Reference layers

You can add a reference layer from ArcGIS to add context to a data layer in a map.

In ArcGIS for Microsoft 365, you can add content to a map as a layer. This can include ArcGIS content from your organization and, if enabled by your administrator, publicly shared content published by the GIS community, including Esri, local governments, and agencies around the world.

When you sign in to your ArcGIS account, you can search for content from your organization, your organization's groups, ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World, and public entities. When not signed in, Standard users can access publicly shared content from the search results.


Shared content availability depends on settings established by the item owner, your user type and role, and organization settings. For information about shared content, see Share content in the ArcGIS Online help.

Layer types are defined as follows:

  • Data layer—A layer you create. You can change the style for data layers or change the data values to update how a data layer is presented on the map.
  • Reference layer—A layer that adds context to the data layer.

For example, if you have a data layer showing potential locations for a new coffee shop, you could use the following ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World map that shows the percent of vacant housing per census block group as a reference layer. Aligning these layers may help you to select a site near fewer vacant housing units and closer to more people looking for some morning coffee.

2020 U.S. Census data map from Living Atlas of the World
Access the Exploring the 2020 U.S. Census data story.

Related topics

See the topics listed in the following table for more information about reference layers.

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