13 Major Countries That Aren’t Actually Countries
It's not easy to be a country. After checking out the following 13, you might never think of "country-hopping" in quite the same way.
What makes a country?
We tend to use the term “country” loosely, but according to the 1933 Montevideo Convention, to qualify as one, real estate on the world map must meet at least four criteria: It has to encompass a defined area, a permanent population, a government, and a government capable of interacting with other states. That may not sound like a stringent checklist, but it disqualifies a number of places that we generally think of as countries but, technically, aren’t.
The countries that are recognized as such globally form a relatively compact club. The United Nations officially recognizes 193 of them as members. Meanwhile, a number of places that we generally file under “countries” while compiling our bucket lists aren’t categorized as countries by the United States of America’s Department of State. Some omissions from the country club would stump even geographically aware world travelers who’d have no trouble finding them on the map. See if you can pass this geography 101 quiz.
If you vacation on this North Atlantic island, you’re vacationing in the United Kingdom—sort of. Unlike independent and sovereign Commonwealth countries like the Bahamas, Barbados, and Jamaica, Bermuda is an overseas territory of the United Kingdom, which controls its foreign affairs, defense, and security. Bermuda Premier David Burt, for one, would like to see that change. In 2018, he told the House of Assembly that it was “unacceptable in a modern democracy” to have “decisions made thousands of miles away that impact our customs, our institutions, and our livelihoods.” On the other hand, these 15 tiny countries really do exist.
We usually refer to the beautiful, hilly country to the west of Serbia as, simply, Bosnia, but that name actually applies only to the northern portion of a larger country known as Bosnia and Herzegovina. The compound moniker may not exactly roll off the tongue, which might be why most locals in Sarajevo and other Bosnian cities tend to leave out “Herzegovina” when talking about their country. If you do the same while visiting, most everyone save for Herzegovina locals in the south probably will forgive you for it. See if you can answer these real Jeopardy! questions about geography.
Elizabeth II is commonly referred to as the “Queen of England,” but if that title were accurate, she’d be a monarch without an actual country. England is a non-sovereign state in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. When Americans use “England” interchangeably with “the U.K.” and “Great Britain” (which refers to the island containing England, Scotland, and Wales), they’re wrong. England is actually just the dominant and highest-profile component of both. Only geniuses will get these 15 stumpers from the National Geography Bee right.
The world’s largest island that is not also a continent (approximately 836,300 square miles) has been a territory of the Kingdom of Denmark since the middle of the last century. Although they live on a different continent (North America) from Denmark and have their own official language (Greenlandic) and monarch (Queen Margrethe II), Greenlanders conducts business using the Danish krone while Denmark sets Greenland’s foreign and defense policy. It’s an arrangement U.S. President Donald Trump would like to change. “It’s just something we’ve talked about,” he said last year of reports that he’d like to buy Greenland outright. “Denmark essentially owns it. We’re very good allies with Denmark. We’ve protected Denmark like we protect large portions of the world, so the concept came up.” The idea didn’t fly with Mette Frederiksen, Denmark’s prime minister, who was quoted as saying, “Greenland is not for sale.”
The U.S. Department of State recognized the entire East Asian peninsula of Korea as a country from 1882 to 1905, but since 1948, Korea technically has been not a country, but a region with two sovereign states: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) led by Kim Jong-un and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) led by President Moon Jae-in. Not surprisingly given the decades of turmoil since the Korean War in the early 1950s, they aren’t particularly friendly neighbors. Their relationship, as Jean Lee, North Korean expert with the Wilson Center, told NPR last year, still “ebbs and flows.” These 15 countries existed 100 years ago, but they don’t anymore.
When we talk about the country of Ireland, we’re generally talking about the entire island to the west of Great Britain, but the northeastern portion of the island is not part of the Republic of Ireland. Officially known as Northern Ireland, it’s one of the four non-sovereign nations comprising the United Kingdom, and therefore its citizens, unliked those in the non-Commonwealth Republic of Ireland, all hail the Queen. But Brexit seems to be changing public opinion. In 2013, a BBC poll found that only 13 percent of people in Northern Ireland were in favor of reunification with the Republic of Ireland. Last year, according to a poll cited by the Atlantic, that number had risen to 51 percent.
While the State of Palestine is recognized as a non-member observer state by a majority of the United Nations’ 193 constituent countries, the United States is among the minority holdouts. Palestine isn’t listed on the Department of State‘s official list of countries, and in 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem after officially recognizing it as the capital of Israel. With Palestine still claiming Jerusalem as its own capital, the state’s status with the United States is unlikely to change. Good luck finding these 11 places on any map.
It’s the birthplace of singers Annie Lennox and Sheena Easton and actor Gerard Butler, and it has its own sometimes hard-to-decipher accent, but the land associated with kilts and bagpipes is not actually an independent country. Although it was, for centuries, a sovereign state with separate monarchs (including Mary, Queen of Scots, who ruled from 1542 to 1567), Scotland, like England, is now part of the country known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Here is where things get a little confusing. St. Martin is an island in the Caribbean with a French side (Saint Martin) and a Dutch side (Sint Maarten). However, neither region constitutes an actual country. The northern French side is a territory of France, while the southern Dutch side belongs to the Kingdom of the Netherlands, along with the Caribbean islands of Aruba and Curaçao. It’s the only place in the world where France and the Netherlands are neighbors, and Saint Martin is the closest part of France to the United States. These 13 islands are in danger of disappearing before the end of the century.
If something is “Made in Taiwan,” it’s technically made in China—at least by U.N. and U.S. standards… for now. Taiwanese citizens can travel the world with Taiwanese passports and they think of themselves as belonging to a separate country, but China continues to dispute Taiwan’s sovereign status, and most of the U.N.’s member countries back it up. According to a 2019 BBC News article, “China sees Taiwan as a breakaway province that will eventually be part of the country again, but many Taiwanese want a separate nation.” No countries in the world start with these two letters.
Blame it on the Tasmanian Devil, the Looney Tunes cartoon character that established Tasmania as a land down under with its own identity, at least among young kids. In reality, Tasmania is one of Australia’s six states, located about 150 miles from the mainland. It’s sort of like Hawaii, only a much shorter flight away from its parent country. Although there’s been theoretical talk of secession, last year then-Premier Will Hodgman shut it down. “I think it’s important to remain part of the federation, he said. “My government has no plan to secede.”
If you’re on a road trip from Moldova to Ukraine in Eastern Europe, and you decide to check out this small strip of land en route, be prepared for some pretty rigid customs checkpoints. Numerous statues of Vladimir Lenon and a strong militaristic vibe betray its Soviet past. Despite the intensity of the passport controls (likely intended to deter—or profit from—the smuggling that has dominated the area for decades) and the fact that it has its own currency and capital city (Tiraspol), Transnistria isn’t an actual country. The region broke away from Moldova in 1990, and although it’s still internationally recognized as part of that country, Transnistria’s heart faces east, toward Russia.
The birthplace of Tom Jones and Catherine Zeta-Jones is not, as many assume, an actual country but one-fourth of the British Isles’s quartet of non-sovereign nations that make up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. While the subject of Scottish independence from the United Kingdom appears to be recurrent, Wales seems less likely to attempt brokering a split. Last year, a YouGov poll found that just 28 percent of the Welsh population favor separation. “Scotland was a country whose natural resources had been exploited by a government in Westminster,” the Atlantic’s Helen Lewis wrote last year. “Most Welsh jobs, meanwhile, lie within 30 miles of England, and Wales’s economy appears more reliant on its bigger neighbor.” Read on to find out the most difficult countries for Americans to visit.