Listed here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions received by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN) regarding the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS).
- What is the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS)?
- How can I find place names in the United States and its dependent areas?
- What are some tips for finding a name in GNIS?
- How can I acquire or download Geographic Names Information System data?
- Can I obtain driving directions to a feature recorded as an entry in the Geographic Names Information System?
- Can you assist me in purchasing property or can you tell me who owns a particular property or feature?
- I think I have found an error in GNIS. How do I report it?
- Does GNIS include manmade features, such as churches, cemeteries, parks, schools, shopping centers, or trails?
- What administrative areas of the United States are included in GNIS?
- Does GNIS contain historical information?
- Why are there no entries for caves in the GNIS?
- Is the possessive apostrophe "s", such as in Pike's Peak, allowed in the GNIS?
- Why are there no ZIP Codes in GNIS?
- Why do names in GNIS sometimes differ from what I see on Google Maps, atlases, or my local map?
- What character sets are used for names in GNIS?
- Is there a standard for GNIS?
The Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) was developed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in cooperation with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN), which maintains cooperative working relationships with Federal partners, State Names Authorities, and local and Tribal governments to standardize geographic names for Federal use. GNIS contains information about the official names for geographic features in the 50 States, the District of Columbia, and the dependent areas of the United States, as well as Antarctica. GNIS is the geographic names component of The National Map.
GNIS contains records for over one million domestic geographic features in the United States, including populated places, lakes, streams, summits, valleys, and ridges. To see the full list of features, see GNIS Domestic Names Feature Classes.
Search GNIS using the GNIS Domestic Names Search application. A feature search yields a list of features with the name you searched for. Clicking on the details from that list shows official and variant names, the State and county the feature is located in, and a latitude and longitude where the feature can be found. Addition information includes the feature class, the name of the USGS topographic map(s) on which the feature can be found, BGN Decision Date (if relevant), and, in some cases, additional feature information (history and description). There is also an interactive map with optional imagery and other map layers.
Here are some guidelines when searching GNIS using the GNIS Domestic Names Search application.
Users may select different query types, i.e., Includes Keywords, Contains Text, Exact Match, or Basic. For more information on each of these, see the Help document attached to the GNIS search page.
Names can be searched using upper or lower case.
Official Name and Variants: The query returns records for all features with the official name or variants (non-official names) matching the query, but only the official name displays in the results list. If a feature appears in the results list with a name different than the name entered, click “Details” under the name to view the Summary Report. The name entered will be listed among the variants.
Include Variants: By default, variant names are included in search results. To exclude variants, uncheck the box.
Diacritical Marks: Enter the name without diacritical marks. All results with and without diacritical marks are returned.
Abbreviations such as Mt., Mtn., St. must be spelled out, i.e., Mount, Mountain, Saint.
Names can be downloaded by querying the GNIS Domestic Names Search application application; a maximum of 2,000 entries can be retrieved. To acquire a larger number of results, GNIS data can also be downloaded via The National Map Downloader. Please visit the Download GNIS Data page for more details and information on all options.
No, the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) provides the official name and location but cannot provide driving directions.
The Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) does not maintain information on ownership of a particular property or feature. You would need to contact the owner of the property or the county or state government agency that maintains ownership information.
Please report possible errors in the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) to GNIS_manager@usgs.gov. The names data experts will investigate and validate the data, enter appropriate corrections where needed, and advise you of the results.
GNIS does not include roads, highways, administrative, or cultural features, except for canals, channels, reservoirs, communities, civil divisions, and military features. In 2021 the following geographic features, referred to as “administrative” (cultural or man-made), were removed from GNIS: airport, bridge, building, cemetery, church, dam, forest, harbor, hospital, mine, oilfield, park, post office, reserve, school, tower, trail, tunnel, and well. Many administrative names are managed by other The National Map data themes. See The National Map Supporting Themes page for information on transportation, structures, boundaries, and more. These datasets are maintained through submissions from authoritative sources or based on input from volunteers through The National Map Corps.
If you are interested in participating in The National Map Corps, which encourages citizens to collect structures data by adding new features, removing obsolete points, and correcting existing data for The National Map, please visit The National Map Corps website. To identify the administrative features to be maintained through The National Map Corps program, click "Structures" from the list on the left side of the page.
District of Columbia
Dependent Areas: American Samoa, Guam, Northern Marianas Islands, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, U.S. Minor Outlying Islands (includes Baker Island (Pacific), Howland Island (Pacific), Jarvis Island (Pacific), Johnston Island (Pacific), Kingman Reef (Pacific), Midway Islands (Pacific), Palmyra Atoll (Pacific), Navassa Island (Caribbean), Wake Island (Pacific))
GNIS does contain features that no longer exist on the landscape or no longer serve their original function. These are labeled with “historical” and there is no reference to age, size, condition, extent of habitation, type of use, or any other factor. For example, a ghost town may or may not be historical. Other examples are a shoal that was washed away by a storm, or a hill leveled by mining activity.
