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What is the Difference Between a State, Nation, and Country?

By Mandi Rogier
Updated: May 23, 2024

The terms "state," "nation," and "country" are often used interchangeably by those who are unfamiliar with the proper use of these terms. To further muddy the waters, phrases such as independent State and nation-state are frequently thrown in as well. While these terms are similar and easily confused, some distinguishable differences set them apart. In some cases, "State" and "country" may be used to describe the same area, a "nation" is a somewhat less well-defined term.

When used with an initial capital letter, State has a very different meaning than the one commonly known among US citizens. An independent State is the same as an independent country — it's an area that has internationally recognized boundaries and its own government. It must also be recognized by other countries and have sovereignty, meaning that it is not under the power of any other country. Other requirements include permanent residents, a transportation system, an education system, and an organized economic system. It issues its own money and is able to regulate both domestic and foreign trade.

Without the initial capital, the term has a very different meaning, and it's usually used to describe a smaller division of a larger country. Using the United States of America as an example, America is the governing country while each of the 50 states is a smaller defined territory within the larger government. The term "province" may also be used in some countries, such as Canada.

Many countries also have territories. Australia, for example, has six states and two major territories. While a territory is under the government of a larger nation, it usually lacks the same governmental powers that a state or province will have.

The term "nation" is a bit more difficult to define. A nation is a group of people who share a language, culture, institutions, history, and religion. These groups are larger than a single tribe or small community, and often encompass an entire country. When a nation of people has its own distinct country, this is referred to as a nation-state. Examples include Japan, Germany, and France. Some countries can have multiple nations, as in the case of Canada, and not all nations posses their own State.

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Discussion Comments
By anon993516 — On Nov 21, 2015

One of the biggest atrocities in world history is the lie that Palestine is a Jewish Nation. After invading Palestine, murdering innocent Arabs and forcing them from their homes (Jewish insurgency in Palestine) the Zionist-Jew leader David Ben-Gurion, in 1948, co-drafted and signed a document the "Israeli Declaration of Independence" and proclaimed Palestine to be "The State of Israeli"... not the Nation of Israel. The Zionist-Jews have never been a Nation and never will be. They are a politically controlled State!

By anon333562 — On May 06, 2013

A nation can transcend political boundaries. A good example is on the Korean peninsula: one nation, the Korean people; and two states, North Korea and South Korea.

Japan is a nation-state. One country, one people.

The way I see it, State and Country are synonymous in many cases. But, as a matter of style, state refers more to the sterile sense of political boundaries —— whereas country refers more to the land and the culture of the people who inhabit it, e.g. Navajo country, German countryside.

For my fellow Americans: in times of yore, the states of the USA created a union. This union, and its seat of federal power, is the central state that represents all the individual states from Delaware to Hawaii. (So don't let this confuse you! We're a bunch of states that formed one big state. Thus, United States.)

Interestingly, for the first hundred years or so, we called ourselves These United States. Plural. Around the time when Abraham Lincoln came along, and the states that broke from the union were forced back into it, we started calling ourselves The United States.

By fify — On Sep 13, 2012

What about the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus?

Cyprus has a geographical boundary. It has a government, an economy, institutions, schools, etc. Turkey recognizes Cyprus but many other countries, including the US, doesn't.

So is Cyprus a country, a nation or neither? This example is so murky.

By burcinc — On Sep 13, 2012
@SarahGen-- I can try.

In the past, I used to get confused all the time with "state" and "nation." To me, it seemed like they are the same because many states share a similar culture and values and use the same language. So I didn't understand how a state is not the same thing as a nation.

But then I decided to study political science in college and in my first semester, I took classes where we discussed all these terms. Then, I understood that a nation doesn't necessarily have to have a geographical boundary. Such as, if there is an ethnic group that lives in two neighboring countries, we can refer to them as a nation although they are not in the same state.

For example, there are Tamilians in both India and Sri Lanka. So if we say the "Tamil nation" we are referring to all these people even though they are geographically in two different states/countries.

By SarahGen — On Sep 12, 2012

I'm still confused about these terms. Can someone give me examples?

By lluviaporos — On May 15, 2012

@KoiwiGal - I know it doesn't seem likely at the moment, but I've read plenty of science fiction stories where one or more of the states in the United States have broken away to become their own nations.

California is a popular one and that makes sense from an economic standpoint, as California has enough money to be an independent country, easily.

I've even heard that occasionally people call for that kind of separation, but generally they are considered kooks.

I think it would be interesting to go into the future and see what happens though. I'm pretty sure a hundred years ago people wouldn't have guessed the world would look the way it looks today.

And even today there are still plenty of disputes as to who is a proper country and who is just trying to fake it until they make it.

By KoiwiGal — On May 15, 2012

@bythewell - That's pretty funny. It is a difficult line for some countries though, as there have been plenty of real life experiences where a nation of people has wanted independence from the country they were officially considered part of and were never granted that right.

Having other nations recognize your right to exist is essential for States to thrive in the world. If they aren't recognized by any or only by some of their neighbors they have to ensure years of war and uncertainty.

Which is not to say that there's anything that can be done about that. I mean, as you say, people can't just decide a country exists, they have to earn that right.

By bythewell — On May 15, 2012

If you have a look online there are some articles that go into some of the things people have done in order to try and carve out their own State. People have claimed tiny islands to be individual states, they've fenced off areas of a mainland, they've even tried to create a floating State out of a ship.

I guess that's why the article specifies that other countries have to recognize that the State is in fact a real country, otherwise it doesn't count.

Otherwise anyone could just decide their backyard should be an independent State. And then, of course, any taxes they need to pay would go straight back into their own bank accounts!

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