In mathematics, a line bundle expresses the concept of a line that varies from point to point of a space. For example a curve in the plane having a tangent line at each point determines a varying line: the tangent bundle is a way of organising these. More formally, in algebraic topology and differential topology a line bundle is defined as a vector bundle of one-dimensional vector spaces.

There is an evident difference between one-dimensional real line bundles (as just described) and one-dimensional complex line bundles. In fact the topology of the 1x1 invertible real matrices and complex matrices is entirely different: the first of those is a space homotopy equivalent to a discrete two-point space (positive and negative reals contracted down), while the second has the homotopy type of a circle.

A real line bundle is therefore in the eyes of homotopy theory as good as a fiber bundle with a two-point fiber - a double covering. This reminds one of the orientation double cover on a differential manifold: indeed that's a special case in which the line bundle is the determinant bundle (top exterior power) of the tangent bundle. The Möbius band corresponds to a double cover of the circle (the θ -> 2θ mapping) and can be viewed as we wish as having fibre two points, the unit interval or the real line: the data is equivalent.

In the case of the comlex line bundle, we are looking in fact also for circle bundles. There are some celebrated ones, for example the Hopf fibrations of spheres to spheres.

From the point of view still of homotopy theory there are universal bundles for real line bundles, respective complex line bundles. According to general theory about classifying spaces, we should look for contractible spaces on which there are group actions of the respective groups C2 and S1, that are free actions. Those spaces can serve as the universal principal bundles, and the quotients for the actions as the classifying spaces BG. In these cases we can find those explicitly, in the infinite-dimensional analogues of real and complex projective space.

Therefore the classifying space BC2 is of the homotopy type of RP, the real projective space given by an infinite sequence of homogeneous coordinates. It carries the universal real line bundle; in terms of homotopy theory that means that any real line bundle L on a CW complex X determines a classifying map from X to RP, making L a bundle isomorphic to the pullback of the universal bundle. This classifying map can be used to define the Stiefel-Whitney class of L, in the first cohomology of X with Z/2Z coefficients, from a standard class on RP.

In an analogous way, the complex projective space CP carries a universal complex line bundle. In this case classifying maps give rise to the first Chern class of X, in H2(X) (integral cohomology).

There is a further, analogous theory with quaternionic (real dimension four) line bundles. This gives rise to one of the Pontryagin classes, in real four-dimensional cohomology.

In this way foundational cases for the theory of characteristic classes depend only on line bundles. According to a general splitting principle this can determine the rest of the theory (if not explicitly).

There are theories of holomorphic line bundles on complex manifolds, and invertible sheaves in algebraic geometry, that work out a line bundle theory in those areas.