Like many other avid travelers, I’m on a mission to visit as many new countries as possible before I get too old and wobbly. I like the excitement of visiting a new place– seeing its art, eating its food and soaking up the local atmosphere. I look forward figuring out how to navigate an unfamiliar place. And because I’m a goal-oriented person, I like to count up where I’ve been and keep track of it on a google map (which you can view on my about page). All of that goal-setting and country-counting is great but it gets complicated when you stop to really ask yourself how many countries are in the world.
This came to mind during a recent conversation with my brother-in-law. He travels a lot for work and is always keen to tack on a few extra days to explore. He likes to travel fast and hit the highlights so a recent itinerary for him involved working in Japan, taking in Kyoto and Hiroshima and then dashing off to Beijing and the Great Wall before heading home. He also eats bugs-on-a-stick and doesn’t mind a dodgy border crossing if it will save him a visa fee but I’ll save that story for another post. Suffice to say that he is well traveled. When we were talking about counting up countries, he scoffed at counting the many small territories that comprise the Caribbean. He felt that, as territories, they weren’t real countries. Well, I’ve certainly have been counting them on my list, but the conversation got me thinking of the various ways that one might think about defining a country.
I’m trying to visit 2-3 new countries per year as part of my 60×60 project to have sixty epic travel experiences before I’m sixty.
How Many Countries in the World?
That depends upon whose counting. There are 193 member states of the UN. But if you are willing to count independent territories, dependent territories, special administrative regions, constituent countries, divisions, overseas collectives, disputed states, sort of autonomous indigenous areas and micronations then the list goes waaay up.
The Wikipedia entries that try to sort out this global morass are rather complicated. But they do have a page listing the 193 UN member states. They have another page listing the 66 territories. The 10 disputed states, I cobbled together from their list of “states with limited recognition”, but I only included those that weren’t already in the UN. There is also a list compiled by the Travelers Century Club that lists 325 countries and other locations that are “geographically, politically or ethnologically removed” from the parent country. While conducting this research, I found some interesting things that are worth considering if you are a country counter.
- The Travelers Century list is the largest, and the most forgiving list for country counters. They consider a geographically distant landmass as a separate “territory” from the mother country. So they will credit you with Alaska (US), Hawaii (US), Papua (Indonesia), the Galapagos (Ecuador) and Tasmania (Australia). My gut reaction would be to include Alaska and Hawaii into the US umbrella. But the Hawaiians and Alaskan Inuit do indeed have their own languages and there is a separatist movement brewing in Hawaii. So perhaps the Travelers Century is onto something.
- The Vatican is not part of the UN. Nor are they a territory or protectorate of any other country. They are just their own thing. But San Marino, another city-state fully enveloped by Italy, is in the UN. So do they both count? I say yes.
- Some of those Caribbean islands that Scott dismissed are indeed territories of the US, UK, Germany, France or the Netherlands. But many others are members of the UN including: Antigua, Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Jamaica, Cuba (although you need to really prepare for that one), St Kitts, Sant Lucia, Saint Vincent/Grenadines and Trinadad/Tobago. I’m counting all of them, territories and UN countries alike.
- Regarding disputed states: the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic had declared independence from Moldova in 1990 but it is neither in the UN nor on the Travelers Century list. The most notable disputed state includes Taiwan which is currently petitioning to rejoin the UN. I’ve never visited Taiwan but my dog was born there so her list includes it.
- Most travelers think of Antarctica as one continent/country. But there are territorial claims in the region from Argentina, Australia, Chile, Norway, France and New Zealand. And if you ask the British, they will claim the Falkland islands but Argentina is holding out hope to reclaim the “Malvinas”. So if you’ve been to Antarctica, do you count 1 or did you count 7?
- Wikipedia also has an entry of “micronations” that reads like a most-wanted poster of eccentric secessionists and whackadoodles. Of course, Texas has two entries on the list because it has delusions of grandeur. But you can also visit the Conch Republic of Key West Florida, Kugelmugel dome shaped house in Vienna and the Global Country of World Peace, a borderless state created for “loving people everywhere”. I like that one. I think I’ll go there as soon as I finish publishing this piece.
Here are a few of the non-UN but Travelers Century listed that I’ve been in the past few years: Bonaire, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland,
And What About Those other Sorta-Autonomous Places?
There are other places in the world where the local population enjoys a degree of autonomy from the parent country. Where they have a defined territory, their own laws, language and cultural traditions. For instance, the Navajo Nation of the southwestern US or the Gunas of the San Blas islands in Panama. Does visiting there “count” as a new country? According to all of the various lists above, the answer would be NO. But as I was visiting the Navajo Nation recently, I put the question to my Navajo Guide. For starters, they call themselves the Diné (pronounced din-ayy), which serves to remind visitors that colonialist anglo-spanish cultural assumptions never really worked for the locals. My guide introduces himself first as a Diné and then as an American and he considers himself both. But when I asked him if I could count my visit as a “new country” he was unsure. While there, I took some great pictures of Antelope Canyon so I’ll claim all of the likes that my rad pics will garner on Instagram (follow me there please) but I’m not sure I can count it as a country.
How Other Well-Traveled Bloggers Count Countries
If you ask other travel bloggers how many countries are in the world, you will also get a myriad of answers.
- Chris Guillebeau set a 10-year goal to visit all 193 countries in the world. Sounds like he’s using the UN list. But he also mentioned in a post that he was deported from Eritrea before he got out of the airport. So does Eritrea count? His loyal readers cut him slack on that one and he completed his goal in 2014.
