A country may be an independent sovereign state or part of a larger state, as a non-sovereign or formerly sovereign political division, a physical territory with a government, or a geographic region associated with sets of previously independent or differently associated people with distinct political characteristics. It is not inherently sovereign.
Countries can refer both to sovereign states and to other political entities, while other times it can refer only to states. For example, the CIA World Factbook uses the word in its "Country name" field to refer to "a wide variety of dependencies, areas of special sovereignty, uninhabited islands, and other entities in addition to the traditional countries or independent states".[note 1]
The largest country in the world by geographical area is Russia, while the most populous is China, followed by India, the United States, Indonesia, Pakistan and Brazil. The newest UN member is South Sudan. Admission of new members requires the approval of the General Assembly; since 1991, UN membership has been reserved to sovereign states. Microstates are sovereign countries having a very small population or very small land area, usually both; examples of microstates include Vatican City, Monaco and San Marino.
The word country comes from Old French contrée, which derives from Vulgar Latin (terra) contrata ("(land) lying opposite"; "(land) spread before"), derived from contra ("against, opposite"). It most likely entered the English language after the Franco-Norman invasion during the 11th century.
In English the word has increasingly become associated with political divisions, so that one sense, associated with the indefinite article - "a country" - through misuse and subsequent conflation is now a synonym for state, or a former sovereign state, in the sense of sovereign territory or "district, native land". Areas much smaller than a political state may be called by names such as the West Country in England, the Black Country (a heavily industrialized part of England), "Constable Country" (a part of East Anglia painted by John Constable), the "big country" (used in various contexts of the American West), "coal country" (used of parts of the US and elsewhere) and many other terms.
The equivalent terms in French and other Romance languages (pays and variants) have not carried the process of being identified with political sovereign states as far as the English "country", instead derived from, pagus, which designated the territory controlled by a medieval count, a title originally granted by the Catholic Church. In many European countries the words are used for sub-divisions of the national territory, as in the German Bundesländer, as well as a less formal term for a sovereign state. France has very many "pays" that are officially recognized at some level, and are either natural regions, like the Pays de Bray, or reflect old political or economic entities, like the Pays de la Loire.
A version of "country" can be found in the modern French language as contrée, based on the word cuntrée in Old French, that is used similarly to the word "pays" to define non-state regions, but can also be used to describe a political state in some particular cases. The modern Italian contrada is a word with its meaning varying locally, but usually meaning a ward or similar small division of a town, or a village or hamlet in the countryside.
The term "country" can refer to a sovereign state. There is no universal agreement on the number of "countries" in the world since a number of states have disputed sovereignty status. By one application of the declarative theory of statehood and constitutive theory of statehood, there are 206 sovereign states; of which 193 are members of the United Nations, two have observer status at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) (the Holy See and Palestine), and 11 others are neither a member nor observer at the UNGA. The latest proclaimed state is South Sudan since 2011.
The degree of autonomy of non-sovereign countries varies widely. Some are possessions of sovereign states, as several states have overseas territories (such as French Polynesia, a pays d'outre-mer, or the British Virgin Islands), with citizenry at times identical and at times distinct from their own. [clarify] but may nonetheless be treated as a separate "country of origin" in international trade, as Hong Kong is.
A few states consist of a union of smaller polities which are considered countries:
The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs annually produces the World Economic Situation and Prospects Report that classifies states as developed countries, economies in transition, or developing countries. The report classifies country development based on per capita gross national income. Within the broad categories, the United Nations identifies subgroups based on geographical location or ad hoc criteria. The UN outlines the geographical regions for developing economies as Africa, East Asia, South Asia, Western Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean. The 2019 report recognizes only developed countries in North America, Europe, and Asia and the Pacific. The majority of economies in transition and developing countries are found in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean.
The UN additionally recognizes multiple trends that impact the developmental status of countries in the World Economic Situation and Prospects. The report highlights fuel-exporting and fuel-importing countries, as well as small island developing states and landlocked developing countries. It also identifies heavily indebted poor countries.
The World Bank also classifies countries based on GNI per capita. Using the World Bank Atlas method, it classifies countries as low-income economies, lower-middle-income economies, upper-middle-income economies, or high-income economies. For the 2020 fiscal year, the World Bank defines low-income economies as countries with a GNI per capita of $1,025 or less in 2018; lower middle-income economies as countries with a GNI per capita between $1,026 and $3,995; upper middle-income economies as countries with a GNI per capita between $3,996 and $12,375; high-income economies as countries with a GNI per capita of $12,376 or more.
It also identifies regional trends. The World Bank defines its regions as East Asia and Pacific, Europe and Central Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Middle East and North Africa, North America, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Lastly, the World Bank distinguishes countries based on the operational policies of the World Bank. The three categories include International Development Association (IDA) countries, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) countries, and Blend countries.