95. The World’s Strangest Time Zones!: What are time zones and why are they so weird? (English Vocabulary Lesson)

You may not have thought about it before, but time zones are strange. What are time zones and why do we use them? Who decided the world should be loosely split into 24 different regions with 24 different times? Why do some countries and territories decide to change or make their own time zones? Where are the strangest time zones in the world? Let’s try to answer these questions in this episode of Thinking in English!


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Vocabulary List

To pick up (phrasal v) – to buy something cheaply

I picked up a new computer for a great price in the sale

Downright (adj, adv) – extremely or very great

She’s being downright unhelpful and obstructive 

Loosely (adv) – not exactly

This phrase can be loosely translated as “Go away!” 

To adjust (v) – to change something slightly to make it fit, work better, or be suitable

You should adjust your phone’s screen brightness late at night

To adopt (v) – to accept or start to use something new

We will have to adopt a more scientific approach in the future

Longitude (n) – the distance of place east or west of an imaginary line between the North Pole and the South Pole, measured in degrees

Harrison invented one of the most accurate clocks ever which allowed sailors to determine their longitude 

Enclave (n) – a part of a country that is surrounded by another country 

Kaliningrad is a Russian enclave surrounded by Lithuania, Poland, and the sea. 

Autonomous (adj) – an autonomous organization, country, or region is independent and has the freedom to govern itself

That region is autonomous and makes its own decisions about tax, education, and health care 


If you follow my Instagram (and you all should!) you might have seen the new clock I picked up at a local second hand store. I love watches, clocks, and timepieces, and this clock instantly attracted my attention in the shop. It is made by Citizen, a well known Japanese brand, but that is not what attracted me. Instead, it was the design that caught my eye! The clock has something known as a “world time complication.” This means that as well as telling the time in my location, it also has a ring of the numbers 1-24 which rotates once a day. In combination with the names of international cities written around the outside of the clock, this rotating ring allows you to tell the time in every time zone around the world. I’ll attach a photo of the clock on my blog if you’re confused by my description! 

However, although I said the clock allows you to tell the time in every time zone in the world, it doesn’t really. This is because time zones are weird. Some are downright confusing. Take my own country, the UK. I am currently in Japan, so when I want to know what time it is in the UK I can take a quick look at my special clock to see what time it is at home, right? Well, kind of. The clock lists the UK (or London) as being GMT (I’ll explain this a little later), and which is 9 hours behind Japanese time. However, right now this isn’t true. The UK actually uses daylight savings hours which means that currently the UK is 8 hours behind Japanese time, not 9. And this is not even close to being the strangest time zone in the world! 

My new clock!!

Hopefully by the end of this episode you will understand what a time zone is, the history of time zones and why they exist, and you will know some of the strangest and most complicated time zones in the world! I will also mention daylight savings hours a lot during this episode – if you get confused by this, don’t worry because I actually recorded a podcast a few months ago about this very topic. I’ll leave a link in the description and on my blog for you to check out! 

A time zone is a region of the planet with a standard or common time. This time is used for all purposes within the time zone: for businesses, legal times, and social events. The Earth is divided loosely into 24 regions or time zones. Depending on which way you travel around the world, time moves forward or backward one hour for each time zone. This is the general rule. As we will see later, time zones are not always so simple. Countries are actually free to pick their own time, and although many follow the basic 24 regions, some countries have decided not to! Although you probably rarely think about time zones, unless you are traveling or living abroad, they actually play a vital role in world affairs, trade, and globalization. 

If you were alive 200 years ago, you would be living in a world without standard times. It was common for individual towns to have their own local time that citizens and businesses would follow. This meant that if you travelled from your hometown to another city, then it was quite likely that you would have to adjust your watch once you arrived. Some cities built large clock towers to display the local time, but this was not guaranteed and it was not always obvious what the time was. 

For most of history, this didn’t really matter. Travelling was not as common as it is now, people did not usually have clocks and instead based their lives off daylight instead of hours, and even if you did travel it was quite slow. It was only with the development of faster transport, and especially the train, that people began to notice the problems of having many different local times. For example, in the 19th century a train could leave Paris at 1pm, travel 2 hours to Le Mans, and arrive at 2pm; this meant that every time passengers took this train they needed to change their watches and clocks by 1 hour. There is a famous story of a British businessman traveling by train from London to Birmingham, and missing his return train by a few minutes because Birmingham’s time was a few minutes different to London’s.

As train travel became more common and popular, standardized times began to be adopted and discussed internationally. If you want to make a national train timetable or schedule, a standard time is essential. If you have a meeting in another city at 3pm, you want to make sure that 3pm is the same 3pm as in your city. Canadian engineer, Sir Sanford Fleming, first proposed the idea of worldwide time zones in 1878. He suggested that we split the world into 24 different regions that were each 15 degrees of longitude apart. The Earth rotates once a day, or in other words it rotates 360 degrees a day. This means that every hour the world rotates 15 degrees – making it the natural way to create time zones. 

