Do you know the difference between the United Kingdom and Great Britain?

No, that’s not a trick question. It’s a common belief that the terms are interchangeable, but they are actually two different things. Confused? Don’t be. This article will explain what exactly the United Kingdom is, including what countries it includes, and how it differs from Great Britain.

The United Kingdom: A Sovereign Country

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The United Kingdom is a sovereign country that includes four constituent countries (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) and a series of overseas territories. Oh, and just to be completely proper, the full name is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but that’s a bit long, isn’t it? For understandable reasons, it’s more commonly known as the United Kingdom or the U.K. for short.

Geographically, the main part of the United Kingdom is located in the Atlantic Ocean, to the east of Ireland and northwest of mainland Europe. While Northern Ireland shares a border with another sovereign country, Ireland, the other key countries in the U.K. do not share a border except with one another.

England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales are all considered individual countries. However, the entirety of the U.K. must adhere to certain policies and regulations. Additionally, while each country has its own capital, the capital of the United Kingdom (in addition to England) is London.

What is Great Britain?

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Many people believe that the United Kingdom and Great Britain are one and the same. However, that’s not the case.

Great Britain refers to the island that is composed of England, Scotland, and Wales. It’s the biggest and most recognizable part of the United Kingdom. The only part not included is Northern Ireland, which may explain why this common misconception exists.

While Great Britain makes up much of the bulk of the United Kingdom, to use the terms as synonyms would be to leave out Northern Ireland and the many overseas territories.

So, to review: while Great Britain is part of the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom is not solely composed of the countries included in Great Britain.

What about England?

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Another common misconception is that the United Kingdom and/or Great Britain refer to England. The confusion is understandable, but to use “England” to refer to either the entirety of the United Kingdom or Great Britain would be incorrect.

England is, in fact, the largest country in the United Kingdom and in Great Britain. And its capital, London, just so happens to be the capital of the U.K., as well. While these things contribute to the confusion about England’s role in the group, it is still just one of the countries involved in both the U.K. and Great Britain groupings.

How Do British Overseas Territories Fit In?

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While the British Overseas Territories are not part of the United Kingdom, they are connected to it, so they are worth mentioning. Also referred to as the United Kingdom Overseas Territories, this includes 14 territories that reside under United Kingdom jurisdiction, but are located around the world.

These territories are residual from the former British Empire and have either elected to remain British territories, or independence has not been granted. These territories are self-governing, though the U.K. provides assistance with defense and foreign relations.

The Commonwealth of Nations

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We can’t forget the Commonwealth of Nations. This is a voluntary group of 53 different countries that were once British territories or colonies, as well as the U.K. itself. The countries that are part of the Commonwealth of Nations maintain autonomy politically but observe the U.K.’s monarch as their king or queen.

Members of the Commonwealth of Nations do not have a specific constitution. They each maintain their own policies yet have an agreement to work together toward common interests. Some examples of members of the Commonwealth of Nations include the Bahamas, South Africa, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka.


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While the United Kingdom might seem complicated, once you break it down into individual countries and elements, it’s not too difficult to understand. Now that you’re in the know, you can rest assured that you won’t offend any Brits by using the improper terminology!