In keeping with the National Geographic Society’s more than 125-year chartered purpose as a nonprofit scientific and educational organization, the Society’s cartographic policy is one of portraying de facto situations; that is, to portray to the best of our judgment a current reality. Therefore, international boundaries and disputed territories portrayed on this site, where scale permits, reflect de facto status at time of posting. National Geographic strives to be apolitical, to consult multiple authoritative sources, and to make independent decisions based on extensive research.
Most political boundaries depicted on our maps, atlases, websites, and map apps are stable and uncontested. Those that are disputed receive a special treatment. These areas are often portrayed in gray, with their administrative centers designated with a special symbol.
When there are conflicting or variant names, National Geographic does not purport to be the arbiter or determiner of a single name, but simply tries to provide the reader of the map with sufficient information in which the reality of conflicting naming claims can be presented.
The following reflects National Geographic’s current map policy.
The Society’s policy for naming geographic features is governed by a representative council of Society advisors. This council meets frequently to assess available information about naming issues and, based on the best information and research available, seeks to make an independent judgment about future changes or clarifications on its maps, as well as to correct any errors. It is the policy of the Society to correct any errors as quickly as possible on the next published version of a particular map, atlas, website, or map-app update cycle.
Conventional (English) place-names are predominantly used on our maps. In instances when a commonly recognized form of a well-known place-name, such as Bombay, differs from the official national form, Mumbai, the conventional form is listed in parentheses: Mumbai (Bombay).
The Society does not follow any single source in making its naming determinations. Decisions regarding the naming assigned to geographic places, locations, bodies of water, and the like are checked against a number of external entities, including the U.S. Board on Geographic Names; recognized reference books such as encyclopedias, dictionaries, geographical dictionaries, other atlases, independent academic texts, and other similar sources; international bodies such as the United Nations, the European Union, and the like; and the policies of individual governmental entities. Names commonly recognized as alternatives or variants by such sources are often used on our maps. In such instances, the primary name is determined by using the form recognized by the de facto controlling country of the area, or by using the generally held conventional form of the name. On occasion, where warranted and where space permits, explanatory notes stating the basis or context of a recognized variant naming convention are provided. Current examples of the application of this variant naming policy are: Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas); Sea of Japan (East Sea); and English Channel (La Manche).
When a name has differing forms recognized by different countries, the primary name is determined by using the form recognized by the de facto controlling country of the area, or by using the generally held conventional form of the name.
Southern Kuril Islands, Russia
- Iturup (Etorofu): Russia–Japan
- Kunashir (Kunashiri): Russia–Japan
- Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas): United Kingdom–Argentina
- Sea of Japan (East Sea): Japan–South Korea
Possession labels appear in red type to noncontiguous territorial areas (generally islands), identifying the country that has political control of it. Where an area is controlled by one country but is also claimed by another, a longer red note identifying the controlling country and the party claiming ownership is given in red type.
- Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas), United Kingdom
Administered by United Kingdom, claimed by Argentina
Areas of Special Status and Disputed Territories
Most political boundaries depicted in our maps, atlases, websites, and map apps are stable and uncontested. Those that are disputed receive a special treatment. These areas are often portrayed in gray, with their administrative centers designated with a special symbol.
Where scale permits, explanatory notes, as those listed below, are added to some of our maps to explain the current political situation of such disputed territories.
Areas of Special Status
Abkhazia, Georgia: Separatists defeated Georgian troops to gain control of this region in 1993. In spite of years of negotiations and several military clashes, it remains under the control of Abkhazians. Only a few UN member states currently recognize this autonomous region as the independent Republic of Abkhazia.
Crimea, Ukraine: In a referendum that was disputed as illegal and under occupation, a vast majority of Crimean residents who voted reportedly chose to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. Shortly thereafter the Russian government approved the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. In late March 2014, the General Assembly of the United Nations approved a resolution declaring this referendum and Russia's annexation as invalid and affirming Ukraine's territorial jurisdiction of Crimea. One hundred of the UN's 193 member states approved the resolution, and 11 member states voted against it.
