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In almost ever GIS project there is the need to map nearby cities and towns, often also small villages in rural areas.

Open Street Map (OSM) offers a lot of spatially explicit data including "places" containing the names of urban areas mapped in OSM. Unfortunately, not all places also have English names and a popular download site (Geofabrik) does not support the download of English Names.

I would like to know if there is another free alternative that can be used and shows a high level of detail also regarding smaller settlements and which has coordinates or already comes in a GIS format (such as Shapefiles or geodatabase).

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One option would be the GEOnet Names Server published by the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. It is a gazetteer of global place names that includes a variety of spellings in different languages, including the common English variants, plus longitude and latitude coordinates. It includes administrative divisions, cities and towns, concentrated settlements, and even physical / non-populated features. It's quite detailed. The interface can be a little tough to use, but you also have the option of simply downloading all place names for a particular country in a CSV file.

For some reason I'm not able to access it today without getting some warning about a security certificate being expired. Normally you can access it here: http://geonames.nga.mil/gns/html/index.html

One quirk is that it does not include the United States or any US territories. A comparable source for these areas would be the Geographic Names Information Server published by the USGS: http://geonames.usgs.gov/apex/f?p=gnispq

I wrote a post a while back that summarizes the differences between GEOnet and Geonames gazetteers if you want to see that for more details (Geonames is a crowdsourced alternative, also includes name variants, English spellings, and coordinates).

For shapefiles for global mapping I often refer people to Natural Earth. Its cultural vector layers collection includes features for populated places, cities and towns, as well as boundaries for countries, internal subdivisions, and physical features.

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  • Great answer and blog post. I will give both a try. The Natural Earth is also a nice source, however not very detailled. – joaoal Apr 6 at 10:57

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