How many countries are there?

What defines a country? Who is counting and why care?

How many countries are there?

By most accounts, 197.

There are 193 members of the United Nations (and 2 non-member observer states: the Holy See (Vatican City) and Palestine). Therefore the number 195 is too often used to represent the number of countries in the world. There are 61 dependent areas, and six disputed territories. Places commonly confused as being countries include Puerto Rico, Bermuda, Greenland, and even the components of the United Kingdom (such as Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England - they're not countries, states, or nation-states).

Flag The one outsider, Taiwan meets most of the requirements of independent country or state status. However, due to political reasons, it fails to be recognized by much of the world, so most count 196. The other non-UN members which can clearly be defined as country or 'sovereign' state is Kosovo.

So UN full-members 193 + 2 observers + Taiwan & Kosovo = 197. Some like to include Western Sahara, Somaliland and other countries of questionable or not fully recognised status to make a round number like 200. It all depends how you want to define the word country. South Sudan, Kosovo, Montenegro and East Timor are the world's youngest countries. Although another way to look at it is Uganda is the world's youngest country, since ~50% of the population are under 14. By those rights Italy is the oldest.

However, no one really knows the correct answer and it is actually a very tough question since in doing so you have to define what makes a country. Apply on-line for visa-free entry to the United States you have more than 250 choices for 'country where you live'. That is probably a pretty ambitious number as it includes the Bouvet Island, an uninhabitable icy knoll belonging to Norway in the South Atlantic (for Penguins that need a visa) and for Star Trek fans there is even a 'Neutral Zone' (a diamond-shaped bit of desert between Saudi Arabia and Iraq that vanished after the 1991 Gulf war). That is the trouble with such lists. Places that are not real countries at all end up on them and places that approximate a bit more closely to countries (at least in their own eyes) may be absent. For example, the list excludes Abkhazia and South Ossetia, self-proclaimed states that broke away from Georgia with Russian backing. Just three other countries: Nicaragua, Venezuela and the islet of Nauru - recognise those breakaway 'statelets' as independent. Private-sector lists are just as odd as those compiled by governments. We counted 242 'countries/territories' on the options Hotmail offers from which you can register an e-mail account.

Passport Any attempt to find a clear definition of a 'country' soon runs into a thicket of exceptions and anomalies.

Diplomatic recognition is clearly not much guide to real life. As mentioned above take Taiwan for example which due to pressure from China is recognised less and less (countries with formal diplomatic ties to Taiwan has shrivelled to around 23 - mostly small, cash-strapped islands). Yet Taiwan is not just a country, but a rather important one. Also note Israel, it joined the UN in 1949, but 19 of its members do not accept the Jewish state's existence. A third of UN members do recognise Kosovo, but the UN itself does not!

German thinker, Max Weber, defined statehood as "the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence”. That may be a practical approach but it doesn't end the confusion. Somalia spectacularly fails to meet this criterion, yet still counts as a sovereign state. However its northern bit, Somaliland, has met this standard with increasing impressiveness since it declared independence in 1991. It has a currency, car registrations and even biometric passports. But only private firms such as DHL, a courier company, link it to the outside world. International postal service requires membership of the Universal Postal Union, which for non-members of the UN need approval by at least two-thirds of that body's members. The African Union refuses to recognise Somaliland's independence because it dislikes changing any African borders..... the debate goes on.

