In the United States , an administrative or political subdivision of a state is a county , which is a region having specific boundaries and usually some level of governmental authority. [2] The term "county" is used in 48 U.S. states, while Louisiana and Alaska have functionally equivalent subdivisions called parishes and boroughs respectively. [2]

Most counties have subdivisions which may include municipalities and unincorporated areas . Others have no further divisions, or may serve as a consolidated city-county . Some municipalities are in multiple counties ; New York City is uniquely partitioned into multiple counties, referred to at the city government level as boroughs.

The U.S. federal government uses the term "county equivalent" to describe non-county administrative or statistical areas that are comparable to counties. Louisiana parishes; the organized boroughs of Alaska; the District of Columbia ; and the independent cities of the states of Virginia , Maryland , Missouri , and Nevada are equivalent to counties for administrative purposes. Alaska's Unorganized Borough is divided into 10 census areas that are statistically equivalent to counties. As of 2017, there are currently 3142 counties and county-equivalents in the United States. [8]

The number of counties per state ranges from the 3 counties of Delaware to the 254 counties of Texas .

Counties have significant governmental functions in all states except Rhode Island and Connecticut , where county governments have been abolished but the entities remain for administrative or statistical purposes. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has removed most government functions from eight of its 14 counties .

The county with the largest population, Los Angeles County (10,170,292), [4] and the county with the largest land area ( San Bernardino County ) border each other in Southern California (however four Boroughs in Alaska are larger in area than San Bernardino).


Counties were among the earliest units of local government established in the Thirteen Colonies that would become the United States. Virginia created the first counties in order to ease the administrative workload in Jamestown . The House of Burgesses divided the colony first into four "incorporations" in 1617 and finally into eight shires (or counties) in 1634: James City , Henrico , Charles City , Charles River , Warrosquyoake , Accomac , Elizabeth City , and Warwick River . [5] America's oldest intact county court records can be found at Eastville, Virginia , in Northampton (originally Accomac) County , dating to 1632. [6] Maryland established its first county, St. Mary's , in 1637, and Massachusetts followed in 1643. Pennsylvania and New York delegated significant power and responsibility from state government to county governments and thereby established a pattern for most of the United States, although counties remained relatively weak in New England .

When independence came, "the framers of the Constitution did not provide for local governments. Rather, they left the matter to the states. Subsequently, early state constitutions generally conceptualized county government as an arm of the state." In the twentieth century, the role of local governments strengthened and counties began providing more services, acquiring home rule and county commissions to pass local ordinances pertaining to their unincorporated areas . [7]

In some states, these powers are partly or mostly devolved to the counties' smaller divisions usually called townships , though in New York, New England and Wisconsin they are called "towns." The county may or may not be able to override its townships on certain matters, depending on the state constitution .

The newest county in the United States is the city and county of Broomfield, Colorado , established in 2001 as a consolidated city-county . [8] [9] The newest county-equivalents are the Alaskan boroughs of Skagway established in 2007, Wrangell established in 2008, and Petersburg established in 2013. [10]

County variations

Consolidated city-counties

A consolidated city-county is simultaneously a city, which is a municipality (municipal corporation), and a county, which is an administrative division of a state, having the powers and responsibilities of both types of entities. There are 40 consolidated city-counties in the U.S., [2] including Denver, Colorado ; Indianapolis, Indiana ; Jacksonville, Florida ; Louisville, Kentucky ; Lexington, Kentucky ; Nashville, Tennessee ; New Orleans, Louisiana ; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania ; and San Francisco, California .

Similarly, some of Alaska's boroughs have merged with their principal cities creating unified city-boroughs. Some such consolidations and mergers have created cities that rank among the geographically largest cities in the world, though often with population densities far below those of most urban areas.

County equivalents

See also: (below), regarding Louisiana.

