Reading Geoprocessing considerations for shapefile output by Esri, it says that the 2GB limit translates roughly to 70 million Points.

When looking at the ESRI Shapefile Technical Description, the header has a field at Byte 24 representing file length in 16-bit words that is a signed integer of 4-bytes, thus the maximum positive value it can represent is 2,147,483,647. This number is the total number of 16-bit words in the file, including the 50 16-bit words in the header.

If we start with the maximum number and remove the header, we get 2,147,483,597. This means that the number of Point features in 16-bit words should equal that number (at max).

Per the spec, a record is 8-bytes and is thus 4 16-bit words. The content length field of a record represents the length of a record's content in 16-bit words. A Point feature takes a maximum of 20 bytes and is thus 10 16-bit words. Therefore, each Point feature takes a total of 14 16-bit words (4 from the record header, 10 from the Point record).

From this, how is a rough maximum of 70 million Point features derived?

It would appear the 2GB limit was Esri imposed. If we assume the following:

limit = (1024^3) * 2 = 2147483648 bytes
limit - 100 = 2147483548 bytes (header removed)
limit / 28 bytes = 76695841 Points

So it actually has nothing to do with Byte 24 but namely the .SHX 32-bit offsets.

However, Byte 24 in the main file and the .SHX offsets represent the number of 16-bit words in the file. Assuming our was all points, and Byte 24 was maxed at 2,147,483,647 then that implies that there are 2*((2^31)-1) bytes in the files for addressing. This would put the physical limit of the file in terms of memory addressing at 4GB. That is to say:

byte_24 = (2^31) - 1 = 2147483647 total 16-bit words
byte_24 - 50 = 2147483597 total 16-bit records
byte_24 * 2 = 4294967194 total 32-bit (4-byte word) file size
(byte_24 * 2) / 1024^3 = 3.99GB

So there is nothing preventing a file (other than conformance) from growing beyond the 2GB limit in terms of the .SHP or .SHX files; the .DBF (dBase) may have a different impact. This could even be increased to 8GB if unsigned integers were used (replace byte_24 with (2^32) - 1).

  • 1
    I am sure that this is a fairly gross approximation. Historically, this limit has to do with dBase4 (dbf) addressing limitations. There is some incidental overhead in the dbf attribute requirements. There is the bit requirements for a given coordinate precision and then the bit requirements for minimum attribution of the points in dfb. I would however, not take this as an exact threshold thus the verbiage "roughly 70 million point features. Jan 24, 2020 at 18:52
  • In the GDAL documentation the limit is indeed said to be at 8 GB, and no limit at all for the .dbf part gdal.org/drivers/vector/shapefile.html. Geometry: The Shapefile format explicitly uses 32bit offsets and so cannot go over 8GB (it actually uses 32bit offsets to 16bit words), but the OGR shapefile implementation has a limitation to 4GB. Attributes: The dbf format does not have any offsets in it, so it can be arbitrarily large.
    – user30184
    Jan 24, 2020 at 21:29
  • @user30184 If I'm not mistaken, it was documented somewhere that GDAL "hacks" the specification to use unsigned integers, that's why.
    – pstatix
    Jan 24, 2020 at 22:08

1 Answer 1


The "equate" in your title is probably too strong a representation for a document which uses "roughly 70 million" points.

The maximum file size for a .shp or .shx is 231-2, not 231, because Esri chose to keep the 231-1 filesystem limitations in existence when the format was published (see this answer to Why are Shapefiles limited to 2GB in size?), and the 16-bit word size assures that the file will always be even1.

The general formula, subtracting the fixed 100-bytes header from the limit, is:

floor((2**31-2 - 100) / bytes_per_feature)

so the correct maximum for 2D points (fixed 28 bytes/feature) is

floor((2**31-2 - 100) / 28) = 76,695,840 features

Sure, "roughly 76 million" might be a better way to word this, but "roughly 80m" and even "roughly 77 million" would be rounding up too much.

