What are the richest countries in the world? Several performance indicators exist that can help unpack the answer to that question, each of which will result in a slightly different answer depending upon the type of wealth one seeks to measure. One widely used wealth indicator is gross domestic product (GDP), which measures the total value of all goods and services produced by a country. However, GDP is easily influenced by population—as a rule, the bigger the population, the higher the GDP—and can be artificially inflated in tax haven countries. For that reason, metrics such as GDP per capita and the closely related gross national income (GNI) per capita are generally considered a more reliable measure of a country's true wealth.
Gross Domestic Product Per Capita as a measure of national wealth
By examining the GDP per capita of each country around the globe, it is possible to rank countries based on wealth and then compare them to each other. It is important to note, however, that GDP per capita does not necessarily corespond to the average wage a person living in a given country earns. For example, the United States' GDP per capita in 2019 was $65,279.50, but its average annual wage was $51,916.27 and its median wage was $34,248.45. Even the wealthiest countries have some citizens living in poverty, and even the poorest countries are home to a number of extremely rich residents—but it is a fair indicator of a country's overall financial health.
The Top 10 Richest Countries in the World (by GDP per Capita, current US$ - United Nations)*
|Rank||Country/Territory||GDP per Capita (US$)|
|not a country||Cayman Islands (UK territory)||85,250|
* Data sourced from United Nations, data year 2021.
Developing countries often have deficient infrastructures and immature economies, which can put their citizens and corporations at a substantial disadvantage when competing in a global market. Larger disruptions such as war, hunger, disease, and political unrest can also have a tremendous negative impact on a country's GDP (along with nearly every other aspect of life). Factors such as these are why developing nations are more likely to appear on the list of poorest countries in the world, at least for now.
The weakness of GDP: tax shelters and Gross National Income (GNI)
GDP values can sometimes be warped by international business practices. For example, some countries (such as Ireland, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland) are regarded as "tax havens" thanks to government tax rules that favor foreign businesses. A significant amount of what registers as GDP in these countries may actually be money that international companies are funneling through that country, as opposed to income that is wholly generated by domestic economic activity.
In an attempt to compensate for these tax havens' effect on national GDPs, many economists also track each country's Gross National Income, or GNI. This metric is very similar to GDP in that it measures the total value of all the goods and services produced in a country—however, it also adds or subtracts the money coming into or out of the country through foreign businesses. This helps account for tax haven activity and gives an arguably more accurate measure of an economy's health and wealth.
The Top 10 Richest Countries in the World (by GNI per Capita, Atlas Method, current US$ - World Bank)**:
- Liechtenstein — $116,440
- Switzerland — 90,600
- Luxembourg — $73,500
- Norway — $83,880
- Ireland — $76,110
- United States — $70,930
- Denmark — $68,300
- Singapore — $64,010
- Iceland — $63,460
- Qatar — 62,310
_** Note: Data year 2021. World Bank does not track GNI data from Monaco, which ranks as the world's richest country by GDP per capita.
It's important to note that GNI does not completely filter out all international financial interactions. It just helps to right-size the profits. For example, although their numerical values have changed, notable tax avoidance destinations Ireland, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland are all still in the top 10. Additionally, if the list included non-sovereign territories as well as sovereign countries, several of the British Overseas Territories would rank extremely high, with Bermuda ($122,470), Isle of Man ($84,580 in 2019), the Channel Islands ($66,840), and the Cayman Islands ($61,880) all ranking in the top 15. All four are well-known tax havens with tiny populations, and as such the profit from even just a few multi-billion-dollar financial maneuvers can significantly elevate per-capita GNI. The US territory Guam ($84,580) would also rank highly.
That said, even known tax havens have a nearly infinite range of possible additional sources of national income. For example, most of the British Overseas Territories are also world-famous vacation destinations with massive tourism sectors. Note also that the absence of Monaco on the above list is not an indication that it is a tax haven (rich in GDP but low in GNI). Rather, up-to-date GNI data for Monaco was unavailable.
What is the richest country on each continent?
As illuminating and arguably inspiring as it is to peruse the list of richest countries in the world, it's also worthwhile to examine the data when broken down by continent. For example, a list of the very richest countries on each of the six inhabited continents (by GDP per capita, as above) would look like this:
- Richest European Countries: Monaco (if data present), Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Luxembourg
- Richest Asian Countries: Singapore, Qatar, Israel
- Richest Countries in North America: United States of America, Canada, Puerto Rico
- Richest Countries in Australia/Oceania: Australia, New Zealand, Palau
- Richest Countries in South America: Uruguay, Chile, Argentina
- Richest African Countries: Seychelles, Mauritius, Equatorial Guinea
Click on the links to visit the individual pages and learn more.
