North America is a continent located in the Northern Hemisphere and almost entirely in the Western Hemisphere. As the third-largest continent on Earth, North America spans over 9.54 million square miles (24.71 million square kilometers) and is comprised of 23 sovereign states (countries), which are home to more than 590 million people. North America comprises about 16.5% of Earth’s total land area and about 4.8% of its total surface.
Wealth varies greatly in North America, which is home to some of the richest countries in the world and also a number of the poorest countries in the world. Below are the richest countries in North America based on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita. GDP per capita is often considered an indicator of the standard of living in a given country because it reflects the total amount of all goods and services produced in a country. In many cases, GDP is expressed in "Purchasing Power Parity" international dollars (PPP INT$). This is a theoretical currency designed to make country-to-country comparisons easier, and does not correspond to any real-world currency such as the U.S. dollar or the Mexican Peso.
Top 10 Richest Countries in North America (GDP per capita - in PPP INT$, International Monetary Fund, 2021)
- United States - $69,375.38
- Canada - $53,089.46
- Bahamas - $34,731.722
- Panama - $30,889.24
- Trinidad and Tobago - $25,526.11
- Saint Kitts and Nevis - $24,236.16
- Costa Rica - $21,592.49
- Dominican Republic - $20,943.89
- Mexico - $20,820.36
- Antigua and Barbuda - $18,801.39
Although it is expressed as a dollar amount, GDP per capita should not be considered the average or median wage a person in a given country earns. For example, the United States had a GDP per capita of $65,279.50 in 2019, whereas the actual average annual wage was $51,916.27 and the median wage was $34,248.45.
GDP can appear artificially inflated in countries whose laws make them international corporate tax havens, such as the Cayman Islands, Panama, Mexico, and the United States (while domestic countries frequently shelter overseas, international companies often find U.S. tax laws very welcoming). This can lead to misleading and inaccurate country-to-country comparisons. To account for this inaccuracy, GDP per capita is often evaluated alongside a second metric, Gross National Income (GNI). While quite similar to GDP, GNI also accounts for international business transactions, which helps proof it against tax-haven-related aberrations.
Top 10 Richest Countries in North America (GNI per capita - in current US$, Atlas method, 2021)
- United States - $64,530
- Canada - $43,530
- Bahamas -$27,780
- Saint Kitts and Nevis - $17,400
- Trinidad and Tobago - $15,410
- Barbados - $14,460
- Antigua and Barbuda - $14,250
- Panama - $11,880
- Costa Rica - $11,460
- Saint Lucia - $8,790
The effect here is noticeable. True, the United States and Canada retain their places atop the rankings, but this is expected—these countries have massive GNIs, and only a tiny portion of each is related to international tax law. But Panama, a major North American tax haven country, has fallen several steps down the ladder. If these lists showed territories as well as countries, notable tax havens such as the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands would likely also appear prominently on the GDP list, but drop off the GNI list.
Two additional facts worth noting are that this list ranks GNI in terms of current US dollars instead of international dollars, and that many differences between a country's GDP per capita and GNI per capita are due to causes that have nothing to do with tax havens.
Profiles in Prosperity: Wealthy North American Countries and Territories
1. Cayman Islands
If they were a fully recognized country instead of a self-governing British overseas territory, the Cayman Islands would arguably be the richest nation in North America. The absence of an income tax has helped make the Cayman Islands prosperous. The government replaces that tax income through customs duties, tourism, financial services, tourist accommodation taxes, and business licenses. However, as the Caymans are one of the world's most renowned tax havens, a fair amount of the territory's wealth is theoretical rather than actualized.
2. United States
The United States has the largest economy in the world, with a per capita GNI of $64,530 (US$) in 2020 and a collective GDP of nearly $21 trillion. The U.S. has a strong (and growing) workforce and a culture that encourages hard work, long hours, and entrepreneurship. World-class research facilities and universities help drive this entrepreneurship and attract talented students and individuals from all over the world.
Canada is the third-richest country in North America. Canada’s per capita GNI was $43,530 (US$) in 2020 and the country renewed its membership in the "Trillion Dollar GDP" club at $1.64 trillion. Canada is the world’s fourth-largest exporter of crude petroleum, which accounts for about 14% of Canada’s total export value. Canada also has about $33.2 trillion in overall natural resources, including not just petroleum, but also limestone, rock salt, coal, and uranium. Canada is also the third-largest exporter of timber in the world.
Though actually a territory of Denmark, Greenland would likely be the fourth-richest country in North America if it struck out on its own. Greenland’s economy has a large public sector and comprehensive foreign trade. Because Greenland’s economy is small, mixed, and vulnerable to negative fluctuations, the country has a critical dependence on capital inflow from the Danish government. The Greenland economy is held up heavily by fish exports, which is its largest industry. The largest employers in Greenland are in government, including the Kingdom Government in Denmark, and the Local Greenland Self-Rule Government.
Perhaps unsurprising for a country made up of more than 700 islands, islets, and cays, the Bahamas' income stems largely from tourism. Another major contributor is financial services, though it is not considered to be as much of a tax haven as are many of its Caribbean neighbors.