Is Antarctica a Country?

It is a question that may have crossed your mind when you were in high school geography and perhaps during a lively pub quiz with your mates. Typically, however, it’s not until you are researching a life-changing Antarctica trip that it returns to the front of your mind.  

Luckily, you landed here! We’ve got 33 years of Antarctic know-how and are ready to share the inspiring history of the Great White Continent.  

Read on! 

So is Antarctica a Country?

Nope! No country owns Antarctica, and there are no nations within the continent. A country is usually defined by a clear territory, governance, a permanent population, and the ability to engage with other countries. While there is the law of the land in Antarctica – ask any Emperor penguin – it is not a country. 

That hasn’t stopped other countries from making territorial claims, though. In fact, seven did so between 1840 and 1923*. Under the Antarctic Treaty, all claims are neither refuted or acknowledged; its focus is on keeping the region dedicated to science and peace.  

Antarctica is the fifth-largest continent, size-wise. It makes up about 20% of the Southern Hemisphere, yet it wasn’t until 1820 that it was first sighted. Three captains, one from the Russian navy, one from the British, and a sealer from the US, all spotted the polar landmass from their vessels.  

*Side note: there has been contention about whether the Spanish Empire’s 1493 governorship of land south of the Magellan Strait included the Antarctic continent. Obvs it’s not considered theirs today, but Argentina and Chile raised this during their own territorial claims.  

Who Has Laid Claim to Antarctica?

While there are no countries on the Great White Continent, seven nations have made claims. Alongside Chile and Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, France, Norway, and the United Kingdom have staked part of the ‘The Ice’ as their own.  

Britain started off with claims to the Falkland Islands in 1833, followed some decades later with territorial claims to South Georgia, the South Shetlands, South Orkneys, and the Sandwich Islands.  

Australia has the largest territorial claim of Antarctica, equating to 42% of the continent. This covers a vast 6 million km², bigger than the entire European Union (4.32 km²).  

Among others, the United States, Russia, India, Italy, South Africa, and Brazil have a permanent presence in Antarctica, though without territorial claims. Despite the Antarctic Treaty explicitly stating that no new land grabs can be made after 1961, both the US and Russia continue to assert their right to make claims in the future if they choose. This treaty breach would undoubtedly create tension in the South Pole. 

Portal Point, Antarctica
The local residents, the Gentoo Penguins, trying to keep warm.
Port Lockroy by Matt Horspool
Port Lockroy has the most southerly operational post office in the world.

What is the Antarctic Treaty? 

Tension has always arisen over any regional territorial claims, so, in 1959, in the middle of the turbulent Cold War, the Antarctic Treaty was signed by 12 nations. This came about after scientists from those 12 countries travelled on several Antarctic expeditions in 1957-58. They undertook research as part of the International Geophysical Year. The scientists shared the region’s importance along with how cooperative governance supported both the Antarctic peninsula and the Earth. The Antarctic Treaty demonstrated an unprecedented example of international cooperation and diplomacy. 

Antarctica is governed via this treaty, and several others, collectively known as the Antarctica Treaty System. Treaty signatures have continued to increase – there are now 54 nations onboard to preserve our beloved icy continent. All participating countries – including Australia, New Zealand, the US, Russia, and China – have agreed to never prospect for minerals and to ban military activities.  

Why Do Countries Want to Claim Parts of Antarctica?  

As we’ve spent 33 years exploring, discovering, and being surprised on the Antarctic peninsula, we know the magic it holds. But many wonder, why do countries want to lay claim to this frozen land?  

While bragging rights during early explorations gave some nations a reason for territory claimed – it was a race to get there first and they bagged it when they reached it. Also, geographic proximity, geological connections, and a desire to have a continued presence on the continent were seen as legitimate reasons to stake ownership. 

One key factor that maintains curiosity to date is what lays beneath the ice! Also, climate scientists study the continent to observe how climate change impacts habitats and habits of the continent’s native species. 

Does Anyone Live in Antarctica Permanently? 

Did you know that 1,000-5,000 people live in Antarctica at any given time, yet there is no permanent human habitation there? That’s because research scientists and their support staff work on various projects, typically on a seasonal basis. The numbers also fluctuate because the crew often rotate their time there. Why? Because it’s far. Far from families, far from luxuries, far from all but penguins, seals, whales, and loads and loads of ice.  

Okay, Who Lives Semi-Permanently in the Antarctic Then? 

There are a fair few research bases across the continent, 70 in fact! These belong to 29 countries. Most are seasonal bases, running a skeleton crew during the (lonely) Southern Hemisphere winter months.  

Aside from the scientists and researchers working across fields like oceanography, geology, and geomagnetism, there’s also supportive operational staff. This includes ship crews, engineers, pilots, and tradies.  

What About Me & My Trip to Antarctica? When Should I Go? 

Our Antarctica expedition season coincides with the main research season: the November to March ‘summer’ months. This is when the wildlife springs back to life. To eat, to mate, and to look cute in all your holiday snaps. Our favourite seabirds capture your attention, whether it’s penguins, albatross, or petrels. It’s also a top guest rite of passage to be the first to spot a migrating humpback whale, minke whale, or crabeater seal as they go about their daily lives. No matter when you travel, it’s an unbelievable adventure!  

So, now you can answer “Is Antarctica is a country” in a pop quiz, are you keen to book your AE Expeditions Antarctica trip to get load up on real-time facts? Awesome! Our savvy experts are on hand to answer your queries or get your cabin booked in. Alternatively, talk to your preferred travel advisor today. 


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