The term county equivalents is used to describe divisions whose organization differs from that of most counties:

  • Alaska census areas : Most of the land area of Alaska is not contained within any of Alaska's 19 organized boroughs. This vast area, larger than France and Germany combined, is officially referred to by the Alaska state government as the Unorganized Borough , and, outside of other incorporated borough limits, has no independent "county" government, although several incorporated city governments exist within its boundaries; the majority of it is governed and run by the State of Alaska as an extension of state government. The United States Census Bureau , in cooperation with the Alaska state government for census and electoral districting purposes, has divided the Unorganized Borough into 11 census areas for statistical purposes only.
  • Independent cities : These are cities that legally belong to no county. They differ from consolidated city-counties in that in the case of a consolidated city-county, the county at least nominally exists, whereas in the case of an independent city, no county even nominally exists. As of July 2013, there are 41 such cities in the United States, including Baltimore, Maryland ; Carson City, Nevada ; St. Louis, Missouri ; and all 38 cities in Virginia , where any area incorporated as a city is outside of the county jurisdiction. [5] [12]
  • Washington, D.C. , [13] outside the jurisdiction of any state, has a special status. The city of Washington comprises the entirety of the District of Columbia , which, in accordance with Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution , is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Congress . When founded in 1801, the District consisted of two counties and three cities. In 1846, Alexandria County (which now forms Arlington County and a portion of the independent city of Alexandria ) – including the then–City of Alexandria – was given back to Virginia. In 1871, the three remaining entities – the City of Washington, Georgetown City , and Washington County (which was coterminous with the District) – were merged into a consolidated government by an act of Congress. Georgetown was abolished as a city by another act in 1895.

Consolidated city-counties are not designated county-equivalents for administrative purposes; since both the city and the county at least nominally exist, they are properly classified as counties in their own right. The same is true of the boroughs of New York City , each of which is coextensive with a county of New York State.


There are no counties per se in U.S. territories. Most are directly divided into municipalities or similar units, which are sometimes treated as equivalent of counties for statistical purposes:


The site of a county's administration, and often the county courthouse , is called the county seat ("parish seat" in Louisiana, or "borough seat" in Alaska). Several New England counties use the term " shire town " for the county seat.

Many counties are divided into smaller political or governmental units. In Northeastern and Midwestern states, counties are divided into civil townships (or "towns" in New England, New York, and Wisconsin), which may provide governmental or public services.

County names

Common sources of county names are names of people, geographic features, places in other states or countries, Native American tribes, and animals. Quite a few counties bear names of French or Spanish origin.

Counties are most often named for people, often political figures or early settlers, with over 2,100 of the 3,143 total so named. The most common county name, with 31, is Washington County , for America's first president, George Washington . Up until 1871, there was a Washington County within the District of Columbia , but it was dissolved by the District of Columbia Organic Act . Jefferson County, for Thomas Jefferson , is next with 27. The most recent president to have a county named for him was Warren G. Harding , reflecting the slowing rate of county creation since New Mexico and Arizona became states in 1912. The most common names for counties not named after presidents are Franklin (25), Clay (18), and Montgomery (18).

After people, the next most common source of county names are geographic features and locations, with some counties even being named after counties in other states, or for places in countries such as the United Kingdom. The most common geographic county name is Lake . Native American tribes and animals lend their names to some counties. Quite a few counties bear names of French or Spanish origin, such as Marquette County being named after French missionary Father Jacques Marquette .

The county's equivalent in the state of Louisiana, the parish (Fr. paroisse civile and Sp. parroquia ) took its name during the state's French and Spanish colonial periods. Before the Louisiana Purchase and granting of statehood, government was often administered in towns where major church parishes were located. Of the original 19 civil parishes of Louisiana that date from statehood in 1807, nine were named after the Roman Catholic parishes from which they were governed.

County government

The powers of counties arise from state law and vary widely. In Connecticut and Rhode Island , [2] [3] counties are geographic entities, but not governmental jurisdictions. At the other extreme, Maryland counties and the county-equivalent City of Baltimore handle almost all services, including public education , although the state retains an active oversight authority with many of these services. [16]

In most Midwestern and Northeastern states, counties are further subdivided into townships or towns , which sometimes exercise local powers or administration. Throughout the United States, counties may contain other independent, self-governing municipalities .

