I've done some research and found that each country has its own way of subdividing the country into smaller parts. Examples:

  • Departments (France)
  • States (USA)
  • Provinces (Netherlands)
  • Counties (UK)
  • Bundesländer (Germany)
  • Region
  • None (Some small countries have no subdivisions)

I might have forgotten a few. My question is, what text do you give a label for such an input field? I've seen this one frequently:

State/Province: ____________________________

But it feels like a poor attempt for US websites to try to help non-US users.

I think the best practice would be to use geolocation and change the form accordingly. However, I don't have the time and knowledge to link each of the worlds 250 countries to their subdivision, nor do I have a geolocator which is suitable for business applications.

Any tips regarding this specific input field (not the entire address form)?

  • 1
    Are you validating this field in any way? Because a solution could be to just have one single text area for the user to input their address. Then you don't have to worry about the individual nuances (aside from deciding what to label this one field!) – JonW Sep 22 '14 at 10:46
  • @JonW The state/province/region field is not validated, but other parts of the address are validated. I do need to be able to parse the address and do something with it (rather than just store the text. for example, to print on stickers to use on enveloppes). – user1884155 Sep 22 '14 at 11:34
  • Can you post how your rest of the address form is designed? People might get a better way of fitting this information in a suitable way. – Harshal Sep 22 '14 at 11:50
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    By the way, a comment on the term "Region" that you use in the title. I strongly recommend not using that as its ambiguity goes both macro and micro. For instance, if I'm not mistaken, Microsoft uses "Country/Region" to dance around politically sensitive states, like Taiwan or Palestine, or quasi-states like Puerto Rico or Hong Kong. – Tim FitzGerald Sep 23 '14 at 2:24
up vote 7 down vote accepted

You mention that other fields are validated but not the region field, that your primary motivation is for mailing addresses. If this helps you at all, only one of those countries you mention in your list of examples (USA) uses the region name in the mailing address.

I took an entirely unscientific examination of a random set of industrialised or industrialising countries and broken them into three sets: require a sub-unit in addresses, may require a sub-unit name (long-form), and do not require a sub-unit. I gathered the information from the UN agency responsible for postal services, and include the English name or names of the countries sub-units, where I know them off-hand.

Nations that require a sub-unit abbreviation in their postal addresses

  • United States: state, though in reality also districts (D.C.) and territories (P.R., Guam et al.)
  • Brazil: state
  • Canada: province/territory
  • Australia: state/territory
  • Mexico: state, though in reality also federal district (D.F.)
  • Italy: province
  • Venezuela: state

Nations that include sub-national units, and not always required (e.g. a large city may do without, but a rural village will need it)

  • India: state
  • China: province
  • Korea: province
  • Japan: prefecture
  • Russia: province
  • Spain: province (there are also communities, but it looks like provinces are what are used for the mail)
  • Switzerland: canton (abbreviation is optional only when the town name is not unique. Perhaps a Swiss counterpart on this forum can speak to user behavior here; do Swiss nationals just add the abbreviation after the town in the town field?)
  • Thailand: province
  • Ukraine: province

Nations that do not use subnational units in their postal addresses

  • UK: county/nation/unitary authority (?! from what I can gather, it's a mess)
  • France: department
  • Germany: federal state
  • The Netherlands: province
  • Belgium: region or province
  • Ireland: county
  • New Zealand
  • Argentina
  • Algeria
  • Israel
  • South Africa: province
  • Poland
  • Austria: federal state

Conclusions

  • Many countries do not need sub-unit information in their postal addresses
  • The majority of countries that do call their sub-units state or province when translated into English

Again, this is an unscientific sampling, but I think it gives us enough information to say that you are probably okay to use the "State/Province" convention in your form, and possibly hide the field except for countries that you know you need information for it.

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    very nice list. good research. +1 – Mayo Sep 22 '14 at 21:51
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    Prior to this answer, I did not realize that using state/province actually DOES make sense. – user1884155 Sep 23 '14 at 7:44
/*Haven't looked at it extensively, but the "[Google Geocoding API][1]" looks like they've already built that functionality for you. 

You can get "administrative area" at 5 different levels of precision, based on the country. If a user sets the country first you should be able to dynamically determine and display what the appropriate "region" is called. No need to research 200+ variations, just use the API. 

There is a disclaimer that "not all nations exhibit these administrative levels," but if you're only concerned with "state/province" and "city" then region #1-3 should do for most cases. I'd imagine Google will get you close enough and you could address edge cases through testing. 

In the meantime, if you're doing mockups or something you could put "State/Province" as a placeholder. Or figure out the longest possible option & use that to ensure all the others will fit.*/

//EDIT - looks like the Google Geocode API doesn't do what I thought it would do. Looked at a few other options, but all work basically the same way - they'll return a specific state/province/region/city based on a search, but I didn't find any that would tell you whether a given country calls its administrative divisions "state" vs "province" etc ... Disregard. :\

  • I just gave this a try using this url (tested in browser) maps.googleapis.com/maps/api/geocode/… I do not see the name of the region anywhere ("state"), I only see the VALUE of the region (for example, "new york"). Am I missing something? – user1884155 Sep 23 '14 at 8:19
  • No - you're right. My mistake. I guess Google & similar services have realized that this distinction is a pain so they ignore it... – mc01 Sep 23 '14 at 16:05

This poses an interesting question. Most websites have a local reach but assuming a global company with a global reach then it is a real issue but one that can be mitigated.

The language selection of the user's browser would help narrow things down a lot. If your company is truly global then it probably has multiple languages (which will help narrow the focus); it definitely has staff that keeps track of where users come from and which markets to pay attention to; and it may have multiple websites (as opposed to translations).

But, judging from your statement "I think the best practice would be to use geolocation and change the form accordingly" I would guess that the company is fairly small. Unless you get a significant amount of hits and sales from a variety of countries then "States / Provinces / Counties" (or some such notation) would be more than sufficient.

Ultimately you have to be clear in your instructions and not potentially insult or aggravate your users (such as using a countries flag to indicate language).

  • 1
    Language doesn't solve everything. Take French: France has départements, Canada provinces, Switzerland cantons, Belgium régions and provinces... to say nothing of the different administrative or federal units of the many French-speaking African nations. – Tim FitzGerald Sep 22 '14 at 14:06
  • Very, very true. But, unless you are truly a global country it helps to narrow things down. I've worked at a lot of companies, some very large, and even there the range of hits were narrow. If you get a lot of hits from Quebec AND Martinique AND the Ivory Coast wow!!!! Good for you. One website may not be the solution for a company with substantial paying traffic from the US, England, France, Ivory Coast, (Senegal, Mali) Martinique, Haiti and other places (Japan, Korea). There comes a point where one size / one language does not fit all. – Mayo Sep 22 '14 at 14:12

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