An independent city is a city in the United States of America that does not belong to any county, but rather interacts directly with the state government. Because counties have historically been a strong institution in local government in most of the United States, independent cities are relatively rare outside of Virginia, whose state constitutions make them special cases (see below for more information). The United States Census Bureau uses counties as the base unit for presentation of statistical information in the United States, and treats independent cities as county equivalents for those purposes.
In New England, cities and towns traditionally have very strong governments, and counties are correspondingly weak; today, most New England counties have almost no governmental institutions or roles associated with them, and cities and towns interact directly with state governments for the most part. However, like the ceremonial counties of England, counties in New England still have a notional existance, and no city or town in New England is truly separate from a historic county. Importantly, the U.S. Census Bureau still uses counties, and not cities or towns, as its base unit of statistical measurement in New England.
An independent city should not be confused with a consolidated city-county, in which both city and county government are merged under the laws of the State, but which may (or may not) contain other municipalities. The City of New York is likewise not an independent city, but rather a sui generis jurisdiction: the city territory covers all the territory of five boroughs, each of which comprises the entirety of a county.
Independent cities outside of Virginia
Some of the independent cities in the United States outside of Virginia include:
- Anchorage, Alaska
- Baltimore, Maryland (separate from Baltimore County, Maryland)
- Carson City, Nevada (which occupies all of the former territory of Ormsby County, Nevada)
- Saint Louis, Missouri (separate from Saint Louis County, Missouri)
Virginia: All cities are independent
In the Commonwealth of Virginia, all municipalities incorporated as cities are by law (since 1871) independent cities. Other Virginia municipalities, even though they may be more populous than some existing independent cities, are incorporated as towns, which are always located within a county. Of the approximately 43 independent cities in the United States, 39 are in Virginia. An independent city in Virginia may serve as the county seat of an adjacent county, even though the city by definition is not part of that county.
Independent cities in Virginia as of December, 2004 include:
- Alexandria, Virginia
- Bedford, Virginia, seat of Bedford County
- Bristol, Virginia
- Buena Vista, Virginia
- Charlottesville, Virginia, seat of Albemarle County
- Chesapeake, Virginia, formed by consolidation of City of South Norfolk and Norfolk County
- Colonial Heights, Virginia
- Covington, Virginia, seat of Alleghany County
- Danville, Virginia
- Emporia, Virginia, seat of Greensville County
- Fairfax, Virginia, seat of Fairfax County
- Falls Church, Virginia
- Franklin, Virginia
- Fredericksburg, Virginia
- Galax, Virginia
- Hampton, Virginia, formed by consolidation of Town of Phoebus and Elizabeth City County
- Harrisonburg, Virginia, seat of Rockingham County
- Hopewell, Virginia
- Lexington, Virginia, seat of Rockbridge County
- Lynchburg, Virginia
- Manassas, Virginia
- Manassas Park, Virginia
- Martinsville, Virginia
- Newport News, Virginia, consolidated with City of Warwick, which was formerly Warwick County
- Norfolk, Virginia
- Norton, Virginia
- Petersburg, Virginia
- Poquoson, Virginia
- Portsmouth, Virginia
- Radford, Virginia
- Richmond, Virginia, seat of Henrico County
- Roanoke, Virginia
- Salem, Virginia, seat of Roanoke County
- Staunton, Virginia, seat of Augusta County
- Suffolk, Virginia, formed by consolidation of Towns of Suffolk, Holland, and Whaleyville and City of Nansemond
- Virginia Beach, Virginia, formed by consolidation of Town of Virginia Beach and Princess Anne County
- Waynesboro, Virginia
- Williamsburg, Virginia, seat of James City County
- Winchester, Virginia, seat of Frederick County
Arlington, Virginia is not an independent city. It is often thought of one because it is closer in size to Virginia independent cities than to other counties, it is fully urbanized, and includes no municipalities within its borders; however, politically, it is Arlington County. Formerly named Alexandria County, Arlington County, along with part of the independent city of Alexandria, Virginia, was the portion of Virginia ceded to the US government to form the District of Columbia, and later reattached to Virginia by the federal government when the District was reduced in size to exclude most the area south of the Potomac River.
Several Virginia counties, whose origins go back to the original eight shires of the colony formed in 1634, have the word city in their names. However, politically they are counties. Examples are:
- Charles City County
- James City County
While most counties and cities in Virginia of similar names are contiguous, the independent City of Richmond is located nowhere near Richmond County, Virginia. The latter is located in the state's Middle Peninsula region, about 50 miles distant from the city.
Extinct Virginia cities
Extinct independent cities that were long extant in Virginia include:
- Manchester, Virginia, which was consolidated by mutual agreement with the City of Richmond in 1910.
- South Norfolk, Virginia, which merged with Norfolk County in 1963 to form the City of Chesapeake.
- South Boston, Virginia, which gave up its city charter in 1994 and is now incorporated as a town located in Halifax County.
- Clifton Forge, Virginia, which gave up its city charter in 2001 and is now incorporated as a town within Alleghany County.
Two other independent cities existed for a short time:
- Warwick, Virginia, formed from the former Warwick County in 1952 and consolidated by mutual agreement with the City of Newport News in 1958.
- Nansemond, Virginia, created from the former Nansemond County in 1972 and merged in 1974 with the City of Suffolk and to form today's City of Suffolk.
Like the capitals of many other countries, Washington, D.C. has a special status. It is not part of any state; instead, it comprises the entirety of the District of Columbia, which, in accordance with Article 1, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Congress. Congress has established a home rule government for the city, although city laws can be overridden by Congress. This is fairly rare, however, and so in practice the city operates much like other independent cities in the United States.
Similar institutions outside of the U.S.
Essentially the same concept exists in the United Kingdom, where it is referred to as a unitary authority—the term "city" in the U.K. being reserved for towns of historic importance or significant size and requiring a formal grant of city status from the monarch. In the Canadian province of Ontario, the same type of city is referred to as a single-tier municipality. In Austria, a similar concept is called statutarstadt. In Germany, the concept is either called Stadtkreis or Kreisfreie Stadt, depending on the Bundesland.
An independent city should also not be confused with a city-state, a city that is fully independent and part of no other nation-state (such as Singapore).
There are several national capitals, such as Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia, and Brasília, Brazil, which, like Washington, D.C., are separate from all other jurisdictions within the country.