Traveling in a World with Standards

by Miriam Meijer

An imperial legacy is that many nations share currencies of the same name (franc, peso, pound). The most universally recognized monetary unit today is the $; nevertheless, the dollars used all over the world are not always US dollars. Travelers should remember that abbreviations for currency units are not standard, often omitted in common usage, and prices for foreigners are often meant to be in foreign currencies.

The International Standards Organization (ISO) has invented international codes for languages, country names, and currencies. ISO's currency codes, based on their country codes, are published on the web site of the British Standards Institution, the maintenance agency for ISO 4217. Almost all banks and moneychangers recognize the three-letter ISO currency codes. More and more banks and moneychangers post exchange rates in ISO codes rather than the traditional symbols: "$" or "£." The ISO code for each country's currency consists of the two-letter code for the country followed by a third letter, usually the first letter of the name of the unit of local currency. For example, "GB," the abbreviation for the United Kingdom, and "P," the abbreviation for the British pound, are combined to make their international currency code, "GBP."

The ISO code for US dollars becomes USD. Nevertheless, you will see "US$" on American web sites as a compromise between domestic and global representation. The USD is also the currency in American Samoa, British Indian Ocean Territory, Guam, Haiti, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Panama, Puerto Rico, Turks and Caicos Islands, and both the British and U.S. Virgin Islands.

The other dollar used in North America is the Canadian Dollar or CAD. There are dozens more different "dollars" in other parts of the world. Sometimes it is difficult to tell if a quoted price is in US dollars or local dollars; local dollars may be worth only a fraction of a USD. Australia, New Zealand, and the Caribbean Islands each have their own respective dollar. The Australian Dollar (AUD) is used in the Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Heard and McDonald Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Norfolk Island, and Tuvalu. The New Zealand Dollar (NZD) circulates in the Cook Islands, Niue, Pitcairn, and Tokelau. The Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) uses the East Caribbean Dollar (XCD). The OECS consists of Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. There are also the Barbados Dollar (BBD), Bermuda Dollar (BMD), Bahamian Dollar (BSD), Jamaican Dollar (JMD), Cayman Islands Dollar (KYD), and the Trinidad and Tobago Dollar (TTD). Additional "dollar" currencies are used in Brunei Darussalam (BND), in Belize (BZD), in Fiji (FJD), in Guyana (GYD), in Hong Kong (HKD), in Liberia (LRD), in Namibia (NAD), in the Solomon Islands (SBD), in Singapore (SGD), in Taiwan (TWD), and in Zimbabwe (ZWD). Ecuador wants to use only dollars.

Outside of the United States, the two-letter ISO country codes were adopted as geographic suffixes to Internet domain names. This ISO code is becoming widely familiar thanks to the Internet domain extensions. Most travel agents and airline staff know the two-letter ISO country code. Alphabetic flukes enable both Moldova, a former Soviet republic, and Tuvalu, a Polynesian nation-island, to sell their Internet names and electronic mail addresses that respectively end in ".md" and ".tv" to the medical world and the television world.

The ISO country codes are not, however, the world standard in the postal addressing system. What is a standard? Standards are documented agreements containing technical specifications or other precise criteria to be used consistently as rules, guidelines, or definitions of characteristics. Standardization is necessary when the same problem is repeated over and over again: a solution to the problem then needs to be recorded. For example, the format of the now commonplace credit cards, phone cards, and "smart" cards operate thanks to an ISO International Standard. Adhering to a standard, which defines such features as an optimal thickness (0,76 mm), means that the cards can be used worldwide.

International standards contribute to effectiveness of goods and services. Despite its importance, ISO is hardly a household name. Historically, international standardization began in the electro-technical field when the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) was created in 1906. ISO still collaborates closely with the IEC on all matters of electro-technical standardization. A joint ISO/IEC technical committee (JTC 1) works in information technology. In 1947 delegates from 25 countries decided to create a new international non-governmental organization called ISO. ISO covers all the technical fields outside of electrical and electronic engineering. Not an acronym but a word from the Greek, "isos" means "equal," ISO is accepted as the key component in the world because it respects the competence and autonomy of all the other elements of the system, while being careful to keep in view the necessary synergies and compatibilities. The standard use of the name "ISO," regardless of the language of the ISO member, avoids a plethora of acronyms.

Today ISO is a worldwide federation of national standards bodies from some 130 countries. Non-harmonized standards for similar technologies in different countries or regions create "technical barriers" to trade. A member body of ISO is the national body "most representative of standardization in its country;" only one body in each country may be admitted to membership of ISO. Some of the national standards bodies that make up the ISO membership include Association française de normalization (AFNOR), American National Standards Institute (ANSI), British Standards Institution (BSI), China State Bureau of Quality and Technical Supervision (CSBTS), Deutsches Institut für Normung (DIN), Standardiseringen i Sverige (SIS), etc. The technical work is highly decentralized, carried out in a hierarchy of some 2,850 technical committees, in which qualified representatives of industry, research institutes, government authorities, consumer bodies, and international organizations from all over the world come together as equal partners. The greater part of the ISO technical work is done by correspondence, with the Central Secretariat in Geneva ensuring the flow of documentation; nevertheless, some 30,000 experts meet annually.

