How to understand the difference between the UK and Great Britain

The United Kingdom is in itself a country that is made up of England, Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland. It’s official name is “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. It has one government based in London and has one currency: the pound stirling (£). The UK is a constitutional monarchy with Queen Elizabeth II as the head of state. The capital city of the UK is London.

british islesGreat Britain is an island which is made up of three counties: England, Scotland and Wales. Great Britain is the political term describing the political union of the kingdoms of England, Wales and Scotland made on 1 May, 1707. Northern Ireland is not part of Great Britain.

When we use the term UK, we’re actually using an abbreviation. UK is short for United Kingdom, which in itself is short for, the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.

When we talk about Great Britain we’re actually just talking about a geographic feature – and not a political country. Great Britain is the large island made up of England, Scotland and Wales – this excludes all the islands like the Isle of Wight and many other islands around the coastline.

However, the ambiguity creeps in when you refer to just use the word Britain. This could be a political or geographic reference. Politically it refers to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Or geographically it could refer to the island of Great Britain.

Some people will refer to the UK as Great Britain, but really that’s a bit sloppy. It’s like referring to North America when you really mean the USA. Even worse still some people refer to the Scottish as English.

However it’s always straightforward either. For example, someone born in Northern Ireland has the right to identify themselves as either Irish, British or both. This is a provision that was made in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. But then Northern Ireland politics has always been complicated.

Here’s a video explaining the difference:

Do you still have doubts? Here’s another video with transcript!


Man: So where are you from?

Woman: Scotland. Are you Scottish too?

Man: Well no, I’m English actually, but… you know… it’s all like the same thing, isn’t it?

Woman: Not exactly.

Man: Go on! Isn’t Scotland just like well, a bit of England?

Woman: No, it is not!

Man: Sorry, Britain I mean.

Woman: “Britain” is not “England”!

Man: Well yeah… I know that, I’m not stupid or anything… but Britain’s like, England, Scotland and Wales, isn’t it?

Woman: Not exactly.

Man: Yeah, it is; the UK, the United Kingdom.

Woman: The United Kingdom is “Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland”.

Man: Oh I see, but we’re all like the same nation, aren’t we?

Woman: Not really. Four nations, one state.

Man: Oh, I get it! So the UK (is) like the same as Great Britain…

Woman: Great Britain is a geographical term – it’s a big island with Scotland, England, and Wales on it.

Man: All right, but we all have the same prime minister, don’t we?

Woman: Yes, and the same head of state.

Man: The Queen!

Woman: Exactly.

Man: And the same government?

Woman: Well, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own local parliaments.

Man: Oh. I see.

Woman: It’s complicated.

Man: Yeah, I can see that.