Contiguous vs. Continental United States

Learn the Difference Between Two Commonly-Confused Geographical Terms

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Have you ever felt confused about the difference between the contiguous and continental United States? If you're a sweepstakes fan, the likely answer is "yes."

When you read sweepstakes rules, you'll often find a restriction in the eligibility section that says you must be a resident of the "contiguous United States" or a resident of the "continental United States" to enter. What do these terms mean, and is there a difference between them?

The difference is pretty important, actually. Although "contiguous" and "continuous" look similar, they refer to different parts of the United States' geography.

Definition of "Contiguous" United States

By definition, "contiguous" means "touching" or "sharing a border."

Watercolor painting of the contiguous United States
The contiguous United States don't include Alaska or Hawaii.

Image (c) Yifei Fang / Getty Images, used with permission

So how do you use contiguous to describe a region? When it comes to the United States, "contiguous" refers to all of the states that touch one another without another country or a body of water coming between them.

Each of the U.S states is contiguous with one or more other states, except for two: Alaska and Hawaii. Alaska and Hawaii are, therefore, not contiguous.

If the rules of a giveaway say that entry is open to residents of the contiguous United States, they mean that residents of every state except Alaska and Hawaii are allowed to enter. Usually, the District of Columbia is also included, although it is not a state. Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and other U.S. territories are not contiguous, so their residents are generally are not allowed to enter under the contiguous U.S. restriction.

There are other ways to refer to all states except Alaska and Hawaii, including the "lower 48" states or "conterminous" United States. Some rules will be more specific to avoid confusing, referring to the "48 contiguous United States."

Continental United States: Definition

The term "continental U.S." refers to any state on the North American continent.

Map of the North American continent
Continental United States include all states on the North American continent.

Image (c) KeithBinns / Getty Images

Forty-nine of the U.S. states are found on the continent of North America. Although Canada lies between the contiguous United States and Alaska, they are all on the same continent, so Alaskan residents can enter sweepstakes that are open to residents of the continental United States, too.

That means that only residents of Hawaii are restricted from entering sweepstakes open to the continental United States.

Washington, DC, is usually also included, though U.S. territories like Puerto Rico usually aren't. Read the rules carefully to be sure, though.

To Make Things More Confusing: CONUS

To make things even more confusing, the U.S. military and some government agencies use the term "CONUS" to refer to the lower 48 United States. Many people assume that acronym stands for "CONtinental" U.S. when it really stands for "CONtiguous" U.S.

The CONUS acronym might be part of the reason why so many people think that "contiguous" and "continental" mean the same thing when it comes to geographical restrictions.

Why Sweepstakes Restrict Entry to Residents of the Continental or Contiguous U.S.

Ever wondered why so many sweepstakes don't allow residents from all 50 states to enter their giveaways? Sometimes, states are prohibited from entering sweepstakes because they have different regulations about how giveaways are run, but that's not the case when it comes to Alaska and Hawaii.

The reason why so many sweepstakes don't let residents of Alaska and/or Hawaii enter comes down to simple logistics: If a winner comes from one of these outlying states, the prize will cost much more to fulfill.

This is especially true when travel is involved, either when vacations are being given away or when the prize involves something like a celebrity visiting the winner's home. The prices of plane tickets to Alaska and Hawaii can be exorbitant.

Furthermore, shipping large items to Alaska or Hawaii is often more expensive, making delivery of prizes exceed the sweepstakes sponsor's budget.

In some cases, it could also be that the sponsor doesn't have a presence in one of the outlying states. A gift card to a restaurant on the mainland, for example, might not benefit a Hawaiian winner.

For these reasons, sponsors may choose to simply concentrate their sweepstakes efforts on the lower 48 states.

Feeling Left Out?

If you live in Alaska or Hawaii, don't despair. Not only are many sweepstakes open to all 50 states but you can also make up the difference by looking for local sweepstakes, which not only let you enter but which may be easier to win.

A Final Reminder

Even though you now know the difference between the terms, not everyone uses them properly. For example, some sweepstakes whose rules state that they are open to the continental U.S. state later that Alaskan residents are not eligible to enter.

Many sweepstakes also bypass the confusing terms altogether and simply state that Alaskan and Hawaiian residents are prohibited.

Be sure to read the rules of each giveaway carefully to make sure you're not wasting your time entering sweepstakes you can't win.