When ISO was first formed, the earth was still an archipelago of distinct worlds, but colossal international markets were developing for industries that had previously been only domestic. By the late 1960s international standards were no longer a desire but a demand from multinational companies, standards institutions in developing countries, and government regulatory authorities. The ISO renamed their Recommendations "International Standards." Immense piles of publications (which could tip a share of the market) were produced daily; the only solution to the suffocation of paper proliferation was (more) standardization. The ISO committee on documentation (TC 46), primarily directed at librarians, developed the familiar ISBN (International Standard Book Numbering) that appears on every book today.

Industry continued to request standards. An ISO landmark was the "cleaning-up operation" on screw threads when Great Britain replaced 74 imperial sizes of threads with the 13 ISO metric sizes. ISO standardized the common names for pesticides, nuclear energy, cinematography, rubber, and computers. ISO standardized paper sizes, musical pitch, and the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) in information systems, which permits the World Wide Web. New technical committees exemplify ISO's ability to mirror in standardization the development of society at large. In the 1970s, committees were established for air quality, water quality, and in 1980, solar energy. The 1986 publication of ISO 8879 on Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) created the parent of the Internet's source language (HTML). There are now committees to deal with Implants for surgery and Ergonomics. Standardization is about more than nuts and bolts.

International standardization is market-driven and based on voluntary involvement of all interests in the market place. Widely-accepted ISO standards include the ISO film speed code, the ISO 9000 quality management and quality assurance standard, the ISO 14000 environmental management standard, the ISO freight container standards, the symbols for automobile controls displayed in cars all over the world, the safety of wire ropes, and the ISO 216 paper size standards. The only industrialized nations that do not use the ISO standard paper sizes are the United States and Canada.

The United States is also the only industrialized country not officially metric. ISO standardized the symbols representing the seven base units of the universal system of measurement known as SI (Système international d'unités): m, kg, s, A, K, mol, and cd. The metric system avoids confusing dual-use of terms, such as the use of "ounces" to measure both weight and volume in the United States. Like the United States currency, units for a given quantity (e.g., length) in the metric system are related by factors of 10. Calculations involve the simple process of moving the decimal point to the right or to the left. Its easy conversion made metrics the world's preferred system. Except for Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), Liberia and the United States, every country in the world uses metric units. Americans abroad also have to remind themselves that temperatures are given in degrees Celsius (also called Centigrade) and not Fahrenheit.

The market dominance of U.S.-originated typographic software, for example, is a hindrance because it provides no proper support for metric units at all levels for metric typographic practice. For a long time the United States had little incentive to metricate (i.e. the process of changing a system of units to the metric system) because its economy was sufficiently dominant to impose its products, manufactured in their unconventional units, on other nations. However, Great Britain, as a condition for becoming a member of the European Common Market, had to metricate in the early 1970s and metricated the entire British Commonwealth.

President Gerald Ford established the United States Metric Board to oversee America's voluntary conversion to the metric system. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms required that liquor and wine labels include the volume in liters or milliliters. The Federal Highway Administration geared up to change highway signs from miles to kilometers. But the only tangible progress was liquor and wine. Agencies with large international or scientific operations, like the Department of Defense and NASA, converted almost fully (not without mishaps). Others, like the Department of Education, cited the rights of states to decide such matters. In the private sector, large corporations with overseas exports converted partly, whereas most small businesses continued with the English system. The United States' metrication legislation, being entirely voluntary unlike other nations, had little impact. After President Ronald Reagan eliminated the Metric Board, the Department of Commerce's Metric Program, with a staff of three, focuses on outreach to the business community, instead of legislation.

In a global market place no one nation can dominate world trade anymore. Although the European Union or E.U. (the 15-nation European bloc) voted that European and U.S. manufacturers can continue to apply dual labeling (called "soft" conversion as opposed to "hard" conversion) until the very last day of the year 2009, the American measuring units appear archaic in a world that is 99% metric. While the English language and the USD continue to be favored worldwide, Americans can no longer afford to be diametrically opposed to the world's language of measurement. Metrification-challenged America is holding up global interoperability.


Alsdorf, Matt. "Why Hasn't the U.S. Gone Metric?" Explainer (Oct. 6, 1999).

Camden, John. "Europeans Delay Costly Metric Rules," TechWeb News (Feb. 13, 1998).

Eicher, Larry, et al. Friendship among equals - Recollections from ISO's first fifty years (Geneva: International Organization for Standardization, 1997).

Hillger, Don. U.S. Metric Association (USMA), Inc. (August 16, 1999).

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) (Sept. 25, 1995).

Zengerle, Jason. "Waits and Measures: Meet the Least Powerful Men in Washington," Mother Jones (Jan./Feb. 1999).

For questions and comments about Worldtravelcenter.comSM, its World Travel Health newsletter, or its travel companion jetStream, contact Miriam Meijer:
Phone: 1-800-234-1862

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