A Quick and Painless Guide to UK Geography (Seriously!)

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If there’s one area of knowledge Americans usually fail on when it comes to this part of the world, its geography.

To this day, I can label about 10 English cities on a map and maybe one in Wales and IF YOU’RE LUCKY AND I’VE HAD 9 HOURS OF SLEEP, two in Scotland.

For most Americans (including myself before moving here), this confusion extends further.

Hey, sidenote! If you’re traveling to the UK or live in the UK, whether for a short period of time or as an expat, why don’t you join my Facebook group where you can ask questions, get advice or just look at pretty pictures of this part of the world! Just click here to request to join and I’ll add you!

As always, I’m fine being completely honest on here, so I’m just going to throw it out there: I used to think Ireland was part of the UK, had no idea WHAT Northern Ireland even was all about or that it was an entirely different country, and would have struggled to come up with many more English cities than London.

For many Americans, London = England. Actually, for Americans, London = the entirety of the UK and most of Europe.

The sheer embarrassment of my own ignorance is only partly lessened by the number of Brits who have asked me where my own home state is on a map. It goes both ways, people.

To enlighten you or save you from making any major faux paus while on this side of the pond, let’s have a basic geography lesson.


Firstly, you’ve got the British Isles.

These are the two major islands (one with Ireland and Northern Ireland, and one with England, Scotland, and Wales).

The British Isles also include lots of (much) smaller islands around the main ones. Easy enough? Okay, done.


Just because Ireland is located in the British Isles means nothing. The Republic of Ireland is…Irish. A completely separate country and government.

Okay, so now we’ve got four nations left: Northern Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales.

The entirety of these four countries make up the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But, wait. What is Great Britain?

great britain
Great Britain is the larger island, consisting of England, Scotland, and Wales. Since the creation of the UK, “Great Britain” is more of a geographical and cultural term, as the “British government” includes Northern Ireland.

However, let’s go ahead and make this slightly more complicated, SHALL WE?

Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland each have their own governments that are responsible for ‘domestic’ issues.

Things like health, education, and transport would fall under their ruling.

It’s similar to how a state in America would often be responsible for its internal issues while still “reporting” to the national government, but you have to remember that Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland are their own entities.

Yes, they are part of the UK, but, for most people, there is a certain pride that comes along with their country and their heritage that goes above and beyond the pride most people feel for their States.

Unless you’re from Oregon. I feel like people in Oregon REALLY love Oregon.

To sum it up,

British isles = Ireland + United Kingdom (+ multiple small islands)
Ireland = Republic of Ireland
United Kingdom = Northern Ireland + Scotland + England + Wales
Great Britain = Scotland + England + Wales

Also, one final piece of advice: if you’re not 100% sure where someone is from, either straight out ask them or play it cool until they mention it. Calling a Scottish or Welsh or Irish or Northern Irish person “English” could easily start the next World War, or at least earn you a cold stare and unspoken judgment.

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4 years ago

thank you for this! I was sooooo confused when I went to London!


4 years ago

AAHHA! Genius! you did a good job describing exactly what is what. When it comes to that part of Europe, it´s always messy and you have been very clear and exhaustive!



4 years ago

I knew most of this, except the part where Ireland is part of the British Isles. That’s news to me! I thought it was just England, Scotland, and Wales! Thanks for this post!

Renee Nicole's Kitchen

4 years ago

This is a great overview! Do you have a post planned to explain the counties? And the ‘shires. Like how does Worcester fit into Worcestershire? My boyfriend (English born and raised) tried to explain and, lets just say you would do a better job at it!


4 years ago

Thanks! That’s a great idea for a post! I’m the same way — my English boyfriend tries to explain things that seem so obvious to him and I just stare blankly and try to make him tell me in “American equivalents,” haha!


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