The Number of Countries in the World

Politics comes into play

The World Expo 2010
Yi chan / Getty Images

The answer to the seemingly simple geographical question of "How many countries are there?" is that it depends on who's doing the counting. The United Nations, for example, recognizes 241 countries and territories. The United States, however, officially recognizes fewer than 200 nations. Ultimately, the best answer is that there are 196 countries in the world. Here's why.

United Nations Member States

There are 193 member states in the United Nations. This total is often cited inaccurately as the actual number of countries in the world; it's inaccurate because there are two other members with limited status. Both the Vatican (officially known as the Holy See), which is an independent nation, and the Palestinian Authority, which is a quasi-governmental body, have been granted permanent observer status at the United Nations. These two entities can take part in all official UN activities but cannot cast votes in the General Assembly.

Likewise, some nations or regions of the world have declared their independence and are recognized by a majority of UN member states yet are not part of the United Nations. Kosovo, a region of Serbia that declared independence in 2008, is one such example. 

Nations Recognized by the United States

The United States officially recognizes other nations through the State Department. As of May 2018, the State Department recognized 195 independent countries around the world. This list reflects the political agenda of the United States of America and its allies.

Unlike the United Nations, the United States maintains full diplomatic relations with Kosovo and the Vatican. However, one nation is missing from the State Department's list that should be on it.

The Nation That Isn't

The island of Taiwan, formally known as the Republic of China, meets the requirements for an independent country or state status. However, all but a handful of nations refuse to recognize Taiwan as an independent nation. The political reasons for this date back to the late 1940s, when the Republic of China was ousted from mainland China by Mao Tse Tung's communist rebels and ROC leaders fled to Taiwan. The communist People's Republic of China maintains that it has authority over Taiwan, and relations between the island and mainland have been strained.

Taiwan was actually a member of the United Nations (and even the Security Council) until 1971 when mainland China replaced Taiwan in the organization. Taiwan, which has the world's 29th-largest economy, continues to press for full recognition by others. But China, with its growing economic, military, and political clout, has largely been able to shape the dialogue on this issue. As a result, Taiwan cannot fly its own flag at international events such as the Olympics and must be referred to as Chinese Taipei in some diplomatic situations.

Territories, Colonies, and Other Non-Nations

Dozens of territories and colonies are sometimes erroneously called countries but don't count because they're governed by other countries. Places commonly confused as being countries include Puerto Rico, Bermuda, Greenland, Palestine, and Western Sahara. The components of the United Kingdom (Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England) are not fully independent countries, either, though they do enjoy a degree of autonomy. When dependent territories are included, the United Nations recognizes a total of 241 countries and territories. 

So How Many Countries Are There?

If you use the U.S. State Department's list of recognized nations and also include Taiwan, there are 196 countries in the world. The same number is reached if you count the UN voting members, its two permanent observers, and Taiwan. This is why 196 is probably the best current answer to the question.