UK vs GB: What’s the difference between Great Britain, the British Isles and the United


Establishing the difference between Great Britain, the British Isles and the United Kingdom can cause confusion even among Britons.

The region, off the northwest coast of mainland Europe, has a collective history with a long list of terms to refer to different areas, both geographically and politically.

Scroll down to learn more about what differentiates them – and never mistake Britain for the UK again!

UK vs Great Britain (or Britain)

Great Britain, or simply Britain, is not a country but an island made up of England, Scotland and Wales.

It is referred to as ‘Great’ because of its size, being the largest island in the British Isles according to Historic UK.

Great Britain is made up of England, Scotland and Wales, while the island of Ireland comprises Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland

Great Britain is made up of England, Scotland and Wales, while the island of Ireland comprises Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland

Like Great Britain, the United Kingdom comprises England, Scotland and Wales, with the addition of Northern Ireland.

However just to confuse matters, the term Britain is sometimes used to refer to the UK as a whole, as noted by Britannica.

Is the UK a country?

The UK Prime Minister’s official site describes the UK as ‘countries within a country’, as shown by the National Archives.

To break this down, the UK is an independent ‘island country’ which is made up of four nation countries – England, Scotland and Wales (also known as Great Britain) and Northern Ireland.

The UK is also referred to as a sovereign state where Parliament has ‘supreme legal authority’ to ‘create or end any law’, according to the UK Parliament website.

‘For Americans, the best analogy would be that the UK is like the USA, whilst its four consistent countries are like states,’ says Historic UK.

England, Scotland and Wales make up Great Britain while the United Kingdom also includes Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland is an independent country of its own. They are all geographically located within the British Isles, though this is a controversial notion in Ireland

England, Scotland and Wales make up Great Britain while the United Kingdom also includes Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland is an independent country of its own. They are all geographically located within the British Isles, though this is a controversial notion in Ireland

British Isles

The British Isles is a geographical term used to refer to a collection of more than 6,000 islands.

‘The group consists of two main islands, Great Britain and Ireland, and numerous smaller islands and island groups, including the Hebrides, the Shetland Islands, the Orkney Islands, the Isles of Scilly, and the Isle of Man’, Britannica says.

‘Some also include the Channel Islands in this grouping,’ it adds (more on this below).

British Isles – an Irish perspective

Pictured is Dublin, the capital of the Republic of Ireland

Pictured is Dublin, the capital of the Republic of Ireland 

‘Although the term British Isles has a long history of common usage, it has become increasingly controversial,’ Britannica explains.

This applies ‘especially for some in Ireland who object to its connotation of political and cultural connections between Ireland and the United Kingdom’, it adds.

The Irish government has not supported the use of the term ‘British Isles’ since September 2005.

Speaking at the time, then Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern said: ‘The British Isles is not an officially recognised term in any legal or inter-governmental sense. It is without any official status.’

Mr Ahern’s famous comments are quoted by Sean Moncrieff in his book ‘The Irish Paradox: How and Why We Are Such a Contradictory People’.

England vs Wales vs Scotland

The UK Parliament (above left) is based in London, in the House of Commons and the House of Lords

The UK Parliament (above left) is based in London, in the House of Commons and the House of Lords 

GREAT BRITAIN, THE BRITISH ISLES AND THE UNITED KINGDOM IN BRIEF

Great Britain: An island off the northwest coast of mainland Europe comprising England, Scotland and Wales.

United Kingdom: A sovereign country that includes the countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

British Isles: A geographical term that refers to a group of more than 6,000 islands including Britain, the island of Ireland, and the Channel Islands.

England: A country that borders Scotland and Wales – which together make up Great Britain and form part of the United Kingdom.

Source: Historic UK 

The UK Parliament – made up of the House of Commons and the House of Lords in London – is ‘the supreme legal authority’ that can ‘create or end any law’, according to the UK Constitution.

However, Wales and Scotland both have parliaments with a certain level of autonomy. And though the English and Welsh legal systems are bound together, both Wales and Scotland can create their own laws.

For example, the drink-drive limit and the legal hours for buying alcohol are stricter in Scotland than in England and Wales.

Arson and manslaughter do not exist as offences in Scotland, where they are referred to as ‘wilful fire raising’ and ‘culpable homicide’ retrospectively, according to the Scottish Parliament.  

Ireland vs Northern Ireland vs Republic of Ireland

Ireland is an island located to the west of Great Britain, which is separated by the North Channel.

The island is the second largest in the geographical area of the British Isles, after Great Britain.

It is made up of two countries – Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Northern Ireland forms part of the UK, which is no longer a part of the European Union.

While the Republic of Ireland is its own independent country and remains one of 27 members of the EU bloc.

All of the island of Ireland was part of the UK from 1801 to 1922. 

Where do the Channel Islands fit in?

The Channel Islands are not part of the UK but are dependencies of the British crown

The Channel Islands are not part of the UK but are dependencies of the British crown

The Channel Islands have been ‘dependencies of the British crown’ since 1066, according to Britannica.

Located off the coast of France, they are not a part of the UK and are self-governing with their own customs and laws.

The four main islands are Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, and Sark.

Some say the Channel Islands are a part of the British Isles including the official website of the British Royal Family, which refers to them as ‘self-governing possessions of the British Crown’.

While others argue that they are not included because they are physically a separate archipelago from the rest of the isles.

The Channel Islands were the only British territory to be occupied by the Germans during World War II, Britannica adds.



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