When I was in college, a friend texted me with something along the lines of, “My flight is connecting through Cincinnati and Ohio will be my 20th state!” That was problematic because (1) he was only connecting at the airport, which shouldn’t count as a true visit; and (2) the CVG airport isn’t actually located in the State of Ohio – it’s just across the state line in Hebron, Kentucky. Oops!

Meme: Lee Corso on ESPN College Gameday saying Not so fast, my friend.

Every time I do an interview, I’m asked how many states or countries that I’ve visited. It’s a frustrating question, because the answer depends on how going somewhere is defined. Do you count the cities, states or countries that you’ve flown over, or that you’ve passed by on a boat? Do you count a destination if you’ve only changed planes in its airport? There are many different opinions on this, with some believing that whatever nets the biggest number is best. I’m a purist, though, and present the following rules for counting the number of countries, states or territories visited.

When Can You Claim That You’ve Been Somewhere? These are Wheelchair Travel’s Rules for Counting Countries Visited

In order to count a destination, you should accomplish at least two of the following activities within the state or country that you are visiting:

  • Eat a meal from a restaurant, food stand or other dining establishment.
  • Participate in a substantial tourist or cultural activity/experience.
  • Sleep overnight at a hotel, bed & breakfast, campground or private residence.

If you’ve completed two of the aforementioned activities at the destination, it should count, but the following rules also apply:

  1. Flying over a state or country does not count.
  2. Traveling through the territorial waters of a country without going ashore does not count. Get off the boat!
  3. Driving (or riding) through a state or country without stopping does not count. Get out of the car, bus or train!
  4. Transiting through an airport, train station or bus depot does not count; travelers must have experiences outside of the terminal.
  5. One must generally clear customs/immigration of countries that will be counted, unless there is a legitimate reason that makes doing so impossible, impractical or inadvisable.

To prove just how committed I am to these rules, I’d point to a country that I’ve flown to countless times (more than 10) and slept overnight in multiple times (more than 3), but still don’t count as having visited. That country is Qatar. I’ve flown Qatar Airways, connected at the Doha Airport and slept in airport hotels and lounges many times, but I’ve never entered the country. It’s still on my list of places to visit, and one day I hope to leave the Doha Airport.

Rolling across the Kenya - Tanzania border in a wheelchair.
Rolling across the Kenya – Tanzania border in a wheelchair.

There’s also the time I briefly rolled across the border into Tanzania during my Kenya safari. I haven’t counted Tanzania as a visited country.

How Many Countries Are There in the World?

Prior to my car accident, I dreamed of visiting every country in the world. When I became a wheelchair user, I cleared the list, restarted it at zero and vowed to visit every country in the world with my wheelchair. But, what’s the goal? What’s the number I need to hit?

The answer is, “it depends.” It depends on which list of countries you work from, and which territories are counted as countries. Here are a few data points worth considering:

  • The United Nations is comprised of 193 member states and 2 observer states (Vatican City and Palestine).
  • 11 other states claim independence, operate as a de facto independent state and/or have been recognized by one or more UN member states: Abkhazia, Artsakh, Cook Islands, Kosovo, Niue, Northern Cyprus, Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Somaliland, South Ossetia, Taiwan and Transnistria.
  • Some travelers recognize and count territories claimed or administered by other countries as countries in their own right. This list could include places like Aruba, British Virgin Islands, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, etc.

For the purposes of my own list of visited countries, I only count states that have been formally recognized by the United Nations and which maintain a relationship with the international body, plus Antarctica. Under that rubric, I am counting towards a list that currently numbers 196 countries.

Wheelchair user riding the Hong Kong Star Ferry.

Counting the U.S. territories and places like Gibraltar and Hong Kong would boost my number, but it’s dishonest. My goal is to visit every country in the world, which is a tall order, but my motivation doesn’t actually have anything to do with a number. Rather, I am interested in visiting each of the world’s countries in an effort to collect treasured moments — a delicious meal, a meaningful conversation, an inspiring performance — each of these an experience that forges a memory to cherish and remember.

I suppose that really must be our goal — not seeking to fill up our map with pins marking the places we’ve visited, but instead marking the spots where we’ve met another human being, shared a meal, or laughed. Those are the things that will sustain us, both in the present moment and in the future.

As for me, I’ve got 46 countries and thousands of memories worth pinning to my travel map (thus far). I hope your own travels will prove to be just as fruitful with respect to the collection of memorable moments.

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