Gaza Strip and West Bank, Palestinian Areas, Israel: In November 2012 the UN General Assembly voted to elevate the diplomatic status of the Palestinian territories to that of a “nonmember observer state.” The lack of full Palestinian control over these territories has prevented the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state. Its future and that of millions of Palestinians remain subject to Israeli–Palestinian negotiations.
“Horn” of Darfur, Sudan–South Sudan: Southern Darfur, an area referred to by some as the “Horn” of Darfur, is marginally administered by both Sudan and South Sudan. The future of this resource-rich area is subject to further Sudanese and South Sudanese negotiations.
Kuril Islands, Russia: The southern Kuril Islands of Iturup (Etorofu), Kunashir (Kunashiri), Shikotan, and the Habomai group were lost by Japan to the Soviet Union in 1945. Japan continues to claim these Russian-administered islands.
Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan: Since a 1994 cease-fire between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces, ethnic Armenians have controlled Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding areas. Azerbaijan continues to claim this disputed region.
North Kosovo, Kosovo: Since Kosovo declared independence in 2008, the ethnic Serb majority in northern Kosovo has resisted the efforts of Kosovo’s government to impose its rule. As part of an agreement signed in April 2013 between Serbia and Kosovo, elections were held in late 2013 to determine the future governance of the region. To date, this region’s political integration with the Republic of Kosovo has yet to be formalized.
Northern Cyprus, Cyprus: Cyprus was partitioned in 1974 following a coup backed by Greece and an invasion by Turkey. The island is composed of a Greek Cypriot south with an internationally recognized government and a Turkish Cypriot north with a government recognized only by Turkey. The UN patrols the dividing line and works toward reunification of the island.
Somaliland, Somalia: In 1991 the Somali National Movement declared Somaliland an independent republic with Hargeysa as the capital. It is not internationally recognized.
South Ossetia, Georgia: Fighting between Ossetian separatists and Georgian forces broke out in 1991. A 1992 cease-fire ended the fighting until 2004. A full-blown war between Russian and Georgian forces followed in 2008, leading Ossetians to declare their independence from Georgia. Very few UN member states currently recognize South Ossetia as a political entity.
Taiwan, China: The People's Republic of China claims Taiwan as its 23rd province. Taiwan's government (Republic of China) maintains there are two political entities. The islands of Dongsha (Pratas), Kinmen (Quemoy), Matsu, and Penghu (Pescadores) are administered by Taiwan.
Transdniestria, Moldova: Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian and Russian minorities have been struggling for independence from Moldova.
Western Sahara, Morocco: Western Sahara, formerly Spanish Sahara, was divided by Morocco and Mauritania in 1976. Morocco has administered much of the territory since Mauritania's withdrawal in August 1979. The UN does not recognize this annexation, and Western Sahara remains in dispute.
Abu Musa, Iran–United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.): Claimed by Iran and U.A.E. and jointly administered
Cyrenaica, Libya: On March 6, 2012, the civic leaders of eastern Libya―Cyrenaica―declared this region semiautonomous. Its legal status remains pending.
Dokdo (Takeshima, Liancourt Rocks), South Korea: Administered by South Korea, claimed by Japan
Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas), United Kingdom: Administered by the United Kingdom, claimed by Argentina
Hans Island: Claimed by Canada and Denmark
Ilemi Triangle, Kenya: Administered by Kenya, claimed by South Sudan
Kashmir, India–Pakistan–China: India and Pakistan both claim Kashmir, a disputed region of more than 15 million people. India administers only the area south of the line of control; Pakistan controls northwestern Kashmir. China took eastern Kashmir from India in a 1962 war.
Kosovo: On February 17, 2008, Kosovo declared its independence. Serbia still claims it as a province.
Matthew and Hunter Islands: Administered by France, claimed by Vanuatu
Paracel Islands: Occupied in 1974 by China, which calls them Xisha Qundao; claimed by Vietnam, which calls them Hoàng Sa
Senkaku Shotō (Diaoyu Qundao, Diaoyutai), Japan: Administered by Japan, claimed by China and Taiwan
Spratly Islands: The scattered islands and reefs known as the Spratly Islands are claimed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The Spratlys possess rich fishing grounds and potential oil.
