12 September, 2015

How Many Countries Are There in the World in 2015?

This article, originally from 2011, has been revised and updated to September 2015. (Latest update: South Sudan is now an Olympic Nation.)

How many countries in the world?
A world political map published by the U.S. government (public domain)
One of the most basic questions for map-lovers is, "How many countries are there in the world?" But anyone who replies with a simple number is leaving out part of the story. The fact is, the answer depends heavily on how you define "country".

Here are six of the most common answers, each correct in its own way:

195 Sovereign States According to the UN
"Country" and "nation" are casual words for what political scientists call a "sovereign state", meaning a place with its own borders and completely independent government. The question of which places count as sovereign states can be controversial, but for starters we can count all the member and observer countries of the United Nations (UN):

UN Members: 193
UN Observer States: 2
Total: 195

These countries mostly all accept each other as sovereign states, and they're the ones you'll see on most world maps and many lists of the world's countries. Most of the countries you've ever heard of are probably members of the UN, and the two UN Observer States are Vatican City (represented by the Holy See) and Palestine. If you want to know the names of all 195, Wikipedia has a complete list.

The last addition to the list was in 2012, when Palestine became a UN Observer State, and the last country to join the UN as a full member was South Sudan in 2011.

Note: Palestine's status as a UN Observer State is controversial, so some lists may still only include 194 countries.

201 States With At Least Partial Recognition
Several more country candidates are left out of the UN itself, but are still officially acknowledged by at least one UN member (this kind of official acceptance is called "diplomatic recognition"). These controversial countries are usually labeled on world maps as disputed territories or special situations, if they're on the map at all.

Map of Serbia, Kosovo, and North Kosovo
Kosovo is claimed by Serbia, but recognized as independent by over 100 countries.
UN Members: 193
UN Observer States: 2
States With Partial Recognition:
Total: 201

The six non-UN states with partial recognition are Taiwan, Western Sahara, Kosovo, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Northern Cyprus. All of these are claimed as parts of other countries, but aren't actually controlled by them (at least not completely). The number of UN members recognizing them varies, from just one for Northern Cyprus to over 100 for Kosovo.

A few lists also include the Cook Islands and Niue as partially-recognized states. These two places sometimes act like independent countries, but they've never actually declared independence or tried to join the UN, and are usually considered overseas territories of New Zealand.

204-207 De Facto Sovereign States
But wait, there's more! Those six partially recognized countries aren't the only breakaway states with full self-governance. There are at least three more declared countries that aren't recognized by any UN members at all, but still operate independently from the countries that claim them. These are often called "de facto" sovereign states, a fancy Latin way of saying that they're independent countries in actual fact, even if not on paper.

UN Members: 193
UN Observer States: 2
States With Partial Recognition:
Unrecognized de facto Sovereign States: 3 to 6 (see below)
Total: 204 to 207

The three places most often considered de facto independent countries are Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, and Somaliland. And since 2014 there are three more contenders for the list: the Islamic State, the Donetsk People's Republic, and the Lugansk People's Republic. But because these last three are located in active war zones and have only limited government structures, there's some debate over whether they count even as de facto countries.

Tiny "micronations" declared by individual people are usually not taken seriously enough to count on the list. The closest contender would be Sealand, but it's debatable whether this tiny "nation" really counts as having a territory, population, or government, all key ingredients for a sovereign state.

There are also many rebel-held territories (and fully self-governing areas like Puntland) that aren't controlled by any country, but are left off the list because they aren't trying to become independent countries. They agree in principle to be part of the country they're in, even though they might disagree about who should be in charge or how the country should be governed.

206 Olympic Nations
Lots of people learn about the world's list of countries by watching the Olympic Games every two years. If you're one of them, you might be confused at why the Olympic Parade of Nations claims over 200 members, even though your atlas only has 195.

This is because the Olympics didn't always require applicants to be independent countries. Dependent territories with partial self-government have sometimes been approved by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and a couple of the partially-recognized states mentioned above have also managed this.

Olympic Nations that are UN Member States: 193
Olympic Nations that are UN Observer States: 1
Olympic Nations that are Partially-recognized States: 2
Olympic Nations that are Dependent Territories: 10
Total IOC-Recognized Olympic Nations: 206

World map showing the five continental associations of National Olympic Committees, including all nations eligible for the Olympic games
The Olympics include most of the world's independent countries, and some dependent territories too.
About half of the dependent territories in the Olympics are overseas possessions of the US (such as Puerto Rico) and of the UK (such as Bermuda), and some nearly-independent "countries" such as the Cook Islands (New Zealand) and Aruba (the Netherlands) are included as well.

Every UN member country is also in the Olympics, with the latest addition, South Sudan, joining in August 2015.  The one UN Observer State in the Olympics is Palestine; Vatican City isn't interested. As for the two partially-recognized IOC members, Kosovo just became an Olympic Nation in 2014, and Taiwan has been a member for some time, but has to call itself  "Chinese Taipei" after a deal struck with China in the 1980s.

See Also: Parade of Nations: Which Countries Are (and Aren't) in the Olympics

209 FIFA Countries Eligible for the World Cup
Soccer, or football as it's known outside North America, is the world's most popular sport, and most international matches all the way up to the World Cup are regulated by an organization called FIFA. If you're a soccer superfan, you might know there are 209 member countries that compete in FIFA matches (though most don't make it to the World Cup). This is even more than the number of Olympic Nations, and certainly more than the number of independent countries on most world maps.

Like the Olympics, FIFA didn't always require independence or international recognition of its member states. Now it's a bit stricter, but any team that's already a member is allowed to stay. And based on European tradition, FIFA allows England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland to compete as separate teams, even though they're all part of the UK.
World map marking dependent territories, partially recognized sovereign states, and subnational entities that have national football (soccer) teams recognized by FIFA, making them eligible for the World Cup.
Map of FIFA members that aren't recognized as independent countries by the U.N.

Teams of UN Member States: 186
Teams of UN Observer States: 1
Teams of Partially Recognized States: 1
Teams of UK Constituent Countries: 4
Teams of Dependent Territories: 17
Total FIFA Member Associations: 209

You may notice that not all of the 193 UN member states are included. That's because several very small countries aren't members, plus the UK is replaced by its four "constituent countries", which aren't UN members on their own.

See Also: Which Countries Are (and Aren't) Part of FIFA?

249 Country Codes in the ISO Standard List
Have you ever been filling out an internet form, and had to choose from a surprisingly long list of countries? You were probably looking at the international standard "country code" list, officially known as ISO 3166-1. Many companies and other organizations adopt this standard list rather than spending their own time compiling one. The standard also includes convenient two-letter codes for each country, like us for the United States, de for Germany, and jp for Japan, which you might recognize from web addresses specific to those countries.

This ISO standard is based on an official list kept by the UN....but then why on Earth are there 249 country codes? That's way more than the total number of UN member and observer countries! Well, the standard list does leave out some breakaway states not recognized by the UN, but makes up for it by listing dependent territories separately from their mother countries. So there are country codes not only for actual countries, but also for nearly-independent states, overseas territories, uninhabited islands, and even Antarctica! This is important because organizations might need an option for every place that any person is located, and dependent territories often aren't technically part of the countries they belong to.

UN Members: 193
UN Observer States: 2
States With Partial Recognition:
Inhabited Dependent Territories: 45
Uninhabited Territories: 6
Antarctica: 1
Total: 249

So there you have it! Next time someone tells you "There are X countries in the world," remember that the real answer isn't so simple!