Terminology of the British Isles

Great Britain and Ireland Map

What is the difference between Great Britain, the United Kingdom, the British Islands and the British Isles?

The terminology of the British Isles can sometimes be tricky. Keep on reading this post and you’ll be able to know when to use or not use these expressions.

To fully understand what each of them refers to, the first thing you must keep in mind is that some of the expressions above are physical (geographical), and some are political. But what does this mean?

The field of geography is divided into two main areas: physical geography and human geography.

Physical geography is the branch of geography dealing with natural features.

Human geography is divided into several branches, one of them being political geography, which deals with boundaries, divisions, and possessions of states.

This is the reason why there are physical and political maps.

So now let’s see if the terms above are physical, political, or both.

British Isles

First of all, this term is physical, not political. The British Isles are a group of islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of western Continental Europe. They consist of Great Britain, Ireland, and over 6,000 small islands.

Orthographic projection of the British Isles. Author: Rob

Great Britain

Great Britain is sometimes also known as just Britain. It’s the largest island of Europe and of the archipelago of the British Isles.

Politically, the island is part of the United Kingdom. The term Great Britain is often used loosely to refer to the United Kingdom, which is a mistake even some British people do.

Most of England, Scotland, and Wales are on Great Britain, and surrounding islands are often included in the term.


Ireland is the second largest island of the British Isles and the third largest in Europe. It’s situated to the west of Great Britain. The Irish Sea lies between both islands.

Politically, the Republic of Ireland (officially known as just Ireland) occupies most of the Irish territory. Northen Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, is also part of the island.

The fact that the term Ireland is both geographical and political may cause confusion between non-natives.

The island of Ireland.
Political map of Ireland.
Political map of Ireland, showing the Republic of Ireland in white and Northern Ireland in the north-east of the island.

United Kingdom

The sovereign state of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is commonly known as the United Kingdom (UK). It’s sometimes referred to as Britain too. Again, this is a mistake even natives make.

The UK includes:

  • the island of Great Britain –England, Scotland and Wales–;
  • Northern Ireland;
  • and many smaller islands.

British Islands

British Islands

Finally, the term British Islands refers collectively to:

The following map summarizes very well all the explanations above.

British Isles
Euler diagram with an overview of the British Isles terminology.

If you want more information about the terminology of the British Isles, visit this page on Wikipedia.



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