What is a country?

For people like me who like to travel a lot, it’s always fun to count how many countries we’ve been to.  Of course it’s silly, but so what?  But the question comes up, what do we consider to be a country, and what do we consider to be necessary to say that we’ve been there?  I consider myself to have been to a country if I have spent time there, looking around.  For some of the tiny countries (Andorra, San Marino, Vatican City, etc.) this might just be a few hours, but since those countries are often just a small town or two, that’s enough time to get a general sense of the place.  More typically I spend several days up to a couple of weeks in a country.  I DO NOT count airplane landings as visits to a country (sorry, Sudan!).  Airports have more in common with other airports than they do with what is outside the terminal.  Just because your plane landed somewhere and you went to a snack bar or something, it hardly qualifies as having visited the place.

For my “Countries I’ve Been To” page, I’m considering something a country if it is a country today, not when I visited it.  So although Uzbekistan, Georgia, Malta. Slovakia, and lots of others did not exist as independent countries when I visited them, they exist now, so I included them.  Some countries don’t exist anymore, so I don’t count them (USSR, Yugoslavia, DDR).  I’ve tried to include a picture of me in each country.  If I didn’t have a picture of me, then just a picture of the country.  In a couple of cases, I included a second picture, because I liked the pictures.

How a country is defined is more complicated.  There is a group called “The Travelers Century Club” for people who have been to 100 or more countries.  They consider there to be 317 “countries.”  However, they include “countries” such as Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.  Huh?????  Sorry, nice as those places may be, they are not countries.  Their justification is that they consider geographically separated parts of a country to be a different country.  Hmm....  Sounds to me like it’s just a way to make it easier to get to 100.  They also count airplane fuel stops as “visits.”

A more realistic definition of country is an “internationally recognized independent state.”  In other words, if other countries consider it a country, it’s a country.  This is based on the Montevideo Convention of 1933, which stated that a sovereign state should possess: 1) a permanent population, 2) a defined territory, 3) a government, and 4) the capacity to enter into relations with other states.  It can’t enter into relations with other states, unless the other states recognize it as a sovereign state.  A conservative list of countries would include the 192 member states of the UN, plus non-member Vatican City, for a total of 193 countries. 

Beyond those, it becomes arguable as to what to consider a country.  There are ten “sovereign states lacking general international recognition,” including places like Taiwan, Palestine, Western Sahara, and several areas in the Caucasus region of the former Soviet Union (e.g. Transnistria).  Beyond that there are 38 “dependent territories,” (also known as colonies) such as the British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Greenland, French Polynesia, etc.  Then there are “Special Entities” like Åland or Hong Kong.  How about the United Nations? The land it sits on in New York City is not part of the U.S., so is the UN a country? 

The Wikipedia article, “List of sovereign states”, discusses all this in some detail.

While Vatican City, Monaco, and Liechtenstein are all small, they are huge compared to what may be considered the smallest “country,” the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, which is a “sovereign entity” located on the second floor of a building in Rome.