Have you ever wondered what the difference between ethnicity and nationalityis? They're sometimes used as if they have the same meaning, but they're actually different for the most part.

Globe with a yellow pinpoint on South America and a red pinpoint on Africa with a dotted line in between.

But this difference is sometimes complicated. Understanding the nuances between the two can help you use the correct terms to refer to others in a respectful, appropriate way.

What is the meaning of "ethnicity"?

diverse group of people discussing ethnicity vs nationality differences Ethnicity refers to groups of people that share culture, language, and heritage, or customs that are passed down from generation to generation.

When referring to different groups of people, consider the following:

Icon represents ethnicity vs nationality

Racial groups can be very broad. They're not necessarily ethnicities, but many people might identify with a particular group.

  • Examples: East Asian, Black, Native American, White, etc.

Because race is such a sensitive topic, it's important to only mention someone’s racial background if it's relevant, and to be as specific as possible.

Similarly, “[t]here are more than 5000 groups of Indigenous peoples, spread over 90 countries, according to the United Nations.” (Ashwell & Morone). Be mindful of Indigenous peoples’ preferred names for their specific groups.

  • Examples: Inuit, Diné, Aboriginal (mainly used in Australia), etc.

Flaticon Icon

It's common to refer to people by their religion, but religious groups aren't necessarily ethnic groups. “Religion refers to a specific system of beliefs and worship” rather than culture, language, or heritage. There is some overlap, though.

For example, Judaism and Hinduism are both examples of ethnic religions, since they consist of beliefs and rituals that are passed down from generation to generation within a single ethnic group.

Icon represents ethnicity vs nationality

In places where multiple languages are spoken, people who speak the same language can often be considered an ethnic group.

For example, in Spain, you may refer to Basque, Castilian, Catalan, or Galician people, which are all groups that share a common language and culture. Comparatively, Spanish is a nationality and not an ethnic group.


Which of the following are ethnic groups?

What is the meaning of "nationality"?

Nationalities refer to where someone is from according to a geographical location, mostly a specific country.

Nationalitycan sometimes be an example of an ethnicity — Japanese, for example, refers to both a nationality and an ethnicity. But most often, nationalities are made up of a variety of ethnic groups.

Some examples of nationalities are:

  • American

  • Brazilian

  • Canadian

  • German

  • Japanese

  • Moroccan

  • Swedish

a diverse group of flags from a variety of countries including The United States,  Yemen, Somalia, Brazil, Mexico, and Laos


Which of the following are examples of nationalities?

Checking your understanding

Older Mexican woman cooking tortillas over a fire Photo by Menú Acapulco on Unsplash

This woman is from Acapulco, Mexico.

She might consider her nationalityas Mexican. She might also ethnically identify as Hispanic (Spanish speaking) and/or Latina (from Latin America).

She might also identify as a member of an Indigenous ethnic group that lives in Mexico.


How would you refer to the nationality of a person from Egypt who speaks the Sai'di dialect of Arabic and practices Islam?

Take Action

Flaticon Icon

The next time you need to refer to a group of people's background, ask yourself:


Your feedback matters to us.

This Byte helped me better understand the topic.

Get support to take action on this Byte