A town is usually an urban area which is not considered to rank as a city. As with cities, there is no standard universal definition of a town: the criterion in use in any country is likely to arise from national law, custom or administrative convenience. In American English especially, the word "town" is also commonly used to refer to an area with the legal status of a "town", even if it is in effect a suburb of a large city.
The word town can also be used as a general term for urban areas, including cities. In this usage, a city is a type of town — a large one, with a certain status. For example, London is a city, but is sometimes referred to as "London town" (the "City of London" is the nucleus informally known as the "Square Mile"). Also, going from the suburbs to central London is to "go into town".
In general, towns can be differentiated from villages or hamlets on the basis of their economic character, in that most of a town's population will tend to derive its living from industry, commerce and public service rather than agriculture or related activities.
A place's population size is not a reliable determinant of urban character. In many areas of the world, as in India at least until recent times, a large village might contain several times as many people as a small town.
The modern phenomena of extensive suburban growth, satellite urban development and migration of city-dwellers to villages have further complicated the definition of towns, creating communities urban in their economic and cultural characteristics but lacking other characteristics of urban localities.
Some forms of non-rural settlement, such as temporary mining locations, may be clearly non-rural, but have at best a questionable claim to be called a town.
The distinction between a town and a city similarly depends on the approach adopted: a city may strictly be an administrative entity which has been granted that designation by law, but in informal usage, the term is also used to denote an urban locality of a particular size or importance: whereas a medieval city may have possessed as few as 10,000 inhabitants, today some consider an urban place of fewer than 100,000 as a town, even though there are many officially designated cities that are much smaller than that.
The United States
In the United States of America, the meaning of the term town varies from state to state. In some states, a town is an incorporated municipality, that is, one with a charter received from the state, similar to a city.
Typically, municipalities are classed as cities, towns, or villages in decreasing order of size, although not all states have all three. Many states do not use the term "town" for incorporated municipalities. In some states, for example Wisconsin, "town" is used in the same way that civil township is used in elsewhere. In other states, such as Michigan, the term "town" has no official meaning and is simply used informally to refer to a populated place, whether incorporated or not.
In the six New England states, a town is a municipality, and in these states, in practice a more important unit than the county. In Connecticut and Rhode Island, in fact, counties only exist as map divisions and have no legal functions; in the other four states, counties are primarily judicial districts, with other functions primarily in New Hampshire and Vermont. In all six, towns perform functions that in most states would be county functions. The defining feature of a New England town, as opposed to a city, is that a town meeting and a board of selectmen serve as the main form of government for a town, while cities are run by a mayor and a city council. For example, Brookline, Massachusetts is a town, even though it is fairly urban, because of its form of government.
In New York, a town is similarly a subdivision of the county, but with less importance than in New England. Of some importance is the fact that, in New York, a town provides a closer level of governance than its enclosing county, providing almost all municipal services to unincorporated areas, called hamlets and selected services to incorporated areas, called villages. In New York, a town typically contains a number of such hamlets and villages. However, due to the independent nature of Incorporated Villages, they may exist in two towns or even two counties. Everyone in New York State who does not live in an Indian reservation or a city lives in a town and possibly in one of the town's hamlets or villages. (Some other states have similar entities called townships.)
In Virginia, a town is similar to a city (though with a smaller required minimum population), but while cities are by Virginia law independent of counties, towns are contained in a county. Virginia and many other states, has both incorporated towns and unincorporated towns.
England and Wales
In England and Wales, the status of a city is reserved for places that have a Royal Charter entitling them to the name, traditionally associated with the possession of a cathedral. Some large municipalities are legally boroughs but not cities, whereas some cities are quite small — St. David's for instance.
It is often thought that towns with bishops' seats rank automatically as cities: however, Chelmsford remains a town despite being the seat of the Diocese of Chelmsford. St. Asaph, which is the seat of the Diocese of St. Asaph, is another such town.
Historically, a town was generally distinguished from a village by having a regular market or fair. Not all towns were boroughs. There are some English villages (e.g. Kidlington, Oxfordshire) larger than some small towns (e.g. Middleham, North Yorkshire).
Germans do not differentiate between city and town. The German word for both is "Stadt" as it is in many other languages that do not make any difference between the Anglo-Saxon concepts.