Profiles of Prosperity: Seven of the Richest Countries in the World***
*** Four of which rank among the top tax haven countries in the world.
In terms of sheer GDP per capita, Monaco's value of $234,317 USD for the year 2021 stands far above that of any other country. Like Liechtenstein, Monaco is a microstate, the smallest country in Europe other than Vatican City. Located on the coast of France along the Mediterranean Sea, Monaco has fewer than 40,000 residents and is known for its luxurious lifestyle and the wealth of its populace, more than 30% of whom are millionaires. Monaco is classified by some sources as a tax haven country, thanks in large part to the fact that it levies zero income tax and very low business taxes.
Another of the smallest countries in the world (particularly if islands are excluded), Liechtenstein nestles in between Austria and Switzerland and is geographically dominated by the Alps mountains, making the country a popular winter sports destination. While once considered a tax haven, the country has reformed its financial practices and falled off of most lists of tax havens. However, it retains its very high degree of wealth: The UN calculated Liechtenstein's 2021 GDP per capita as $169,260 USD (second-highest in the world) and World Bank computed the country's 2021 GNI per capita at $116,600 USD.
The European country of Luxembourg consistently ranks as one of the wealthiest countries in the world. These findings are based on the gross domestic product per capita values of the countries. The GDP per capita is calculated by dividing the country's total GDP by the population size, with the result being the GDP value per capita within a country. Luxembourg's GDP per capita for the year 2021 reached $131,745 USD according to the United Nations and $133,590 per World Bank calculations, good for third-highest in the world (behind Monaco and Liechtenstein).
The GDP per capita of Ireland is $101,109 USD for 2021 according to the United Nations. For reference, UN records indicate that the country's GDP per capita in 2017 was $70,492 USD, so Ireland's GDP is clearly enjoying a positive growth trend. However, Ireland is another well-known tax haven, so the average Irish citizen is unlikely to have enjoyed an equal increase in their actual income.
Switzerland was the sixth-wealthiest country in the world based on its 2021 GDP per capita, which the UN measured as a very notable $93,525 USD. Although it is widely considered one of the world's least-corrupt countries and posted the world's highest Human Development Index score in 2022, Switzerland is also considered one of the world's leading tax haven countries, thanks to the excessive secrecy of its banking industry.
With a 2021 GDP per capita of $89,242 USD, Norway ranked as the world's seventh-richest worldwide—a feat made more remarkable by the fact that it is one of very few countries in the top 10 that are not considered to be international tax havens. Like Switzerland and many other rich and/or Northern European countries, Norway has a very high standard of living. It also has very low income inequality, as shown by its low GINI coefficient.
United States of America
Considering the lengths many large US corporations go to hide their own profits in overseas tax shelters, it may be surprising to learn that the United States is itself considered a tax haven by many financial watchdog groups. Indeed, while domestic US companies often find the most beneficial terms in overseas tax shelters, many national and state-level regulations in the US enable international clients to move their money through US-based accounts while incurring minimal taxes.
Money can't buy happiness ... can it? The truth behind the saying
Many people who swear that they have discovered the secret to overall happiness claim that it has nothing to do with money. There is an incredibly high chance that you have heard the phrase, "Money cannot buy happiness." This statement is undeniably accurate, but there is also a strong counterargument—significant evidence shows that sometimes money can enable financial security that leads one to feel happier overall.
The core truth behind this counterargument is that many negative feelings and situations arise from a less-than-ideal fiscal standing. When one's credit score is low, even basic expenses such as renting an apartment, purchasing a home, or just getting a car can be difficult or impossible to finance. Similarly, people on a limited income can find it challenging to keep up with bare essentials such as electricity, water, and even groceries. In short, a lack of money can severely hinder one's ability to afford the fundamental "must-have" things human beings need to get by, let alone luxury items. This presence or lack of money can also impact one's health. Wealthy people can often afford better medical treatment than those with less money, especially in countries without universal health care. Moreover, an unfavorable financial status can be a major source of stress, anxiety, or depression.
What about the argument that money cannot buy cherished memories, which are arguably the most precious treasure of all? Absolutely true. Granted, money can buy many things that can help create those memories, such as vacations, tickets to concerts or sporting events, nights out on the town, trips to the movies or the amusement park, gifts for loved ones, and so on. But creating those memories is still up to the individual. Plus, there are many other treasures that money can't enable, including love, trust, friendship, and spiritual peace.
Ultimately, the adage is true: Money cannot buy happiness. To quote another common saying, "the best things in life aren't things." However, a persistent lack of money can trigger negative effects ranging from emotional stress and unhappiness to poor physical health, so having at least enough money to easily cover one's living expenses is a worthwhile and unselfish goal.