Let’s face it—we’re not always given the best lessons in continental geography when we’re younger. And on top of that, many United States citizens cannot fathom how anyone else in the world might not know which continent the U.S. is in. Nevertheless, the question is common enough that we’re going to tackle it today—and not just for the aforementioned reason. There’s also quite a prominent trend for United States citizens (and not only them) to assume that the country is the only one that exists on the continent. This is pretty darn incorrect as well, as any of our neighbors might be quick to remind you.
We’ve taken to writing extensively about all of the world’s continental landmasses, but today, North America is on the menu. And there’s going to be more to the discussion than just a simple answer, too!
The easy answer, we can get out of the way immediately—the United States of America is part of the North American continent. The 48 contiguous (or “connected”) states are fairly obvious in this respect, but distant Alaska—which is separated by the northern neighbor of Canada—is also part of the same continent. The only outlier to this whole scenario is Hawaii, which is considerably distant from North America’s westernmost shores—over 2000 miles distant, in fact! Because of this Hawaii is much, much closer to the “Oceania” group of islands within the Pacific Ocean.
But all of this begs further discussion because the United States of America shares the North American continent with many more countries and territories, which is something that’s often overlooked when people are casually thinking about the continental boundaries.
Further complicating this is the fact that two different continental models popularly used throughout the world—one that recognizes North America as its own continental landmass, and another that combines North and South America into the aptly named “Americas.”
The Continents of the World
In all accepted continental models used throughout the world, the basics are relatively the same. The seven-continent model is the one that most English-speaking countries use, while other areas of the world sometimes utilize one of two different six-continent models.
Before we discuss them, it’s important to realize that there are actually very few real-world ramifications for choosing one over the other. The boundaries that we draw around continents have more to do with geology and plate tectonics than governments, politics, or economics, and thus it will affect your understanding of maps more than anything else.
Two Continental Models
The seven-continent model acknowledges Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Europe, Australia and Australia. There’s a good chance it’s the one you’re most familiar with, as it’s the most frequently used around the world.
However, there are two six-continent models that are also used frequently around the world—a combined-Eurasia model as well as a combined-Americas model. The latter of the two is the one that we’ll be incorporating into our study today since it will affect our understanding of which continent the United States is on.
Be real about this—how many times have you heard the United States referred to as simply “America?” Now, stop to think for a moment, how many countries are being broadly ignored by this appropriation of a continental designation for the sake of one country?
In fact, there are quite a few sovereign countries and territories in North America, but if you recall what I’ve just mentioned about different continental models, it doesn’t stop there—the combined-Americas six-continent model would include South America as well. But even that model frequently differentiates between the two, given that they’re so neatly divided by Earth’s equator. Still, the fact remains that the United States is only a single country among many.
North American Countries
- Antigua & Barbuda
- The Bahamas
- The British Virgin Islands
- Cayman Islands
- Clipperton Islands
- Costa Rica
- Dominican Republic
- El Salvador
- Navassa Island
- Puerto Rico
- Saint Barthélemy
- Saint Kitts and Nevis
- Saint Lucia
- Saint Martin
- Saint Pierre & Miquelon
- Saint Vincent & the Grenadines
- Sint Eustatius
- Sint Maarten
- Trinidad & Tobago
- Turks & Caicos Islands
- The United States of America
- The United States Virgin Islands
Whew! Now that is an exhaustive list, isn’t it? If we’re talking about the entirety of the North American continent, these are the countries and territories that the United States shares it with, and it’s a much longer list than most people—even U.S. citizens—often realize or recognize.
Keep in mind, this doesn’t necessarily clear everything up. The United States is definitely in the North American continent, but there are a few more details that are significant to that fact, you’ll be interested to hear.
The United States
In every sense of the concept, the United States is the third largest country in the world. It’s the third-largest in terms of sheer surface area, and also third-largest in terms of total population per area. It consists of 48 contiguous states, bordered by Canada to the north and Mexico to the south. Alaska is northwest of Canada, still in the North American continent, while the final state, Hawaii, is far offshore to the west, in the Pacific Ocean. The United States holds numerous other territories throughout the Pacific Ocean, too, but for the sake of being concise, we’re going to speak specifically about the states, in this article.
The Contiguous United States
Because the borders of the United States—and its territories—don’t rely one iota on the boundaries of continental landmasses, there isn’t a great deal of significance to be drawn from which states are within the contiguous United States, and which aren’t.
After all, just because Hawaii is more than 2000 miles off the western coast, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, doesn’t make it less of a state. As such, Hawaii is the only state among the 50 that isn’t in the continent of North America, but this fact alone has no impact on Hawaii’s government, politics, or economy. But it nevertheless does mean that the entirety of the United States isn’t in North America—only the vastly overwhelming majority of it.
Of course, Alaska is a far less complicated case. If you simply look to the maps that we’ve provided in this article, you’ll clearly see that it’s separated from the contiguous United States by Canada—meaning that it is still definitely part of the mainland North American continent.
Combined Americas Continental Model
Because this is written in English (and by my admission as an author, am in the United States) we’ve adhered thus far to the seven-continent model in our view of the United States being in the North American continent. This is due to sheer convenience, but it doesn’t mean that we need to disregard the ways that it might be viewed in the six-continent combined-Americas model.
In truth, not a lot changes. The United States still has the same borders, the same territories, the same states, populations, etc. None of the relevant facts or details that we’ve gone over above will be any different, but there are some interesting comparisons that can be made. Specifically, looking at the greatest population centers within the combined-Americas can be somewhat revealing. United States citizens tend to place a great deal of emphasis on the size of its biggest cities, but neither of them is the biggest between all of the American territories.
- Mexico City, Mexico: 21,339,781 people
- São Paulo, Brazil: 20,935,204 people
- New York City, United States: 19,949,502 people
- Buenos Aires, Argentina: 15,024,000 people
- Los Angeles, United States: 13,131,431 people
Most of the time, we can construct these lists with a somewhat ambiguous order, but there’s a perspective to be gleaned from lining them up in terms of the most populous areas. Between the combined Americas, neither of the United States’ most populous metropolitan centers is at the top of the list. Instead, you’re going to find that list dominated by Mexico City, Mexico, with Sao Paulo, Brazil coming in second. Only after that do we see New York City, and further down the list, Los Angeles.
This helps to establish a few different things. Firstly, the United States has an immense amount of surface area and land mass for its national population levels to spread out on. Other countries in the North American continent are lacking this, in any comparative sense. It helps to explain why certain other population centers are swelling so greatly. It also goes to show that the United States is not the only heavily populated country within the combined Americas, or even just North America! After all, if you’re looking for the city that holds that “most populated” record on the North American continent, you’re going to find it in Mexico; not the U.S.
We hope that the above article has been helpful! Of course, we aimed to accomplish more than to answer the simple question regarding which continent the United States can be found in—something that can be done in the space of a single sentence. Depending on which continental model you’re using to view Earth’s landmasses, you’ll either find the United States in North America or in the combined-Americas—it doesn’t really matter which you view it from since those continental boundaries have no particular impact on the daily operations of countries.