How to count the number of countries you have visited
You’re sitting on a plane, or in an airport terminal between flights. You’ve come from one country and are going to another, and while there is anticipation and excitement in that journey, there is also the boring reality of the moment. Although crossing the planet today is quick by historical standards, it still takes hours and hours to make that journey, and there are only so many movies you can watch, naps you can take, books you can read, and strangers you can avoid talking to. Eventually your mind starts to wander, and it’s natural not only to think about this trip or future trips, but past trips you have taken. Which may lead your wandering mind to one question:
How many countries have I visited?
It feels like that should be an easy enough question to answer: think of all the trips you have taken in your life, and count up the number of countries you visited. Voila! Remember, too, to include your home country, of course; I am always curious why people, especially people who have not traveled a lot, do not count their home country.
But very quickly you might realize that there are two confounding definitional questions here:
What does it mean to “visit” a country?
What counts as a “country”?
These may sound like pedantic questions, but, as with most things in life, the devil is in the details. Consider the following examples:
The classic: do I count countries in which I had an layover between flights in which I did not leave the airport?
Do I count a country if I took a train across it and did not disembark? What about a bus? A car? A bike? And why does it feel like those might be different answers?
Do I have to spend a minimum amount of time in a country for it to count? Spend the night? Have a significant experience? Talk to someone who lives there? Eat local food?
I went white-water rafting on the Zambezi River, which forms a border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. I got on and off the boat in Zimbabwe, but definitely crossed into Zambian water without touching Zambian ground. Did I visit Zambia?
I was scouting a film location along the China-Kazakhstan border and accidentally (and unknowingly) wandered over the border into Kazakhstan for 45 minutes, a fact that I did not discover until later. Did I visit Kazakhstan?
In 1989, I visited the Soviet Union, and went to the cities of Moscow and Tblisi, which are now, post-Soviet break-up, in the countries of Russia and Georgia. I have not been back since. Should my list today reflect that I have been to the USSR, or to Russia and Georgia?
In 1987, I visited the city of Cologne, located at the time in West Germany. This year, I am planning on visiting Berlin for the first time, which was in East Germany in 1987. Should my list say that I have been to West Germany and to Germany? Would the answer be different if I was going back to Cologne?
I was born in Prague when it was in Czechoslovakia. Today it is in the Czech Republic. Soon, it will be in Czechia. I have never been to any other country. How many different countries will be on my list when that change happens?
There are lots of places that some people consider to be a country, and other people disagree with them. Is Palestine a country? Wales? Puerto Rico? The Falkland Islands? Taiwan? French Guyana? Hong Kong?
I flew over eight countries during a recent international flight. I checked, and two of them never agreed to the first Freedom of the Air (to fly over another country without landing). Does this means that those countries consider their airspace to be sovereign territory, and therefore I was in those two countries?
The only way to answer all of these conundra fairly and honestly is to have a clear, cogent principle that can be applied broadly. To that end, I hereby present:
The Cell Phone Test
To determine the number of countries you have been to, think about the answer you would have given to the question, “Where are you?” if someone called you on your cell phone at any given moment in your life. The answer you give determines whether or not you have visited a country, and what it is called.
Let’s see The Cell Phone Test in action: imagine that while you are traveling, your phone rings and someone asks where you are. If you would answer with the name of that country, then you get to count it on your list, named as that country. An easy example: if you are at the Brandenburg Gate and your phone rings, you would say, “I am in Germany.” Done. Put Germany on your list. But if you are at Berlin’s Tegel airport, waiting for your flight, and your phone rings, you would say, “I am in Tegel.” You are not in Germany, and you don’t get to count it. Similarly, if you are crossing Germany on a train and your phone rings, you would say, “I am on a train in eastern Germany.” Therefore, you are not in Germany, but on a train, and you do not get to count it. If you were in Berlin in 1985, not only would you be listening to Falco, but your answer would be “East Germany,” which makes your answer different than today’s answer. The essence is this: if your natural answer to The Cell Phone Test is to say the name of the country you are in, then you have visited that country, and you know what it is called.
