This seems like an easy question to answer, but it’s definitely not. What counts as a country? The most agreed upon answer is the United Nations list of sovereign states, but even that is teeming with political controversy.
Traveling should be primarily about the experience and not about the numbers, of course, because crossing borders merely to acquire notches runs counter to the wanderlust mindset. But it’s also fun to keep a list—as a souvenir, as a talking point, as an accomplishment. So count away if you want to! But what do you count?
Both as a lawyer with a degree in international economic law and a starry-eyed wanderer who is fascinated by culture, I feel the U.N. list is too limiting.
Currently, there are 193 U.N. member states and two nonmember observer states. But what about autonomous, dependent and disputed territories?
If you’ve been to the Cayman Islands, but never Europe, do you say you’ve been to the U.K.? If you’ve been to Guam but never North America, do you say you’ve been to the U.S.?
Then there’s the Travelers’ Century Club list, which includes territories that are removed from the parent countries. So, the list of 327 places counts Alaska and Hawaii as separate countries from the contiguous United States. That goes too far for me!
Then you have the 206 member nations of the International Olympic Committee and 211 countries that can compete in the FIFA World Cup. These lists make more sense to me. Make no mistake, they are also controversial, but they account for geographic areas that have a strong cultural identity that is distinct from the place that holds the seat of government.
I love my Puerto Rican neighbors, and we certainly do share a currency and federal government. But when I’m sitting in a little San Juan restaurant, looking at lush beaches, speaking Spanish and eating mofongo, I certainly feel like I am in a country of its own and experiencing a rich culture that is quiet distinct from the contingent United States.
Even the legal system is civil-law based, versus the common-law-based U.S. system.
Now, one could argue that Louisiana should be counted as a separate country based on the points I made about Puerto Rico. Both Creole and French Cajun cultures bring district language, food and other elements that are unique to the state, and Louisiana is the only U.S. state that predominantly has a French-based civil-law system instead of a British-based common-law system. However, it is a U.S. state, rather than a territory, and it is geographical part of the contiguous United States.
Would I count Hawaii as a separate country if it was a territory rather than a state? 🤷♀️ Probably.
For me, to take the guesswork out, I count countries based on the U.N. list AND the FIFA list. This removes some of the political controversy and cultural limitations of just using the U.N. list. Plus, football is the universal sport that brings the world together–and divides it by “national” identity!
So there you have it. Oh, and I count Greenland as a country—simply because it’s Greenland.
But there’s still another question to answer: What counts as “visiting” a country? In my mind, you can’t count time spend solely on the highway or at an airport or other terminal as a visit–even if you step foot on the ground outside the terminal. You have to spend a night OR see something of significance: a historic site, a downtown area, the countryside. This goes for state counting, too! I’m still not sure if I count Indiana. I stayed a night at a motel by the highway and had breakfast at a diner before hitting the road again. Have I really visited Indiana? Maybe.
Why even count countries at all? I don’t know, I think it’s kind of fun! What do you count as a country? Please tell me in the comments!