Encyclopedic entry. A county is a territorial division and a unit of local government in some countries. Counties are usually made up of cities, towns, or rural populations.


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A county is a territorial division and a unit of local government in some countries. Counties are usually made up of cities, towns, and rural populations. The functions of a county vary from country to country.

In the United States, counties are usually government units below the state level. Louisiana has parishes instead of counties, and Alaska has boroughs. The states of Rhode Island and Connecticut do not have county governments at all—counties are geographic, not political.

The number and size of counties varies from state to state. Texas has 254 counties, while Delaware has only three. The North Slope Borough in Alaska is 245,435 square kilometers (94,763 square miles). Arlington County, Virginia, is only 67 square kilometers (26 square miles). Los Angeles County, in Southern California, is the nations most populous county. With almost 10 million residents, Los Angeles County has almost twice as many people as the second-largest county, Illinois' Cook County, which has about 5.2 million residents.

Major county responsibilities in the United States include law enforcement, road maintenance, and public education. Nearby counties may have different laws or standards of education. A dry county, for instance, is a county that does not allow the public sale of alcohol. In North Carolina, Graham County, which is dry, borders Swain County, which is wet.

The city or town where the county's government offices are located is called the county seat. A county seat is usually the largest urban area in the county, but not always. Arlington County does not have a county seat, while Harrison County, Mississippi, has two: Gulfport and Biloxi. A county seat may have the county's court, jail, and sheriffs offices. County officials may include sheriffs, lawyers, judges, a treasurer, and a board of supervisors.

A county sheriff is often responsible for law enforcement outside the borders of urban areas. Sheriffs often have a much larger area to patrol, with fewer residents. Urban areas will almost always have their own law enforcement officials, including police, attorneys, and judges.

A countywide board of supervisors may make decisions that impact all the residents of a county, such as water use or educational policy. County boards must often balance the demands of rural and urban populations, as well as different industries (such as agriculture and construction) and income levels.

Counties Outside the United States

In the United Kingdom, counties are the main political subdivisions of the country. Counties have responsibilities similar to those of the states in the United States. England, the largest country in the United Kingdom, has three different types of counties: ceremonial counties, which are also called geographic counties; metropolitan counties; and nonmetropolitan counties. Some of England's ceremonial counties, such as Kent, were established more than 1,000 years ago. Metropolitan counties include some of England's largest cities, such as Manchester (part of the county of Greater Manchester), Birmingham (part of the county of West Midlands), and Leeds (part of the county of Merseyside.)

Unlike counties in the United States, the counties of the United Kingdom do not have county in their name. In Ireland, the word county comes before the county's name: County Donegal is to the island's extreme north, while County Cork is at Ireland's south.

Fast Fact

Unorganized Borough
Although Alaska's North Slope Borough is the largest county in the United States, it isn't the largest administrative district in Alaska. More than half of the state is not organized into a governmental area: The Unorganized Borough is 387,710 square kilometers (323,440 square miles).

Fast Fact

Chinese Counties
The county-level districts in China have remained virtually unchanged since the Han Dynasty, which was established in 206 B.C.E.

Fast Fact

Five Boroughs, Five Counties, One City
New York City is the only city in the United States to have its own counties. They are the five boroughs: Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island.

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Hilary Costa
Erin Sprout
Santani Teng
Melissa McDaniel
Jeff Hunt
Diane Boudreau
Tara Ramroop
Kim Rutledge
Hilary Hall
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society
Tim Gunther
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
Educator Reviewer
Nancy Wynne
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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