Ireland vs Northern Ireland: A Locals Guide to the Differences in 2020

Confused? Take a couple of minutes to dive into the guide below!

ireland vs northern ireland

So, Ireland vs Northern Ireland… what’s the difference? We get this question quite a bit, usually over email and always from those visiting Ireland from lands afar.

In a nutshell, the 6 counties of Northern Ireland are technically within the United Kingdom, while the remaining 26 are part of the Republic of Ireland.

We’ll dive into this deeper in the guide below.

Now, it’s worth noting in advance that this is a topic that can stir up quite a bit of anger for those living in both Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Something that irritates me greatly about many of the Northern Ireland vs Ireland guides online is that they fail to offer any insight into the history of the partition of Ireland.

Many guides just inform tourists of the differences that they’ll encounter today, like currency and road signs, while failing to offer insight into the history behind the division.

In this guide, you’ll learn:

  • The differences between Northern Ireland and Ireland that you’ll encounter when visiting
  • What to watch out for
  • The history behind the partition of Ireland

Ireland vs Northern Ireland

The main difference between Ireland and Northern Ireland is that they are two separate countries. The Republic of Ireland is an independent sovereign state, while Northern Ireland has been part of the United Kingdom since 3rd May 1921.

northern ireland vs ireland map

A quick introduction

OK – first things first: the map above shows the partition between Ireland and Northern Ireland (Northern Ireland is the section in greeny-yellow).

There’s currently (Oct. 15th, 2019) no physical border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, although many maps would make you believe that there is.

That being said, we’re in a very bizarre situation with Brexit, currently, with talks of a hard border becoming more and more frequent. 

Hopefully, a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will never come to be, as it could result in the type of conflict that plagued the island for many years, during the mid-to-late-1900s.

The main differences between Northern Ireland and Ireland 


There are several very real differences between Northern Ireland and Ireland that you’ll encounter today.

Let’s say that you’re visiting Donegal for a weekend and you decide to take a spin into Derry.


  • Technically be passing from Ireland into the UK
  • Need pound sterling 
  • Encounter different road signs 
  • Potentially incur additional costs from your rental car company
    • Yes, some rental car companies will charge up to €30 a day if you pass from the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland, so check the contract in advance!

Ireland vs Northern Ireland: Counties, Governance, Currency, More

howth harbour

The counties of Ireland and Northern Ireland

32 counties make up the island of Ireland. Out of these 32 counties, 26 are located in the Republic of Ireland and 6 are located in Northern Ireland.

Here’s a breakdown of each:

The counties of the Republic of Ireland

  • Dublin
  • Meath
  • Wicklow
  • Wexford
  • Carlow
  • Kilkenny
  • Waterford
  • Cork
  • Kerry 
  • Limerick
  • Westmeath
  • Clare
  • Mayo
  • Sligo
  • Galway
  • Leitrim
  • Cavan
  • Donegal
  • Louth
  • Longford
  • Monaghan
  • Tipperary
  • Kildare
  • Laois
  • Roscommon
  • Offaly

The counties of Northern Ireland

  • Antrim
  • Armagh
  • Down
  • Derry
  • Fermanagh
  • Tyrone
duress island cork
Photo by Hillwalk Tours

Governance: President v Queen

Governance is a key difference between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland are what’s called a ‘parliamentary constitutional republic’. Ireland’s  Head of State is the President of Ireland (currently Michael D. Higgins).

The 6 counties of Northern Ireland are part of the United Kingdom. Their current Head of State is the British monarch (Queen Elizabeth).

Currency: Euro v Pound

In the Republic of Ireland, we use Euro. In Northern Ireland, they use Pound Sterling.

Now, we constantly get asked questions about whether they accept the Euro in Northern Ireland. The answer? Yes and no.

I’ve been in Northern Ireland several times over the past few years. Sometimes, when you walk into a bar or shop, you’ll see a sign saying ‘Euro accepted’, or something along those lines.

Your best bet is to use card. Or to just take out some Sterling to use during your visit.

Titanic museum belfast
Photo by Chris Hill

Different capitals: Dublin v Belfast

Another difference between Northern Ireland vs Ireland is their capital cities. The capital of Ireland is Dublin, while the capital of Northern Ireland is Belfast. 

Both have international airports and each has extensive (although not always reliable) public transport serving it.

Languages: Irish vs English

English and Irish (aka Gaeilge) are the two official languages of the Republic of Ireland. 

You’ll see Irish used in many street signs and within official documents, but you don’t tend to hear it spoken outside of schools, where it’s taught, or in Gaeltacht areas, which are primarily Irish-speaking regions. 

Although English is the official language of Northern Ireland, Ullans (a variant of Scots – a language brought to Ulster by Scottish settlers in the 17th century) and Irish are both seen as culturally significant.

Car rental

I rented a car from Europcar not long ago.

When I was picking it up, I was surprised to hear that if I drove into Northern Ireland I would be hit with an additional €25 – €35 (I can’t remember exactly how much) charge that would be automatically debited from my card.

I’m not sure if this is the case with every car rental provider, so check in advance.

Bes time to visit cliffs of moher
Photo by Chris Hill

“Wait, how will I actually know when I’m passing into NI?”

One of the ways I know that I’m after passing into Northern Ireland is the road signs.

