From Aberdeenshire to Yorkshire, from England to Northern Ireland, how many counties are in the UK? Here’s everything you need to know.

The United Kingdom is a union of four distinct countries comprising England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Traditionally, each of these individual countries was subdivided into counties, a type of local authority that can be traced to the ‘shires’ created by the Anglo-Saxons in England.

As the United Kingdom evolves, as its population expands and as each of its constituent nations gains more local power through devolution, the traditional county system is changing. While England remains divided into different counties, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland now have principal areas, council areas and districts. These administrative units no longer correspond to the historic counties of old, but they still exist for largely the same reasons and often draw on their heritage, as well as their geographic legacy.

For these reasons, there are multiple answers to the question, ‘How many counties are in the UK?’. Typically, the short answer based on historical counties would be 109, but based on modern administrative divisions, this number rises to 148. In this article, we’ll explore why and how this can change. Keep reading, to find out how many counties are in the United Kingdom.

How many counties are in the UK?

The question of how many counties are in the UK can have different answers, depending on the perspective and criteria used. The choice of which ‘counties’ to include depends on whether you’re considering historical/traditional counties, ceremonial counties, or modern administrative divisions.

Each provides a different perspective on the geographic and administrative landscape of the UK. Here’s an overview to help you understand why:

  • Ceremonial Counties in England: England has 48 ceremonial counties. These are used for traditional and ceremonial purposes and do not necessarily align with current administrative boundaries.
  • Administrative Counties/Unitary Authorities in England: For administrative purposes, England is divided into a combination of administrative counties and unitary authorities. The number of these can vary depending on the criteria used for defining them.
  • Traditional Counties in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland: If considering the traditional counties, then Scotland historically had 33 counties, but these are no longer used for administrative purposes.
  • Modern Administrative Divisions in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland: Scotland is now divided into 32 council areas. Wales had 13 historic counties, which have now been reorganised into 22 principal areas for local Welsh government. Northern Ireland comprises six traditional counties, which are no longer used for administrative purposes by the local NI government, and now has 11 modern districts.

The typical answer to how many counties there are in the UK often refers to the ceremonial counties of England combined with the traditional counties of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This approach provides a more historical and cultural perspective rather than focusing on current administrative divisions.

  • Based on ceremonial counties in England and traditional counties in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the total number of counties in the UK is 109.
  • Considering modern administrative divisions, the total number of counties and equivalent units across the UK rises to a total of 148.
Map of the United Kingdom, showing England (red), Wales (green), Scotland (blue) and Northern Ireland (yellow).

Read more: Is Wales a Country? Everything You Need to Know.

In the United Kingdom, what is a county?

In the United Kingdom, the term ‘county’ encompasses a geographical and administrative concept that varies across its four constituent countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

In England, counties have both a historical and a contemporary role. Historically, they served as administrative and judicial areas that evolved from Anglo-Saxon ‘Shires‘. Today, England has ceremonial counties for cultural and geographical purposes, aligning often with historical county boundaries. Alongside these are administrative counties and unitary authorities, which are responsible for local government services, although they don’t always match the traditional county lines.

Scotland’s approach to counties has evolved over time. While it traditionally had counties, they no longer serve administrative purposes. Instead, local government is now organised into 32 council areas, which have replaced the older counties as administrative units.

Wales also saw a transformation in its county system. Originally, it had historic counties that were used for local administration. However, these were replaced by 22 principal areas in 1996, which now serve as the basis for local government, including county boroughs, cities, and counties. Despite this change, the traditional counties retain a significant place in Welsh cultural identity and heritage.

In Northern Ireland, the traditional division into six counties remains important for cultural and geographical identification, although they are no longer used for local government purposes. Local governance is conducted through 11 districts, which replaced the traditional counties in terms of administrative function.

The Union Flag.

Read more: Where are the British Isles? Everything You Need to Know.

A brief history of the UK’s counties

The history of the county system in the United Kingdom intertwines with the country’s deep-rooted historical and administrative developments, evolving uniquely across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In England, the origins of counties, known as shires, can be traced back to the Anglo-Saxon period. These early shires were established by the early English kings as administrative units to maintain control and order. Each shire was overseen by a sheriff and their boundaries often aligned with natural features like rivers. The Norman Conquest of 1066 brought a degree of formalisation to this system. Over the centuries, the number and boundaries of these counties evolved, driven by changes in governance, population, and local needs.

By the time of the Tudor period, the English county system was well established, playing a crucial role in local administration, justice, and taxation. This system remained largely intact until the 19th and 20th centuries when significant reforms were introduced, responding to the needs of an industrial and urbanising society. The Local Government Act of 1888 and subsequent legislation in the 20th century redefined the counties for administrative purposes, leading to the creation of administrative counties and county boroughs.

