The Difference Between a Country, State, and Nation

Some Entities Are Defined By Culture Rather Than Geography

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

While the terms country, state, sovereign state, nation, and nation-state are often used interchangeably, there is a difference. Simply put:

  • A state is a territory with its own institutions and populations.
  • A sovereign state is a state with its own institutions and populations which has a permanent population, territory, and government. It must also have the right and capacity to make treaties and other agreements with other states.
  • A nation is a large group of people that inhabit a specific territory and are connected by history, culture or another commonality.
  • A nation-state is a cultural group (a nation) that is also a state (and may, in addition, be a sovereign state).

The word country can be used to mean the same thing as state, sovereign state, or nation-state. It can also be used in a less political manner to refer to a region or cultural area that has no governmental status. Examples include Wine Country (the grape-growing area of northern California) and Coal Country (the coal-mining region of Pennslyvania).

Qualities of a Sovereign State

State, nation, and country are all terms to describe groups of people who live in the same place and have a great deal in common. But while states and sovereign states are political entities, nations and countries may or may not be. A sovereign state (sometimes called an independent state) has the following qualities:

  • Space or territory which has internationally recognized boundaries
  • People who live there on an ongoing basis.
  • Regulations governing foreign and domestic trade
  • The ability to issue legal tender that is recognized across boundaries
  • An internationally recognized government which provides public services and police power and has the right to make treaties, wage war, and take other actions on behalf of its people
  • Sovereignty, meaning that no other state should have power over the country's territory.

There are many geographic entities that have some but not all of the qualities that make up a There are presently 195 sovereign states in the world (197 by some counts); 193 are members of the United Nations (the United Nations excludes Palestine and the Holy See). Two other entities, Taiwan and Kosovo, are recognized by some but not all members of the United Nations.

Entities That Are Not Sovereign States

There are many entities that have geographical and cultural significance and many of the qualities of a sovereign state but which are not, in fact, independent sovereign states. These include territories, non-sovereign states, and nations.

Non-Sovereign States

Territories of sovereign states are not sovereign states in their own right. There are many entities that have most qualities of sovereign states but are officially considered to be sovereign. Many have their own histories, and some even have their own languages. Examples include:

The word "state" is also used to refer to geographic sections of sovereign states which have their own governments but which are subject to the larger federal government. The 50 United States are non-sovereign states.

Nations

Nations are culturally homogeneous groups of people which share a common language, institution, religion, and/or historical experience. Some nations are sovereign states, but many are not; some of those nations that hold territory but are not sovereign states include:

  • The Indian Nations of the United States
  • Bosnia
  • Catalonia (in northern Spain)
  • Quebec
  • Corsica
  • Sicily
  • Tibet

In addition to nations that are non-sovereign states, it can be argued that there are nations that govern no territory at all. For example, the Sindhi, Yoruba, Rohingya, and Igbo people share histories, cultures, and language but have no territory. There are some States which have two nations, such as Canada and Belgium.

Nation-States

When a nation of people has a sovereign state of their own, it is called a nation-state. Populations living in nation-states share a history, language, ethnicity, and culture (though, of course, most nation-states now include populations of immigrants who do not share the local culture). Places like Iceland and Japan are excellent examples of nation-states: the vast majority of people born in those nation-states share the same ancestry and culture.