Who’s Counting?

The subject of counting the countries that you’ve visited is guaranteed to prompt lively discussion among veteran travelers. Some look askance at country-counters — “the world isn’t a checklist.” Others see it as a badge of honor — “Hello, my name is George. I’ve visited 76 countries.” Probably as with many things in life, moderation should be the guiding principle. There can be pleasure and even utility in country-counting, as long as it doesn’t become your primary motivator for choosing destinations.

Let’s assume we’ve chosen not to be travel snobs. We’re going to at least consider country-counting. We have several questions to answer:

  • Why are we counting?
  • What do we count as a country?
  • What are the minimum requirements for a visit?
  • How do we count (what tools do we use)?
country counting cropped
country counting spreadsheet

Why Count Countries?

Because it’s fun. And because sometimes it is very useful.

My husband and I have been traveling seriously for about 15 years. For the decade before that, I traveled for business. That’s when I started counting. My colleagues were counting, so I did, too. It helped me keep track of where I’d been and when. Which sometimes matters.

Recently, we had to apply for visas to India. The visa application asked you to list the countries that you’ve visited in the last 10 years. For us, that’s a long list, but our trusty country-counting spreadsheet made it easy. (Hint: they don’t really want to know all the countries you’ve visited. The maximum their form will take is 20.)

Similarly, the US Global Entry application (and renewal) want to know what countries you have visited in the last 5 years. And they do mean all.

More personally, as serious (or seriously-addicted) travelers, we’re very good at remembering where we’ve been, but not nearly as good as remembering when. Our spreadsheet comes in handy.

Acquiring Countries for Your List Can Motivate Adventure

One of our travel goals is to visit at least one new country every year (which is getting harder). But we also want to travel with friends and to explore new regions of countries we’ve already visited. We try to make these things work together.

Several years ago, we signed up for a wonderful tour of southwest France and northern Spain and Portugal — new regions for us but not new countries. We studied a map and discovered that tiny Andorra is only a few hours’ drive from our starting city, Toulouse. We flew in a few days early, rented a car, and spent several fascinating days in Andorra.

Andorra with arrows
Vilnius with arrows

Similarly, we took a wonderful trip to Scandinavia with several of our favorite travel buddies. It was our first visit to Lapland in Finland, but none of the Scandinavian countries were new to us. 

A quick look at the map pointed us to Vilnius, Lithuania. Somehow, we’d managed to visit the other Baltic countries but not Lithuania. We found Vilnius delightful.

We also visited Gdansk, Poland, a new country for my husband. What an interesting city, and so walkable.

We’re country counters, but not crazy. We briefly flirted with the idea of visiting Minsk, Belarus, but the logistics were challenging, and the political situation scared us off.

The bottom line for us… we have a strong desire to visit new countries, but we try to spend at least a couple days, not just cross the border to say we’ve been there.

What Counts as a Visit?

People who count countries (or states or provinces) have differing opinions about the minimum visit required for it to “count.”  If you search “country counting” on the internet, you’ll find a number of articles that discuss when you can count a visit. I found the short and sweet set of rules from a Travel Weekly article (shown in the image) does a good job of summarizing the important considerations. However, in our household, we don’t count transiting through an airport. My husband has changed planes at Narita airport in Tokyo four times but still doesn’t count Japan as one of his countries.

Some people have a rule that you have to sleep in a country, which I think is too exacting. Another rule I’ve read is that you have to visit at least one “sight” or eat a meal in a country. That feels more realistic. Whatever rule you choose, be sure it encourages you to actually learn something about the country, rather than simply driving through to check it off your list.

What Is a Country?

Rule # 6 above says “Official territories of another country do count as separate entities.” The wording is a bit ambiguous, but it gets at the fundamental question of what we should count as a country. 

Some people are “strict constructionist” who only count countries that are members of the United Nations (193 of them today). 

If you look at the excerpt from our spreadsheet above, you can see that we don’t fall into the strict constructionist camp. The first entries are Easter Island (part of Chile) and Greenland (part of Denmark). Even without an official rationale (which we’ll get to in a minute), both of them feel like separate “countries.” To get to Easter Island from Santiago is a 5-hour flight across the Pacific Ocean. To get to eastern Greenland, we took a 3-hour flight from Iceland, turned around because of bad weather, and did it again the next day. And both Eastern Island and Greenland feel culturally separate and unique.

Many of us turn to the Travelers’ Century Club for an expanded list of countries. They count territories that are geographically separated by a large expanse of water or another country. (They count Alaska and Hawaii, which for Americans seems like a stretch, but I do think we should count Puerto Rico.)

The important thing to remember: country counting should be fun and rewarding. Pick a method that works for you and don’t feel obligated to defend it.

Tools for Keeping Track

I swear by the spreadsheet that I’ve been using for years. The Travelers Century Club now has their own downloadable spreadsheet, but I haven’t tried that yet. I really like the chronology of my spreadsheet. Not remembering when you were in Uzbekistan is a good problem to have! And my spreadsheet is a good solution to the problem.

Below are samples of the output from several different browser and smart phone tools. (Click the images for links.) My count varies in each because they work from slightly different lists. They all have a visual component which makes me uncomfortable. For example, we’ve been to Moscow and St. Petersburg, plus the towns in between on the Volga. But these tools highlight the huge geography that is Russia as if we’ve seen it all. Similarly, we’ve been to a couple small villages in the southeast corner of vast Greenland and only Beijing and Shanghai in China, but we get “credit” for vast swaths of geography. With that caveat, visual tools are fun. Give them a try.

I encourage you to try country tracking in some form. It can be a wonderful memory jogger and motivate you to expand your next adventure. Plus, it will be helpful the next time you need to renew Global Entry. Happy traveling!

Countries visited
Countries Visited
Visited countries
Visited Countries
BEEN (Smart phone app)