What are map projections?

Within ArcGIS, every dataset has a coordinate system, which is used to integrate it with other geographic data layers within a common coordinate framework such as a map. Coordinate systems enable you to integrate datasets within maps as well as to perform various integrated analytical operations such as overlaying data layers from disparate sources and coordinate systems.

Layers can be spatially and analytically integrated by ArcGIS if their coordinate systems are known.

What is a coordinate system?

Coordinate systems enable geographic datasets to use common locations for integration. A coordinate system is a reference system used to represent the locations of geographic features, imagery, and observations such as GPS locations within a common geographic framework.

Each coordinate system is defined by:

Types of coordinate systems

There are two common types of coordinate systems used in GIS:

For a conceptual overview, see Georeferencing and coordinate systems.

Coordinate systems (either geographic or projected) provide a framework for defining real-world locations. In ArcGIS, the coordinate system is used as the method to automatically integrate the geographic locations from different datasets into a common coordinate framework for display and analysis.

ArcGIS automatically integrates datasets whose coordinate systems are known

All geographic datasets used in ArcGIS are assumed to have a well-defined coordinate system that enables them to be located in relation to the earth's surface.

If your datasets have a well-defined coordinate system, then ArcGIS can automatically integrate your datasets with others by projecting your data on the fly into the appropriate framework—for mapping, 3D visualization, analysis, and so forth.

If your datasets do not have a spatial reference, they cannot be easily integrated. You need to define one before you can use your data effectively in ArcGIS. The spatial reference or coordinate system is metadata. It describes the coordinate framework that the data is already using.


When you define the coordinate system for a dataset using the Define Projection tool or the dataset property page, you are updating the metadata to identify the current coordinate system. The dataset's extent and coordinate values will not change. The dataset must already be using the coordinate system. To change a dataset's coordinate system, including its extent and values, use the Project or Project Raster tools.

What is a spatial reference in ArcGIS?

A spatial reference in ArcGIS is a series of parameters that define the coordinate system and other spatial properties for each dataset in the geodatabase. It is typical that all datasets for the same area (and in the same geodatabase) use a common spatial reference definition.

An ArcGIS spatial reference includes settings for:

Learning more about coordinate systems

Here is a series of links to help you learn more about applying map projections and coordinate systems in your work.

Learning more about map projection and coordinate system concepts


Where to go for more information

To understand geographic coordinate systems and latitude–longitude

See What are geographic coordinate systems?

To understand projected coordinate systems

See What are projected coordinate systems?

To learn which map projections are supported

See List of supported map projections

To learn about datums

See Datums

To learn about spheroids and spheres

See Spheroids and spheres

To choose a map projection

See Choosing a map projection

To learn about the geodatabase spatial reference.

See the Geodatabase Spatial Reference.

Map projection and coordinate system tasks

Common coordinate system and map projection tasks in ArcGIS

Here is a series of links to guidance on how to perform a number of common coordinate system tasks in ArcGIS.

Defining the coordinate systems, re-projecting, and transforming datasets

Common task

Where to go for more information

To define the spatial reference for a new dataset in the geodatabase

See An overview of spatial references in the geodatabase

To record the coordinate system of an existing dataset

See the "Define Projection" tool in An overview of the Projections and Transformations toolset

To define the coordinate system for external raster and image files

See Defining or modifying a raster's coordinate system

To project feature, rasters, and image data layers

See An overview of the Projections and Transformations toolset

To identify an unknown coordinate system

See Identifying an unknown coordinate system

Coordinate system definition and projection
Datum transformation and rubber-sheeting

Common task

Where to go for more information

To learn transformation concepts

See Geographic transformation methods

To transform and rubber-sheet data layers

See Performing spatial adjustment

To georeference unregistered raster data

See Changing the geographic coordinates of a raster dataset: georeferencing

To georeference unregistered CAD data

See Georeferencing a CAD dataset

Data transformation tasks
Working with Vertical Coordinate Systems

Common task

Where to go for more information

To learn vertical coordinate system concepts

See What are vertical coordinate systems?

To define a vertical coordinate system for a feature class

See Defining_feature_class_properties

Working with vertical coordinate systems
What existing coordinate systems and transformations are available?

Object type

Where to go for more information

Geographic or vertical coordinate systems

See geographic_coordinate_systems.pdf

Projected coordinate systems

See projected_coordinate_systems.pdf

Geographic (datum) transformations

See geographic_transformations.pdf

What existing coordinate systems and transformations are available?

Related Topics