Counties are usually governed by an elected body, variously called the county commission , board of supervisors , commissioners' court , county council , board of chosen freeholders , county court , or county Legislature . In some counties, there is a county executive . In cases in which a consolidated city-county or independent city exists, a City Council usually governs city/county or city affairs.

In many states, the board in charge of a county holds powers that transcend all three traditional branches of government. It has the legislative power to enact ordinances for the county; it has the executive power to oversee the executive operations of county government; and it has quasi-judicial power with regard to certain limited matters (such as hearing appeals from the planning commission if one exists).

The day-to-day operations of the county government are sometimes overseen by an elected county executive or by a chief administrative officer or county administrator who reports to the board, the mayor, or both.

In many states, several important officials are elected separately from the board of commissioners or supervisors and cannot be fired by the board. These positions may include county clerk , county treasurer , county surrogate, sheriff , and others.

District attorneys or state attorneys are usually state-level as opposed to county-level officials, but in many states, counties and state judicial districts have coterminous boundaries.

Scope of power

The power of county governments varies widely from state to state, as does the relationship between counties and incorporated cities. The government of the county usually resides in a municipality called the county seat. However, some counties may have multiple seats or no seat. In some counties with no incorporated municipalities, a large settlement may serve as the county seat.

Minimal scope

In New England, counties function at most as judicial court districts and sheriff's departments (presently, in Connecticut only as judicial court districts—and in Rhode Island , they have lost both those functions and all others), and most of the governmental authority below the state level is in the hands of towns and cities . In several of Maine's sparsely populated counties, small towns rely on the county for law enforcement, and in New Hampshire several social programs are administered at the state level. In Connecticut, Rhode Island, and parts of Massachusetts, counties are now only geographic designations, and they do not have any governmental powers. All government is either done at the state level or at the municipal level. In Connecticut and parts of Massachusetts, regional councils have been established to partially fill the void left behind by the abolished county governments. The regional councils' authority is limited compared with a county government—they have authority only over infrastructure and land use planning, distribution of state and federal funds for infrastructure projects, emergency preparedness, and limited law enforcement duties.

Moderate scope

In the Mid-Atlantic and Midwest , counties typically provide, at a minimum, courts, public utilities , libraries, hospitals, public health services, parks, roads, law enforcement, and jails. There is usually a county registrar, recorder, or clerk (the exact title varies) who collects vital statistics , holds elections (sometimes in coordination with a separate elections office or commission), and prepares or processes certificates of births, deaths, marriages, and dissolutions (divorce decrees). The county recorder normally maintains the official record of all real estate transactions. Other key county officials include the coroner / medical examiner , treasurer , assessor , auditor , comptroller , and district attorney .

In most states, the county sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer in the county. However, except in major emergencies where clear chains of command are essential, the county sheriff normally does not directly control the police departments of city governments, but merely cooperates with them (e.g., under mutual aid pacts). Thus, the most common interaction between county and city law enforcement personnel is when city police officers deliver suspects to sheriff's deputies for detention or incarceration in the county jail.

In virtually all U.S. states, the state courts and local law enforcement are organized and implemented along county boundaries, but nearly all of the substantive and procedural law adjudicated in state trial courts originates from the state legislature and state appellate courts. In other words, most criminal defendants are prosecuted for violations of state law, not local ordinances, and if they, the district attorney, or police seek reforms to the criminal justice system, they will usually have to direct their efforts towards the state legislature rather than the county (which merely implements state law). A typical criminal defendant will be arraigned and subsequently indicted or held over for trial before a trial court in and for a particular county where the crime occurred, kept in the county jail (if he is not granted bail or cannot make bail), prosecuted by the county's district attorney, and tried before a jury selected from that county. But long-term incarceration is rarely a county responsibility, execution of capital punishment is never a county responsibility, and the state's responses to prisoners' appeals is the responsibility of the state attorney general , who has to defend before the state appellate courts the prosecutions conducted by locally elected district attorneys in the name of the state. Furthermore, county-level trial court judges are officers of the judicial branch of the state government rather than county governments.

In many states, the county controls all unincorporated lands within its boundaries. In states with a township tier, unincorporated land is controlled by the townships. Residents of unincorporated land who are dissatisfied with county-level or township-level resource allocation decisions can attempt to vote to incorporate as a city , town , or village .

