I came across an article talking about the difference between state and country, when they mean nation, like United States of America, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The article says that the USA and the UK can be referred to as country while North Korea can only be referred to as state.

The rationale behind that is

country means people with citizen rights + elected government + land


state means only government.

Because in my native language, there is no difference between state and country when they are translated as nation, I am curious to know whether the point the article tries to make is true or not, or to what extent it is true.


The people in Libya are now fighting for their rights. When they say we love Libya, they certainly do not refer to Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.

How to distinguish that Libya from the GSPLAJ? According to the article, the former may be called country while the latter may be called state.

  • Who said, "L'état c'est moi"? I think he meant the whole works, not just the government.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Jul 21, 2011 at 16:00
  • @GEdgar. King Louis XIV of France, le Roi Soleil, as I suppose you know.
    – Paola
    Commented May 4, 2012 at 21:35

5 Answers 5


The NOAD reports the following definitions for those words.

  • state: a nation or territory considered as an organized political community under one government
  • nation: a large aggregate of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory
  • country: a nation with its own government, occupying a particular territory

The difference between nation and country is that country refers to the people, the territory, and the government, while nation refers to the people, and the territory. In the case of federal countries (e.g., USA, Austalia, Germany) a state is just a part of the country; in the other countries (e.g., Italy, France), the state coexists with the country.

  • 2
    Dictionaries and their circular definitions...
    – Pacerier
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 0:38
  • Are all people in a country a nation as we have the idea of nation state ? Commented Feb 20, 2018 at 10:22

There is no standard definition. State can mean sub-national or national, or wider in the case of the Plurinational State of Bolivia; in the United Kingdom it is often taken to mean all levels of government considered together. For example, the United Kingdom currently regards itself as made up of four countries (for example here) in one nation, which is not how other places see themselves. It is all a matter of local use, usually driven by political and historical reasons.

There are other oddities: the Commonwealth of Nations has the Commonwealth of Dominica and the Commonwealth of Australia as members; Australia is a federation made up of states and territories. Meanwhile the United States includes four commonwealths as if they were states and holds two more as unincorporated territories.


State pretty much always used to mean a high governing authority for an area. Nation is similar, but implies a certain level of social cohesiveness. Here's what wikipedia has to say about the difference:

The state is a political and geopolitical entity; the nation is a cultural and/or ethnic entity. The term "nation-state" implies that the two geographically coincide, and this distinguishes the nation-state from the other types of state, which historically preceded it.

The United States of America pretty much spoiled "state" in its original sense, for purely historical reasons. Basically the individual 13 colonies that made it up wanted to act in concert, but keep all governing authority over their own citizens to themselves. Hence "United States".

After a few years this proved a bit unworkable (13 states each with their own currency and charging each other import and export tariffs kinda sucked for trade), so they got together and created single over-government to cover the entire federation of 13 states (a "federal government"). They still tried to leave a lot of power up to the individual states though. Over the years a lot of that power has bled up to the Federal government, so technically the USA is really one state. However, the name USA had stuck by then, and we still call our second-tier governing units "states".


I have never heard of this distinction, and I am highly doubtful of its legitimacy.

Here's how I think of them:

  • State: a group of people where at least one person has power and authority
  • Nation: identical to a state in the legal sense; alternatively, a group of people identified by one culture (less common)
  • Country: land that is under the control of a state

Note that there is also a distinction between state and government, which your quote seems to not note. The state is the sovereign power, but delegates the actual governing to the government. In the United States, for example, the state is the government and vice versa--the President is elected to become both the head of state and government. However, in contrast, the United Kingdom has a separate state and government. Her Majesty is the head of state, and the Crown is the state, but the government is the Cabinet and is headed by the head of government, the Prime Minister. While Her Majesty does not actually make policy, she still rules the United Kingdom.

  • 2
    FWIW, historians and anthropologist make a distinction between "nation states" and other states that is driven by the scale of their internal organization, and the direction of loyalty to the national entity rather than toward a king, leader, clan, etc. etc. Commented Mar 4, 2011 at 3:01

In British english, the word state usually refers to an area controlled by one government. The word nation can mean the same thing, but can also mean a group of people linked by culture, who for various historical reasons, live in several different states. An example is “the Kurdish nation”.

Within the UK, in common usage, the word state is sometimes used to mean something controlled and funded by central government; for example “state school” as opposed to “private school”.