The database also contains many historical names for features that still exist, which are termed variant names. Each geographic feature can have only one official name but may list numerous variants.
GNIS does include caves, but the entries are not publicly available. In response to the 1988 National Cave Management Resources Act, Department of the Interior Regulation 43 (CFR Subtitle A, Part 37) forbids the release of information regarding the location of all caves on Federal lands. Currently, GNIS does not distinguish between features on Federal versus non-Federal lands, so all features classified as “cave” are blocked from public access.
Information regarding the names and locations of caves in GNIS can be requested in writing from the Secretary of the Interior. Each request will be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. Mail requests to:
U.S. Department of the Interior, Secretary of the Interior
1849 C Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20240
Since its inception in 1890, the BGN has discouraged the use of the possessive form—the possessive apostrophe and the “s”. Only five BGN decisions have allowed the apostrophe for natural features. These are: Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts; Ike's Point, New Jersey; John E's Pond, Rhode Island; Carlos Elmer's Joshua View, Arizona; and Clark’s Mountain, Oregon.
The GNIS contains named communities, both incorporated and unincorporated, but these communities do not necessarily correspond to ZIP Code areas. ZIP Codes are developed and maintained by the U.S. Postal Service solely for the purpose of delivering mail. It is not within the mission, purpose, or resources of the GNIS to maintain ZIP Code information. You can use ZIP Code™ Lookup to find the codes.
The BGN’s authority applies only to Federal agencies and contractors. The BGN cannot require that its decisions (official names) be applied to non-Federal products, such as local and State maps and websites, or private companies with map products such as Google or Apple. Many of these entities do choose to use the names approved by the BGN but there is no defined schedule for such names to appear. Any questions regarding the use of geographic names on non-Federal products should be directed to the appropriate organization.
GNIS allows for the use of characters in the Unicode Standard which is a character coding system designed to support the worldwide interchange, processing, and display of the written texts of diverse languages and technical disciplines. The standard includes letters, numbers, diacritics, and punctuation. The list is available in Appendix G of the BGN’s Principles, Policies, and Procedures for Domestic Geographic Names. Further information is available from the Unicode Consortium website.
The GNIS Feature ID, Official Feature Name, and Official Feature Location are American National Standards Institute standards as specified in ANSI INCITS 446-2008 (Identifying Attributes for Named Physical and Cultural Geographic Features (Except Roads and Highways) of the United States, Its Territories, Outlying Areas, and Freely Associated Areas, and the Waters of the Same to the Limit of the Twelve-Mile Statutory Zone). The standard is available at the ANSI Web Store.
A variant is any other name by which a feature is or was known on an authoritative source. Such names can be historical or no longer used, or can be in unofficial use. Only one official feature name is allowed for Federal usage.
There are no official definitions for feature classes as applied to geographic features. Any existing definitions derive from the needs and applications of organizations and individuals using those geographic features. GNIS utilizes 43 broad categories of feature classes defined solely to facilitate retrieval of entries with similar characteristics.
These categories generally match dictionary definitions, but not always. The differences are thematic and highly subjective. For example, a lake is classified in the GNIS as a "natural body of inland water”, which is a feature description that can also apply to a reservoir, a pond, or a pool. All "linear flowing bodies of water" are classified as stream in GNIS. At least 121 other generic terms fit this broad category, including creek, river, run, fork, etc. Some might contend that a creek must flow into a river, but such hierarchies do not exist in the nation's lexicon. Similarly, the BGN does not have an official definition of hill, mountain, or peak. In summary, there are no official feature classification standards.
Populated Place represents a named community with a permanent human population, usually not incorporated and with no legal boundaries, ranging from rural clustered buildings to large cities and every size in between. The boundaries of most communities classified as Populated Place are subjective and cannot be determined.
Civil represents a political division formed for administrative purposes with legally defined boundaries such as borough, city, county, incorporated place, municipio, parish, town, or township.
Incorporated populated places (those with legally defined boundaries) have two records in GNIS: a Civil feature and a Populated Place feature. The Civil feature represents the legal boundary of the incorporated place. The Populated Place feature represents the perceived metropolitan area that may extend beyond the legal boundaries of the incorporated place.
Each has a unique feature identifier. The two records have no direct relationship in the GNIS except that they might have the same Census Code.
The two records usually will have the same or similar names. The name of the political entity classified as Civil will include generic terms such as “City of…,” “Town of…,” etc. The name of the entry classified as Populated Place will not include these terms. Example: Civil = City of Denver, Populated Place = Denver. Both names are official for use to refer to the incorporated place.
Two official records are necessary to identify properly and classify such communities for governmental purposes.
A small percentage of communities classified as Populated Place will have a corresponding political entity classified as Civil. In these cases, the entry classified as Populated Place represents the perceived metropolitan area usually extending beyond the legal boundaries of the incorporated community classified as Civil.