In Northern Ireland, they show distances in miles (see image above), while in the Republic of Ireland, we use kilometres.

Obviously, if you pass a massive ‘You are now entering Derry’ sign, it’ll be pretty obvious. Also, if you’re using a sat nav and the sound is on, you tend to be told that you’ve just entered the UK.

The Partition of Ireland: A Brief History

Many online guides that aim to offer an insight in Northern Ireland vs Ireland fail to move past the current day differences of road signs and currency.

To provide the necessary context, you’ll find a brief insight into why a partition of Ireland occurred below.

Disclaimer: this is a very brief history of the partition of Ireland. Many people lost their lives during the events that are only briefly touched on below, so please take some time to read into them further.


The division of the island of Ireland into two separate regions – Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland – took place on the 3rd of May, 1921.

The UK originally intended that all of Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom, but the Irish War of Independence (a guerrilla war that was fought in Ireland from 1919 to 1921 between the Irish Republican Army and British forces) saw that this didn’t happen.

Dunhill Castle from afar
Photo by Luke Myers

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland

Ireland and Great Britain were merged into one on the 1st of January 1801 (this happened while Britain was at war with France).

Ireland had been enjoying a brief period of independence following the Irish Rebellion of 1798 (yes, the Brits occupied Ireland before this) when paranoia hit the British government.

They felt that there was a real risk of Ireland joining forces with the French, and decided that Ireland needed to be under British rule once again, to avoid this happening.

Key takeaway: The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was a sovereign state (a state with borders) that was officially established by the Acts of Union 1800.

The third Home Rule bill

If you’re not familiar with Home Rule, it was a demand that Ireland’s governance be returned from Westminster, in the UK, to a domestic parliament on the island of Ireland. 

Many fought for this over the years, like Daniel O’Connell in the 1830s and 1840s, but it never came to be.

Then, on the 11th of April 1912, the Prime Minister introduced the Third Home Rule Bill which granted Ireland self-government.

Unionists (people in favour of the union of Northern Ireland with Britain) greatly opposed this Home Rule Bill, with many forming a paramilitary force, known as the Ulster Volunteer Force (or the UVF), with the intention of resisting Home Rule by violent means. 

They pledged that they wouldn’t acknowledge any Parliament out of Dublin nor:

  • Obey its laws
  • Pay taxes put in place by its government

The Irish Volunteers was set up in response to the creation of the UVF.

Key takeaway: The UK granted Home Rule. Those living in NI that wanted to remain part of the UK weren’t happy and threatened to resist by any means necessary. The Irish Volunteers was established in response to the creation of the UVF.
exterior shot of Narrow Water Castle
Photo by Bernie Brown via Tourism Ireland

Then the 1st World War happened…

Before the situation could be resolved, the 1st World War arrived. This resulted in a crisis in 1914 being averted.

However, while the UVF and the Irish Volunteers prepared for what seemed like certain conflict, arms were imported into Ireland.

The 1916 Easter Rising

It was in April 1916 when trouble came to a boil and the Easter Rising took place. The Rising was launched by Irish republicans in an attempt to end British rule in Ireland.

Some quick facts and figures:

  • The Rising started on the 24th of April 1916
  • It lasted for 6 days
  • Members of the Irish Volunteers seized key locations across Dublin and proclaimed an Irish Republic.
  • The British Army brought in thousands of reinforcements (+ a gunboat) and managed to suppress the Rising
  • Around 3,500 people were taken prisoner by the British
  • Many of the leaders of the Rising were executed 

The partition 

As mentioned earlier, I’m oversimplifying the events that led to the partition of Ireland, so please do take some time to do further reading into the subject (this is a great resource).

The Government of Ireland Act was introduced in 1920. Its goal was to provide for the better government of Ireland.

This Act resulted in Ireland being split into two self-governing territories:

  • Northern Ireland
  • Southern Ireland

Both Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland would remain in the United Kingdom.

In May of 1921, Northern Ireland was officially formed. 

On the 6th of December 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, marking the end of the Irish War of independence.

Doonagore castle doolin
Photo via Tourism Ireland

Frequently asked questions about Northern Ireland v Ireland

Hopefully, I’ve answered a good chunk of the questions that you have about the differences between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Below, I’m going to tackle some specific questions that we’ve received about the topic.

How is Northern Ireland different from Ireland?

Ireland and Northern Ireland are technically two different countries. They’re ruled by different governments, they use different currencies, and there’s a different metric system, to name but a few.

Is Northern Ireland British or Irish?

Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. However, under the Good Friday Agreement, people that are born in Northern Ireland have the ability to choose to be British citizens, Irish citizens or both.

Have a question about something that we haven’t covered? Let me know in the comments below! 

Howaya! Thanks for visiting the Irish road trip! This site exists to inspire and guide you on an Irish adventure that’ll give birth to a lifetime of memories (sounds very arsey altogether, I know!) You'll find everything from things to do in Ireland to where to stay in Ireland (unique and unusual places) if you have a nosey around!


    • I can’t see how you picked that up from the article above Robert. This guide explains the very real differences along with the backstory behind the partition.

  1. Thank you Keith! Excellent informative summary.
    Background: I was born I the UK, but as my dad was American I was granted American citizenship. I never chose one over the other…

    I see similarities in the Irish rebellion/s to what is going on right now in the US between the Democrats and Republicans .


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