How many countries are there in the world?

Sounds like an innocent question! Yet one could hardly get more dangerously political. Countries are supposed to get each their own two-letter TLD in the DNS, or ccTLD (such as, .de for Germany), and this is the cause for economic battles which further complicate the diplomatic difficulties.

Basically, there are four official sources:

There used to be in ISO 3166-1 an “FX” code for “Metropolitan France” (many contry lists still have this entry); someone (being unsatisfied with the way the .fr domain was managed) tried to convince Jon Postel to create a .fx ccTLD, but failed. The code has since disappeared (it is marked as “exceptionally reserved”). At various other times, there were also codes such as “BU” (Burma), “CS” (Czechoslovakia), “DD” (German Democratic Republic), “NT” (Zeus knows what!), “SF” (Finland, variously), “SU” (USSR), “YD” (Democratic Yemen) and “ZR” (Zaire), which vanished for various reasons, and are or were transitionally reserved. “TP” (East Timor) is also transitionally reserved. The “ZZ” code is reserved for an unkown or unspecified country, “AA” is reserved for Zeus knows what, and “Xx” and some “Qx” codes are reserved for private use (whatever that might be). The “AC” (Ascension Island), “GG” (Guernsey), “IM” (Isle of Man), “JE” (Jersey) and “UK” (United Kingdom, variously) codes used by IANA are exceptionally reserved, and so are, for various other reasons, “AX” (Åland) [update: on 2004-02-13, the ISO 3166 maintenance agency has decided to include an entry for Åland Islands with alpha code AX/ALA and numeric code 248; this page should be updated to reflect this fact], “CP” (Clipperton Island), “DG” (Diego Garcia), “EA” (Ceuta, Melilla), “EU” (the European Union), “IC” (Canary Islands), and “TA” (Tristan da Cunha). Lastly, there are some variant (incorrect) codes which should not be used, such as “DY” for Benin (correct code is “BJ”), “EW” for Estonia (correct is “EE”), and so forth.

The “PS/PSE” code for the Occupied Palestinian Territory (Palestine) was added to ISO 3166-1 (effective 1999-10-01) after the area was entered in the UN's Statistical Division's list (Palestine has a permanent observer status in the UN's General Assembly, as does the Holy See, the European Union or the Sovereign Military Order of Malta) in September 1999. The .ps top-level domain was delegated by IANA in March 2000.

Another note concerns Yugoslavia. What has been variously called “the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro)”, then “the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia”, and then simply (transitionally) “Yugoslavia” by the United Nations, was informed by the General Assembly on 1992-09-22 (resolution 47/1) that it could not continue what was formerly the (UN founding member) “Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia”. On 2001-11-01, it became a new UN member and on 2003-02-04 changed its name to “Serbia and Montenegro”. This means that references to “Yugoslavia” (or variants thereof) will cease to appear in UN publications, and the Statistics Division now lists the country as “Serbia and Montenegro” (891). The ISO 3166-1 maintenance agency might consequently decide to change the “YU/YUG” code of Yugoslavia to something different for Serbia and Montenegro; so far they have decided to maintain the status quo. (On the one hand, changing the code is unpleasant, especially if IANA decides to follow. On the other hand, it would be strange to continue using the same code when the United Nations have formally declared that the two are not the same.) [Update: on 2003-07-23, the ISO 3166 maintenance agency has decided to delete the YU/YUG code for Yugoslavia and to replace it with CS/SCG for Serbia and Montenegro, the numeric code 891 remaining unchanged; the YU/YUG code remains transitionally reserved for a period of five years. This page should be updated to reflect this fact.] While we're at it, there is the case of “The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (MK/MKD), often abreviated to FYROM, which got this perfectly ridiculous name because of political reasons (essentially the insistence on the part of Greece and Bulgaria that it could not simply be “Macedonia”).

Also, there is the question of the European Union. So far they have been using a .int domain, namely Since the EU is not a country, it cannot be a UN member (it has permanent observer status). Nor is it part of a country: since the geographical divisions made for statistical purposes by the UN's Statistics Division cannot overlap, there cannot be one for the EU. Of course, the ISO 3166 maintenance agency has then refused to attribute the “EU” alpha-2 code to the European Union (but it did reserve it exceptionally for that purpose). This caused some problem, because the unified currency, the Euro, was registered by ISO 4217 as “EUR”, and the first two letters of an ISO 4217 alpha-3 code are supposed to be identical with the ISO 3166 alpha-2 code, so there should have been an “EU” alpha-2 code in ISO 3166. Anyway, great political pressures are being set on various bodies to make the “EU” code official and create a .eu top-level domain, which ICANN has, so far, refused.

Finally, I can say a word of the Order of Malta, or, more precisely, the “Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta” (it is essential to get the name right, because there are countless pseudo-Orders of Malta with names that sound almost exactly like that but have nothing or very little authentic about them). They have UN permanent observer status, and can legitimately be considered as a sovereign State, but one without a territory: although the UN do not recognize them as such, some independant States do (most notably, Italy, and the Order has an embassy in Rome, on the Aventine; also, naturally, the Holy See). There is little likelihood, however, that the Order should get an ISO 3166-1 code ever.

Of course, all of this does not answer the original question. That should be somewhere between 194 and 239, but nobody seems to have a good answer.

Addendum [2003-08-03]: Marco Schmidt (marcoschmidt[at sign]users[dot]sourceforge[dot]net) compiled his own list of countries and territories and their codes, which seems to be one of the most reliable on the Web.