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Federal vs. National: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Harlon Moss || Updated on October 23, 2023
"Federal" relates to a system of government where power is divided between a central authority and individual states, while "national" pertains to the whole country.

Key Differences

"Federal" often describes a union of states or entities with a degree of autonomy, but under a central governing body. "National", on the other hand, generally refers to something that encompasses an entire nation or country.
In the context of governance, "federal" systems divide powers between local and central entities, ensuring both have specific rights and responsibilities. Conversely, "national" governance is centralized, focusing on the country as a whole without significant autonomous regions.
For instance, the United States has a "federal" government where states retain certain rights, but it also has "national" institutions that serve the entire country, like the National Guard.
Another differentiation is in representation. "Federal" entities often have representation in the central authority, ensuring their interests are considered. "National" representation, meanwhile, may not always factor in regional distinctions, as the emphasis is on the entire country.
In a "federal" system, laws can vary between states or provinces, whereas "national" laws or policies are uniformly applied throughout the entire nation.

Comparison Chart


Pertains to a union of states or entities under a central government.
Encompasses the entire country.


Divides power between local and central entities.
Centralized, often applied uniformly across the country.


Local entities often have representation in the central authority.
Emphasis on representing the entire country.

Law Application

Laws can differ among states or provinces.
National laws are uniformly applied throughout the nation.

Origin of the Term

Latin "foedus" meaning covenant, league, treaty, or agreement.
Latin "natio" meaning birth, tribe, or nation.

Federal and National Definitions


Relating to a union of states under a central government.
The federal system in the U.S. allows states to retain certain rights.


Relating to or characteristic of a nation; common to a whole nation.
National pride swelled during the Olympic games.


Pertaining to a form of governance that divides power between central and local entities.
Switzerland operates on a federal structure.


Representing or applicable to an entire country.
The national policy will affect all citizens equally.


Characterizing a system where entities maintain certain independence but are governed centrally.
Canada's provinces have distinct powers within its federal framework.


Characteristic of or prevalent throughout an entire nation.
Baseball is often considered a national pastime in the U.S.


Concerning the central government of a federation.
Federal laws take precedence over state laws.


Concerning a country as a whole, as opposed to regional or local levels.
The national debate focused on healthcare reform.


Derived from or related to a covenant or agreement among states.
The federal constitution establishes the relationship between states and the central government.


Operated or maintained by the central government.
The national highway system connects major cities.


Of, relating to, or being a form of government in which a union of states recognizes the sovereignty of a central authority while retaining certain residual powers of government.


Of, relating to, or characteristic of a nation
A national anthem.


How does "national" relate to governance?

"National" pertains to the entire country, often indicating centralized governance.

Is the U.S. a federal or national entity?

The U.S. is a federation of states, so it's federal; but it also has national aspects, like the National Guard.

Can a country be both federal and national?

Yes, a country can have a federal system of states and also possess national institutions serving the whole nation.

Which term has roots in covenants or agreements?

"Federal" originates from terms meaning covenant or agreement.

Can a policy be both national and federal?

In context, a policy can have implications at both the national level and within a federal system's states or entities.

How do federal laws differ from national laws?

In a federal system, laws can vary among states, whereas national laws are uniformly applied across the country.

Is "federal" limited to governance?

Primarily, yes, but "federal" can also denote unions or alliances in other contexts.

How does a national army differ from a federal army?

A national army serves the entire country, while a federal army might refer to forces specific to states in a federation, though the term "federal army" is less common.

What's an example of a national institution in the U.S.?

The National Park Service is an example of a national institution.

How do federal systems manage internal conflicts?

Federal systems typically have mechanisms, like a constitution, to manage conflicts between central and local authorities.

How is representation managed in a federal system?

In a federal system, local entities often have representation in the central authority.

Are national policies always applied uniformly?

Typically, national policies apply uniformly across a country, unlike regional or state-specific policies in a federal system.

Which countries operate on a federal system?

Countries like the U.S., Canada, Switzerland, and Australia have federal systems of governance.

Are national interests always aligned with federal interests?

Not necessarily. In a federation, national interests are broader, while federal interests might focus on states' rights or local concerns.

Which is broader in scope, federal or national?

"National" is broader, encompassing an entire country, while "federal" often pertains to a union of states or entities.

What does "federal" imply in a government system?

"Federal" implies a division of powers between a central authority and individual states or entities.

Can a national government have autonomous regions?

Yes, but in a purely national system, these regions might have less legislative independence than in a federal system.

Can national and federal laws conflict?

Yes, and in countries like the U.S., federal laws typically take precedence when conflicts arise.

Do all countries have both federal and national institutions?

No, it depends on the governance structure. Some countries might be purely federal, purely national, or a mix of both.

Is "national" only about countries?

Mostly, but "national" can also refer to larger entities, like a group of people sharing a culture or ethnicity.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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