The world is a complex system of governments, cultures, populations, corporations, common and competing interests, and other powerful forces. The borders between countries are just one way to structure the globe, but they are one of the most influential and recognizable. In this article, we’ll explore what a country is, what everyone should know about the world’s countries and examples of what countries can look like.
While there is no clear international definition for a “country,” it is generally defined as a set territory with its own government, a permanent population and the ability to establish relations with other countries.
What’s the definition of a country?
A country is a place with its own government within a set territory. According to Matt Rosenberg for ThoughtCatalog, the terms “country,” “state,” “nation,” “sovereign state,” and “nation-state” are used interchangeably, but they’re not exactly the same. A state is a territory with its own populations and institutions while a nation is a large group that inhabits a specific territory with shared history, culture or other features. A nation-state is a nation that is also a state, while a sovereign state is a state with its own institutions, territory, government and permanent population. A country can mean the same thing as a state, nation-state and sovereign state.
The term “country” can also refer to areas defined by specific cultures or history. As an example, areas of Pennsylvania, USA are often described as “coal countries.” The Northeast, which is home to six counties known as the Anthracite Coal Region, gets called “coal country” because it holds the United States’ only reserves of anthracite coal. When people talk about these areas as “coal country,” they’re not referring to them as a distinct country with sovereignty, but rather an area defined by the presence of coal and coal mining. In this article, we’re talking about countries as sovereign states, not cultural or historical regions.
How are countries formed?
Countries are typically created when a territory breaks off from another sovereignty. While there aren’t specific rules on this process, there are guidelines. As an article from CNBC describes, the Montevideo Convention in 1933 put forth four requirements for territories wanting to become states: a permanent population, a defined territory, a government and the capacity to form relationships with other nation-states. Permanent population is defined as the number of people alive in a given area over half a year; there’s no minimum number of people required.
There are other requirements. The potential country must show that most of the population wants to be independent and come to an agreement with the state it’s breaking off from. In some cases, the sovereign power has disappeared (this happened with countries that were part of the Soviet Union), which can make the process a bit easier, but for places wanting to break from sovereignties that still exist, the process can be heated. As Rebecca Richards explains in The Conversation, an existing sovereign state has to lose some of its territory. Very few states are willing to let this happen unless there’s a clear benefit. It’s not easy to form a new country, which is why it doesn’t happen very often.
Many countries used to be part of globe-sprawling empires. Here are 15 examples of empires that once ruled the world.
What country facts should everyone know?
We could fill books with all the information about countries, but here are five important facts to get you started:
#1. There are 195 countries in the world
According to sources like Worldatlas.com, there are 195 countries in the world as of January 2024. 193 of these countries are part of the United Nations. Because the UN is not a government or a state, it can’t recognize a state or government, but UN membership is one of the most important steps for countries. According to the UN’s Charter, membership is available for all “peace-loving States” that accept and can carry out the UN’s obligations. The UN is made of independent States, and can either accept a new State to its membership or accept the credentials of a new government’s representatives. What two countries are not part of the UN? The UN classifies the Holy See (the entity that governs Vatican City) and the State of Palestine as non-member observer states. Some governments don’t consider Vatican City or Palestine to be countries.
#2. India is the largest country by population, Russia is the largest by landmass
According to Worldometer, India was home to almost 1.429 billion people in 2023. That makes it the largest country in the world by population. For decades, China was the most populous, but in 2023, India took the top spot. Growth is slowing down; within 25 years, India’s population growth will likely stop being the world’s largest. Russia is the largest country by landmass. It has a total area exceeding 6.6 million mi², which means it makes up around 11% of the world’s total landmass. Why isn’t Russia the largest country by population, too? Because of permafrost, which forms when soil freezes into a thick, subsurface layer, over 60% of Russia is uninhabitable. Russia has a population under 145 million.
Curious about other big countries? Here’s an article on 15 of the world’s largest countries.
#3. Vatican City is the smallest country by landmass and population
Vatican City is a tiny city-state in Rome, Italy. It’s home to the Pope, who is the head of the Catholic Church. The Pope and the Holy See have executive, legislative and judicial powers in Vatican City, which means it meets the requirements of having its own government. According to Insider, Vatican City is just over 100 acres in size. That makes it much smaller than California’s Disneyland, which is around 500 acres. Vatican City’s population is also very small. Around 800 people live there. Citizenship is given only to those who live in the city for work, which means only clergy members, Holy See diplomats and Swiss Guards (who defend the city) are eligible for citizenship.
#4. Becoming a citizen of a country can be difficult – some are more difficult than others
Many countries practice birthright citizenship, which is when a person gets citizenship by being born within the borders of a particular country. The United States and Canada both use birthright citizenship. The process of becoming a citizen of a country you weren’t born in varies in requirements and difficulty. According to Global Immigration Services, a company providing immigration and permanent residency services for a handful of countries, Finland is the hardest country to get permanent residency in. You must first prove continuous residence in the country for at least eight years and have no criminal record. You must also demonstrate proficiency in Finnish and prove you’re financially stable. It can take at least two years to complete the process.
Passports from certain countries come with privileges. Here’s a list of the most powerful passports in the world.
#5. Countries can cease to exist
Many countries have come and gone throughout history. A roundup from Matt Rosenberg lists countries like Austria-Hungary, which included Austria, Hungary, parts of Poland, Italy, Romania, and a few other areas. The circumstances around countries “disappearing” varies significantly. Austria-Hungary, which was controlled by the Habsburg Empire, collapsed in 1918 after World War I. Sometimes, countries change only in name, although names have a lot of power. Burma, which was named after the Burman ethnic group, became Myanmar after military leaders decided to change its name in 1989. The given reason was that the old name carried negative associations, but in Burmese, “Myanmar” is just the formal “Burma.” In English, saying “Burma” instead of “Myanmar” can indicate a form of protest against the junta, but many governments use the names interchangeably.
What are examples of countries?
There are almost 200 countries, but instead of listing them all, let’s explore a few origin stories. Here are three:
The United States
Several European powers, such as Spain, Great Britain, and France established colonies throughout North America. In 1776, a group released the Declaration of Independence, which announced that 13 North American colonies belonging to Britain were now “Free and Independent States.” Great Britain did not agree and the Revolutionary War began. France and Spain ended up helping the cause of the colonists, and by 1781, the United States essentially won its independence from Great Britain.
Estonia can be found in northeastern Europe near the Baltic Sea. For centuries, it was under the control of other powers like Sweden, Germany and Russia. During the Russian Revolution of 1917, Estonia became autonomous. Independence didn’t last long; in 1940, the Soviet Union annexed Estonia. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Estonia once again became independent. That same year, it became a member of the UN.
South Sudan is a country in Northeast Africa. It used to be part of Sudan, but after two decades of war, ethnic conflict and other tensions, it formed a new government and new state in 2011. According to Human Rights Watch, the world’s youngest country already had major problems. While breaking from Sudan ended a long, brutal war, HRW states that the government “failed to address the deep disenfranchisement and grievances of many in the south.” In 2013, civil war broke out after South Sudan’s president accused the vice president of planning a coup. Five years later, the competing groups signed a power-sharing agreement, but war and the impacts of climate change have continued to threaten the new country’s future.