Contiguous vs. Continental United States

What's the Difference Between These Commonly-Confused Geographical Terms

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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 does this mean, and is there really a difference?

Contiguous United States: Definition

Although the two words look similar, there is an important difference in their geographical meanings. The dictionary definition of "contiguous" refers to two items that are "touching" or "sharing a border," according to Merriam-Webster.

So how is it used geographically? 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.

All of the United States are contiguous except for two: Alaska and Hawaii. The others are sometimes also referred to as the "lower 48" states or "conterminous" United States.

If the rules of the giveaway you want to enter 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 technically a state. Puerto Rico or other U.S. territories are neither contiguous nor states, so their residents are generally are not allowed to enter under the contiguous U.S. restriction.

Continental United States: Definition

On the other hand, the term "continental U.S." refers to any state on the North American continent. 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 these sweepstakes, too.

That means that only residents of Hawaii are restricted from entering sweepstakes open to residents of the continental United States. Washington, DC, is also included, though U.S. territories like Puerto Rico usually aren't. Make sure to 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 Do So Many Sweepstakes Restrict Entry to Residents of the Continental or Contiguous U.S.?

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

The reason why so many sweepstakes prohibit entry from residents of Alaska and/or Hawaii comes down to simple logistics: if a winner comes from one of these outlying states, the prize will cost much more.

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 those plane tickets can be exorbitant.

Shipping big items to Alaska or Hawaii may also be more expensive than the sweepstakes sponsor's budget allows

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 be beneficial to 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. I've seen sweepstakes that were open to the continental U.S. state later in the rules 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 not eligible to enter.

Be sure to read each sweepstakes' rules carefully to make sure you're not wasting your time with sweepstakes you won't be able to win.