Wednesday, March 29, 2023

How Many Countries Are There in the World in 2023?

This article, originally from 2011, has been revised and updated to March 2023. You can view older versions of the article in our archives. The main update from last year is the so-called Donetsk and Lugansk People's Republics no longer claiming to be independent countries.

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 simple 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, people, 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), the organization at the core of today's system of countries:

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

These countries mostly all agree that each other are sovereign states, and they're the ones you'll see on most world maps and lists of the world's countries. Almost every existing country you've ever heard of is a member of the UN. 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 well-maintained complete list.

This number hasn't changed in more than a decade. 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.

*Palestine's approval as a UN Observer State was controversial, and is rejected by many UN member countries, so some sources may leave it out and list only 194 total countries.

201 States With At Least Partial Recognition

Several more potential countries are left out of the UN itself, but are still officially acknowledged 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: 6
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 - or at least parts of them aren't. The number of UN members who recognize them varies, from just one for Northern Cyprus to about 100 for Kosovo.

The Donetsk People's Republic and Lugansk People's Republic aren't included on this list anymore, after they agreed to merge into Russia in late 2022 (much to the dismay of Ukraine, which most of the world still considers them to be part of).

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 almost-independent overseas territories of New Zealand. 

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

204 De Facto Sovereign States

But wait, there's more! Those six partially-recognized countries aren't the only so-called "breakaway states" that have declared independence without broad international acceptance. There are 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 technical term that means they're independent countries in actual fact, even if not on paper.

UN Members: 193
UN Observer States: 2
States With Partial Recognition: 6
Unrecognized de facto Sovereign States: 3
Total: 204

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 added to the list here, which are often considered de facto independent countries despite zero recognition from UN members, are Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), Transnistria, and Somaliland.

Our accounting no longer includes the so-called "Islamic State" (IS; formerly ISIS or ISIL), which made a plausible claim to independence from about 2014 to 2020. 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.

Meanwhile, tiny "micronations" declared by individual people usually aren't taken seriously enough to be put on the list. The closest contenders would probably be Sealand and 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 by the Olympic Parade of Nations claiming 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 almost-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. The other, Vatican City, participates as part of the Italian team for now. Countries can be suspended from participation in the Olympics from time to time, but they normally stay on the official list of Olympic Nations during their suspensions.

As for the two partially-recognized countries in the games, Kosovo became an Olympic Nation in 2014, and Taiwan has been a member for decades, 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 called 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.

That's because, 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 officially recognized by more than half of UN countries; 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 more than 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 some very small countries aren't members, plus the UK is excluded in favor of 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 the countries they belong to. 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 almost-independent states, overseas colonies, uninhabited island possessions, and even Antarctica! That's important because organizations might need a designation for any piece of land in the world that a person can be located on, 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

The two ISO codes corresponding to partially-recognized states are for Taiwan and Western Sahara, though technically the codes are just neutral designations for those areas, not for the governments that claim authority over them.

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!