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How many countries are there in the world? This seems like a really easy question to answer, but, suprisingly, counting the countries involved a complex and interwoven game of history, politics, and culture.
If you’ve traveled heavily, you have probably tried to convey the extent of your travels by condensing it down to a single number. It might be the number of countries you’ve visited or the number of states or provinces in your country you’ve seen.
Determining how many countries there are in the world is not as straightforward as it may appear because while many countries are obvious—you can probably name 20+ clearly defined countries off the top of your head—the actual definition of a country can be slippery and broader than you might think.
Countries in The United Nations
A good place to start any list of countries is with the UN. The United Nations is a body of 193 sovereign independent nation states. This covers everything you probably first think of as a country: Canada, Bolivia, Germany, Botswana, Malaysia, etc.
Most of the big spots on the map can be filled in with countries that are members of the UN. The only country that is generally recognized as an independent nation but is not in the UN would be Vatican City, which has observer status at the UN. So according to the UN, this puts the list of countries at: 193.
Here is a complete list of all of the countries in the United Nations as of 2019:
Antigua & Barbuda
Bosnia & Herzegovina
Central African Republic
Papua New Guinea
Saint Kitts & Nevis
Saint Vincent & the Grenadines
Sao Tome & Principe
Trinidad & Tobago
United Arab Emirates
United States of America
The UN doesn’t cover everywhere, however. If you watched the opening ceremony at the Olympics, you will have noticed that over 200 countries were represented.
Basic math tells us that 200 is greater than 193, and the Vatican doesn’t have an Olympic team (but it would be kind of cool if it did). This leads us to …
Countries Defined by the International Olympic Committee
There are 206 members of the IOC as of 2019. The difference between the UN and the IOC is that the IOC includes several non-independent countries, most of which are usually considered a territory of a larger country—most of these fall under territories of the United States, territories of the UK, or French territories. Notable ones include such places as Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Cook Island, and the British Virgin Islands. The IOC also includes Taiwan (known in the IOC as Chinese Taipei) which is not a member of the United Nations.
If you merge the list of the UN and the IOC, you still have some issues. Hong Kong is part of the IOC, but Macau isn’t. American territories have independent status in the IOC, but French territories such as French Polynesia do not. Antarctica isn’t represented on either list, but it is an entire continent you can visit.
My thoughts: We need a bigger list.
These are the 13 places that are members of the International Olympic Committee, but are not in the United Nations:
US Virgin Islands
Even this list isn’t complete, however. Some countries are de facto independent countries but aren’t recognized by anyone else. They control their own territory, have their own currency, run elections and everything else a country does, except they don’t have relations with anyone else.
There are also additional territories that are not in international organizations like the IOC. Territories like Gibraltar, French Polynesia, Greenland, Curacao, and even Antarctica are distinct geographical places, but are not listed as “countries” on any of the above lists.
That brings us to …
Countries of the Travelers’ Century Club
The Travelers’ Century Club has taken it upon themselves to create a definitive list of “countries” for the purpose of travel. They not only include all of the above places, but also split off Alaska and Hawaii, Siberia from the rest of Russia, all the Emirates in the United Arab Emirates, the major island groups of Indonesia, the nations of the UK (England, Scotland, and Wales), Tasmania from the rest of Australia, etc.
This list has 327 “countries,” and I put countries in quotes because most of them do not meet most people’s definition of a country.
However, this is the list I use on my website. I think it is a reasonable list that covers most of the “places” on Earth—it pays homage to distinct cultural groups (always important for international travelers), landmasses, and more. Although I do have some disagreements with their list, ultimately any list is sort of arbitrary and my disagreements are small enough that I still feel comfortable using it.
Every so often I get an email from someone telling me that Hawaii isn’t a country (duh) or reminding me that Tasmania is part of Australia.
I know that, but that isn’t really capturing the spirit of the list.
Where do you go once you’ve been to every place on the TCC list? That was answered by Charles Veley and …
Countries of MTP.travel
Charles Veley was at one time the self-proclaimed “Most traveled person on Earth.” Actually, I have no reason to quibble with that title. He put in a helluva lot of effort into completing the TCC list, and he then set out for more. His website, mtp.travel goes even further than the TCC and lists every US state, Canadian province, and region of Russia, Australia, China, and Brazil. It also goes the added step of merging the ham radio DXCC list, which is where the list begins to lose me. That list has 873 places, of which I’ve been to 383 (as of 2019).
Many of the places they list I have no desire to ever visit—it focuses too much on uninhabited islands, exclaves, and enclaves. For example, it lists Johnston Atoll, which is a territory of the United States in the Pacific. There is nothing special about this place. No one ever lived there, it has no history, culture, or anything interesting about it from a natural standpoint. It’s just a place that is only remarkable because of its odd political status. If it were given to Hawaii, nothing about the atoll itself would change, but it would probably be removed from the list.
A bunch of these rocks in the middle of nowhere are listed and I really see no reason why every speck of land in the world doesn’t deserve listing if these places do. It might be interesting for ham radio operators to talk to someone from there, but as a travel destination, it isn’t worth anything.
To me, a place is a place because it has some significance. It could be political (see the UN list), it could be cultural, historic, or natural. That’s why in my sidebar I also take note of every one of these types of places that I visit. Such as the:
UNESCO World Heritage Sites
There are 1,092 World Heritage Sites in the world, and more are listed every year. Going to see the pyramids is different than just having set foot in Egypt. Seeing the Grand Canyon is different than having an overnight stay in Las Vegas.
Not all countries are equal in this respect. Some countries with long histories have more sites than others. The US and Canada don’t have much in the way of cultural sites compared to Italy or China, but each one does have a large number of natural sites recognized for biodiversity. Ultimately, I like using these UNESCO sites better than a country list because it represents specific things and places with a reason for each one.
Also, unlike countries, you usually don’t just pass through a World Heritage site like you might pass through a country on a train or in an airport. If you visit one you, probably went there to see it. The problem is, most people have no clue how many they’ve been to and have no idea how many there are in the world. Many of these sites are also much more difficult to visit. Going to the Solomon Islands is one type of difficult. Going to the east end of Rennell Island World Heritage site is a totally different type of hard.
So, once again I ask you the question: How many countries are there in the world?
You tell me!