What Are the Different Types of Political Maps?

What Are the Different Types of Political Maps?

Political science is often the field of study lawyers choose to broaden their understanding of global affairs. While watching the news last week, I was amazed by all of the different kinds of maps that are used to talk about the world we live in. Sometimes we think about maps as only showing the physical geography of a place, such as where the mountains and rivers are. But what about when we need to talk about concepts that aren’t defined by the landscape? One of the ways we can do this is using political maps, leading to the question: what are the different types of political maps? 

Political maps show the governmental and political boundaries of a place. They can be broken down into different levels, including country, county, and city political maps. Political maps can be used for any physical space, and can be as large as the whole world and as small as a single town! We often use individual political maps to show specific information in a clear and uncluttered format. Political maps can show any information that isn’t defined by geography, such as: 

  • Borders
  • Roads
  • Waterways
  • Railroads
  • Public transportation
  • Capitals and cities
  • Election districts and boundaries

How Are Political Maps Different From Other Maps?

How Are Political Maps Different From Other Maps?

Political maps are different from other maps because their primary use is to communicate political information and not geographical information. Political maps include markings that demarcate the boundaries and borders between different units on the map, such as a map that has the lines showing each of the 50 states in the United States. Many of the things you see on a physical map can’t be seen on the ground if you were to visit that place in person.

Political maps can include other information, especially as it relates to infrastructure and travel. This includes things like railroads, waterways, airports, and roads. The information presented on a physical map depends on what the purpose is for that specific map.

Political maps are also used to show political information, such as the different election districts or school districts. Maps that include political information can be for a large entity, such as a whole country, or a small one such as a city. Political maps can even show information across the entire world!

What Are Some Other Types of Maps?

Maps can be used to show lots of different information. The information listed on a specific map is tied to what kind of map it is, and what it is intended to be used for. Maps often show only one kind of information so that they don’t become so crowded that they are difficult to read. Sometimes maps will show more than one kind of information, with the intent that it’s used in a very specific situation. For example, a road atlas that you keep in the car will show the roads and highways, as well as some basic geographical features.

Geographical Maps

One common kind of map is a geographical map. Geographical maps show the physical features of the land, such as rivers, mountains, hills, deserts, and lakes. Geographical maps don’t typically include political information, such as boundaries, so you have to understand the geographical features in order to know where you are on the map.

Topographical Maps

Topographical maps are similar to geographical maps in that they show the physical features of the land. These maps use contour lines rather than different colors to show the changes in the land. The spacing of these contour lines show how steep or flat an area of land is. These maps are often used by hunters, fishermen, and campers. They will show water features, such as lakes, rivers, streams, and oceans, as well. They can also include important landmarks and roads.

Road Maps

Road maps are used to show the various roads, highways, and streets in a certain area. These maps are usually used to help people drive from one place to another. Road maps can be static, like when you look at a printed map or atlas. They can also be dynamic, like within a driving app like Google Maps or Waze, where they include up-to-date information about the road conditions such as accidents, road closures, or even police presence.

Other Types of Maps

Other Types of Maps

Other maps can be used to display specific information. For example, an election results map may just show the election results for a specific area. A thermal map may show the different temperatures across a region. While sometimes these maps will have things like boundaries and borders marked, their primary use is to communicate other non-political information.

What Are Political Maps Used For?

Political maps are used to convey information that is NOT specifically related to the geography of the land. They show boundaries that exist only because people made them exist; if you visit the place on the maps in real life the political map information will not be visible.

Political maps can be useful in many different fields. For example, a political map of the United States typically shows the boundaries between the 50 states. Since the US government and political system gives some power to individual states, it’s important to know where each of the states begins and ends.

Within a local context, political maps are often to show various districts for municipal services. Common local political maps are election and school districts, but they can also show more mundane things such as trash service or phone service. These local political maps make it easier for the people who live there to find specific information that’s only applicable to their hometown.

It’s important to remember that political maps, like all maps, represent a snapshot in time. The information presented is valid as of the date of the map publication, but it may change over time. On political maps, these changes could happen when boundaries are changed or even when countries change. Although it’s uncommon for countries to merge or split up, it does happen and would require an updated political map to truly understand the region in question.

Who Uses Political Maps?

Political maps can be used by everyone! Even school children can use political maps, and in fact, a map showing different states in the US is often one of the first maps that children learn about in school.

Political maps are used by people at the various layers of government to better understand the political boundaries and how those boundaries play a role in decision making. They may use a number of different political maps to gain a full understanding of an area. In the US this may mean using a map of all 50 states alongside a map of a single state.

One big use of political maps is around designating smaller districts within a state or city. A state will have a political map that shows the various election districts. This information shows where specific election districts are and how many people live there.

This same concept is also used for smaller representation needs, such as school districts or police departments. The political maps show where each district begins and ends, as well as how many people live or work in that area. This information can be helpful in determining things like how many new teachers a school district needs, or how many police officers should be on patrol each day.

What Are the Different Symbols Used on Political Maps?

What Are the Different Symbols Used on Political Maps?

Political maps use different symbols to display different information. Each political map may show information slightly differently, and will typically include a key or guide so you know how to read that specific map. This key may also be labeled as a legend.

Here are some of the common types of information and their symbols used on political maps. Other types of information may appear on political maps, and you should always check the map key to fully understand what information the map is showing.


  • Cities are usually shown as a circle or dot on the map. The size of the circle can be used to indicate how large a specific city is. Larger dots are used to show larger cities, and smaller dots are used for smaller cities.
  • The capital city is usually shown with a star.


  • Borders are usually marked with a thin black line. Thicker lines may be used to show bigger borders, such as the border between two different countries.
  • Smaller black lines or dotted lines are used to show smaller borders, such as different states, regions, or districts.


  • Roads are often marked using red or orange lines so that it is clear they are roads and not borders.
  • On a political map that shows a large region, only main roads and thoroughfares are marked. For a map showing a smaller region, smaller roads and highways may also be shown.

Important Waterways

  • Waterways are often shown on political maps as they are another kind of transportation. This includes waterways such as rivers, canals, and even larger bodies of water like lakes or oceans.


  • Railroads are another type of transportation that is often shown on political maps. They are typically notated by a thin black line with small perpendicular hash marks.
  • Additional railroad information such as railroad stations and depots can be marked with other symbols, such as a small black square or triangle.


  • Some political maps may include important buildings such as airports, hospitals, and churches. These are indicated by a symbol that directly represents them, such as an airplane, or a square with an additional symbol attached.
  • For example, a hospital might be a square with an “H” inside. A church might be a box with a cross on the top. These additional map items are usually in a dark blue color, to differentiate them from the cities, roads, and boundaries that are in black.
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