Imperialism vs. Colonialism: Differences Made Clear

Do you know the difference between imperialism vs. colonialism? Interestingly enough, these words aren't synonymous. However, they are connected. Learn the differences between colonialism and imperialism through clear definitions and examples.

imperialism vs colonialism differences imperialism vs colonialism differences

Difference Between Colonialism and Imperialism

When it comes to imperialism vs. colonialism, it’s pretty easy to confuse these two concepts. Are they the same? In simple terms, no. Both imperialism and colonialism have to do with global policy. However, while imperialism is the policy of a country to influence other countries, colonialism is the practice of setting up colonies and settlements in other countries. Before diving into these two confusing terms in more depth, check out this simple chart to get a clear idea of colonialism vs. imperialism.




country policy to take over lands using diplomacy or force

the physical act of setting up colonies or territories in another country


colony, protectorate, sphere of influence, economic imperialism

settler colonies, exploitation colonies, surrogate colonies, internal colonies


The policy was put in place by Genghis Khan's empire to take over large parts of Asia.

The British setting up colonies in the United States and pushing out the native populations.

What Is Imperialism?

When it comes to discussing imperialism vs. colonialism, it’s important to discuss imperialism first. Why? Because colonialism is part of imperialism. It might sound confusing, but it makes sense if you think about it. Imperialism is the policy that a nation makes to take over lands of another nation either by force or diplomacy. To take over those lands, they start setting up their own colonies within the country. But colonies are only one type of imperialism you might find. The other three types include:

  • protectorate - the country has its own internal government but is protected or ruled by another
  • sphere of influence - the dominating country claims exclusive trade control or investment
  • economic imperialism - controlled by private business interests

Examples of Imperialism

With a solid understanding of imperialism and the different types, check out a few different examples of imperialism from around the globe.

  • The island of Macedonia was a state protected by the Roman Empire. (protectorate)
  • The United States and other countries had trade rights within Chinese territories leading to the Boxer Rebellion. (sphere of influence)
  • The Dole company's hold over the Hawaiian pineapple trade. (economic imperialism)

What Is Colonialism?

Colonialism is one major type of imperialism where nations set up colonies or dependencies within a foreign country. You typically see this when a large nation takes over smaller, less established nations. One of the greatest examples of colonialism came from powerful European countries like Spain and France. For example, the Spanish established colonies in South and Central America.

Just like imperialism, there are different types of colonialism, including:

  • settler colonialism - one nation settles in another
  • exploitation colonialism - exploit the natural resources of a country to extract wealth
  • surrogate colonialism - power encourages people to overtake another’s land, think power by proxy
  • internal colonialism - a powerful group within a nation suppresses the less powerful group

Examples of Colonialism

From ancient times to now, you can find dozens of examples of colonialism. Explore a few colonialism examples for each type.

  • The Dutch took control over South Africa by settling in the area and asserting their control over the indigenous groups. (settler colonialism)
  • The Belgians overtaking the Congo to seize the rubber and ivory. (exploitation colonialism)
  • In Palestine, the British supported the Jewish in colonizing the area of Palestine. (surrogate colonialism)
  • The civil war between the Sinhalese Buddhists and Tamil Hindus in Sri Lanka. The Tamil want total control over their lands. (internal colonialism)

Understanding Imperialism vs. Colonialism

Imperialism and Colonialism might be used synonymously, but these two terms are not the same. Imperialism is the policy of taking over a nation, and colonialism is one way in which they take that nation over. Explore other interesting government topics by looking at examples of different types of democracy.