Importing Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data in Google Earth

If you have Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data, you can import it into Google Earth Pro so that it can be used as part of your visualisations. If you have Google Earth Pro, you can import many kinds of GIS data directly using the methods described in this tutorial. If you are using the free version of Google Earth, there are other tools for converting GIS data to KML, a few of which are listed at the end of this tutorial.

GIS data is spatial data that is geo-referenced to real-world locations on the Earth. There are two types of GIS data, both of which you can import: vector data and raster data. Vector data consists of points, lines or polygons representing objects on the map. Raster datasets are ordinary grids of data, which can represent images such as satellite or aerial photography, continuous surfaces such as elevation models or thematic classes such as land cover or habitat maps.

In order for Google Earth Pro to import your data and place it in the correct location on the Earth, all GIS data must have the correct coordinate system defined. For example, ESRI shapefiles must have a projection file (.prj) associated with them and GeoTIFFs must have a Tiff World File (.tfw) associated with them.

This tutorial will guide you through how to import GIS data into Google Earth Pro so it can be used as part of your Google Earth visualisations. We will import a shapefile of rivers and a GeoTIFF of land cover in Southeast Asia. The rivers dataset was created from data downloaded from the /Digital Chart of the World. The land cover dataset was created from data downloaded from the Global Land Cover Characteristics (GLCC) database.

This video demonstrates how to import GIS data into Google Earth Pro (1:26).


  • Absolutely no programming skills needed!
  • For this tutorial, you will need Google Earth Pro installed on your computer. If you are a not-for-profit organisation, you may qualify for a free licence of Google Earth Pro. See eligibility requirements and apply for a Pro grant here. If you are not a non-profit or do not qualify, you may buy Google Earth Pro or download a seven-day free trial here.

Let's get started!

1. Open Google Earth Pro.

2. Download the following datasets to your computer for use in this exercise: and Unzip both files into a folder on your computer.

Import a GIS shapefile, or other vector dataset

1. Select Import... from the File menu.

2. Select your data's file type from the Files of type menu. For this example, choose ESRI Shape (*.shp) from the file type menu, select Rivers_in_Southeast_Asia.shp and click Open.

If you have MapInfo .tab data, choose MapInfo (*.tab) from the Files of type menu, select your TAB file and click Open.

3. A message will appear, stating that the file contains more than 2500 features and could cause application performance degradation.

When you see this message, you can choose to import just a sample, restrict to your current view, or import all.

4. Click the Import all button.

5. A message will appear, asking if you would like to create a Style Template. Click Yes.

In the next Style Template Settings dialogue box, you will create a style template for the rivers, which will include colours, labels and icons.

6. Under the Name tab, choose the field in the shapefile that you would like to use for the name labels for the data in Google Earth. You can use the preview table to view which field contains the content you would like to use for the labels.

For this example, select "NAM" in the drop-down menu. This is the field in the shapefile that contains the names of the rivers.

7. Under the Colour tab, select to Use single colour, and click on the colour swatch to the right. This causes the colour settings to appear.

8. In the Select Colour dialogue box, choose a colour for the river dataset. For this example, select a blue colour and click OK.

9. Under the Height tab, keep Clamp features to ground selected. This will keep the rivers clamped to the ground, following the terrain.

10. Click OK to finish your style.

11. A dialogue box will appear, asking if you would like to save the style template you just created. If you wish to save it for future use, click Save. Otherwise, click Cancel. For this example, click Save.

Your GIS data has been converted to KML, and the data now appears in Google Earth. Notice how the KML is also listed in the Places panel under your Temporary Places folder. To save it in Google Earth for future sessions, select and drag this file to your My Places folder before closing Google Earth.

Once you have imported your vector dataset, you can optimise your files and limit the number of points displayed at higher alititudes, by using the Regionate tool.

  • Save your imported vector dataset as a KML, then choose Regionate under the Tools menu.
  • For the Input file, browse for your saved KML file. Then choose an Output folder where you want to save the regionated files.
  • Tick "Open regionated files when done" and click Regionate. Now, as you zoom in, you'll see increasingly more points.

Import a GeoTIFF, or other raster dataset

1. To import a raster dataset, select Import... from the File menu. Select the appropriate file format from the file type menu at the bottom, select the file you want to import and click Open. For this example, select file type GeoTIFF (*.tif), select the LandCover_SEAsia.tif file and click Open.

2. In the New Image Overlay dialogue box that appears, give a name to your raster overlay and click OK.

Because the raster dataset in georeferenced to a coordinate system, it is automatically placed in the appropriate location. The land cover GeoTIFF has been imported into Google Earth and is located in the Places panel.

If your imported image is larger than the maximum size supported by the hardware, you will be given several choices:

  • Click Create Super Overlay... to import large images and have them automatically split into tiles and scaled according to your zoom level.
  • Click Scale to rescale to the maximum size supported.
  • Click Crop to view only a full resolution subset of the image.

In addition to importing GIS data into Google Earth Pro, you can also use many other tools and software programmes to convert GIS data to KML files for use in Google Earth. GIS software, such as ESRI ArcGIS and MapInfo, has tools to export GIS data into KML format for use in Google Earth.

  • ogr2gui, a free utility that converts many formats, including shapefiles to KML.
  • Shp2Kml, a free utility that converts shapefiles to KML.
  • MapWindow GIS has Shape2Earth, a tool for converting GIS data to KML.
  • ESRI ArcGIS contains tools in the ArcToolbox (Conversion Tools > To KML) for converting vector and raster GIS data to KML.
  • Arc2Earth is an extension for ArcGIS that converts GIS data to KML. The Arc2Earth Community Edition is a free tool that has lower limits than the full version.
  • MapInfo Professional has a MapInfo Professional Google Earth Link Utility.

Discussion & feedback

Have questions about this tutorial? Want to give us some feedback? Visit the Google Earth Outreach Discussion Group to discuss it with others.

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