Country, State, and Nation

Definining an Independent Country

Kosovo flag
Kosovo became a new independent country on February 17, 2008. Carsten Koall/Getty Images

While the terms country, state, and nation are often used interchangeably, there is a difference.

What's the Difference Between a Country and a Nation?

A country is a self-governing political entity. The term country can be used interchangeably with State (note the capital "S").

A nation, however, is a tightly-knit group of people that share a common culture. Nations do not necessarily live within a single country; however, a nation-state is a nation which has the same borders as a State.

States and Independent Countries

Let's start with what defines a State or an independent country. An independent State:

  • Has space or territory which has internationally recognized boundaries (boundary disputes are OK).
  • Has people who live there on an ongoing basis.
  • Has economic activity and an organized economy. A country regulates foreign and domestic trade and issues money.
  • Has the power of social engineering, such as education.
  • Has a transportation system for moving goods and people.
  • Has a government which provides public services and police power.
  • Has sovereignty. No other State should have power over the country's territory.
  • Has external recognition. A country has been "voted into the club" by other countries.

There are currently 196 independent countries or States around the world. Territories of countries or individual parts of a country are not countries in their own right.

Examples of entities that are not countries include: Hong Kong, Bermuda, Greenland, Puerto Rico, and most notably the constituent parts of the United Kingdom.

(Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and England are not countries.)

A "state" (with a lower-case "s") is usually a division of a federal State (such as the states of the United States of America).

Nations and Nation-States

Nations are culturally homogeneous groups of people, larger than a single tribe or community, which share a common language, institutions, religion, and historical experience.

When a nation of people have a State or country of their own, it is called a nation-state. Places like France, Egypt, Germany, and Japan are excellent examples of nation-states. There are some States which have two nations, such as Canada and Belgium. Even with its multicultural society, the United States is also referred to as a nation-state because of the shared American "culture."

There are nations without States. For example, the Kurds are a stateless people.