In Scotland, the county system evolved similarly, with early forms appearing in the medieval period. These divisions, known as shires or counties, were formalised in the 16th and 17th centuries. However, Scotland’s administrative landscape underwent a significant overhaul in the 20th century. The traditional 33 counties were eventually replaced by regions and districts in 1975, and later by 32 unitary council areas in 1996.

Wales, like England, had a system of historic counties established by the Laws in Wales Acts 1535 and 1542, integrating Wales into the English administrative system. These counties were used for local administration until 1996 when they were replaced by 22 principal areas, including county boroughs and counties. Despite this change, the historic counties of Wales remain an important part of the country’s cultural heritage.

Northern Ireland’s county system was established in the early 17th century during the Plantation of Ulster. These six counties were used for local government until 1973 when they were replaced by a system of 26 districts. This system was further reformed in 2015, creating 11 new districts. The traditional counties, however, continue to hold a strong cultural and geographical significance.

Throughout the centuries, the UK’s county system has been a fluid and evolving entity, reflecting the changing social, political, and economic landscapes of the country. While the traditional county boundaries and names often hold a cherished place in the cultural consciousness, the modern administrative landscape tells the story of a nation continually adapting to the needs of its people.

A satellite map of the British Isles.

Read more: Is England a Country? Everything You Need to Know.

How many counties in England?

England has 48 ceremonial counties. These counties are used for cultural and geographical purposes and are distinct from the administrative counties or unitary authorities that are used for local government. The ceremonial counties often reflect traditional county boundaries, although they do not align perfectly with current administrative divisions.

Here’s a list of the 48 ceremonial English counties:

  1. Bedfordshire
  2. Berkshire
  3. Bristol
  4. Buckinghamshire
  5. Cambridgeshire
  6. Cheshire
  7. City of London
  8. Cornwall
  9. County Durham
  10. Cumbria
  11. Derbyshire
  12. Devon
  13. Dorset
  14. East Riding of Yorkshire
  15. East Sussex
  16. Essex
  17. Gloucestershire
  18. Greater London
  19. Greater Manchester
  20. Hampshire
  21. Herefordshire
  22. Hertfordshire
  23. Isle of Wight
  24. Kent
  25. Lancashire
  26. Leicestershire
  27. Lincolnshire
  28. Merseyside
  29. Norfolk
  30. North Yorkshire
  31. Northamptonshire
  32. Northumberland
  33. Nottinghamshire
  34. Oxfordshire
  35. Rutland
  36. Shropshire
  37. Somerset
  38. South Yorkshire
  39. Staffordshire
  40. Suffolk
  41. Surrey
  42. Tyne and Wear
  43. Warwickshire
  44. West Midlands
  45. West Sussex
  46. West Yorkshire
  47. Wiltshire
  48. Worcestershire
Map of England’s ceremonial counties.

Read more: How Many Counties in England? Everything You Need to Know.

How many ‘principal areas’ are in Wales?

Wales is divided into 22 principal areas for local government. These consist of 10 county boroughs, 9 counties, and 3 cities. It’s important to note that these divisions are different from the traditional counties of Wales, which had historical and administrative significance but have since been reorganised.

Here is a list of the 22 principal areas in Wales:

  1. Blaenau Gwent
  2. Bridgend (Pen-y-bont ar Ogwr)
  3. Caerphilly (Caerffili)
  4. Cardiff (Caerdydd)
  5. Carmarthenshire (Sir Gaerfyrddin)
  6. Ceredigion
  7. Conwy
  8. Denbighshire (Sir Ddinbych)
  9. Flintshire (Sir y Fflint)
  10. Gwynedd
  11. Isle of Anglesey (Ynys Môn)
  12. Merthyr Tydfil (Merthyr Tudful)
  13. Monmouthshire (Sir Fynwy)
  14. Neath Port Talbot (Castell-nedd Port Talbot)
  15. Newport (Casnewydd)
  16. Pembrokeshire (Sir Benfro)
  17. Powys
  18. Rhondda Cynon Taf
  19. Swansea (Abertawe)
  20. Torfaen (Tor-faen)
  21. Vale of Glamorgan (Bro Morgannwg)
  22. Wrexham (Wrecsam)
Map of Welsh Principal Areas.

Read more: How Many Counties in Wales? Everything You Need to Know.

How many ‘council areas’ are there in Scotland?

Scotland does not use the term ‘county’ in its current system of administrative and geographical divisions. Historically, Scotland was divided into 33 counties, but this system was replaced in 1975 by regions and districts, and then in 1996 by a system of 32 unitary authorities known as council areas. These council areas are now the primary subdivisions for local government in Scotland.

