Glossary for ISO 3166 - Codes for countries and their subdivisions

Country codes (ISO 3166-1 and ISO 3166-3)

Alpha-2 code – a two-letter code that represents a country name, recommended as the general purpose code

Alpha-3 code – a three-letter code that represents a country name, which is usually more closely related to the country name

Alpha-4 code – a four-letter code that represents a country name that is no longer in use. The structure depends on the reason why the country name was removed from ISO 3166-1 and added to ISO 3166-3.

Country names might be removed from ISO 3166-1 for various reasons

  • A country might change a significant part of its name, for example Burma (BU) was changed to Myanmar (MM) in 1989. The code element for the formerly used country name is therefore BUMM.
  • A country may divide into two or more new ones, for example Czechoslovakia was divided into Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. The code element for the formerly used country name Czechoslovakia is CSHH, HH meaning that no single successor country exists.
  • Two or more countries may merge for example Democratic Yemen (YD) and Yemen Arab Republic (YE) merged into the Republic of Yemen (YE) in 1990. The code element used for the formerly used country name Democratic Yemen is YDYE.

Unassigned codes – codes that have not been assigned to country names.

Reserved codes – codes that do not represent a country name in the standard but that have been reserved for a certain use. While a code is reserved it will not be used in the standard to represent a country. There are different types of reserved codes.

  • Exceptionally reserved codes – codes that have been reserved for a particular use at special request of a national ISO member body, governments or international organizations. For example, the code UK has been reserved at the request of the United Kingdom so that it cannot be used for any other country.
  • Transitionally reserved codes – codes that are reserved during a transitional period while new code elements that may replace them are taken into use. This results from changes in the standard. For example, the country codes for the former Yugoslavia have been reserved when it was removed from ISO 3166-1.
  • Indeterminately reserved – a code that has been indeterminately reserved for use in a certain way. Usually this is justified by their presence in other coding systems. For example, several codes have been reserved by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) because they have been used in its Standard ST.3.

Formerly used codes – Codes that used to be part of the standard but that are no longer in use. See alpha-4 codes above.

Subdivision codes (ISO 3166-2)

Subdivision codes – code that represents the name of a principal subdivision (e.g province or state) of countries coded in ISO 3166-1. This code is based on the two-letter code element from ISO 3166-1 followed by a separator and up to three alphanumeric characters. The characters after the separator cannot be used on their own to denote a subdivision, they must be preceded by the alpha-2 country code.

For example – ID-RI is the Riau province of Indonesia and NG-RI is the Rivers province in Nigeria.

The codes denoting the subdivision are usually obtained from national sources and stem from coding systems already in place in the country.