Independent Cities vs. Counties: 3 Key Differences

Written by Nina Phillips
Published: December 3, 2023
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Have you heard about the independent cities in Virginia and are curious how they exist outside of a county? This is because they are something known as county equivalents. They have similar governing powers as counties and even count as their own representation during elections. To learn how independent cities vs. counties differ, continue reading below.

What Are Independent Cities?

Welcome to Virginia sign located at the Maryland, Virginia state border at Purcellville, Virginia. The black sign has a red heart shape and 'Virginia is for lovers' slogan underneath.

Virginia is home to most of the independent cities in the US.

©grandbrothers/Shutterstock.com

Independent cities are called what they are because they aren’t part of a county. They don’t have to listen to the laws of the county, only those of the state. For the most part, when it comes to the census and government powers, independent cities are considered to be equivalent to counties.

It’s not entirely clear why cities were independent of counties, or how the idea of independent counties came to be. They are similar to city-counties. However, city-counties are what happens when a city and a county merge into the same jurisdiction.

Meanwhile, independent cities were legally separated from any nearby or surrounding counties. They may have also been part of a county that no longer exists and were not placed back into a different county.

What Are Counties?

Borden County Texas

Each county has its own responsibilities and laws in parts of the state.

©Billy Hathorn / CC BY-SA 3.0 – License

Counties are ways of breaking up states into smaller chunks. That way, individual areas can have slightly different rules and authority. They also have the responsibility of providing services to the communities and areas inside of their control to make it easier for people who couldn’t travel to still get access to the government services they needed.

Today, counties are still responsible for handing out money to businesses and community services and maintaining services such as schools, libraries, healthcare, and care for seniors and foster children.

Not all counties have government power. In some northeastern states, counties exist only as a way to break up areas of the state and create geographic distinctions for census recordings.

There are roughly 2,143 counties and county equivalents throughout the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

There are counties and there are county-equivalents. They work relatively the same way but may use different names. For example, in Louisiana, its version of county is a parish while in Alaska, there are boroughs.

Differences Between Independent Cities vs. Counties

Aerial view of overlapping highways and roads over the water in downtown Baltimore, Maryland, USA

Baltimore is pretty, but unfortunately, it’s a bit stuck as there’s no way for the city to expand.

©Wirestock/iStock via Getty Images

Now that you know what the definitions of these two governing bodies are, it’s time to understand the differences between independent cities vs. counties.

1. Counties Represent More Than One Community (Usually)

Counties are a little strange. Some counties in the US are completely uninhabited. However, for the most part, counties cover a fairly large area. They may cover a city and its suburbs, or several cities and rural areas. However, independent cities only ever cover one populated city and don’t get governing power over any other location.

2. Counties Can Change Size and Shape

Counties generally cover a wide area. The counties were put in place by state legislature. Technically, they can be changed, but rarely are. Only Alaska and Virginia have shown any real changes since they were organized in 1970 or earlier.

If counties do change size, it’s usually because they are broken up into smaller counties, or two counties are merged into one.

However, independent cities can’t change their shape or size. Since independent cities are surrounded by other counties, they have to stay within their small designation. They cannot grow or take up other places, as the governing body only has power in the city they control.

3. The Number of States That Use Independent Cities vs. Counties

There are not that many independent cities in the US. There are a total of 41. However, 38 of those independent cities are located in Virginia thanks to their rather unique state constitution. The other three are St. Louis in Missouri, Carson City in Nevada, and Baltimore in Maryland.

While Virginia seems to be doing fine with their numerous independent cities, it doesn’t work well for major cities in other states. For example, St. Louis and Baltimore city leaders both regret their decisions.

The main reason for the regret is that now, the cities have no chance to grow. Since they aren’t in a county, they cannot spread to other areas of the county. Instead, they are stuck between several counties and, since all the land is accounted for, they cannot get any bigger.

To compare the sizes, St. Louis is 66 square miles while Baltimore is 81. Other major cities are much bigger. Phoenix is 475 square miles, for example, while Los Angeles is 502 square miles. Size is important, obviously, for growth, but potential growth also plays a role in funding. Since these cities can’t grow anymore, they’re often overlooked when it comes to funding for other large cities nearby.

Though not quite the same, Washington D.C. can also be considered somewhat like an independent city.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © insta_kenya/iStock via Getty Images


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About the Author

Nina is a writer at A-Z Animals. Her focus is on wildlife, national parks, and the environment. She has been writing on animals for over three years. Nina holds a Bachelor's in Conservation Biology, which she uses when talking about animals and their natural habitats. In her free time, Nina also enjoys working on writing her novels and short stories. As a resident of Colorado, Nina enjoys getting out in nature, traveling, and watching snow hit the mountains from her enclosed porch.

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