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U.K. vs. Great Britain: What’s the Difference (and Will Brexit Change Anything)?

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Northern Ireland, home to historic Dunluce Castle, is part of the U.K. but not Great Britain.

Photo by Aleramo / Shutterstock

Northern Ireland, home to historic Dunluce Castle, is part of the U.K. but not Great Britain.

Spoiler alert: The U.K. and Great Britain are different things. Here’s what you need to know about the history and etymology of a fairly baffling cluster of islands.

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Welcome to AFAR Answers, a deep dive into all your unanswered travel questions. Next up: What’s the difference between the United Kingdom and Great Britain?

Following on from our explainer about the difference between Holland and the Netherlands—and as AFAR’s resident Brit—I’ve been asked to untangle the nomenclature of my home country (and its neighbors). It’s all a bit complicated, so buckle up . . .

So what is the difference between the United Kingdom, Great Britain, and the rest?

This might be best with some bullets. 

  • The British Isles refers to a group of islands in the North Atlantic off the coast of continental Europe. These include Great Britain and Ireland, as well as numerous others (the Isles of Scilly off the Cornish coast; the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea; the Shetland Islands, the Hebrides, and the Orkney Islands off Scotland). And there’s the Channel Islands, which are closer to France and are not part of the U.K. or the EU but possessions of the British crown and whose residents are British citizens.
  • Great Britain is the squashed triangle-shaped island that includes England, Wales, and Scotland.
  • The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (or U.K.) consists, as its full name suggests, of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Their capitals are London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, and Belfast, respectively.
  • A Brit is a British person or Briton (a native of Great Britain) (also crustaceans, apparently).
  • British means you’re a native of GB or the U.K.

Essentially, Great Britain means the island. The United Kingdom refers to the sovereign country.

Greek scholar and geographer Ptolemy used the term “Great Britain” to distinguish the island from Ireland (which he called “Little Britain”) for his circa 150 C.E. map of the regionand “Great Britain” was also used later to differentiate the region from Brittany, in France, which was known as Britannia minor, or lesser Britain. (Little Britain nowadays just means a 2003 sketch comedy lampooning the British, while “Little Englander” is a pejorative term for a diehard nationalist.)

The United Kingdom consists of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The Kingdom of England was established under King Athelstan in 927 from several Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (and joined with Wales under Henry VIII in the 1530s). The Kingdom of Scotland dates back to 843. The two united in 1707 to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. In 1801, the Act of Union saw Ireland join, but in 1922 the country withdrew, creating the Irish Free State and leaving just part of the north in the U.K. (Northern Ireland).

That’s how it still stands today. For now . . .

For now?

Scottish independence has been discussed for some time, and a 2014 referendum saw a vote to remain in the U.K. win by 55.3 percent (with 44.7 percent voting to leave). The recent Brexit victory/debacle (delete depending on your viewpoint) has once again brought into question the longevity of the union, with some reports suggesting support for independence has reached 52 percent. Scotland voted against Brexit.

Ah, Brexit. We were wondering when that would come up.

Brexit means British exit, but of course it refers to the United Kingdom leaving the EU (because nothing here is simple). That happened formally on January 31, 2020, ending a union that existed since 1973 when the U.K. joined—along with Denmark and Ireland—what was then known as the European Economic Community. (Existing countries in the EEC were Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany.) 

We’re currently in an 11-month transition period, during which the U.K. will continue to follow EU rules and attempt to strike a trade deal, aiming to remove quotas and reduce tariffs among other things.

One of the biggest concerns during the three-and-a-half interminable years since the original Brexit vote was the issue of the “backstop,” which was essentially an effort to ensure there wouldn’t have to be border posts between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Under the current deal, there’s a customs border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

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There aren’t a huge number of immediate, drastic implications for travelers contemplating a trip to the U.K., but the fluctuating pound is worth keeping an eye on. The overall uncertainty kept it fairly low for some time.

Anything else we should know?

The U.K.’s Olympic contingent is known as Team GB (for Great Britain)—even though athletes from Northern Ireland compete. What’s up with that? Well, the team is actually known as the Great Britain and Northern Ireland Olympic Team but you’ll never hear fans or broadcasters use that, and the British Olympic Association (BOA) uses the brand Team GB, as the BBC reports

Their reasoning? “The BOA is the National Olympic Committee for Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands and the UK Overseas Territories (including the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar). As such, neither ‘UK’ nor ‘GB’ describes the BOA’s remit.”

It’s a minefield. Don’t worry, we Brits get it. If in doubt, use the specific country (England, Wales, etc.) or stick to the U.K. 

Next: What’s the Difference Between Holland and the Netherlands?

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