A few counties directly provide public transportation themselves, usually in the form of a simple bus system. However, in most counties, public transportation is provided by one of the following: a special-purpose district that is coterminous with the county (but exists separately from the county government), a multi-county regional transit authority, or a state agency.

Broad scope

In western and southern states, more populated counties provide many facilities, such as airports, convention centers , museums, recreation centers , beaches, harbors, zoos, clinics, law libraries , and public housing . They provide services such as child and family services, elder services, mental health services, welfare services, veterans assistance services, animal control , probation supervision, historic preservation, food safety regulation, and environmental health services. They have many additional officials like public defenders , arts commissioners, human rights commissioners, and planning commissioners. Finally, there may also be a county fire department and even a county police department (as distinguished from fire and police departments operated by individual cities, special districts, or the state government). For example, Gwinnett County, Georgia , and its county seat, the city of Lawrenceville , each have their own police departments. (A separate county sheriff's department is responsible for security of the county courts and administration of the county jail.) In several southern states, public school systems are organized and administered at the county level.


As of 2016, there were 3,007 counties, 64 parishes , 18 organized boroughs , 11 census areas , 41 independent cities , [7] and the District of Columbia for a total of 3,142 counties and county-equivalents in the United States. [8] The average number of counties per state is 62, with a range from the three counties of Delaware to the 254 counties of Texas .

Southern and Midwestern states generally tend to have more counties than Western or Northeastern states, as many Northeastern states are not large enough in area to warrant a large number of counties, and many Western states were sparsely populated when counties were created. The five counties of Rhode Island , the eight counties of Connecticut , and eight of the 14 counties of Massachusetts no longer have functional county governments, but continue to exist as legal and census entities.