Passing The Cell Phone Test generally means that you have accomplished two things:
You have entered that country, either by crossing through passport control or -- in the case of uncontrolled borders such as in the Schengen Area, or accidentally or illegally crossing into a country -- crossing the point where passport control would be if it existed.
You have touched ground in that country, either paved or unpaved, or are utilizing a personalized mode of transportation such as a car or bike.
This test means that you get to decide the name of the country that you have visited, which solves the subjective question of naming places. A Chinese nationalist and a pro-democracy activist could be standing next to one another in Taipei and have different answers to the same question, “Where are you?” Similarly, place names can and often do change over time, and should reflect the name when you visited them and had this mythical cell phone conversation.
The Cell Phone Test can also be applied to other similar geographic questions, such as the number of US states that you have visited. Those are, in fact, a little easier to count, since there are very few to no definitional questions about what counts as a “state,” and there are relatively few internal border disputes in the US. There are probably really interesting questions to be asked about Native American reservations: is entering one of these “autonomous administrative divisions” any different than entering a state? Is there a reasonable way to count them as a different country? My sense is that the answers to these questions is “no,” but I am nowhere near knowledgeable enough about that issue to have a firm opinion about it.
So let’s go back to those ten questions and apply The Cell Phone Test to them:
1. The classic: do I count countries in which I had an layover between flights in which I did not leave the airport?
NOT JUST NO, HELL NO. This was kind of the entire point of me writing
2800 words on this topic.
Some people argue that airport layovers should count. There is a name for those people: wrong.
If you didn’t go through passport control, and you didn’t leave the airport, then you did not visit the country. Ask Tom Hanks in The Terminal, or Edward Snowden in July 2013: airport terminals do not count as entering a country. Whether or not you spent the night in the airport does not matter. What matters is whether or not you crossed through passport control and left the airport. If you spent the night at an airport hotel that you never left, then you do not get to count it. If you had a 16-hour layover from 6am to 10pm, during which time you left the airport and went and explored the city, it absolutely counts, and you are to be commended for making the most of your travel opportunities.
2. Do I count a country if I took a train across it and did not disembark? What about a bus? A car? A bike? And why does it feel like those might be different answers?
This is the most difficult, squishiest line to me. In general, I would say that if you took a train or bus, the answer is no, but it’s a yes if you took a car or bike. The difference is that trains and buses feel like you are in the train or bus; a car or bike feels like you are connected to the country. Is it because you are closer to the ground in a car or bike? I think so.
But what if your car were a Monster Truck? Ok, I’d probably count a Monster Truck, just because you drove a Monster Truck across a country without getting out, and you are awesome, my friend.
The car question gets trickier if you consider a situation in which you’re a passenger in the car, and you are asleep for the entire transit across the country. Do you have to be awake for the country to count? Again, The Cell Phone Test has an answer: yes, because you have to be awake to answer your phone. If you’re not awake, then, the country does not count.
Here’s where I might be persuaded differently about the train or bus counting (and my daughter Beatrice gets credit for this argument): if the bus or train you are taking is a local bus, with local people on it, and makes several stops en route, you might very well tell someone on your cell phone, “I am DEFINITELY in Guatemala right now,” for example. Overall, the line here is not bright and as easy to define as in some other places.
3. Do I have to spend a minimum amount of time in a country for it to count? Spend the night? Have a significant experience? Talk to someone who lives there? Eat local food?
No, no minimum amount of time is necessary; a toe-touch does it. Why should someone who was in a country for eight hours get credit where someone who was in a country for seven hours and fifty-nine minutes does not? Does something magical happen in that extra minute? And what does it mean to “spend the night” in a country? Do you have to have had a minimum amount of sleep? Would a daytime nap of the same amount of hours count? Why does someone who spent 10 hours in a country, 8 of them asleep, get to count it, while someone else who was awake in that country for 36 straight hours not get to count it? Why would one conversation or one food be representative of experiencing a country? Overall, the toe-touch rule is cleaner and easier to justify.
4. I went white-water rafting on the Zambezi River, which forms a border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. I got on and off the boat in Zimbabwe, but definitely crossed into Zambian water without touching Zambian ground. Did I visit Zambia?
