able to view the geographic and attribute data for a shapefile, there are several shapefile viewer options out there, both desktop shapefile viewers and an online shapefile viewer.

Desktop Shapefile Viewers

Esri’s ArcGIS Explorer Desktop is the most popular desktop shapefile viewer.  The software can be downloaded for free and integrates with ArcGIS Online.  ArcGIS Explorer only works on Windows OS environments.

ArcGIS Explorer from Esri.
ArcGIS Explorer from Esri.

If you’re looking for a Mac based free shapefile viewer, TNTatlas offers both a Mac and a Windows build of its data viewer, called Datum GeoView.  In addition to shapefiles, TNTatlas can also viewer GeoTIFF, JP2, PNG, MrSID, DXF, and DWG file formats.

If you’re looking for another option that isn’t a full-fledged GIS software program, check out the  free TatukGIS Viewer. The viewer supports 70+ geospatial data formats (vector, image, and grid) including the shapefile format.

Online Shapefile Viewers

If you prefer an online option, there are free online shape file viewers you can access via a web browser.

LSI Viewer (which stands for Libre Spatial Information Viewer) allows you to upload, view, and apply some limited symbolization to shapefiles.  The online shapefile viewer works best in Chrome or Firefox browsers.  Users must register before being able to utilize the program.

A screenshot showing the drag and drop functionality of a shape file map viewer.
Drag and drop shape files into the map canvas from Equator Studios to view data.

Equator Studios also offers a free online shapefile viewer with drag and drag options for loading in a variety of GIS data formats: shape file (either with the collective .shp, .shp .dbf. and .prj files or compressed in to a zipped (.zip) file. Other file formats you can view include KML and KMZ files GeoJSOn, and Lidar Point data (.las and .laz). The viewer doesn’t work in Safari from my experience but worked well when I uploaded some test shape files using Chrome.

A screenshot of an online map canvas with a street layer in a globe format.
The Equator Studios map canvas which allows users to freely drag and drop shape files to view them.

This article was originally written on May 14, 2013 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.

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