? Here's the most commonly cited official list for anyone interested in counting:
Country Capital
Afghanistan Kabul
Albania Tirane
Algeria Algiers
Andorra Andorra la Vella
Angola Luanda
Antigua and Barbuda Saint John's
Argentina Buenos Aires
Armenia Yerevan
Australia Canberra
Austria Vienna
Azerbaijan Baku
The Bahamas Nassau
Bahrain Manama
Bangladesh Dhaka
Barbados Bridgetown
Belarus Minsk
Belgium Brussels
Belize Belmopan
Benin Porto-Novo
Bhutan Thimphu
Bolivia La Paz (admin) Sucre (judicial)
Bosnia and Herzegovina Sarajevo
Botswana Gaborone
Brazil Brasilia
Brunei Bandar Seri Begawan
Bulgaria Sofia
Burkina Faso Ouagadougou
Burundi Bujumbura
Cambodia Phnom Penh
Cameroon Yaoundé
Canada Ottawa
Cape Verde Praia
Central African Republic Bangui
Chad N'Djamena
Chile Santiago
China Beijing
Colombia Bogotá
Comoros Moroni
Congo, Republic of the Brazzaville
Congo, Democratic Republic of the Kinshasa
Costa Rica San Jose
Cote d'Ivoire Yamoussoukro (official) Abidjan (de facto)
Croatia Zagreb
Cuba Havana
Cyprus Nicosia
Czech Republic Prague
Denmark Copenhagen
Djibouti Djibouti
Dominica Roseau
Dominican Republic Santo Domingo
East Timor Dili
Ecuador Quito
Egypt Cairo
El Salvador San Salvador
Equatorial Guinea Malabo
Eritrea Asmara
Estonia Tallinn
Ethiopia Addis Ababa
Fiji Suva
Finland Helsinki
France * Paris
Gabon Libreville
The Gambia Banjul
Georgia Tbilisi
Germany Berlin
Ghana Accra
Greece Athens
Grenada Saint George's
Guatemala Guatemala City
Guinea Conakry
Guinea-Bissau Bissau
Guyana Georgetown
Haiti Port-au-Prince
Honduras Tegucigalpa
Hungary Budapest
Iceland Reykjavik
India New Delhi
Indonesia Jakarta
Iran Tehran
Iraq Baghdad
Ireland Dublin
Israel Jerusalem
Italy Rome
Jamaica Kingston
Japan Tokyo
Jordan Amman
Kazakhstan Astana
Kenya Nairobi
Kiribati Tarawa
Korea, North Pyongyang
Korea, South Seoul
Kosovo Pristina
Kuwait Kuwait City
Kyrgyzstan Bishkek
Laos Vientiane
Latvia Riga
Lebanon Beirut
Lesotho Maseru
Liberia Monrovia
Libya Tripoli
Liechtenstein Vaduz
Lithuania Vilnius
Luxembourg Luxembourg
Macedonia Skopje
Madagascar Antananarivo
Malawi Lilongwe
Malaysia Kula Lumpur
Maldives Male
Mali Bamako
Malta Valletta
Marshall Islands Majuro
Mauritania Nouakchott
Mauritius Port Louis
Mexico Mexico City
Federated States of Micronesia Palikir
Moldova Chisinau
Monaco Monaco
Mongolia Ulaanbaatar
Montenegro Podgorica
Morocco Rabat
Mozambique Maputo
Myanmar (Burma) Rangoon
Namibia Windhoek
Nauru Yaren District
Nepal Kathmandu
Netherlands Amsterdam
New Zealand Wellington
Nicaragua Managua
Niger Niamey
Nigeria Abuja
Norway Oslo
Oman Muscat
Pakistan Islamabad
Palau Koror
Panama Panama City
Papua New Guinea Port Moresby
Paraguay Asuncion
Peru Lima
Philippines Manila
Poland Warsaw
Portugal Lisbon
Qatar Doha
Romania Bucharest
Russia Moscow
Rwanda Kigali
Saint Kitts and Nevis Basseterre
Saint Lucia Castries
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Kingstown
Samoa Apia
San Marino San Marino
Sao Tome and Principe Sao Tome
Saudi Arabia Riyadh
Senegal Dakar
Serbia (Yugoslavia) Belgrade
Seychelles Victoria
Sierra Leone Freetown
Singapore Singapore
Slovakia Bratislava
Slovenia Ljubljana
Solomon Islands Honiara
Somalia Mogadishu
South Africa Pretoria (admin) Cape Town (legislative) Bloemfontein (judiciary)
South Sudan Juba
Spain Madrid
Sri Lanka Colombo
Sudan Khartoum
Suriname Paramaribo
Swaziland Mbabana
Sweden Stockholm
Switzerland Bern
Syria Damascus
Taiwan Taipei
Tajikistan Dushanbe
Tanzania Dar es Salaam
Thailand Bangkok
Togo Lome
Tonga Nuku'alofa
Trinidad and Tobago Port-of-Spain
Tunisia Tunis
Turkey Ankara
Turkmenistan Ashgabat
Tuvalu Funafuti
Uganda Kampala
Ukraine Kiev
United Arab Emirates Abu Dhabi
United Kingdom London
United States Washington D.C.
Uruguay Montevideo
Uzbekistan Tashkent
Vanuatu Port-Vila
Vatican City (Holy See) Vatican City
Venezuela Caracas
Vietnam Hanoi
Yemen Sana'a
Zambia Lusaka
Zimbabwe Harare

* Get your bearings... show/hide map of the world

Here's a good brain-teaser... which country land-locks two other countries within it's borders? Answers on the back of a postcard. If you fancy taking a quiz, here's a good quick one.

Recommended are the following videos:
The Most Complex International Borders in the World
Country rankings - winners and losers

It is interesting to think that on the eve of the First World War, imperialism had reduced the number of independent countries in the world to just 59.

The advent of decolonisation was the leading cause to the dramatic increase in this number. In 1946 the number of independent countries was 74. In 1950, 89. And today 195, with the biggest increases coming in the 1960s mainly in Africa where 25 new states were formed in 1960-64 alone and in in Eastern Europe as the Soviet Union fell apart. Today many of the new countries are tiny. No fewer than 36 have less than 500,000 inhabitants and many are formed as a result of civil war or multi-ethic policy, which is the most common form of conflict since the Second World War.

Some may be interested in the travellers' century club, an American based travel club which does count the likes of Wales, Bermuda and Antarctica (in-fact they count that last one seven times!). Their rules established in 1970 define 320 separate destinations as being 'countries'. Visited over 100 of these so defined countries and you too can pay a $100 joining and annual membership fee ($50-60) for your own self-satisfaction and a news letter!

* According to data gathered by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, France is the most common destination for foreign tourists, with 76m visitors in 2010 - Ref..

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscape but having new eyes."

— Marcel Proust