The WTO: Members, Categories, and Benefits

Three Reasons Why WTO Membership Is So Important

WTO Bali Agreement
We did it! said Indonesia's Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan, hugging WTO Director-General Roberto Azevdo as the Bali negotiation was concluded. Photo: Photo: WTO/Ankara

There are 164 members of the World Trade Organization (WTO), accounting for the majority of the 195 in the world. They joined to enjoy the benefits of greater international trade conferred by the WTO.

WTO Membership Benefits

The WTO helps trade throughout the world flow smoothly through its trade agreements. Members of the WTO know what the rules are, and they understand the penalties for breaking the rules—which creates a safer trading arena for everyone. The WTO also provides its members with a fair method to resolve trade disputes; they don't have to resort to violence or war. How the WTO resolves trade disputes is important. It prevents trade protectionism, a practice that hinders economic growth.

The WTO grants each member Most Favored Nation status, which means that WTO members must treat each other the same and not give preferential trade benefit to any one member without giving it to all. WTO members also have lower trade barriers with each other, including tariffs, import quotas, and regulations. Larger markets lead to greater sales, more jobs, and faster economic growth.

Because roughly two-thirds of WTO members are developing countries, their membership gives them immediate access to developed markets at the lower tariff rate—which gives them time to catch up with sophisticated corporations and their mature industries. They don't have to remove reciprocal tariffs in their markets until later. As a result, developing countries don't immediately have to open their markets to overwhelming competitive pressure. 36 WTO members are categorized as least-developed countries (LDCs), which are low-income countries with severe blocks to sustainable economic growth, and the U.N. and other agencies provide them extra assistance in development and trade.


A membership in the WTO comes with responsibilities. Members agree to avoid trade barriers and abide by the WTO's resolution of any dispute, which prevents retaliatory trade warfare. These escalating trade restrictions help individual countries in the short term but hurt world trade in the long term.

Trade protectionism of this kind worsened the Great Depression of 1929, and as global trade slowed, countries sought to protect domestic industries. They erected trade barriers and created a downward spiral. As a result, world trade shrank by 25%.

WTO Members by Category

The WTO has 76 founding members that started the organization on January 1, 1995.

Asia has seven LDC members: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Yemen, and Nepal. Its founding members are Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brunei, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kuwait, Macao, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, and Thailand.

Its other members are Armenia, China, Georgia, Israel, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Maldives, Mongolia, Oman, Papua New Guinea, Qatar, Russia, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Chinese Taipei, Tajikistan, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Viet Nam, and Yemen.

Africa has 27 LDC members: Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo Democratic Republic, Djibouti, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Togo, and Uganda.

Its founding members are Cote d'Ivoire, Kenya, Mauritius, Morocco, Namibia, Senegal, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, and Uganda, and its other members are Botswana, Cameroon, Congo Republic, Egypt, Gabon, Ghana, Niger, Seychelles, Tunisia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

Europe has the most founding WTO members: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Slovak Republic, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. In addition, the European Union is a founding member.

Europe's other members are Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Lichtenstein, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Poland, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, and Ukraine.

Central and North America have just one LDC member: Haiti. Its founding members are Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Costa Rica, Dominica, Honduras, Mexico, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and the United States.

Its other members are Cape Verde, Cuba, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Panama, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Oceana has two LDC countries: Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. Its founding members are Australia and New Zealand, and the other three members are Fiji and Tonga.

South America has no LDC members: Its founding members are Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Suriname, Guyana, and Venezuela, and its other members are Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador.

Prospective WTO Members 

The WTO has a category called "Observer." These 25 countries have applied to become members. Except for the Vatican, they have five years to complete the process. How a country becomes a WTO member depends on its government’s ability to negotiate the six-step process.

The prospective members are Algeria, Andorra, Azerbaijan, Bahamas, Belarus, Bhutan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Comoros, Curacao, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Sao Tome and Principe, Serbia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Timor-Leste, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and the Holy See.

Countries Outside the WTO

16 countries aren't members and haven't applied to become members. They are Aruba, Curacao, Eritrea, Kiribati, Kosovo, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Monaco, Nauru, North Korea, Palau, the Palestinian Territories, San Marino, Sint Maarten, Turkmenistan, and Tuvalu.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How many members are there in the WTO?

The WTO has 164 members. There are also 25 observer governments, but not all of these observers are countries. For example, the Holy See of the Catholic Church is an observing organization.

What are the major functions of the World Trade Organization?

The World Trade Organization oversees trade negotiations, monitors the implementation of trade agreements, and helps to settle trade disputes that arise between nations. The WTO also seeks to improve the trading capacity of developing countries.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  7. Dartmouth College. "The Slide to Protectionism in the Great Depression: Who Succumbed and Why?" Page 877.

  8. World Trade Organization. "Overview of Developments in International Trade and the Trading System."

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  10. World Trade Organization. "What We Do."

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