No, you did not visit Zambia. While you crossed the border (part 1 of the rule) you did not touch ground (part 2 of the rule). Water does not count as ground. If your cell phone had rung while you were on the raft, a) you should not have answered it because you were white-water rafting, and I don’t care who is calling, you should live in the moment, b) why did you bring your cell phone on a white-water rafting trip? And c) you would answer, “I am on a rafting trip on the Zambezi!” without checking whether or not you were on the Zambian side. Besides, afterwards you should have visited Victoria Falls and walked to the Zambian side! That’s totally easy and amazing! C’mon, live a little!
5. I was scouting a film location along the China-Kazakhstan border and accidentally (and unknowingly) wandered over the border into Kazakhstan for 45 minutes, a fact that I did not discover until later. Did I visit Kazakhstan?
Yes, you visited Kazakhstan.
While it is true that, at that moment, you would have answered The Cell Phone Test as “China,” ignorance should not overrule geography.
As soon as you learned that you were in Kazakhstan, you should add it to your list. Maybe think about calling that person back and saying, “Hey, remember when you called me earlier and I said I was in China? Turns out I was in Kazakhstan!” Also, you have a cool job. Do you need an intern?
6. In 1989, I visited the Soviet Union, and went to the cities of Moscow and Tblisi, which are now, post-Soviet break-up, in the countries of Russia and Georgia. I have not been back since. Should my list today reflect that I have been to the USSR, or to Russia and Georgia?
The USSR, because that’s what you named it when you were there when someone called you on your brick-sized 1989 cell phone. If you go back to Moscow and Tblisi today, then you add Russia and Georgia to your list, without taking the USSR off. You were in differently-named countries.
7. In 1987, I visited the city of Cologne, located at the time in West Germany. This year, I am planning on visiting Berlin for the first time, which was in East Germany in 1987. Should my list say that I have been to West Germany and to Germany? Would the answer be different if I was going back to Cologne?
You went to West Germany in 1987, and are going to Germany this year, so list them separately. The answer would not be different if you were going back to Cologne.
8. I was born in Prague when it was in Czechoslovakia. Today it is in the Czech Republic. Soon, it will be in Czechia. I have never been to any other country. How many different countries will be on my list when that change happens?
Answer: Oddly, three. If you answered your awesome new cell phone with the flip- out mouthpiece rang in 1993, you would give a different answer than from today, which is different than you would give a few years from now. Count them all.
9. There are lots of places that some people consider to be a country, and other people disagree with them. Is Palestine a country? Wales? Puerto Rico? The Falkland Islands? Taiwan? French Guyana? Hong Kong?
You get to decide what to name a place! There is no Definitive List of Countries, so it is necessarily subjective. Anyone who tells you differently has simply accepted a third person’s list, whether that be the UN or the Olympic committee or Wikipedia, and you are not bound to accept their or anyone else’s definition. Of the places on this list, for example, I have been to Puerto Rico, Wales, Taiwan, French Guyana, and Hong Kong. I do not count Puerto Rico or Wales, but I do count Taiwan, French Guyana, and Hong Kong. Why? Because it’s my list, and that’s just how I feel. Plenty of people would disagree with me on my decisions. That’s fine. It’s my list, and I get to do what I want with it, just like you get your own list to do what you want with. CGP Grey’s outstanding video, How Many Countries Are There? is a great
introduction to the complexities of defining what exactly a country is and all the ways you might count countries. It’s actually a fairly interesting intellectual exercise to examine what you count and what you do not, to think about what that says about you and your biases, and contemplate where those biases came from. I’m sure that my counting Taiwan but not Puerto Rico comes from being raised in the US, and that if I had been raised in China I would feel very differently.
10. I flew over eight countries during a recent international flight. I checked, and two of them never agreed to the first Freedom of the Air (to fly over another country without landing). This means that those countries consider their airspace to be sovereign territory, and therefore I was in those two countries, right?
Answer: No. Stop being desperate; it’s unseemly. Other people are starting to stare. Seriously, cut it out.
There are hundreds of other exceptional cases, and I am sure that there are some that could test the outermost boundaries and principles of The Cell Phone Test, but in general, remember the two keys: you crossed a border, and you touched land.
(My country count? 40. Thanks for asking.)