It makes a great trivia question – What is the world's smallest country? You could decide to look at population or the actual area the country occupies. In this case, the answer is the same either way: Vatican City.
Vatican City, an enclave within Rome, may seem a surprising answer. Its name implies it's a municipality, not a country. Plus, it's home to the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. But Vatican City was declared an independent state in 1929 via the Lateran Treaty, an agreement signed by Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI. The treaty granted Vatican City sovereignty in exchange for papal recognition of the kingdom of Italy.
So, exactly how tiny is this unique country? Vatican City is a mere 0.2 square miles (0.52 square kilometers), which is smaller than New York City's Central Park. Nevertheless, it has its own post office, telephone system, radio station, banking system and even its own currency, the Vatican euro. About 800 people live here, 75 percent of whom are members of the clergy.
While Vatican City is a bona fide country, it's not recognized by the United Nations (U.N.), the world's largest intergovernmental organization. Instead, it's considered a permanent, nonmember observer, which means it's welcome to sit in the U.N.'s General Assembly and access most U.N. services and benefits, but it can't cast a vote. And that's just fine with Vatican City.
Unlike its only other U.N. counterpart, Palestine, which has repeatedly applied to become a full U.N. member, Vatican City has never done so. In fact, it's the only independent nation to ever decline U.N. membership. Experts believe it has eschewed membership because the pope doesn't wish to directly interfere in international policies. In addition, if it were to apply for membership, the U.N. might challenge the idea that it's a true country per the U.N.'s definition, which includes the ability to assist with global security. Instead, the U.N. could argue it is simply a religious organization.
Other Tiny Countries
Vatican City is the world's smallest country by quite a bit. Yet that doesn't mean the runners-up are substantially larger. According to World Population Review, the next four smallest countries by area are:
- Monaco, a principality on the French Riviera (0.78 square miles or 2 square kilometers)
- Nauru, an island in the southwest Pacific Ocean (8.1 square miles or 20 square kilometers)
- Tuvalu, a nine-island nation in the south Pacific (11.6 square miles or 30 square kilometers)
- San Marino, a mountainous country within north-central Italy (24 square miles or 60 square kilometers)
If you're looking at population, the next four smallest countries after Vatican City are:
- Nauru (10,876 inhabitants)
- Tuvalu (11,931)
- Palau, a 500-island archipelago in the western Pacific (18,169)
- San Marino (34,017)
Pitcairn Island has a population of just 50 people, but since it is a British Overseas Territory, rather than an independent nation, we've excluded it from our list of smallest countries.