The Difference Between a Country, State and Nation

Defining the Various Entities

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. Explore what defines a state, independent country, and a nation.

Simply put, the bare-bones definitions of the three terms follow:

  • A country is a nation with its own government, occupying a particular territory.
  • A state is a territory considered as a political community living within one system of government.
  • A nation is a large group of people that inhabit a specific territory and are connected by history, culture or another commonality.

The Difference Between a Country and a Nation

A country is a self-governing political entity. The term country can be used interchangeably with a state. A nation, however, is a tightly-knit group of people that share a common culture or background. 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 consists of the following traits and characteristics, such as it holding:

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

Entities That Are Not 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. There are at least five examples of entities that are not considered countries, such as:

Note that a "state" is usually referred to as 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, institution, religion and historical experience.

When a nation of people has 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" it has.

There are nations without States. For example, the Kurds are a stateless people. Other claims of stateless nations include the Sindhi, Yoruba, and Igbo people.