What is the Difference Between the Continental and Contiguous United States?

Caitlin Dempsey

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The United States of America (also referred to as the United States, USA, or the US) the third largest country in the world after Russia and China with a total land area of 3,796,742 square miles (9,833,520 square kilometers).

The actual geography of the United States is not comprised of one connected land area. The majority of the United States is located between the countries of Mexico and Canada. Alaska is separated from the lower 48 states and the District of Columbia by Canada.

Hawaii is located further west in the Pacific Ocean and there are the following commonwealths and territories: Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

A map with natural shaded relief of the United States with neighboring countries shown with a muted white overlay.
Map showing the 50 states and the District of Columbia for the United States. Map: Caitlin Dempsey, Natural Earth data. Map projection: North America Albers Equal Area Conic.

There are two geographical terms used to designate a portion of the United States: continental and contiguous.


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What is the continental United States?

On May 14, 1959, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names defined the continental United States as “the 49 States on the North American Continent and the District of Columbia…

Continental refers to these states as being part of the North American continent, along with the countries of Canada and Mexico.

This means that the state of Hawaii, which in an archipelago that lies about 2,500 miles west of California is not included in this geographic term for the United States. Commonwealths and territories of the United States are also not included.

The continental United States is sometimes referred to by the U.S. government as CONUS (a merge of continental and US).

A shaded relief map highlighting Alaska and the lower 48 states with the surrounding countries muted with a semitransparent white overlay.
Map showing the geographic extent of the continental United States. Map: Caitlin Dempsey, Natural Earth data.

What is the contiguous United States?

The contiguous United States is a geographic term that only includes the lower 48 states and the District of Columbia (more commonly known as Washington, D.C. or D.C.).

The majority of the land area of the United States is found in the contiguous U.S, with 83.65% of the country’s total area. This area is 3,119,885 square miles (8,080,470 square kilometers) in size.

Contiguous means adjacent or sharing a boundary with. Alaska, while on the same continent, is separated from the other 48 states on the mainland by Canada.

A very similar term, but not as common in usage, is the term “conterminous United States.”

Shaded relief map showing the 48 lower states and Washington D.C. with Canada and Mexico faded by a white semi-transparent overlay.
Map showing the geographic extent of the contiguous United States. Map: Caitlin Dempsey, Natural Earth data.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.