ISO 3166-1:2020 – Country Codes Standard Changes

Colorful stars and the earth, which contains hundreds of countries with ISO 3166-1:2020 country codes.

The standard that specifies country codes, ISO 3166-1:2020 – Codes For The Representation Of Names Of Countries And Their Subdivisions – Part 1: Country Code, has been revised.

A World of Places with a World of Names

Throughout the world, hundreds of countries and territories serve as unique pockets in the global mosaic of wonders, but these distinctions do present some barriers. Names often surpass language barriers, but that is not always true when it comes to the names of countries. Standards, however, have long served to break down barriers and streamline communication and industry processes, and ISO 3166-1:2020 serves to provide a universal resource for country abbreviations.

Various names for a single nation can derive from numerous historical factors. Over time, different groups encounter places previously unseen by their eyes and attach their own name to that region or nation. Some nations and peoples borrow existing names for places, and the pull of that word to match the phonetics of their language can drive loanword adaptation, ultimately forming a largely different name.

Endonyms and Exonyms

Varying country names are distinguished by endonyms (name given by an insider to a place, person, or thing) and exonyms (name given to a place, person, or thing by an outsider). A great example of a nation with numerous exonyms is Germany.

The English exonym is Germany, but the endonym (what Germans call it) is Deutschland. However, a multitude of other names exist for this country, and they all derive from its history. In Old High German, the word for “popular” or “of the people” was diutisc, which led to the modern Deutch. The Gauls of France, however, called their neighbors Germani. Throughout history, this region was home to migratory tribes, and it is from the Allamanni that the French call the nation Allemagne and the Saxons that the Finns call it Saksa. Alternatively, Slavic languages have given the country names derived from the Neman River, such as the Polish Niemcy.

In fact, almost every language uses a word for Germany based on one of these five origins (you can tell by which letter comes first: D/T, G, A, S, or N).

Germany is not alone in history shifting its global nomenclature. Japan notably differs from the Japanese word for the nation, Nippon or Nippon, meaning “The Land of the Rising Sun,” likely because of a mistake. Marco Polo, during his travels, learned about an island called Cipangu in one of the Chinese dialects. This likely corrupted into the Italian Giappone. However, this origin is up to some debate, as Dutch or Portuguese traders may have brought their own interpretations of the name to Europe.

Regardless of their origins, these vast variations in country names persist throughout the world, and ISO 3166-1:2020 helps provide harmonized abbreviations to surpass these disparities (e.g. Germany is DE, DEU, or 276).

What is ISO 3166?

What are sometimes known as “ISO Country Codes,” the ISO 3166 standard, which is broken into three parts, details specifications for country codes and their subdivisions. These act as universal abbreviations for the nations around the world.

Common uses for the country codes specified in these standards include as top-level domain names (e.g. “.de” for Germany or “.ca” for Canada), determining the nationality of the user of a machine-readable passport, and exchanging money between banks.

Green forest around the river Neman in Belarus, after which some countries name Germany.

ISO 3166-1:2020, as the first part of this series of standards, sets specifications for the country codes themselves. Specifically, 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.

Please note that ISO 3166-1:2020 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.

Changes to ISO 3166-1:2020

The current version of the standard for country codes revises and supersedes the past edition of the same document from 2013. This document is prepared by Technical Committee ISO/TC 46, Information and documentation.

The codes themselves, however, are managed by a Maintenance Agency (ISO 3166/MA), which was established by the ISO Council. Some duties of the ISO 3166/MA include adding and eliminating country names and subdivision names, advising users and ISO member bodies regarding applications of the codes, and publishing for experts the entire content of the database.

To keep current this essential set of rules for country codes, ISO 3166-1:2020 contains the following changes:

  • The codes were moved to the database format.
  • The components of the codes now are defined by descriptors, not by column or line numbers.
  • The status of each alpha-2 country code element was made explicit. This update is necessary for traceability over time.
  • All characters in the database, specifically those with diacritical marks, were checked with the Universal Coded Character Set, ISO/IEC 10646, and are used consistently.
  • The database encoding is UTF-8 (Universal Character Set Transformation Format – 8 bits) from ISO/IEC 10646, and the same has been used in many applications.

Please note that the three parts (three codes) of the ISO 3166 standard belong to the same database. Therefore, updates are done only once for all parts in the same revision cycle. As such, the same changes above are included as the primary changes made to parts 2 and 3 of ISO 3166.

ISO 3166-1:2020 – Codes For The Representation Of Names Of Countries And Their Subdivisions – Part 1: Country Code is available on the ANSI Webstore.

All ISO 3166 Standards

These other parts of the ISO 3166 series of standards consist of:

ISO 3166-2:2020 – Codes For The Representation Of Names Of Countries And Their Subdivisions – Part 2: Country Subdivision Code

ISO 3166-3:2020 – Codes For The Representation Of Names Of Countries And Their Subdivisions – Part 3: Code For Formerly Used Names Of Countries

You can learn more about standards in this series by reading our past post, ISO Country Codes – Standards in the ISO 3166 Series. If you need all three standards, you can acquire them together as the ISO 3166 – Country Codes Collection.

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