Tunb Islands, Iran: Administered by Iran, claimed by United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.)
National Geographic recognizes seven continents–Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America. Oceania is considered a region, associated with Australia, rather than a continent.
Antarctica: Seven countries claim Antarctic territory, but these claims are not legally recognized by the Antarctic Treaty of 1959. This treaty prohibits military activities and dedicates Antarctica to peaceful use and free exchange of scientific information. Some 30 countries maintain research stations, and many cooperate on international projects.
Asia and Europe: A commonly accepted division between Asia and Europe is formed by the Ural Mountains, Ural River, Caspian Sea, Caucasus Mountains, and Black Sea with its outlets, the Bosporus and Dardanelles.
Cyprus: Cyprus marks the southeastern extent of Europe. Its cultural and historic ties to the continent include joining the European Union in 2004.
Oceans, Seas, and Gulfs
National Geographic recognizes four oceans–Arctic, Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific.
Aral Sea: Once the world's fourth largest lake, the Aral Sea today covers an area one-eighth of its 1960 extent. Soviet-era irrigation canals diverted river water—causing the sea to shrink into two major lakes, the North and South Aral Seas, and changing the former lake bed into a desert.
Persian Gulf: Historically and commonly known as the Persian Gulf, this body of water is referred to by some as the Arabian Gulf.
Sea of Japan (East Sea): The sea between Japan and Korea is called the Sea of Japan by the Japanese and the East Sea by Koreans.
Southern Ocean: The Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans merge into icy waters around Antarctica. Some define this as an ocean, calling it the Antarctic Ocean, Austral Ocean, or Southern Ocean. While most accept four oceans, including the Arctic, there is no international agreement on the name and extent of a fifth ocean.
British Isles: The island of Great Britain comprises England, Scotland, and Wales. These, plus Northern Ireland constitute the United Kingdom. Historically, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands have been referred to as the British Isles.
Indochina: Indochina refers historically to French Indochina, which comprised Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Physical geographers extend the region to include Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), and peninsular Malaysia.
Middle East: The Arabian Peninsula, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestinian territories, Syria, and Turkey form the heart of the Middle East region. At its maximum it would extend from Morocco to Bangladesh.
Palestine: The bounds of the historical region of Palestine have varied through time, but it is generally agreed that the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River constitute its core.
The Balkans: The Balkan states consist of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, and the European part of Turkey.
The Caucasus: Consisting of two ranges—the Greater and Lesser—the Caucasus Mountains lie between the Black and Caspian Seas. This region includes southwestern Russia and the countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.
Bermuda, U.K.: A mid-Atlantic island group, Bermuda is not part of the West Indies but is traditionally included on West Indies maps.
Hawai‘i, U.S.: The state of Hawai‘i includes all islands and reefs in the chain that extend from the island of Hawai‘i to Kure Atoll, except Midway Islands, which are administered as a wildlife refuge by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Equatorial Guinea: Río Muni on the mainland and the islands of Bioko, Annobón, Corisco, and the Elobeies constitute the independent country of Equatorial Guinea.
Malaysia: Malaysia includes peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak and Sabah on the island of Borneo.
Mayotte, France: The island of Mayotte did not join the other Comoros in independence and remains an overseas region of France.
Montserrat, U.K.: Eruptions from Soufrière Hills volcano since 1995 have forced the evacuation of southern Montserrat—including its capital, Plymouth.
Mount Athos, Greece: The Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain (Ágion Óros, Mount Athos) is a self-governing community comprising 20 monasteries.
International Date Line: The position of the date line is based on international agreement, but it has no legal status. On New Year's Day, 2012, the island nations of Samoa, along with Tokelau (a territory of New Zealand) advanced their time zones. On that date they became among the first to start a new day and the first to celebrate a new year.
This page was last updated on December 10, 2014.