- Wandering Earl, whose name is really Derek, has a very popular blog and runs a tour company with some cool itineraries. His list boasts 88 countries, all of which appear to be on the UN list. But the page itself says that there are “200+ countries and territories out there”. So maybe he’s willing to go with 259 UN member states + territories?? According to his list, he hasn’t made it to the US or British Virgin Islands territories yet. Derek- go there- the snorkeling is spectacular.
- Gary Arndt is a travel photographer who sold his business and spend the next 8 years traveling the world. His photography is really great– after you get done following me on Instagram, you should follow him as well. That Gary, he’s a real counter. He uses the Travelers Century Club list for his count of 177 countries and territories and has also bagged all 50 US states (Hawaii and Alaska counting twice), 350+ UNESCO World Heritage sites and is working on all of the national parks in the US and Canada.
What’s the Point of All of This?
Despite all of this math, the true point is to just get out there into the world. The point is to get out of your comfort zone. The point is to eat bugs-on-sticks and have someone speak to you in Navajo. Whether or not you consider Vatican City its own country, it is worth a visit to see the Pieta and embrace the mystical properties of the site, as I did. Puerto Rico’s old town felt foreign enough to me even though I was on American soil. Aim for new and diverse experiences and you will be the richer for it.
Please share with me here or on Facebook–How many countries have you visited? And what are your guidelines for choosing and counting a new destination?
Wednesday 15th of May 2019
This is a really great article and has approached the subject that has been troubling me for some time. I've been travelling on and off for almost 30 years and have been fast approaching the 100 country count. I'd be over it if I included Western Sahara, Gibraltar, Palestine, Hong Kong and Macau but apparently I can't! It is confusing. I count Vatican city although to me it is a suburb of Rome but then the UK is counted as one nation when it is quite distinctly 4 different countries. It is down to personal opinion I suppose and the discussion could go on forever. What I do know is that the world is a beautiful and diverse place and as I like to spend at least a month in each nation I visit, it's probably going to take me at least another 20 years to see the rest of it and probably a lot more. Around the world in 80 years... I like the sound of that!
Wednesday 15th of May 2019
That sounds like a great idea. Count whatever you want!
The Barefoot Backpacker
Wednesday 5th of April 2017
I don't do lists. As it's remarkably complicated!
I have a side-plan to send a letter to someone in the world from every country I visit. I started in Spring 2014, and third 'country' (after Romania and Moldova) was Transnistria. On the letter I sent, I marked it as "Country #2½". :p
My definition of "country" is very broad. It's simply "does the entity consider itself 'de facto' an independent state, regardless of the 'de jure' position?". Transnistria counts, for me, under that system, as do a whole myriad of other disputed territories. I'd also consider Palestine a separate 'state' as it is administered differently, although I wouldn't consider decentralised countries as composing of separate 'entities', so for me Scotland, the German Länder, or the US States wouldn't be separate. The jury's still out on the likes of Gibraltar, the Channel Islands, Anguilla, French Polynesia, and New Caledonia, but ...
... I'd also further consider a 'are these places sufficiently different enough from their parent state?' as a criteria. French Guiana is not a country, but I'd probably count it as a separate destination under this criteria; ditto New Caledonia/French Polynesia/Gibraltar etc (but again, probably not the Channel Islands). I wouldn't ever consider Tasmania as a separate entity under either rule though.
One issue this has brought to light in my mind though is the status of Somaliland. On the one hand I consider it as definitely separate to Somalia, however on the other, due to the instability of the latter, you can bet your life that when I go to Somaliland, I'll be claiming it as both Somaliland and Somalia!! Inconsistent, heh?!
Monday 10th of April 2017
That's exactly what makes this an interesting question. I haven't been to Transnistria. But I have been to the Navajo Nation in Arizona. And they are semi-autonomous but have their own very distinct language and culture. Does it count? Thinking of things in this way is not just an excuse for ticking off a list, but it also encourages me to visit those little **independent** places that might otherwise be overlooked.
Saturday 27th of February 2016
I use the TCC list because, from a travel standpoint, the UN list just leaves too much off.
Travelers visit places. How the world might be divided politically doesn't reflect what cultural and geographic differences exist in different places. It isn't so much defining what a "country" is, so much as defining what a place is, and finding a reasonable balance.
Antarctica is a place. It is a rather large place, comprising one of the 7 continents and 10% of the Earth's land mass. It is a place you can visit even though it isn't a country in any sense of the word.
When considering the world's geopolitics, it is safe to ignore Antarctica. However, if you are considering places you can visit as a traveler, you can't ignore Antarctica. It is too big and too important.
Likewise, there are numerous islands and territories which don't quite fit into the conventional mold. When someone says they are going to France, they usually mean the hexagonal shaped country in Europe where they eat baguets and cheese. They probably are not referring to a giant swath of rainforest in South America. Nonetheless, French Guyana is an integral part of France in the same way that Hawaii is part of the United States.
Politically French Guyana is France. However, traveling there is a whole other experience from traveling to European France.
That is why I use the TCC list. It (attempts) to reflect reality for travelers, not politics.
The TCC list is not perfect. I don't know of anyone who agrees with it fully. I personally think that Wake Island, Midway Island and BIOT should be removed as travelers cannot go there. I also see no reason to subdivide Antarctica. There are other small quibbles I have.
Nonetheless, the TCC is a 3rd-party list which has gained general acceptance over the years. It does adapt and change with circumstances.
Saturday 27th of February 2016
Thanks for your comment. For my travels, I had been looking at it from a UN countries +territories point of view. The TCC list is certainly broader and to your point, accounts for geographic and cultural diversity. Regardless, I'm only at 30-38ish (depending on how you do the math). Plenty of the world left for me to see.