Abstract Background Air pollution epidemiological studies are increasingly using global positioning system (GPS) to collect time-location data because they offer continuous tracking, high temporal resolution, and minimum reporting burden for participants. However, substantial uncertainties in the processing and classifying of raw GPS data create challenges for reliably characterizing time activity patterns. We developed and evaluated models to classify people's major time activity patterns from continuous GPS tracking data. Methods We developed and evaluated two automated models to classify major time activity patterns (i.e., indoor, outdoor static, outdoor walking, and in-vehicle travel) based on GPS time activity data collected under free living conditions for 47 participants (N = 131 person-days) from the Harbor Communities Time Location Study (HCTLS) in 2008 and supplemental GPS data collected from three UC-Irvine research staff (N = 21 person-days) in 2010. Time activity patterns used for model development were manually classified by research staff using information from participant GPS recordings, activity logs, and follow-up interviews. We evaluated two models: (a) a rule-based model that developed user-defined rules based on time, speed, and spatial location, and (b) a random forest decision tree model. Results Indoor, outdoor static, outdoor walking and in-vehicle travel activities accounted for 82.7%, 6.1%, 3.2% and 7.2% of manually-classified time activities in the HCTLS dataset, respectively. The rule-based model classified indoor and in-vehicle travel periods reasonably well (Indoor: sensitivity > 91%, specificity > 80%, and precision > 96%; in-vehicle travel: sensitivity > 71%, specificity > 99%, and precision > 88%), but the performance was moderate for outdoor static and outdoor walking predictions. No striking differences in performance were observed between the rule-based and the random forest models. The random forest model was fast and easy to execute, but was likely less robust than the rule-based model under the condition of biased or poor quality training data. Conclusions Our models can successfully identify indoor and in-vehicle travel points from the raw GPS data, but challenges remain in developing models to distinguish outdoor static points and walking. Accurate training data are essential in developing reliable models in classifying time-activity patterns.