How ISO codes connect the world

Codes are often associated with mystery and secrets. But, sometimes, they provide clarity and consistency in our ever-changing world.

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We are living through a time of unprecedented change. But while the latest innovations often make headlines, we take for granted some of the most crucial systems that support us in our daily lives – and keep us connected. 

Have you ever tried making an international online payment or wiring money abroad? As of 2021, 76 % of the global population owns a bank account. A financial transfer between two different countries would be fraught with security risks if there wasn’t an unequivocal, unique code to identify the sending and receiving accounts. Thanks to the IBAN code system, billions of transactions like these happen seamlessly every day. 

How about posting a package to a loved one living in a different country? 93.1 % of us had access to postal services in 2020. But if you missed out a digit and gave an incorrect country code, it would be a logistical migraine for postal organizations and international couriers. Your package might never arrive. 

Most of us use these country codes in our everyday lives, yet we have very little understanding of how they work and why they’re so important. So what exactly are they? 

We take for granted some of the most crucial systems that support us in our daily lives. 

A case of unmistakable identity 

Having multiple names and spellings for countries is a potential minefield of inconsistency across different data sets and platforms around the globe. Short-form letters and numbers are easy to recognize, remember and identify and, having been established as an international standard, they don’t require translation. With supply chains and postal services spanning the planet, simplicity can prevent confusion across the thousands of languages humans speak. 

With this in mind, ISO developed ISO 3166. This standard sets out internationally recognized codes made up of letters and numbers – short, unique identifiers for countries, dependent territories and special areas of geographical interest. For example, Italy is abbreviated as IT, ITA and 380 while Japan is JP, JPN and 392. The idea is to represent different countries in a more convenient and less ambiguous form than their full names. 

As a widely used international standard, these unique sets of codes allow for smooth and safe international exchanges of goods and information, saving time and avoiding errors. 

Most of us use country codes in our everyday lives. 

Connections through code 

From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, and everywhere in between, country codes make all our international communications possible, from international calls to thousands of Internet platforms. Though we may not give them a second thought, these codes help track where an international call is placed and where it is coming from. 

The codes also underpin and facilitate all our activity online, most often reflecting the specific geographic locations of websites. For example, the ending “.ca” tells us a domain is in Canada while “.au” reveals it’s based in Australia. By providing clear, unambiguous identifiers for the vast amounts of digital data flowing across the globe on a daily basis, these unassuming codes allow businesses and organizations to optimize their web performance. This makes them an invaluable tool in targeting and improving the quality of content based on audience. 

As well as smoothing the way for everything from financial transactions to family catch-ups, country codes are also widely adopted in programming, data processing and in the aviation industry.  

In the case of the travel sector, machine-readable passports use country codes to register the nationality of the holder. Government workers who need to search, record and exchange data with worldwide geographical content can also benefit. 

Country codes make all our international communications possible. 

Living by the code 

More than ever before in human history, we are connected across time zones and national borders. Thousands of these daily connections are made possible by a system of numbers and letters that most don’t see or understand. But it is this virtually invisible system that keeps money flowing safely, calls connected seamlessly and web traffic buzzing clearly. 

Simply put, the ISO 3166 coding system transcends the barriers we face on an international scale. Despite our differences, the codes represent each of us in a way that anyone can understand. In a world where everyone deserves representation, these standards already provide practical solutions, so we don’t have to. 

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