As an example, consider air as it is heated or cooled. The velocity of the air at each point defines a vector field. While air is heated in a region, it expands in all directions, and thus the velocity field points outward from that region. The divergence of the velocity field in that region would thus have a positive value. While the air is cooled and thus contracting, the divergence of the velocity has a negative value.

In physical terms, the divergence of a vector field is the extent to which the vector field flux behaves like a source at a given point. It is a local measure of its "outgoingness" – the extent to which there are more of the field vectors exiting from an infinitesimal region of space than entering it. A point at which the flux is outgoing has positive divergence, and is often called a "source" of the field. A point at which the flux is directed inward has negative divergence, and is often called a "sink" of the field. The greater the flux of field through a small surface enclosing a given point, the greater the value of divergence at that point. A point at which there is zero flux through an enclosing surface has zero divergence.

If the gas is heated only at one point or small region, or a small tube is introduced which supplies a source of additional gas at one point, the gas there will expand, pushing fluid particles around it outward in all directions. This will cause an outward velocity field throughout the gas, centered on the heated point. Any closed surface enclosing the heated point will have a flux of gas particles passing out of it, so there is positive divergence at that point. However any closed surface not enclosing the point will have a constant density of gas inside, so just as many fluid particles are entering as leaving the volume, thus the net flux out of the volume is zero. Therefore the divergence at any other point is zero.

Since this definition is coordinate-free, it shows that the divergence is the same in any coordinate system. However it is not often used practically to calculate divergence; when the vector field is given in a coordinate system the coordinate definitions below are much simpler to use.

The divergence of the curl of any vector field (in three dimensions) is equal to zero:

This means that the divergence measures the rate of expansion of a unit of volume (a volume element) as it flows with the vector field.