What Is The Difference Between The United Kingdom, England, Great Britain, And The British Isles?

With Brexit, the British coronavirus variant, and the insignificant royal bickering, the British nation has been in the news a lot recently. It seems a lot of people are quite confused by the different names that are related to this iconic country across the pond, so let’s explain the difference between the United Kingdom, England, Great Britain, and the British Isles. No, they don’t mean the same thing at all.

People often confuse these terms and, for example, say “England” when they’re actually talking about the “United Kingdom.” And we feel like those who love to travel and explore our world should love to learn more about our world too (we sure do!).

So let’s clear up this confusion, and the next time your travel across the Atlantic with our super-cheap Flytrippers flight deals, you will know exactly what each term actually means.

 

The UK, England, Great Britain, and British Isles

Here’s a photo of an iconic spot in the UK, in England, in Great Britain, and in the British Isles… but all 4 terms are still very different.

Classic view of the UK, England, Great Britain, and the British Isles (photo credit: Aron Van de Pol)

 

In short, the United Kingdom and England are political terms:

  • The United Kingdom (UK) is the name of the country
  • England is the name of the main part of the UK

Great Britain and the British Isles are geographic terms:

  • Great Britain is the name of the main island of the UK
  • The British Isles is the name for that whole group of islands

It’s pretty simple once you know it, after all!

London is in England, which is a part of the country called the United Kingdom. This part is located on the island of Great Britain, which is one of the British Isles.

In other words, all of England is in the UK: England is a subdivision of the UK. But there are other parts of the UK that aren’t England.

And Great Britain is the island where England and other parts of the UK are located. But there are other British Isles around Great Britain, some of which are part of the UK—but not all.

Map of the British Isles (image credit: Google Maps)

 

Let’s look at each term in more detail.

 

United Kingdom

Politically speaking, the UK is a sovereign country, comprised of 4 constituent countries.

The fact that these 4 are called countries instead of provinces or states might be what leads to confusion. These 4 are not independent countries: the UK is what we all know as a country. The UK is the one represented at the United Nations.

The Union Jack (photo credit: Simon Frederick)

 

Here are the 4 main subdivisions of the UK (and the island where they are located):

  • England (Great Britain)
  • Scotland (Great Britain)
  • Wales (Great Britain)
  • Northern Ireland (Ireland)

The UK’s full name is actually the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”

As that name suggests, the UK consists of the island of Great Britain and the northeastern part of the island of Ireland… but also other territories.

You might not know this, but the United Kingdom’s flag, the famous Union Jack, is actually a layering of the historic flags of Ireland, Scotland, and England (sorry, Wales).

 

Each subdivision has some autonomy in its political matters, but all of them are bound to the Crown. However, each one retains its local identity and language.

For example, the official language of the UK, overall, is English, but Welsh is also an official language in Wales. And Scotland is so different that they held a referendum on independence in 2014 (and might succeed in the next one due to Brexit). Finally, Northern Ireland is also culturally pretty distinct from the 3 other parts of the UK since it is on a different island.

The United Kingdom highlighted in red (image credit: Google Maps)

 

England

What most people think of when they think of “the UK” and “Great Britain” is indeed England.

It is the largest and most populous subdivision in the UK. London, the capital and major metropolis, is in England (as are the 3 other largest metropolitan areas in the UK: Manchester, Birmingham, and Leeds-Bradford).

A lesser-known side of England (photo credit: Daan Huttinga)

 

In fact, 84% of the UK’s population is in England (56 million out of 67 million total). For comparison, Canada’s most populous province has 38% of the country’s population (in the US, it’s just 12%).

England is obviously the birthplace of the English language and is famous for its rich history, fine literature, Stonehenge, iconic architecture, infinite number of crowded pubs… and the myth of everlasting rainy weather.

Just like many things in the world are very counterintuitive, London is not that rainy: did you know that most of Europe is factually rainier than London? True story. Even Miami is rainier than London.

We’ll have a post about this soon… but it’s a good reminder that just because you think something is true, that doesn’t mean the facts agree. It’s a good lesson that should already have been learned by all those who’ve explored the world and seen that what most people think of most places is not always accurate…

England highlighted in red (image credit: Google Maps)

 

Great Britain

Great Britain (or just Britain) is a purely geographic term: it’s just the name of the largest European island, located in the North Atlantic Ocean, northwest of continental Europe.

It is the part of the United Kingdom consisting of England, Scotland, and Wales.

What might lead to confusion is that the demonym for citizens of the UK is “British” because “United Kingdomers” doesn’t sound great. It’s not unlike how “Americans” is also derived from a geographic term that isn’t entirely accurate for the corresponding country.

Great Britain is just one of the British Isles (the largest one).

 

The British Isles

The British Isles is also a geographical term. It refers to the entire group of islands located in the northwestern part of Europe.

The archipelago consists of more than 6,000 islands, but the 2 main ones are:

  • Great Britain
  • Ireland

While all of Great Britain is part of the UK, not all of the island of Ireland is part of the UK—only the northeastern part. The country of Ireland occupies the majority of the island of Ireland and is a sovereign nation that is completely independent of the UK.

In other words, on the island of Ireland (which is one of the British Isles), the northeastern part belongs to the United Kingdom (a country) but the southern part belongs to the Republic of Ireland (a different country).

 

Venn diagram illustrating all 4 terms

If you like Venn diagrams, here is an interesting one with geographic terms in green and political terms in blue.

 

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You can also read our post about the difference between the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China.

 

Summary

What is the difference between the United Kingdom, England, Great Britain, and the British Isles? Some are political terms while others are geographic terms. The sovereign country is the United Kingdom: England is just one part of the UK (albeit the main one). The group of islands where the UK is located is called the British Isles, and Great Britain is simply one of those islands (the biggest one).

Have you confused these terms before? But more importantly, have you visited any of these places? Tell us in the comments below!

 

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Featured image: traveler in the British Isles (photo credit: Simon Migaj)

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Andrew D'Amours

Andrew is the co-founder of Flytrippers. He is passionate about traveling the world but also, as a former management consultant, about the travel industry itself. He shares his experiences to help you save money on travel. As a very cost-conscious traveler, he loves finding deals and getting free travel thanks to travel rewards points... to help him visit every country in the world (current count: 62/193 Countries, 46/50 US States & 9/10 Canadian Provinces).

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