British Isle, United Kingdom & Great Britain

Here at Stay In Britain we often get asked by people who are looking to travel to the UK what the differences are between Great Britain, the United Kingdom (UK) and the British Isles. In particular, people from the USA often think they are separate destinations with different visa requirements.

This news item will hopefully help to clear up any confusion about what regions or islands make up the British Isles, Great Britain, Ireland and the wider United Kingdom. We will also look at how the names for each nation developed.  Lastly, we will discuss the differences when it comes to visiting each nation today and what visa requirements are needed.

To properly explain the geographical boundaries of each country though we have to go back in time and look at the various kingdoms and petty kingdoms that once combined to form what is now referred to as England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The fortunes of each kingdom fluctuated over time, as some kingdoms took power over others.  Some of the smaller kingdoms were annexed by their larger rivals and others fell to foreign invaders.

As a result, each region has retained its own flag or coat of arms which often date back to when area was ruled as an independent fiefdom.  To find our more about the various flags of each area or region, why not visit our page on flags of the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Great Britain

The largest and principle island that incorporates modern day England, Scotland and Wales is commonly referred to today as Great Britain. It is widely accepted that the word ‘Great’ in the name refers to the fact that Britain is the largest island (or greatest in terms of land mass) in the British Isles.

The island has been inhabited by humans for around 30,000 years and was connected to mainland Europe as little as 8,000 years ago. Today, the mainland is the world’s third-most populated island after Java (Indonesia) and Honshu (Japan).

Before the first Roman conquest of Britain, the mainland was inhabited by a large number of tribes mostly of Celtic origin, collectively known as Britons. The name Britain originates from the Common Brittonic term Pritanī (sounding similar to Britani) and is one of the oldest known names for Britain. The terms Briton and British, derived from the same name, refer to the island’s inhabitants.

The Romans, who invaded England in AD 43 and eventually occupied all of modern day England, Wales and parts of Scotland, added to the evolution of the island’s name by calling its new territory Britannia. ‘Rule Britannia’ is still a common saying in Great Britain to this day, popularised by the British patriotic song which originated from the 1740 poem “Rule, Britannia” by James Thomson.

The Kingdom of Great Britain was formed when the independent kingdoms of Scotland and England (which included Wales) were unified in the Acts of Union in 1707.  This merged the three kingdoms into a new sovereign state.

British Isles

The term ‘The British Isles’ refers to a large group of over six thousand islands which surround Great Britain (England, Scotland & Wales) and Ireland. Interestingly, the name ‘British Isles’ had no official status until 1707 when the kingdoms of England and Scotland were united as the Kingdom of Great Britain.

Whilst most of these islands are very small, there are several notable islands which have developed large populations over time. These include, in order of size: Great Britain, Ireland, Lewis & Harris, Isle of Skye, Shetland, Isle of Mull and Anglesey.

Guernsey and the Channel Islands are not considered part of the British Isles although this has been contested many times. Geographically, the Channel Islands are technically part of continental Europe, as they are positioned off the French coast of Normandy.


It is thought that humans crossed from Britain to Ireland via a landbridge during a warm period at the end of the last ice age (called the Bølling-Allerød warming), that lasted between 14,700 and 12,700 BC.  Recent studies suggest that Ireland was separated from Britain by approximately 14,000 BC.

There has been much debate about the origins of the name ‘Ireland’. In modern Irish language, Éire (Irish for Ireland), is said to derive from the old Irish word “Éiru”. Éiru was an Irish Goddess and the matron Goddess of the island and sovereignty.

Today, the island of Ireland is split into the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland: there is a land border between the two.  Most of Ireland gained independence from the United Kingdom following the Anglo-Irish War (1919-1921).  This area of Ireland eventually became a fully independent republic following the passage of the Republic of Ireland Act in 1949.

In terms of population, roughly three quarters of the population (72%) live in the much larger Republic of Ireland in the centre and South of the island.

United Kingdom

After the formation of the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707, there followed a union in 1801 of Great Britain with the Kingdom of Ireland, thereby creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Following the Republic of Ireland Act in 1949 however, the majority of Ireland broke away to form the Republic of Ireland.  The full name of the United Kingdom subsequently changed to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Norther Ireland.

The UK is an acronym for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The UK is a sovereign state – the same as the United States of America (USA). In direct contrast to the US however, the UK is made up of four countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

By comparison, the US is made up of states (50 in total). There are many similarities though given that each state is governed by a devolved government (as is the case with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) whilst at the same time being governed by a central government or parliament.

Visa Requirements

Since the United Kingdom left the European Union in 2020, visa regulations to enter both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland have changed.

You may be able to visit Ireland without applying for a separate Irish visa, if you have an eligible UK (short stay) visitor visa and you are a citizen of an approved country.

You cannot travel to Northern Ireland using an Irish visa, except if travelling under the British Irish Visa Scheme (explained above).  You will need a visa issued by the United Kingdom.

Find out more about the Short Stay Visa Waiver Programme here:

Please also note that the Republic of Ireland uses a different currently (The Euro) whereas the Pound is the currency in both Northern Ireland and the wider United Kingdom.

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