What’s the Difference Between England, Scotland, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, & the British Isles?

what's the difference between united kingdom and great britain

What's the difference between England, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, and the British Isles? And where do Scotland and Wales fit in? Are they countries?  States? Provinces? Is a Scotman British? 

It's understandably confusing to anyone who doesn't (a) live there, or (b) spend a fair bit of time visiting or studying the area. 

What does it mean when you say, “The British Isles”?

Everything in this map = The British Isles

We'll start with the biggest area, The British Isles. This refers to England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Ireland, and all the little islands nearby.

The Isle of Man, for example, is not part of Great Britain or Ireland or the United Kingdom, but it IS part of the British Isles. It's what's known as a Crown dependency. meaning it's a self-governing possession of the Crown. The Isle of Man is the small purple island in between the two larger islands.

The Bailiwick of Jersey (home to singer Gilbert O'Sullivan) and the Bailiwick of Guernsey are also frequently considered part of the British Isles, as they are nearby Crown dependencies – but they're actually closer to France than England. You can see them at the very bottom of the map.


What's included in the United Kingdom?

The United Kingdom

The United Kingdom is a smaller subdivision within the British Isles – excluding Ireland and the Crown dependencies we mentioned earlier. It's comprised of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, along with any islands considered to be part of those countries (like the Shetlands or Hebrides Islands of Scotland). 

The UK is a governmental division, rather than a more general geographic description. This is the actual country, and this is the bit that left the EU following Brexit. The official name is “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.


So then what's Great Britain?

Great Britain – no part of Ireland is included in this designation

So what's Great Britain? This one gets a little fuzzier because it's not a precisely-defined legal or political term. What's absolutely certain is that Great Britain doesn't include any part of Ireland, and it doesn't include the Isle of Man. It DOES include mainland England, Scotland, and Wales.

So where's the gray area? It's the islands. The Shetlands, for example, are well removed from the coast of Scotland, but they ARE a part of the country of Scotland. In most contexts, you would go ahead and include them in the “Great Britain” designation.

When you refer to something as “British”, this is the bundle of places you're referring to. Fair warning, though – some people from Wales and Scotland see themselves as Welsh or Scottish first, and don't much care for the “British” label. 


So what are England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland? 

Once you understand that the United Kingdom is a country made up of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, another question arises. If the UK is a country, is England a country? A city? What about Scotland? 

The UK is what's known as a “sovereign country”, and it's made up of 4 countries. So yes, they are countries within countries. 

Simple, right?

30 thoughts on “What’s the Difference Between England, Scotland, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, & the British Isles?”

  1. Thanks for the update! We lived there for 18 years, raised two kids in the British school system and learned very early (1978) to understand all the “who is what” about the UK. Each “country” is very protective of their histories, as I learned along with my 2 children as they progressed through their education in the UK. (They went off to US universities). Funnily enough my son married a Hungarian raised in Australia (met at business school in CA) and they now live in Australia. Our daughter married an Englishman raised in Canada, and now live in NY. See what can happens when you expose kids to another culture? Ha ha!

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