What is a country, and how is a country defined?

When people ask how many countries there are in the world,they expect a simple answer. After all, we've explored the whole planet, we have international travel, satellite navigation and plenty of global organizations like the United Nations, so we should really know how many countries there are!

However, the answer to the question varies according to whom you ask. Most people say there are 192 countries, but others point out that there could be more like 260 of them.

So why isn't there a straight forward answer?

The problem arises because there isn't a universally agreed definition of 'country' and because, for political reasons, some countries find it convenient to recognize or not recognize other countries.

For example, Taiwan claims to be a country, but China states that Taiwan is just another part of China. The consequence is that the USA, that doesn't want to upset China, doesn't recognize Taiwan as a country. Conversely, from the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union annexed the countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania but the USA continued to regard them as independent countries that were 'occupied' because it didn't really get on with the USSR.

So, how do governments define what makes a country?

There are three terms you come across when you try to discover how countries are defined.
These are ...

The Montevideo Convention

Constitutive theory of statehood

Declarative theory of statehood


1. The Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States was a treaty signed at Montevideo, Uruguay, on December 26 1933.

The convention set out the definition, rights and duties of statehood. Most well-known is Article 1, which set out four criteria for statehood, as quoted below.

The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications:

(a) a permanent population;

(b) a defined territory;

(c) government; and

(d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.

Article 3 of the Convention also declares that statehood is independent of recognition by other states, so a country can exist even if other countries don't recognize it.

2. The Declarative theory of statehood is based on the 4 criteria specified in the Montevideo Convention.

3. The constitutive theory of statehood defines a state or country as a person of international law if, and only if, it is recognized as sovereign by other states. This means that so long as enough other countries recognize you as a country, you ARE a country, even if you don't have control over your territory or a permanent population.


So, you can see that the two definitions allow for different numbers of countries to exist.

Today a common way to define a country is to avoid these two definitions and say that if it's a member of the United Nations, it's a country. However, the Holy See, or Vatican, isn't a member of the United Nations, but it certainly is a country. The United Kingdom is a member of the United Nations, but the countries of England, Scotland and Ireland aren't, so by the UN rule, they aren't countries.

That of course goes against what the UK government states on the Prime Minister's web site, where it declares that " The United Kingdom is made up of four countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. "

So, if you really want to know how many countries there are, first select the definition you want to use, then allow for where you are and what political views you have, then you have a chance of making an educated guess at the answer!

Alternatively, you could view our list of the generally accepted countries of the world.





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