Introduction to ArcMap

This tutorial will give an introduction to basic usage of ArcMap, a Windows-only desktop software program produced by ESRI for viewing, editing, creating, and analyzing geospatial data.

ESRI's ARC/INFO (ArcInfo) GIS program for microcomputers was initially released in 1982 (Wikipedia 2021). ArcMap was an evolution of that software that was initially released as part of the ArcGIS 8.0 release on 27 December 1999 (ESRI 2000). ArcGIS Pro, ESRI's successor to ArcMap, was released as version 1.0 on 27 January 2015. Both ArcMap and ArcGIS Pro are included in ESRI's ArcGIS Desktop suite, and ESRI plans to continue supporting ArcMap with patches until 2026 (ESRI 2021).

ArcGIS Pro has numerous advantages over ArcMap:

Despite these advantages, ArcMap is still commonly used, especially in small organizations.

Preparing a Project Folder

When starting a project, you should first create a project folder on your desktop to store the files you will use in that project. Maps created with ArcMap commonly require a number of different files, and it will be helpful to keep them together in a single directory.

Creating a project directory

Mapping CSV Points

Point maps can be created from tables containing latitudes and longitudes.

The simplest format for point table data is the comman-separated variable format that can be exported from a spreadsheet program like Excel. Point data is also sometimes made available to the public as CSV files through open data portals.

Note that one quirk of ArcMap compared to most other desktop programs is that you must explicitly go through a Connect to Folder step before you can access any file on your local drive. However, you only need to do this once per session, and if you connect to a high level folder (like Documents), you will be able to access any of the files in subfolders of that directory without having to connect to each subfolder individually.

This example will use a CSV file of houses of worship in Farmingdale, NY that can be downloaded here...

  1. Copy your CSV file into your project folder.
  2. Start ArcMap and create a new map with the Blank Template.
  3. Click the Add Data icon.
    • Click the Connect to Folder icon and navigate to the project folder containing your CSV file.
    • Go to Folder Connections, find the CSV file, and open it. This will add the file as a table.
  4. Right click on the table in the Table of Contents pane and select, Display XY data.
    • Make sure the X Field is your longitude column and the Y Field is your latitude column.
    • At the bottom of the dialog, Edit... the Coordinate System of Input Coordinates, search for WGS 1984 and under Geographic Coordinate Systems, select that option. World Geodetic System 1984 is a commonly used latitude/longitude system that is also used by the US GPS system.
  5. Under Add Data, add a base map.
  6. Right-click in the Table of Contents on the Layers, select Properties, select the Coordinate System tab, select Projected Coordinate System, go to the World (Sphere-based) options, and select the Mercator projection. This will cause the map to use the same projection as the base map so the base map is not fuzzy or distorted.
  7. In the Table of Contents, right-click on the layer of points, select Properties, go to the Symbology tab, and choose a symbol that is appropriate for the content you are mapping.
  8. If desired, in the Table of Contents, right-click on the layer of points, select Label Features.
    • If the labels use an inappropriate field or are difficult to read, in the Table of Contents, right click on the layer of points, select Properties, go to the Labels tab and adjust the labeling.
Creating a map from a CSV file with latitudes and longitudes

Mapping Shapefiles

The shapefile was a geospatial data format debuted by ESRI in 1998, two years before the debut of ArcMap (ESRI 1998).

Although the format is old and, arguably, obsolete, is is a simple format that is well-supported by a variety of GIS software, so you will still commonly see geospatial data stored and distributed in shapefiles. Accordingly, this old format has a number of limitations compared to contemporary types of geospatial data storage:

The term shapefile is a misnomer since a shapefile is actually a collection of at least three (and usually more) separate files that store the locational data, the characteristics associated with those locations, and other information about the data. Some common files associated with a shapefile include (listed by the file extension):

For convenience, all these files are usually compressed into a single .zip archive file for distribution on websites and servers.

For this example, we will use a shapefile of results from US presidential elections in the 2010s that can be downloaded here....

A choropleth is a thematic map where areas are colored according to some characteristic of those areas.

An example of a choropleth commonly seen in the media is a red/blue state map that shows the dominant political parties in the different US states. In this map of the 2012 presidential election, the red states sent Republican electors to the electoral college to vote for Governor Romney, and the blue states sent Democratic electors to vote for President Obama.

