How Many Countries Are There?

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Ask someone how many countries there are in the world, and the answer might surprise you. In fact, although they may hazard a wild guess, they may not be entirely wrong.

There are a few different answers to this question, depending on who you ask and where you ask the question.

What is the Definition of a Country?

Let’s start with what defines a country. In reality, there isn’t a standard definition of what is a country [1].

A country could be defined as a place that has a permanent population, exists in a specific geographical area, and is able to govern itself with functional political structures.

Map showing a cropped view of central European countries.  Map: Natural Earth Data.
Map showing a cropped view of central European countries. Map: Natural Earth Data.

A country could also be a group of people with a common cultural background, identity, and traditions.

A sovereign nation or state needs to have the ability to make treaties, conduct trade, and operate diplomatically with other countries; essentially, it needs a functioning government. 

So, although a group of people may identify themselves as belonging to a certain place, they may not be considered a country if they do not occupy any territory or land. Additionally, a country might have land but not have a functioning government, which makes other nations unable to conduct foreign relations with it. 

How Many Countries Does the United Nations Recognize?

According to the United Nations, the body organized to uphold the rights of people around the globe, a new country has to be recognized by other states who are members of the United Nations before it is considered a country.

The recognition of a new state assumes that this new state is willing and able to assume diplomatic relations with other member countries of the United Nations. 

Flags representing member countries fly in front of United Nations Headquarters in New York. Photo: USAID, public domain
Flags representing member countries fly in front of United Nations Headquarters in New York. Photo: USAID, public domain

In most cases, the ultimate country count rests on the number of UN member states that are recognized by that international body. There are 193 members, which could imply that there are 193 countries [2]. And yet…..

There are 193 countries that are recognized members of the UN as well as two UN observer states. The two UN observer states are the Holy See (also known as the Vatican) and the Palestinian Authority. 

Additionally, there are six countries that have obtained partial recognition from UN member states. These are Taiwan, Western Sahara, Kosovo, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Northern Cyprus.

These territories are claimed by other countries but are not controlled by them. Depending on the type of map you look at, these countries will be surrounded by a dotted line rather than a solid one demarcating an independent nation from the countries around it. 

South Sudan was recognized as a country in 2011, which is the latest member nation to be admitted to the UN. 

The United Nations Membership List Doesn’t Account for All Countries

There are also some partially recognized states like the Cook Islands, which often act like independent countries but have not declared independence or shown interest in joining the UN.

There are only three self-declared nations that have not been recognized by any UN member states; they are Somaliland, Transnistria, and Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh). 

Map showing the self-declared nation of Transnistria.  Map made with Natural Earth Data.
Map showing the self-declared nation of Transnistria. Map made with Natural Earth Data.

So, if all of these countries are added together, there are 201 countries in the world.

But we’re not done! Still, depending on who you ask, there could be up to 249 countries on Earth. On a complete list of country codes you will find 249 nations listed, because dependent territories and self-declared nations are included.

There are also 206 nations that compete in the Olympics, 211 nations that are able to play in the FIFA World Cup, and a total of 204-207 self-declared nations [3]. 

So, in the end, the answer to the question of how many countries there are in the world remains a question with many different possible answers. 

References

[1] Rose, A. K. (2006). Size really doesn’t matter: In search of a national scale effect. Journal of the Japanese and international Economies20(4), 482-507. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jjie.2006.06.008

[2] United Nations. About UN Membership. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/en/sections/member-states/about-un-membership/index.html

[3] Bender, J. (2014, September 24). Here Are The Self-Declared Nations You Won’t See At The UN. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/the-self-declared-nations-you-wont-see-at-the-un-2014-9

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