Number of counties and county-equivalents in the United States of America

State or district Total Subdivisions [8] Average
2016 population [8] Land area [8] Counties Equivalents Total Population Land area
Alabama 4,863,300 50,645 sq mi
131,171 km 2
67 0 67 72,587 756 sq mi
1,958 km 2
Alaska 741,894 570,641 sq mi
1,477,953 km 2
29 29 25,582 19,677 sq mi
50,964 km 2
Arizona 6,931,071 113,594 sq mi
294,207 km 2
15 0 15 462,071 7,573 sq mi
19,614 km 2
Arkansas 2,988,248 52,035 sq mi
134,771 km 2
75 0 75 39,843 694 sq mi
1,797 km 2
California 39,250,017 155,779 sq mi
403,466 km 2
57 1 58 676,724 2,686 sq mi
6,956 km 2
Colorado 5,540,545 103,642 sq mi
268,431 km 2
62 2 64 86,571 1,619 sq mi
4,194 km 2
Connecticut 3,576,452 4,842 sq mi
12,542 km 2
8 0 8 447,057 605 sq mi
1,568 km 2
Delaware 952,065 1,949 sq mi
5,047 km 2
3 0 3 317,355 650 sq mi
1,682 km 2
District of Columbia 681,170 61 sq mi
158 km 2
1 1 681,170 61 sq mi
158 km 2
Florida 20,612,439 53,625 sq mi
138,887 km 2
66 1 67 307,648 800 sq mi
2,073 km 2
Georgia 10,310,371 57,513 sq mi
148,959 km 2
158 1 159 64,845 362 sq mi
937 km 2
Hawaii 1,428,557 6,423 sq mi
16,635 km 2
5 0 5 285,711 1,285 sq mi
3,327 km 2
Idaho 1,683,140 82,643 sq mi
214,045 km 2
44 0 44 38,253 1,878 sq mi
4,865 km 2
Illinois 12,801,539 55,519 sq mi
143,793 km 2
102 0 102 125,505 544 sq mi
1,410 km 2
Indiana 6,633,053 35,826 sq mi
92,789 km 2
92 0 92 72,098 389 sq mi
1,009 km 2
Iowa 3,134,693 55,857 sq mi
144,669 km 2
99 0 99 31,664 564 sq mi
1,461 km 2
Kansas 2,907,289 81,759 sq mi
211,754 km 2
105 0 105 27,688 779 sq mi
2,017 km 2
Kentucky 4,436,974 39,486 sq mi
102,269 km 2
120 0 120 36,975 329 sq mi
852 km 2
Louisiana 4,681,666 43,204 sq mi
111,898 km 2
64 64 73,151 675 sq mi
1,748 km 2
Maine 1,331,479 30,843 sq mi
79,883 km 2
16 0 16 83,217 1,928 sq mi
4,993 km 2
Maryland 6,016,447 9,707 sq mi
25,142 km 2
23 1 24 250,685 404 sq mi
1,048 km 2
Massachusetts 6,811,779 7,800 sq mi
20,202 km 2
14 0 14 486,556 557 sq mi
1,443 km 2
Michigan 9,928,300 56,539 sq mi
146,435 km 2
83 0 83 119,618 681 sq mi
1,764 km 2
Minnesota 5,519,952 79,627 sq mi
206,232 km 2
87 0 87 63,448 915 sq mi
2,370 km 2
Mississippi 2,988,726 46,923 sq mi
121,531 km 2
82 0 82 36,448 572 sq mi
1,482 km 2
Missouri 6,093,000 68,742 sq mi
178,040 km 2
114 1 115 52,983 598 sq mi
1,548 km 2
Montana 1,042,520 145,546 sq mi
376,962 km 2
54 2 56 18,616 2,599 sq mi
6,731 km 2
Nebraska 1,907,116 76,824 sq mi
198,974 km 2
93 0 93 20,507 826 sq mi
2,140 km 2
Nevada 2,940,058 109,781 sq mi
284,332 km 2
16 1 17 172,945 6,458 sq mi
16,725 km 2
New Hampshire 1,334,795 8,953 sq mi
23,187 km 2
10 0 10 133,480 895 sq mi
2,319 km 2
New Jersey 8,944,469 7,354 sq mi
19,047 km 2
21 0 21 425,927 350 sq mi
907 km 2
New Mexico 2,081,015 121,298 sq mi
314,161 km 2
33 0 33 63,061 3,676 sq mi
9,520 km 2
New York 19,745,289 47,126 sq mi
122,057 km 2
62 0 62 318,472 760 sq mi
1,969 km 2
North Carolina 10,146,788 48,618 sq mi
125,920 km 2
100 0 100 101,468 486 sq mi
1,259 km 2
North Dakota 757,952 69,001 sq mi
178,711 km 2
53 0 53 14,301 1,302 sq mi
3,372 km 2
Ohio 11,614,373 40,861 sq mi
105,829 km 2
88 0 88 131,982 464 sq mi
1,203 km 2
Oklahoma 3,923,561 68,595 sq mi
177,660 km 2
77 0 77 50,955 891 sq mi
2,307 km 2
Oregon 4,093,465 95,988 sq mi
248,608 km 2
36 0 36 113,707 2,666 sq mi
6,906 km 2
Pennsylvania 12,784,227 44,743 sq mi
115,883 km 2
67 0 67 190,809 668 sq mi
1,730 km 2
Rhode Island 1,056,426 1,034 sq mi
2,678 km 2
5 0 5 211,285 207 sq mi
536 km 2
South Carolina 4,961,119 30,061 sq mi
77,857 km 2
46 0 46 107,850 653 sq mi
1,693 km 2
South Dakota 865,454 75,811 sq mi
196,350 km 2
66 0 66 13,113 1,149 sq mi
2,975 km 2
Tennessee 6,651,194 41,235 sq mi
106,798 km 2
95 0 95 70,013 434 sq mi
1,124 km 2
Texas 27,862,596 261,232 sq mi
676,587 km 2
254 0 254 109,695 1,028 sq mi
2,664 km 2
Utah 3,051,217 82,170 sq mi
212,818 km 2
29 0 29 105,214 2,833 sq mi
7,339 km 2
Vermont 624,594 9,217 sq mi
23,871 km 2
14 0 14 44,614 658 sq mi
1,705 km 2
Virginia 8,411,808 39,490 sq mi
102,279 km 2
95 38 133 63,247 295 sq mi
763 km 2
Washington 7,288,000 66,456 sq mi
172,119 km 2
39 0 39 186,872 1,704 sq mi
4,413 km 2
West Virginia 1,831,102 24,038 sq mi
62,259 km 2
55 0 55 33,293 437 sq mi
1,132 km 2
Wisconsin 5,778,708 54,158 sq mi
140,268 km 2
72 0 72 80,260 752 sq mi
1,948 km 2
Wyoming 585,501 97,093 sq mi
251,470 km 2
23 0 23 25,457 4,221 sq mi
10,933 km 2
United States 323,127,513 3,531,905 sq mi
9,147,592 km 2
3,007 135 3,142 102,841 1,124 sq mi
2,910 km 2


