General Map Policy
National Geographic’s maps incorporate our policy of depicting de facto geographic situations to the best of our judgment. By de facto we mean states of affairs existing in fact or in reality, although perhaps not official, legal, or accepted. This policy aligns with our chartered purpose since 1888 as a nonprofit scientific and educational organization.
International boundaries and territorial control as shown on our maps reflect de facto status at the time of publication. For place-names, we use a combination of conventional English names, official national names, and standard transliterations for non-Latin alphabets. All place-names are checked against multiple sources, including the United Nations, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, and the policies of individual governments.
National Geographic strives to be apolitical, to consult multiple authoritative sources, and to make independent decisions based on extensive research. National Geographic does not purport to be the sole determiner of the status of a boundary, area, or place-name.
A representative committee governs cartographic policy. The Map Policy Committee meets periodically to assess cartographic policy issues and to discuss changes to or clarifications of geographic information on National Geographic maps. Decisions are based on the best available research and information. The committee also determines if an error has been made on a map. Errors are corrected as quickly as possible on the next published version of a particular map or atlas, or with the next update cycle for a digital map.
The following provides additional details about National Geographic’s Map Policy as determined by its Map Policy Committee.
National Geographic recognizes several types of place-names, using names that are most appropriate for a given type of map. Names may be shown in English, in the native language if that language uses a Latin-based alphabet (e.g., Spanish, Turkish, Romanian), and in transliterated form if the native language does not use a Latin-based alphabet (e.g., Arabic, Chinese, Ethiopian).
Most places have a single name that appears on all maps. Examples: New York; Nairobi; Shanghai.
Some places have a single name that has both an official form and a common English form. Examples: Lisboa and Lisbon; København and Copenhagen; Al Qāhirah and Cairo; Krung Thep and Bangkok.
Some places have multiple official names, usually because that country or region recognizes multiple official languages. Examples: Dublin and Baile Átha Cliath in Ireland; Bruxelles, Brussel, and Brüssel in Belgium; Aoraki and Mt. Cook in New Zealand.
In areas of unresolved sovereignty where the locally spoken language is different from that of the country in which the area is located or the country that claims the area, places may have names in both languages. Examples: Falkland Islands and Islas Malvinas off the southern coast of Argentina; Lefkosía and Lefkoşa in Cyprus.
Historical and other non-official names may be shown as secondary to the official name of some places for clarity, especially when the non-official name is well known and still in use. Examples: Astana for Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan, Swaziland for Eswatini; Iwo Jima for Iwo To.
In all cases, diacritic marks are included on place-names from languages that use a Latin-based alphabet. For names that are transliterated from non-Latin-based languages, diacritic marks may be retained (e.g., on reference maps and in most adult atlases) or removed (e.g., per National Geographic magazine style).
Explanatory Notes for Place-Names
Where scale permits, explanatory notes, such as the examples listed below, are added to some maps to explain multiple or conflicting place-names.
Historically and most commonly known as the Persian Gulf, this body of water is referred to by some as the Arabian Gulf.
Sea of Japan (East Sea)
The sea between Japan and Korea is called the Sea of Japan by the Japanese and the East Sea by Koreans.
International Boundaries and Territorial Control
Most political boundaries and territorial areas depicted in National Geographic maps are stable and uncontested. Some of the areas that are in dispute, or have special administrative status or unresolved sovereign control, receive a particular cartographic treatment. We often portray these areas in gray, bound them with dashed or dotted lines distinct from uncontested boundaries, and designate their administrative centers with a specific symbol. Additional boundary lines indicate areas of overlapping territorial claims.
Possession labels indicate political control of noncontiguous territorial areas (generally islands).
- Puerto Rico
- United States
Explanatory Notes for Boundaries and Control
Where scale permits notes, such as the examples listed below, are added to some maps to explain current geopolitical situations.
Separatists defeated Georgian troops to gain control of this region in 1993. After years of negotiations and several military clashes, it remains under the control of Abkhazians. Only a handful of UN member states currently recognize this autonomous region as the independent Republic of Abkhazia.
Abyei: Sudan; South Sudan
The 2005 peace accord that led to South Sudan’s independence left unresolved the question of the Abyei region’s extent and sovereignty. A tribunal in 2009 determined Abyei’s extent, but a determination of sovereignty remains subject to further negotiations.
Seven countries made defined claims to Antarctic territory prior to the Antarctic Treaty of 1959. This treaty, which does not legally recognize any claims, prohibits military activities and dedicates Antarctica to peaceful use and free exchange of scientific information. As of 2020, 54 countries are party to the treaty, including the seven claimants.
Crimea: Russia; Ukraine
Russia invaded Crimea in 2014 and, after a disputed and boycotted referendum held in Crimea approved secession from Ukraine, the Russian parliament voted to annex Crimea into the Russian Federation. The United Nations General Assembly subsequently adopted a non-binding resolution declaring the annexation invalid and affirming Ukraine’s territorial jurisdiction. Russia administers and controls the peninsula while Ukraine continues to maintain that Crimea is its sovereign territory.
