ISO 3166-1

Wednesday, 2 October, 2019

ISO 3166-1 just trips off the tongue, however it’s one of those standards that underpins a fair amount of daily geospatial traffic that is undertaken on a daily basis. Yes, I’m talking about country codes which Wikipedia helpfully defines as:

ISO 3166-1… defines codes for the names of countries, dependent territories, and special areas of geographical interest

This is important because it is used in so much analogue and digital data exchange between countries, although don’t for a moment think the ISO is the only organisation that defines country codes… but that’s a whole other blog post!

What gets in included in the list is interesting… the criteria for inclusion include member states of the United Nations, a UN specialized agency or a party to the Statute of the International Court of Justice. Becoming a member state of the UN is clearly helpful, although what makes a country is interesting in itself, as well as highly politicised. Palestine is an obvious example, but just look at the UK. The UK is a country, but should Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland also be included? For example, they are included for FIFA. The UN loosely uses Article 1 from the Montevideo Convention which outlines four qualities a state should have: a permanent population, a defined territory, government, and the capacity to enter relations with other states.

Anyway, once you are on the ISO 3166-1 list you get 2 and 3 letter codes, along with a 3 digit numerical code. These are maintained by the ISO 3166 Maintenance Agency and, given the above, change regularly. You can view the current list here and subscribe to official updates.

At the RGS we are a membership organisation and take online international payments, so having up-to-date country codes is important. Rather than subscribe to the ISO, we use the UK government Country Register, which includes an update service. It has the ISO-2 letter codes, although isn’t necessarily identical (as it’s countries the UK recognises).