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What is the Difference between Nation and State

Mary Smith
By Mary Smith. Updated: December 4, 2017
What is the Difference between Nation and State

The world is made up of a mosaic of states, almost 200, but there are many more nations. How is it possible? It must be understood that the concepts of nation and state are indeed two different concepts, although the two terms are sometimes used to designate the same concept. In this article we will explain to you what the difference between State and Nation is in order to better understand the world around you.


A state is a political concept that refers to a sovereign social, economic, and political organization, formed by institutions that regulate the life of a community on a territory delimited by borders. In international law, for a state to be recognized as such, it must therefore respect three conditions:

  • A territory delimited by land and/or maritime boundaries
  • A population: all persons attached to the State by a nationality.
  • A government: the organs that represent the state and enforce its authority.

A state is often referred to as a country, because their meanings are very similar. However. country refers to a geographical and human area, which often constitutes the conditions of a state. In some cases, "country" can also designate regions or provinces of variable dimensions that are not states. Examples of this are the Basque country (a region within the Spanish state), as it is a region with traditional and natural borders.

The case of the United States of America

On the other hand, even though State and Country are usually synonymous, in the United States, each of the states that are in the country if the USA have their own government and laws, but the country's government (federal government) is entitled to a greater power that affects all states in the same way, following the U.S Constitution at all times.

On one side, the National government has the following powers:

  • To coin money
  • Foreign relations
  • Keep an eye on both interstate and overseas trade.
  • Declare war.

On the other side, each of the states have the following powers:

  • To ratify amendments
  • Legislate on public safety and health
  • Legislate on education.
What is the Difference between Nation and State - State


The term "Nation" is not legally recognized, and its definition may vary according to geographical areas. As a rule, a nation refers to a population living in the same territory and united by the same history, culture, language or ethnic origin. Sometimes a nation can have a political entity and constitute a state, then it will be called a nation-state, that is, the territory of the state corresponds to the geographical territory of the same nation, as it is the case of France, for example.

However, a Nation is not always synonymous of state, and there are nations without states, and states in which several nations cohabit. We will describe several cases below:

  • The Kurdish nation is a stateless nation. The geographical territory of this nation straddles four countries: Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. In all four countries, the Kurdish nation shares the same language, culture and religion.
  • In Europe there are many nations that are not state-owned, and although they possess a degree of autonomy and sovereignty, they are an integral part of other states: Catalonia in Spain, Scotland in the United Kingdom, Flanders in Belgium.
  • There are states composed of several nations, such as the United Kingdom, composed of the English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish nation (take a look at our article on the difference between England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom for more information), or Belgium composed of the Walloon and Flemish nation.

A state can officially recognize the existence of one or more nations within it, as is the case in Canada, which officially recognizes that Quebecois form a nation in their own right within the state of Canada, though it has no obligation to do so. A nation is not recognized by international law.

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What is the Difference between Nation and State