Tuesday, February 2, 2021

How Many Countries Are There in the World in 2021?

This article, originally from 2011, has been revised and updated to February 2021. You can view some older versions of the article in our archives. Latest update: Removed the so-called "Islamic State" (ISIS/ISIL) as a "de facto state" candidate.

How many countries: map of the world
A world political map published by the US government.
One of the most basic questions for map-lovers is, "How many countries are there in the world?" But anyone who just gives you a number isn't telling the whole truth. It actually depends a lot on how you define a "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 normally 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 lists of the world's countries. Almost every country you've ever heard of is a member 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 time the number of full UN members changed was when South Sudan joined in 2011.

Note: Palestine's approval as a UN Observer State was controversial, so some sources may leave it out and list only 194 countries.

201 States With At Least Partial Recognition

Several more potential countries are left out of the UN itself, but are still officially accepted by at least one UN member (this kind of formal endorsement is called "diplomatic recognition", or just "recognition"). These controversially-proclaimed countries are usually labeled on world maps as disputed territories or special cases, if they're on the map at all.

Map of Serbia, Kosovo, and North Kosovo
Kosovo is recognized as independent by about 100 countries, but claimed by Serbia.

UN Members: 193
UN Observer States: 2
States With Partial Recognition:
Total: 201

The six non-UN states with partial recognition are Taiwan, Kosovo, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Northern Cyprus, and Western Sahara's Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. All of these are claimed by other countries, but aren't actually controlled by them - at least not completely. The number of UN members who recognize them varies, from just one for Northern Cyprus to about 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. They're usually considered to be highly self-governing overseas territories of New Zealand. 

See all PolGeoNow maps and news articles about partially-recognized countries

204-207 De Facto Sovereign States

But wait, there's more! Those six partially-recognized countries aren't the only so-called "breakaway states" with full self-governance. There are at least three more self-declared countries that aren't recognized by any UN members at all, but still operate independently from the countries that claim them. These, along with the partially-recognized countries, are often called "de facto" sovereign states -  a fancy Latin way of saying 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 5 (see below)
Total: 204 to 206

Nagorno-Karabakh control map, showing territorial claims and control after the Azerbaijan-Armenia war, including the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh. Updated to December 1, 2020, at the approximate time of completion of all Artsakh/Armenian withdrawals promised under the 2020 peace agreement. Colorblind accessible.
The self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh lost much of the territory it controlled after a 2020 war, but still exists.
The three places most often considered de facto independent countries despite zero recognition from UN members are Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), Transnistria, and Somaliland. And since 2014 there have been two more contenders for the list, the Donetsk People's Republic and the Lugansk People's Republic. These two self-proclaimed countries still aren't as well-established and organized as the others we've mentioned, but they've stuck around for almost seven years now, and are now often included on lists of de facto states.

This is the first year since 2014 that we're leaving off the so-called "Islamic State" (IS; formerly ISIS or ISIL) from our list. Though its fighters still dominate some remote areas, they don't seem to be consistently governing any populated places anymore after losing most of their territory in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. And though a supposedly IS-affiliated rebel group does now control part of Mozambique, it seems pretty clear that IS headquarters isn't actually involved in governing that area.

Meanwhile, tiny "micronations" declared by individual people usually aren't taken seriously enough to put on the list. The closest contenders would probably be Sealand or the Kingdom of Papaala, but it's debatable whether those tiny "nations" really count as having a territory, population, or government like a real country is supposed to.

There are also many rebel-held territories (and fully self-governing areas like Puntland state in Somalia) that aren't controlled by any country, but are left off the list because they don't claim to be independent. Their leaders agree in principle that they're part of another country, even if they disagree about who should be in charge or how the country should be governed.

See all PolGeoNow maps and news articles about completely or partially-unrecognized countries

206 Olympic Nations

Lots of people learn about the world's list of countries by watching the Olympic Games every two years. If that sounds like you, then you might be confused about why the Olympic Parade of Nations claims more than 200 members, even though your atlas only shows 195 countries.

That's 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) as "nations", and a couple of the partially-recognized states mentioned above have also managed it.

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 (like Puerto Rico) or the UK (like Bermuda). Some semi-independent "countries" like the Cook Islands (associated with New Zealand) and Aruba (a "constituent country" of the Netherlands) are included too.

Currently, every existing UN member country is also an Olympic Nation, with the latest addition, South Sudan, joining in August 2015.  The one UN Observer State that participates in the Olympics is Palestine - Vatican City is happy to participate as part of the Italian team for now

As for the two partially-recognized countries in the games, Kosovo 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.

Learn More: Parade of Nations: Which Countries Are (and Aren't) in the Olympics?


211 FIFA Countries Eligible for the World Cup

Soccer - or "football" as it's known in many countries - 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 super-fan, you might know there are 211 member countries that compete in FIFA matches (even though most don't make it to the World Cup). That's already more than the number of Olympic Nations, and definitely more than the total independent countries on most world maps.

Like the Olympics, FIFA didn't always require independence or international recognition of its members. Now it's a bit stricter, but any team that's already a member is allowed to stay. The two newest members, which joined in May 2016, both got in under special circumstances: Kosovo, a partially-recognized country, was voted in controversially after being accepted by more than half of the UN's members; and Gibraltar, an overseas territory of the UK, got a court order forcing FIFA to let it in, since it had already applied for membership before the current rules were made.

Based on European tradition, FIFA also allows England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland to compete as separate teams, even though they've all been part of the UK for over 200 years.
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 from 2014 of FIFA members that aren't recognized as independent countries by the UN

Teams of UN Member States: 186
Teams of UN Observer States: 1
Teams of Partially Recognized States: 2
Teams of UK Constituent Countries: 4
Teams of Dependent Territories: 18
Total FIFA Member Associations: 211

You might 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.

Learn More: Which Countries Are (and Aren't) Part of FIFA?

 

249 Country Codes in the ISO Standard List

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, technically known by the exciting name of ISO 3166-1. Lots of companies and other organizations adopt this standard list instead of 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 website 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 that aren't recognized by the UN, but then it makes up for it by listing dependent territories separately from their parent countries. In other words, the ISO list is more an answer to the question, "How many countries and territories in the world?" than "How many countries in the world?"

That means there are "country codes" not just for actual countries, but also for nearly-independent states, overseas colonies, uninhabited island territories, and even Antarctica! That's important because organizations might need an option for any piece of land in the world that a person can be located on, and many 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 194 countries in the world," remember that the real answer isn't so simple!

How many countries are there in the world? This infographic outlines the various possible answers to the question, based on the popular PolGeoNow article.
A quick-reference infographic for the answers in this article. Created by Stratfor in association with PolGeoNow. Note that the reference to "204-207 de facto sovereign states" is from before we removed the so-called "Islamic State" from the list.