If the 2D points were stored as degenerate MultiPoint records (don't do this!) then the limit from the .shp side is 56 bytes per feature, which works out to:

floor((2**31-2 - 100) / 56) = 38,347,920 features

3D points have a 36 byte footprint, which works out to:

floor((2**31-2 - 100) / 36) = 59,652,320 features

More complex geometries and additional dimensions further limit the feature count. For 2D single-part quadrilateral polygons (5 vertices, for closure), the .shp limit would be:

floor((2**31-2 - 100) / 136) = 15,790,320 features

But this is not the full story, because the dBase-III+(ish) flavor of .dbf used by Esri also has a 231-1 limit (.dbf can have an odd record size, so it's a -1 and not -2), and since the only tie between shp and dbf is via record number, the actual restriction is the smaller of the two record counts, so with a single 100-character text field the limit would be:

floor((2**31-1 - 32*2) / 101) = 21,262,213 features

and with 100 fields2 at maximum 4000 bytes/record, the limit would be:

floor((2**31-1 - 32*101) / 4001) = 536,735 features

(dBase-III has a 32-byte table header, and a 32-byte field header for each field, plus a 1-byte deletion marker per record.)

There is no way for the .shx size limit to impact record count, even if all the stored shapes were null, since:

 floor((2**31-2 - 100) / 8) < floor((2**31-2 - 100) / 12)

In the real world, shapefiles are too inefficient to effectively utilize more than 5-10 million features, and I try to limit even well-compressed file geodatabase to 20-40 million rows.

It would be far better to abandon the use of shapefile altogether than to start creating polluted files with a .shp suffix that do not conform to the shapefile specification (by exploiting the 16-bit wordsize for a 4GB limit or unsigned integers for an 8GB limit).

1Since the record sizes are all modulus four, you could argue a limit of 231-3.

2Technically, the dBase-III+ spec limits field count to 100. However, ArcGIS doesn't choose to enforce that, permitting the field count to reach the 1-byte maximum of 255. For this reason (and other de facto quirks), I generally add the "-ish" to the flavor descriptor "III+" (note that BLOB-like Memo fields are not supported).

  • Shapefile is just easy for us to work with (several tools built around it). We use Python libraries outside the arcpy realm (which is agonizingly slow and not optimized) to read/write them. I wanted to understand how to achieve the math so that files may be written to conform (i.e. how to compute how many shapes a user would generate on a program, and if its too many tell them if its beyond 2GB).
    – pstatix
    Jan 24, 2020 at 20:10
  • The while the .SHP file length and .SHX offsets represent the number of 16-bit words, thus actually allowing for file addressing up to 4GB, I don't plan on doing that and will restrict users. May I ask why you used (2^31) - 2 and not (2^31) - 1?
    – pstatix
    Jan 24, 2020 at 20:13
  • I see you edited the post, but still don't understand why you're using (2^31) - 2. You've also linked my own question that was closed! But still, not sure why you have some as (2^31) - 1 and some as (2^31) - 2. I agree with the formulas, just not the maximum byte size, I think you're 2 bytes off. Is it to keep it an even number since all the byte footprints of features are even numbers?
    – pstatix
    Jan 24, 2020 at 20:28
  • I've written scores of data translators, including shapefile implementations in 'C', Java, and JavaScript, and I've rarely, if ever, known what the total record count was going to be. I've found that predicting overflow on stream-oriented solutions takes a significant amount of time, and that it's generally better to just test for overflow before writing each feature than to make assumptions about null geometries and vertex counts which could end up being incorrect.
    – Vince
    Jan 25, 2020 at 3:45
  • You mention the dBase-III+ spec, but where did you get it? I couldn't find the actual spec regardless of how much searching I do. As for your comment about 16-bit words ensuring a shp, what do you mean? The file can have an odd number of records.
    – pstatix
    Mar 31, 2020 at 22:29

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