On this download server, you can find free shapefiles from OpenStreetMap for almost any region in the world. To keep resource usage low, we typically offer shape files only for the smallest administrative entities we cover in each country. So, if country A is only downloadable in full then we'll have shapefiles covering the whole country. If country B is split in 10 administrative regions, then free shapefiles will only be available for the 10 regions but not for the whole country.
Until August 2016, we were offering very simple shape files with very few layers and barely any preprocessing. For example, anything tagged "amenity" or "tourism" or "shop" or any of a couple of further keys would simply be dumped into a POI shape file with a "type" column and a "name" column - even if someone put "amenity=foobar".
Apart from the relatively loose structure, there were two major problems with this approach: Firstly, we didn't support multipolygons. That wasn't much of a problem when we started years ago, but now we have more and more people asking why a certain building or large forest is missing from the shapes. Secondly, the structure of the free shape files was totally different from those we were making for paying customers; someone who had developed a process with the free shapes and wanted to upgrade would essentially have to re-model the whole process.
Beginning in August 2016, we're offering redesigned free shape files that are better in almost every way: They're better documented (see here for a full specification), better structured, they have more layers and more features, and they support multipolygons.
Also, there is a clear upgrade path from the free shape files to our standard paid shapes in what we call our "0.7 schema". The structure is almost identical, with the 0.7 schema adding a few layers, features, and attributes but not changing or removing anything.
The old shape files had URLs of the form "somewhere-latest.shp.zip". In order not to cause too much confusion when the contents of the package are not what was expected, the new free shape files are called "somewhere-latest-free.shp.zip".
The old-style shape files will be available until October 2016. After that, we'll freeze them, keeping the latest version on the server but not generating any new ones. If you desparately need the old-style shape files then you have two options: You can either go to extract.bbbike.org where they run our old shapefile creation program and still support the old-style files, or you can use the new2old.sh script that we're providing which will use ogr2ogr magic to generate something that looks like the old shape files from our new ones!
The new-style shapes are better in almost any respect, but they are a bit stricter in which features are selected. The old shapes would simply include anything with a "highway" tag even if it was a typo (e.g. highway=residentail). The new shapes make a positive selection, i.e. they only select a pre-defined list of highway types, hence some typos or even niche objects will fall between the cracks. But if you are looking for such a niche object, then you should consider an Overpass request anyway... or contact us and we'll see how we can help.