The average U.S. county population was nearly 100,000 in 2015. The most populous county is Los Angeles County, California , with 10,170,292 residents in 2015. [29] This number is greater than the populations of 41 U.S. states, and even about 900,000 larger than the population of the 10 lowest states combined. It also makes Los Angeles County 17.4 times as large as the least populous state, Wyoming.

The second most populous county is Cook County, Illinois with a population of 5,238,216. [29] Cook County's population is larger than that of 28 individual U.S. states and the combined populations of the six smallest states. [29]

The least populous county is Kalawao County, Hawaii , with 89 residents in 2015. [29]

The most densely populated county or county-equivalent is New York County, New York (coextensive with the New York City Borough of Manhattan ), with 72,033 persons per square mile (27,812/km 2 ) in 2015. The Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, Alaska is both the most extensive and the least densely populated county or county-equivalent with 0.0380 persons per square mile (0.0147/km 2 ) in 2015. [29]

981 counties have a population over 50,000; 592 counties have a population over 100,000; 137 counties have a population over 500,000; 45 counties have a population over 1,000,000; and 14 counties have a population over 2,000,000. 35 counties have a population under 1,000; 307 counties have a population under 5,000; 709 counties have a population under 10,000; and 1,492 counties have a population between 10,000 and 50,000. [29]


At the 2000 U.S. Census , the median land area of U.S. counties was 622 sq mi (1,610 km 2 ), which is two-thirds of the median land area of a ceremonial county of England , and a little more than a quarter of the median land area of a French département . Counties in the western United States typically have a much larger land area than those in the eastern United States. For example, the median land area of counties in Georgia is 343 sq mi (890 km 2 ), whereas in Utah it is 2,427 sq mi (6,290 km 2 ).

The most extensive county or county-equivalent is the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, Alaska , with a land area of 145,505 square miles (376,856 km 2 ). All nine of the most extensive county-equivalents are in Alaska. The most extensive county is San Bernardino County, California , with a land area of 20,057 square miles (51,947 km 2 ). The least extensive county is Kalawao County, Hawaii , with a land area of 11.991 square miles (31.058 km 2 ). The least extensive county-equivalent is the independent City of Falls Church, Virginia , with a land area of 1.999 square miles (5.177 km 2 ). [2]

Geographic relationships between cities and counties

In some states, a municipality may reside in only one county and may not annex territory in adjacent counties, but in the majority of states, the state constitution or state law allows municipalities to extend across county boundaries. At least 32 states include municipalities in multiple counties . Dallas and Oklahoma City , for example, both contain portions of five counties. New York City is an unusual case because it encompasses multiple counties in one city. The city comprises five counties in their entirety, each coextensive with one of the five boroughs of the city: Manhattan (New York County), The Bronx (Bronx County), Queens (Queens County), Brooklyn (Kings County), and Staten Island (Richmond County).

See also


A: The Unorganized Borough, Alaska formed by the Borough Act of 1961 is a legal entity, run by the Alaska state government as an extension of State government, [21] it and the independently incorporated Unified, Home Rule, First Class and Second Class boroughs roughly correspond to parishes in Louisiana and to counties in the other 48 states. [22]
B: These 11 statistical areas are used solely by the United States Census Bureau to tabulate population and other census statistics within the Unorganized Borough; they have no legal basis in Alaska state or federal law other than for electoral representation and federal financial assistance purposes.