Therefore, in the modern administrative context, Scotland has 32 council areas, not counties:

  1. Aberdeen City
  2. Aberdeenshire
  3. Angus
  4. Argyll and Bute
  5. City of Edinburgh
  6. Clackmannanshire
  7. Dumfries and Galloway
  8. Dundee City
  9. East Ayrshire
  10. East Dunbartonshire
  11. East Lothian
  12. East Renfrewshire
  13. Eilean Siar (Western Isles)
  14. Falkirk
  15. Fife
  16. Glasgow City
  17. Highland
  18. Inverclyde
  19. Midlothian
  20. Moray
  21. North Ayrshire
  22. North Lanarkshire
  23. Orkney Islands
  24. Perth and Kinross
  25. Renfrewshire
  26. Scottish Borders
  27. Shetland Islands
  28. South Ayrshire
  29. South Lanarkshire
  30. Stirling
  31. West Dunbartonshire
  32. West Lothian
Map of Scottish Council Areas.

Read more: How Many Counties in Scotland? Everything You Need to Know.

How many counties in Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland was traditionally divided into six counties. These counties are mainly used for cultural and geographical purposes and are not the basis for local government, which is instead based on 11 districts. The six traditional counties of Northern Ireland are:

  1. Antrim
  2. Armagh
  3. Down
  4. Fermanagh
  5. Londonderry
  6. Tyrone

These counties have historical significance and are still commonly used in various contexts, including sports, cultural activities, and by people identifying their place of origin. However, for administrative and political purposes, the 11-district system, established in 2015, is used.

The 11 local government districts in Northern Ireland are:

  1. Antrim and Newtownabbey
  2. Ards and North Down
  3. Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon
  4. Belfast
  5. Causeway Coast and Glens
  6. Derry City and Strabane
  7. Fermanagh and Omagh
  8. Lisburn and Castlereagh
  9. Mid and East Antrim
  10. Mid Ulster
  11. Newry, Mourne and Down
The six historical counties of Northern Ireland.

Read more: How Many Counties in Northern Ireland? Everything You Need to Know.

Is Cornwall a county or a country?

Cornwall is a ceremonial county in England, not a country. It is located in the southwestern tip of the United Kingdom and is known for its distinctive cultural identity and history. Cornwall has a unique heritage, with its own language (Cornish) and traditions, contributing to a strong local identity.

Despite its distinct cultural characteristics, Cornwall is administratively part of England. It is governed as a unitary authority, meaning it has a single tier of local government responsible for all local administrative functions. This status as a unitary authority is similar to other regions in England but does not change its classification as a county within the country of England, part of the United Kingdom.

Is Cornwall a country
The cornish language welcomes visitors to Cornwall.

Read more: Is Cornwall a Country? Everything You Need to Know.

So, how many counties are in the United Kingdom?

The seemingly simple question of how many counties there are in the United Kingdom actually reveals a complex history that led to the current administrative evolution, each of which is increasingly unique to each of its constituent countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

In England, the 48 ceremonial counties reflect a local history and cultural identity rooted in the Anglo-Saxons, while its modern administrative landscape is characterised by a mix of administrative counties and unitary authorities. Scotland’s 32 council areas, Wales’ 22 principal areas, and Northern Ireland’s six traditional counties each tell their own story of regional identity and governance.

This diversity underscores the UK’s complex and layered history, where the concept of a ‘county’ varies significantly, serving different roles from administrative divisions to markers of cultural heritage.

Read more: What is the United Kingdom? Everything You Need to Know.

FAQ: How many counties are in the UK?

Here’s an FAQ on the topic, ‘How many counties are in the UK?’:

Q1. How many counties are there in the United Kingdom?

The UK’s county system varies across its four constituent countries. England has 48 ceremonial counties, while Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have different systems. Scotland has 32 council areas, Wales has 22 principal areas, and Northern Ireland has six traditional counties.

Q2. Are there different types of counties in England?

Yes, in England, there are ceremonial counties and administrative divisions. The 48 ceremonial counties are used for cultural and traditional purposes, whereas administrative counties and unitary authorities are used for local government and administrative functions.

Q3. Does Scotland still have counties?

Traditionally, Scotland was divided into 33 counties, but these are no longer used for administrative purposes. Instead, Scotland is now divided into 32 council areas for local government.

Read more: How Many Cities in Scotland? Everything You Need to Know.

Q4. What are the principal areas of Wales?

Wales is divided into 22 principal areas for local government, which include county boroughs, cities, and counties. These replaced the traditional counties in 1996.

Q5. Do the traditional counties in Northern Ireland still exist for administrative purposes?

No, the traditional six counties of Northern Ireland are no longer used for administrative purposes. They have been replaced by 11 districts for local government, but the traditional counties are still recognised for cultural and geographical identification.

Q6. How do the UK’s counties differ from one another?

The counties differ in terms of administrative function, cultural significance, and historical background. Each country within the UK has its unique way of defining and using counties, reflecting its historical and administrative evolution.

Q7. Are the boundaries of UK counties static?

No, the boundaries and the number of counties have changed over time due to administrative reforms and evolving governance needs. This is especially true in the case of administrative counties and unitary authorities.

Q8. Is the number of counties important for understanding the UK?

Yes, understanding the number and nature of counties provides insight into the UK’s complex administrative structure and regional identities. It reflects the historical and cultural diversity of the UK’s constituent countries.