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How to Use Census Data in ArcGIS: Download Shapefile

This is a short how-to guide for accessing and using the TIGER/Line Shapefiles as well as joining data from the US Census Bureau to the TIGER/Line Shapefiles created by Census bureau.

Downloading TIGER/Line Shapefiles

There are four methods for downloading TIGER/Line Shapefiles from the U.S. Census Bureau.            

  •   Website Interface
  •   Direct from FTP site                       
  •   Connect via FTP client           
  •   Direct from

To download the shapefiles you will need an Internet Browser or an FTP client, as well as a utility that can unzip files. 

The website interface download method requires the least amount of technical knowledge.  
Start at the U.S. Census Bureau’s TIGER website:
Select the tab for the version of TIGER/Line Shapefiles (e.g. 2012) you would like to download.  Click on Download and choose Web interface.


Select the geographic entity from the drop down menu you would like to download (e.g. census tracts) and click submit.  Choose the state and click Download. 
Save the file to your computer or open the zip file.  Repeat as needed.
All versions are not available via this method.

Another option is to go directly to the Census Bureau’s FTP site through a web browser.  The address for the TIGER/Line Shapefiles is

From the FTP site, navigate to the version of the TIGER/Line Shapefiles to download (e.g. TIGER2012).  Refer to the 2012_TIGERLine _Shapefiles_File_Name_Definitions.pdf for shapefile naming conventions.  

Web browsers have the option to display ftp pages in a “windows explorer” type format. Entire directories (folders) can be copied at a time using copy and paste or drag and drop. 

To access a large number of files the best option is to use an FTP client software to connect to the Census Bureau’s FTP site.  There are many free FTP clients. The host name must be the Census Bureau’s main FTP site:  Use “anonymous” for the user name and password.

The TIGER/Line Shapefiles are available through the website.  Under the Data dropdown, select “GEO DATA.”  Search by keyword and/or agency to find the individual shapefiles.  As new TIGER/Line Shapefiles become available, they will be added to
Refer to the TIGER/Line Shapefiles technical documentation about the shapefile naming conventions and contents.

The files downloaded are zipped to save space and to ensure you download all of the necessary files.  
Most systems have an unzipping utility built-in to the operating system.  However, there are several free or low cost unzipping utilities such as WinZIP.