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Vector tiles introduction

Vector tiles make huge maps fast while offering full design flexibility. The vector tile format is the vector data equivalent of raster image tiles for web mapping, with the strengths of tiling: optimized for caching, scaling, and serving map imagery rapidly.

This guide describes how vector tiles work in web maps.

How web maps work

Traditionally, maps are created from image tiles. Like for instance this PNG image tile depicting the corner of lower Manhattan with roads, building footprints, and parks:

To get the underlying vector tile data that makes up this image, you can request it specifically:

As the name suggests, vector tiles contain vector data instead of the rendered image. They contain geometries and metadata — like road names, place names, house numbers — in a compact, structured format. Vector tiles are rendered only when requested by a client, like a web browser or a mobile app. Rendering happens either in the client (Mapbox GL JS, Mapbox iOS SDK, Mapbox Android SDK) or dynamically on the server (map API). Read the Mapbox Vector Tile Specification to learn more.

The map on the left shows the geometries that are included in the Mapbox Terrain tileset. The map on the right shows the Mapbox Outdoors style, which combines data from the Mapbox Terrain and Mapbox Streets tilesets and applies styling rules to that data to create the map you see in your browser.

See the Map design guide for more information on how map styles work. All our template map styles are created using some combination of our Mapbox tilesets, which are described below. -->

Benefits of vector tiles

Vector tiles offer several important advantages over fully rendered image tiles:

  • Dynamic styling. As vectors, tiles can be styled when requested, allowing for many map styles on global data. Using Mapbox GL JS or the Mapbox Maps SDKs for Android and iOS, you can adjust your map's appearance dynamically, without having to download new tiles.

  • Size and speed. Vector tiles are really small, enabling global high resolution maps, fast map loads, and efficient caching. The Mapbox cartographers responsible for Mapbox-provided vector tilesets worked to balance between level of detail and performance.

  • Smooth interactions. Because all your map data is loaded in the map client, you can re-render the map quickly, enabling smooth zooming, tilt, and rotation.

  • Dynamically querying. You can use this feature to access your map data's properties right from your vector tileset.

Mapbox Streets, our global basemap, is entirely made of vector tiles.

Open standard

Vector tiles are an open standard under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 US License. We support vector tiles across our products and there is a large list of vector tile implementation by other vendors.

Read the Mapbox Vector Tile Spec on GitHub and get in touch with us there with feedback and improvements.