The feature classified as Populated Place and a corresponding entry classified as Civil are separate and distinct entities, as well as separate records (entries) in the GNIS, each with a unique feature identifier. The two records have no direct relationship in the GNIS except that they might have the same Census Code.
The two records usually, will have the same or similar names. The name of the political entity classified as Civil will include generic terms such as “City of…,” “Town of…,” etc. The name of the entry classified as Populated Place will not include such generic terms and is referred to as the short form. Example: Civil = City of Denver, Populated Place = Denver.
Frequently these distinctions are not visible and are not common knowledge locally, and can be confusing, but they are necessary to identify properly and classify such communities for governmental purposes. The question whether one lives “in” a particular community depends on these definitions. If the reference is to a community classified as Civil, meaning it has legal boundaries, that question can be answered with accuracy. If the reference is to a community classified as Populated Place, which in most cases will not have legal boundaries, the answer is subjective. It also is common for some to answer this question based on postal address and ZIP Code, which have no direct relationship to either an entry classified as Civil or an entry classified as Populated Place (except perhaps a common or similar name), and therefore can be deceiving. GNIS does not contain ZIP Code information.
Most communities are not legally incorporated and therefore will have only one entry, which will be classified as Populated Place.
The term “historical” as used in the GNIS means that the feature no longer exists on the landscape or no longer serves its original function. It has no reference to age, size, condition, extent of habitation, type of use, or any other factor. For example, a ghost town is not historical, only abandoned as might be noted in the historical notes field. An example is shoal that was washed away by a storm or a hill leveled by mining activity.
The database also contains many historical names for features that still exist, which are termed variant names. Each geographic feature may have only one official name, but may list numerous variants. The feature query returns all features with the official name or variants matching the query, but only the official name displays in the results list. If a feature appears in the results list with a name different than the name entered, click on the Summary to view the feature details. The name entered will be listed among the variants. For performance reasons, the query returns only up to 2000 records.
The GNIS field entitled “Map Name” indicates the name of a USGS standard topographic map. Users may enter the map name by first selecting the State, then view the list of maps, and select the map. The query will return the features that are wholly or partially located on the map. Map names are not unique to States, but each map name is only used once within a State.
A USGS topographic map usually is named for the most prominent feature within the bounds of the map, which frequently is a community. Please note that although the features returned by the query are located on the map that may be named after a prominent community, this does not indicate that the features are “in” that community. The standard topographic maps are in most cases a 7.5 minutes by 7.5 minutes box, covering approximately 60 square miles.
The primary coordinate values for areal features are taken at the approximate center. The primary coordinates for features classified as summit, ridge, and range, are recorded at the highest point. The primary coordinate values for linear features (stream, valley, and arroyo) are taken at the mouth.
All coordinates in the Geographic Names Information System database are in the North American Datum of 1983 (NAD 83). They were converted from the North American Datum of 1927 (NAD 27) in September 2005.
One might confuse the difference between degrees-minutes-seconds and decimal degrees. To convert from decimal degrees to degrees-minutes-seconds with 45.63248 as an example:
- Subtract 45, leaving only the decimal .63248. Keep 45 for later reference.
- Multiply by 60, to obtain 37.94880 – 37 is the number of minutes; 37 then will follow 45 degrees.
- Subtract 37 to leave only .94880.
- Multiply by 60 once again to obtain 56.92800, and round to 57, which represents the seconds.
- This yields 45 degrees, 37 minutes, 57 seconds.
To convert from degrees-minutes-seconds to decimal degrees using 45 degrees, 37 minutes, 57 seconds as an example:
- Begin with 57 seconds and divide by 60 to obtain .95000.
- Add the 37 minutes to yield 37.95000.
- Divide by 60 once again to obtain .63250.
- Add the 45 degrees to obtain 45.63250.
Notice that rounding less than one-tenth of a second changes the conversion by .00002 degrees.
The elevation data available in the GNIS Feature Detail Report are not official and do not represent precisely measured or surveyed values. Elevations are approximate because they are interpolated from terrain elevations sampled on a grid. The elevation information is derived from the U.S. Geological Survey’s 3D Elevation Program (3DEP).
The elevation figures in the GNIS might differ from elevations cited in other sources, including those published on USGS topographic maps. The variances between the GNIS elevation data and other sources generally arise from acceptable tolerances and will be most evident for features such as summits, where precision is of more concern, and where the local relief (rate of change of elevation) is more prominent. When the elevation figure is of particular note, for example the highest point in the State, then the actual elevation is recorded in the description field of the feature.
If the elevation figure for a particular feature seems significantly inaccurate, the feature coordinates might need adjusting and/or the elevation model data for those coordinates are not correct. For most purposes of general information, the elevation figures are sufficiently accurate. Efforts are continuously being made to improve the accuracy of both GNIS and 3DEP data.
If you have questions about the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, please contact BGNExec@usgs.gov.
If you have questions about GNIS, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.