There’s a whole world out there, and it’s filled with a vast array of idiosyncratic places. However, language barriers and communication issues can stunt international trade and other factors associated with globalized nations. Thankfully, this is where standards help the entire world.
The ISO 3166 series of international standards details country codes and codes for their subdivisions. These universal abbreviations save time and help numerous groups avoid errors that might arise while using a country’s name, since names change between languages.
Some common uses of ISO country codes include international mail, as top-level domain names (e.g. “.fr” for France or “.ca” for Canada), determining the nationality of the user of a machine-readable passport, and exchanging money between banks.
Here’s the breakdown of the three standards in the ISO 3166, “Codes for the representation of names of countries and their subdivisions,” series:
ISO 3166-1:2013 – Codes for the representation of names of countries and their subdivisions – Part 1: Country codes sets the country codes. It establishes for each country an alphabetic 2-character (alpha-2) code, an alphabetic 3-character (alpha-3) code, and a three-digit numeric (numeric-3) code. For example, the United States is abbreviated as US, USA, and 840.
This document is intended for use in any application requiring the expression of current country names in coded form. It also offers guidance for the codes’ implementation and maintenance.
Please note that ISO 3166-1:2013 does not define the names of countries. This information instead comes from the United Nations, and the international standard draws from Terminology Bulletin Country Names and the Country and Region Codes for Statistical Use maintained by the United Nations Statistics Divisions.
ISO 3166-2:2013 – Codes for the representation of names of countries and their subdivisions – Part 2: Country subdivision code compiles codes for representing the names of principal administrative divisions of countries and territories included in ISO 3166-1:2013. It is ideal that subdivision code elements incorporated in this standard reflect code systems already established nationally or internationally.
For clarity, these subdivision codes are structured with the alpha-2 country code from ISO 3166-1, a hyphen, and then the code element of the subdivision name, expressed in either one, two or three alphabetical and/or numeric characters. For example, the code for New York State is US-NY.
ISO 3166-3:2013 – Codes for the representation of names of countries and their subdivisions – Part 3: Code for formerly used names of countries lists codes of country names that have been removed from past editions of the ISO 3166 standard. The codes established by ISO 3166-3:2013 serve to represent former countries with alpha-4 code elements. Depending on the specific circumstances, these codes feature a combination of the former alpha-2 country code, the current alpha-2 country code, and, in the case of a division of a country or deletion of a country name, the letters HH.
For example, the former Burma, which name changed to Myanmar, is represented under ISO 3166-3:2013 as BUMM. Czechoslovakia, which divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, is represented as CSHH.
All parts of ISO 3166 are available as the ISO 3166 – Country Codes Collection.