In 1884, a conference in the USA was held to standardize international time and choose the prime meridian. The prime meridian is an imaginary north-south line that divides the world in half. It is used to calculate the locations of all other time zones around the world. The conference in the USA chose the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London, as the official Prime Meridian. As the UK was an international and colonial power during the 19th century, most of the world’s shipping companies already used Greenwich time to set their clocks. Greenwich also had a reputation as a place of very accurate time keeping. And so Greenwich Mean Time (also known as GMT) was selected! This is why all other time zones are written in reference to GMT. For example, I am in Tokyo (GMT+9) while New York is GMT-4. Increasingly, the UTC is being used instead of GMT. This system means that, in theory, it is much easier to coordinate business or activities across the world as you will always know what the time is! 

Time zones are now a fundamental part of our world. At least 23 countries actually have more than one time zone. Do you know which country has the most time zones? I’ll give you a few seconds to think about the answer… it is probably not what you expect! The answer is… FRANCE! Thanks to its numerous overseas territories which span from the Caribbean to the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean, France actually has 12 different time zones. Russia has 11 time zones and the US has 9 official time zones and 2 unofficial ones. Some countries don’t follow the exact one hour time zones, instead using half or quarter hours instead!

Now, let’s talk about some of the strangest or weirdest time zones in the world! The first place to start is China. You all know China is a massive country, but confusingly the government only uses one time zone. In 1949, as an attempt to promote national unity across the whole territory, Beijing Time (GMT+8) was chosen to be the official time zone. This does, however, create problems in the west of the country where the sun might rise at 10 AM and set at midnight. It can also be confusing depending on who you talk to. I found an interesting example from an Atlantic article written a few years ago. Imagine a friend inviting you for coffee at 3pm. If you live in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang, this is not a straightforward invitation! If your friend is from China’s majority Han ethnicity, 3 o’clock would mean the official national time or 3 o’clock Beijing time. However, if your friend is a Uighur, the largest ethnic minority group in Xinjiang, he might be referring to unofficial “local time,” which is two hours behind. 

Afghanistan shares a border with Xinjiang province. Although it is a very small border and very highly protected, if you managed to somehow cross from Afghanistan to China you would be jumping forward 3.5 hours. The time differences between China and Pakistan (three hours), India (two-and-a-half hours), Nepal (two hours and 15 minutes), Bhutan (two hours), Myanmar (90 minutes), and the Russian Far East (two or three hours depending on which time zone you cross into or from) are also extreme. Crossing these borders jumps you forward or backward a large amount of time. However, if you cross from India to Nepal, it is only a 15 minute time difference. Nepal’s time is UTC +5.75. This makes it one of only three time zones with a 45 minute deviance: the others are New Zealand’s Chatham Islands, and the tiny Central Western Time Zone of Western Australia which I will mention again shortly. The Kaliningrad Oblast enclave (the part of Russia which is not connected to the rest of the country) is an hour ahead of Lithuania to its east, and two hours ahead of Poland, despite being completely surrounded by these two countries. 

Although some US states follow daylight savings, Arizona doesn’t and sticks to the Mountain time zone all year round. However, if you travel through the territory of the Navajo Nation (a semi-autonomous Native American territory mainly in Arizona) they do follow daylight savings hours. So the part of Arizona owned by the Navajo may be a different time. Even more confusing, within the Navajo Nation territory is another Native American tribe’s land – the Hopi Reservation. The Hopi doesn’t observe daylight savings hours! Therefore, driving through Arizona can result in repeatedly switching time zones back and forward. 

In Australia, there is a city (kind of) with two time zones. Tweed Heads is the furthest North of New South Wales merges into Coolangatta in the very south of Queensland. For half the year, they have the same time. But Queensland observes daylight saving hours while New South Wales doesn’t. This place has now become known as a good destination for a New Year’s Eve party: you can celebrate once in Tweed Heads before walking to Coolangatta to celebrate the New Year again! Australia actually is full of weird time zones: the town of Broken Hill in New South Wales follows South Australia time instead, while Eucla near the border of Western Australia and South Australia doesn’t follow either territories times… instead it is 45 minutes different. 

There are countless examples of interesting time zones, but one final one I want to briefly talk about is the interesting case of Samoa and Tokelau. These pacific islands are located close by the international date line – the line where the date changes. If you are to the East of the date line, you will share the same day as the Americas, while if you are to the west of the date line you will share the same day as Australia, New Zealand and East Asia. On the 29th December 2011, Samoa and Tokelau jumped from the US side of the line to Asian side of the line. The result was that they completely missed the 30 December. The 30th December 2011 never happened in Samoa or Tokelau. The two island territories made the decision to change as they wanted to make trade easier with Australia and New Zealand which are the most important partners for many Pacific countries. Before the change, while Samoans were enjoying their Sunday days off, it was already Monday in Australia and New Zealand and the islands were missing out on a whole day of business. Interestingly, this was not the first time Samoa has changed dates. 129 years ago they did the opposite, and moved to the same side of the international date line as the United States, in an effort to aid trade.

Final Thought

On today’s episode of Thinking in English, I have tried to introduce the ideas and history behind the existence of time zones, as well as highlighting some confusing, strange, and problem causing time zones around the world. As I mentioned, I don’t have enough time or energy to mention every strange time zone in the world. But, I would love it if you could tell me if your country has any strange time zones! Does your country have more than one official time? Can you think of any more examples? Do you think all countries should follow the standard 24 hour regions? Or is it ok to let countries decide their time zone? What do you think?


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