Like many travelers, I keep track of my country count. How many countries one has visited is both a source of pride, and also of confusion. After all, the definition of a country isn’t exactly universal across all people.
Let’s start with the basics. There are currently 193 member states of the United Nations. All would agree that these count as countries. That’s the easy part. Beyond this, there are a ton of “gray area” places that may or may not count as countries depending on who you ask. Let’s go through some examples of places that have some aspects of independence and not others.
Lack of UN recognition
Some places are countries in most senses, but for political reasons, do not have UN recognition. This includes places like Vatican City and Palestine, which have observer status, but not full membership. It also includes Taiwan, which does not have international recognition due to China threatening to cut off relations with any country that establishes such relations with Taiwan.
Distinct national identity but not independence
This is one of the biggest, and mostly reflects remnants of European and American colonialism. Falling into this category are places like Puerto Rico, which is part of the US but has a distinct national identity, a separate team in international sports, and a different language. Most Puerto Ricans I spoke to consider themselves Puerto Rican first, then – and not even always at all – American. The same thing goes for Curacao and its being part of the Netherlands, or even the member countries of the United Kingdom. These are complicated issues, and there is no right or wrong answer as to whether these places are countries. It will depend on who you ask.
Separate currency or passport
Hong Kong is my go-to example here. The city has a separate currency from the rest of China, and residents have Hong Kong passports. Is it a separate country? Not if you ask China, but it has enough trappings of independence that it might be. The same goes with a place like the Cayman Islands or the aforementioned Curacao. Each of these has one or both of a separate currency or passport, so obviously there are distinctions between them and their parent countries. But is it enough to make them their own nations?
This will deal mainly with the UK, but also includes a few other things. I visited the Isle of Man a couple months ago. The island uses UK passports – but specially marked – has a currency directly tied into the British pound (Manx pounds are only usable on the island but “regular” pounds are accepted as well), and relies on the UK for all foreign relations and defense. But normal British citizens cannot move to the Isle of Man without a resident visa.
The same thing goes with any number of other places overseen by mainly European countries, but not exclusively so. Remote islands like Hawaii might be totally part of the US (or Reunion part of France), but others are more separate, like Guam or Bermuda. And even for those that are legally the same as the mainland, is there a distinct identity? It is confusing, to say the least.
Used to be a country
This is one that doesn’t affect me as stands, but could impact one’s count. What happens when one visits a place that was a county, but isn’t anymore? For instance, if one visited the USSR, and then subsequently visited Russia post collapse, does that count as two? Or if one hasn’t visited Russia as an independent entity, can one count it if one were in Moscow during Soviet times? Likewise, if one was in the territory of South Sudan before the country split, can one count that or does it have to be post independence?
So what is a country anyway?
The short answer is: I don’t know. As far as my country count goes, I either use a range (definite countries to the total including all gray area ones) or just the largest total, mostly because it sounds better. I have been to 61 fully real countries as decided by the UN, with another six that may or may not be. So I’ll either use the range of 61-69 or just the higher total. Most often, the latter.
What qualifies as a country is a fascinating discussion point, one I seem to have fairly frequently. And how one categorizes how many countries one has visited is pretty subjective. As far as I am concerned, default to whichever number you want. No judgment from me.