Visiting Every Country in the World: What Counts as Having ‘Visited’ a Country?

Recently there has been a lot of talk about Cassie de Pecol, an American girl who claims to be the first woman to have visited every sovereign country in the world (which has been disputed). In some travellers’ circles this has sparked a big debate about what actually counts as having visited every country in the world. I myself have had this discussion countless times.

How do we define a ‘country’?

There are two major points of disagreement that tend to come up when people talk about visiting every country in the world. The first is on what to define as a country. Countries like Kosovo and Taiwan are often subject to debate (I personally count both). The same goes for Macau and Hong Kong (neither of which I would count) and other autonomous pseudo-states such as Abkhazia and Western Sahara (which I also wouldn’t count).

The biggest problem with this debate is that it is incredibly political and it is hard to find a ’standard’ to which everyone can agree. Some people disagree because of political reasons while others just want to loosen the definition of ‘country’ in order to boost their tally.

At the end of the day, it’s impossible to come up with a definition or list that everyone agrees with, which is why most people follow the ‘UN members’ standard, in which only UN member states count.

So what counts as having visited a country?

The second and biggest point of contention is on what counts as having ‘visited’ a country, which is where it gets a little tricky. If you look up people who have visited every country in the world, you will see that a majority of them count things like airport layovers and stepping briefly over a border. Most travellers wouldn’t count either as having visited a country. This is where the whole debate surrounding Cassie comes in, because in some countries such as Yemen, she apparently paid off guards to briefly cross the border from Oman into Yemen before returning back.

First of all, I think it’s important to note that travelling should not be all about keeping scores and checking countries off a list. I understand that people like to keep count (I do it too) and I do see the appeal of visiting every country in the world, but I think it should be about more than just checking countries off a list. It should be about the experiences, the adventure and the joy of visiting every corner of our planet.

Keeping count is fine and wanting to visit every country in the world is great, but it should first and foremost be about the experience of visiting these countries. Personally, I do not think that briefly jumping across a border counts; those who do count it are only cheating themselves. It is completely meaningless because you not only don’t experience the country at all, but you go against the entire point of travelling and seeking adventure in the first place. In the case of Cassie in Yemen, she could have had a more authentic experience having a meal at any traditional Yemeni restaurant in the States.

There is only one traveller I know of that is on the path to truly visiting every country in the world and that’s Johnny Ward from OneStep4Ward. He may be a crazy fucker, but he has gone to great lengths to actually visit and experience every country in the world. The fact that he has tried and failed to properly get into Yemen (the last country on his list apart from Norway) 5 times is testament to that. Johnny also paid off a guard to briefly get into Yemen, but he himself says that it doesn’t count. Respect.

The 3 criteria for actually visiting every country in the world

I understand that travellers who make an effort to actually experience every country properly get irritated when someone claims to have visited every country even though they took questionable shortcuts along the way. That is also why I don’t think there is much value in being the person to have visited every country in the world in the shortest period of time.

It’s pretty hard to draw the line between having visited a country or not. Most would agree that hopping across the border for half an hour isn’t enough. But what about an afternoon? A day? A week? I guess it depends on the country (size, uniqueness in its region, etc.) and what you’re looking to get out of it. I usually count country as ‘visited’ if 3 criteria are met:

  • Experience something unique to that country (a natural site, monument or cultural event)
  • Eat a local traditional meal
  • Meet and speak with a local

I wouldn’t say that doing those three things would count as travelling to a country, but then again, visiting and travelling to a country are not the same thing.

The difference between travelling to and visiting a country

I’ve deliberately used the word ‘visiting’ instead of ‘travelling’ because I feel there is a difference. I have travelled to China because I spent a month properly experiencing the country but I have only visited Estonia because I spent a few days in Tallinn.

I guess what I take issue with is that many people ignore the difference between travelling to a country, visiting a country and having technically been to a country. The latter is a lot easier to do and not something that has much value.

I do not want to discredit the achievements of travellers like Cassie who have gone out to experience the world and seek adventure. I have a lot of respect for anyone who has the guts to travel to far flung places. That being said, if you want recognition as someone who has travelled the world visited every country on the planet, I think you should do it properly. There is little value in simply checking off boxes and hopping across borders.