Dokdo (Takeshima, Liancourt Rocks): South Korea; Japan
Administered by South Korea; claimed by Japan
Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas): United Kingdom; Argentina
United Kingdom; claimed by Argentina
Gaza Strip and West Bank
In November 2012 the UN General Assembly voted to elevate the diplomatic status of the Palestinian territories to that of a “nonmember observer state.” Despite this vote and widespread international support, the West Bank’s and Gaza’s geographical and political separation, as well as lack of full sovereignty and control over these territories, hamper the creation of a formal Palestinian state. Its future and that of millions of Palestinians remains subject to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Golan Heights: Israel; Syria
The 1948-49 Arab-Israeli War led to an armistice, with Syria in control of the Golan. During the 1967 Six Day War, Israel captured this territory, which it annexed in 1981. The United Nations has not recognized this annexation, and the Golan Heights remains in dispute.
Hala’ib, Bir Tawil, and Wadi Halfa: Egypt; Sudan
The boundary dispute between Egypt and Sudan results from claims along differing colonial administration lines. The dispute involves three areas. The Hala’ib triangle and the Wadi Halfa salient are controlled by Egypt and claimed by Sudan. Bir Tawil, though it is de facto part of Sudan, lies between their opposed claim lines.
Ilemi Triangle: Kenya; South Sudan
This area is claimed by both Kenya and South Sudan. De facto control is divided between the two countries.
Kafia Kingi: Sudan; South Sudan
The demarcation of the Sudan-South Sudan boundary, along with its westernmost limit and adjoining area (known as the Kafia Kingi enclave) remain subject to further negotiations. Kafia Kingi is marginally administered by both Sudan and South Sudan.
Kashmir: India; Pakistan; China
India and Pakistan both claim Kashmir—a disputed region of some 18 million people. India administers only the area south of the line of control; Pakistan controls northwestern Kashmir. China controls parts of eastern Kashmir that it took from India in a 1962 war.
In 2008 Kosovo declared its independence. Since then more than 100 UN member nations have recognized Kosovo, but Serbia still claims it as a province.
Kurdistan: Turkey; Syria; Iraq; Iran
Part of the 1920 Treaty of Sevres was written with hopes of a Kurdish autonomous state— Kurdistan—in southeastern Turkey and northeastern Iraq. The treaty’s terms were never carried out and Kurdistan, a cultural region that today arcs from northern Syria to western Iran, remains home to one of the world’s largest ethnic groups without a country of its own.
Kuril Islands: Russia; Japan
Russia administers all the Kuril Islands; Japan claims the southern Kuril Islands of Iturup (Etorofu), Kunashir (Kunashiri), Shikotan, and the Habomai group.
Following the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, conflict within an area in Azerbaijan called Nagorno-Karabakh erupted between its ethnic Armenian population and the Azerbaijani government. Renewed fighting in 2020 reduced the area of ethnic Armenian control and established a new boundary policed by Russian forces.
Northern Cyprus: Cyprus
Cyprus was partitioned in 1974 following a coup backed by Greece and an invasion by Turkey. The island is composed of a Greek Cypriot south with an internationally recognized government and a Turkish Cypriot north with a government recognized only by Turkey. The UN patrols the dividing line and works toward reunification of the island.
Paracel Islands: China; Vietnam; Taiwan
Administered by China; claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
Senkaku Shoto (Diaoyu Qundao, Diaoyutai): Japan; China; Taiwan
Administered by Japan; claimed by China and Taiwan.
In 1991 the Somali National Movement declared Somaliland an independent republic with Hargeysa as the capital. It is not internationally recognized.
South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands: United Kingdom; Argentina
Administered by United Kingdom; claimed by Argentina.
South Ossetia: Georgia
Fighting between Ossetian separatists and Georgian forces broke out in 1991. A 1992 cease-fire ended the fighting until 2004. In a 2008 war, Russian forces pushed Georgian forces out of South Ossetia, leading Ossetians to declare their independence from Georgia. Five UN member states currently recognize South Ossetia as a political entity.
The scattered islands and reefs called the Spratly Islands are claimed in part or in whole by Brunei, China, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan.
The People’s Republic of China claims Taiwan as its 23rd province. Taiwan’s government (Republic of China) maintains there are two political entities. The islands of Dongsha (Pratas), Kinmen (Quemoy), Matsu, and Penghu (Pescadores) are administered by Taiwan.
Since 1990 this self-proclaimed breakaway state in Moldova’s predominantly Russian-speaking area east of the Dniester River has remained unrecognized by any UN member state.
Western Sahara: Morocco
Western Sahara’s sovereign status is in dispute. It has been administered by Morocco since 1979. Fighting between Morocco and a Western Sahara independence movement called Polisario ended with a UN-brokered cease-fire in 1991, but no agreement on the area’s status has been reached.
National Geographic recognizes seven continents: Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America. Oceania is considered a region, associated with Australia, rather than a continent.
Asia and Europe
National Geographic uses the commonly accepted division between Asia and Europe formed by the Ural Mountains, Ural River, Caspian Sea, Caucasus Mountains, and Black Sea with its outlets, the Bosporus and Dardanelles.
Cyprus marks the southeastern extent of Europe. Its cultural and historic ties to the continent include joining the European Union in 2004.
When assigning countries to continents, National Geographic assigns Russia to Europe and Turkey to Asia, although both countries have territory within each continent.
National Geographic recognizes five oceans: Arctic, Atlantic, Indian, Pacific, and Southern.
Earth’s ocean waters connect to form a single global ocean. Traditionally there are four named regions: the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Arctic oceans. There is international agreement that the icy waters around Antarctica form a fifth distinct region. While there is no consensus on its name or its extent, most countries call it the Southern Ocean and use 60° south latitude as an approximation of its northern limit.