  1. Copy your .zip file into your project folder and unzip the shapefile.
  2. Start ArcMap and create a new map with the Blank Template.
  3. Click the Add Data icon.
    • Click the Connect to Folder icon and navigate to the folder containing your CSV file.
    • Go to Folder Connections, find the .shp file, and open it.
  4. If needed, under Add Data, add a base map.
  5. In the Table of Contents, right-click on the layer of points, select Properties, go to the Symbology tab, and choose a symbology that is appropriate for the content you are mapping.
    • For this map of percentages, we use a Graduated colors symbology.
    • Select a field to map. For this example, we use PCGOP2012 for the percentage of Republican (GOP) voters in each state.
    • We choose a color ramp fitting the convention of blue for Democrats and red for Republicans.
    • Right click on the Labels, select Format Labels, and remove the unnecessary significant digits from the legend labels.
Creating a choropleth from a shapfile

Exporting Map

Direct Export

If your map will be a figure map that is largely self explanatory and doesn't need to be particularly high resolution, you can export an image PNG file directly for import into a document.

  1. From the File dropdown menu, select Export Map...
  2. For the file type, select PNG (portable network graphics). This is an image format that generally renders reliably and quickly in documents and on web sites.
  3. Make sure the resolution is 300 DPI (dots per inch), which is usually good enough for most documents.
  4. Give the PNG map file a meaningful name in your project folder so you will know what it is if you find or need this file in the future.
  5. Open the file from your file explorer to make sure it is what you are expecting.
  6. Import the image into a document if needed.
Exporting a map directly to a PNG file


If you need a legend or other map elements on your map, you will need to create a map layout.

  1. In the View menu, switch to Layout View. You will find a default layout already created for you with the map frame.
  2. If needed, change the page orientation so the aspect ratio of your map matches the area you are trying to map with as little wasted page space as possible.
    • Right-click on the layout and select Page and Print Setup...
    • You can either select a predefined Paper size, or change the Map Page Size to custom dimensions.
    • Adjust the size of the map frame to fill the page, but leave some blank area around edges as a margin.
    • Leave area at the bottom for the marginalia.
    • To adjust the mapped area in the data frame, right click on the data frame and select Focus Data Frame so you can drag and zoom. Click the Select Elements arrow to return to modifying the layout map elements.
  3. From the Insert menu, add a Title.
    • You can change the formatting of the title by right-clicking on the title and selecting Properties.
  4. From the Insert menu, add Text for the credits (cartographer, data source, date).
  5. From the Insert menu, add a Picture to insert a logo.
  6. From the Insert menu, add a North Arrow.
  7. From the Insert menu, add a Legend.
    • Select only the layers that need symbols defined.
    • Remove the legend title.
    • Add a Border and white Background.
    • Change the name properties of the layer if you want to change the legend heading text.
    • Change the Items style if you want to remove the variable name.
  8. From the Insert menu, select Dynamic Text and Service Layer Credits to create a text box outside the map to hide those base map credits.
  9. To create a PDF of the layout, from the File menu, select Export Map and export to a PDF file in your project folder.
Creating and exporting a map layout

Saving Maps

Save Your Workspace

Save your workspace file to your project directory. ArcMap is an old, buggy program that crashes frequently and at inopportune times, so you should save your work frequently to avoid wasting irreplaceable hours of your life.

Workspaces are saved as .mxd files. This file contains the information ArcMap needs to create the map.

Saving a workspace to an .mxd file

Save a Map Package

Unlike a word document or excel spreadsheet, the .mxd file only points to where data is, it does not contain the data needed to create the map. If you just send someone a .mxd file without the data they will not be able to view the map. You also need to send them the data files.

Data sets are large and frequently stored in databases rather than in simple files like shapefiles. Also, there may be many different maps or versions of maps referring to the same data. Therefore it would be waste of system resources to store multiple copies of the same data for each map. While this practice of separating data from how it is rendered can cause confusion, this is an efficient and flexible means of handling data when procedures are in place for controlling data.

However, for smaller datasets, ArcMap has an option for you to save your map and data files together as a map package. Map pages can be saved to your ArcGIS Online content if you need to move machines, share your work with a collaborator, or simply keep everything together if you need to work on the map again in the future.

  1. File and Save the .mxd file.
  2. Under the File dropdown menu, select Share As and Map Package.
  3. Select Upload to your ArcGIS Online Account.
  4. Sign into your ArcGIS Online account
  5. Add a Description and Tags
  6. Analyze and fix any problems
  7. Click the Share button (hidden at the top right corner of the dialog) to save the map package.
  8. You can reopen the package by selecting File, ArcGIS Online, and My Maps and Data.
  9. Saving a map package to ArcGIS Online

    Saving Your Project To a .zip Archive

    Optionally, if you have your .mxd file and all your data files in a single project folder, you can create a .zip archive of the folder for sharing with a collaborator or to open later on another machine.