Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne North America vs. Europe Billion
Name: Rey
Status: other
Grade: other
Location: CA
Country: USA
Date: July 2007

We are having a discussion about how many zeros are in a billion. We have Googled this topic, and we are getting different information. My Hispanic employees are stating that there are 12 zeros in a billion. When we Googled a billion in Spanish, they are correct. When we Google a billion in English I am correct in stating that there are 9 zeros.

In the US there are one thousand millions in a billion.... ten to the 9. The European billion is a million millions.... ten to the 12. One of the many ways that the world is not one... are you familiar with the US gallon and the Imperial (British) gallon? They, too, are different. Again, the US measure is smaller.

Larry Krengel


There are 9 zeros in 1 billion: 1,000,000,000. 12 zeros is 1 trillion.

Matt Voss

A billion is 1,000,000,000 which has 9 zeros. A thousand has 3 zeros, a million has 6 zeros, and a trillion has 12.

In Spanish the word for trillion is billon (with an accent over the o, billion is mil millones) so maybe you can split lunch?

Ethan Greenblatt
Stanford Department of Chemistry

I had not heard of this, but a quick Googling seems to confirm the tale. Different places have different names for numbers, depending on which scale you choose to adopt.

There are lots of references on-line that go into great detail, here is what I found:

From Wikipedia:

This one explains the long scale and short scale: gives the same info:

And an article on a site called Eyeful Tower gives the same info:

NIST SI prefixes:

I hope this answers your question,

Burr Zimmerman

Unfortunately, you will have to go "Dutch".

What Americans call billions are, in Europe "a thousand millions". Their billions are out trillions. Go figure, but then they use periods for commas and a comma for the decimal point in numbers.

You both are correct.


Bob Avakian
Oklahoma State University - Okmulgee

Not much to say here. A "billion" means different things in the U.S. and the rest of the world. Sort of like the U.S. being alone in the world in not using the metric system for measurements.

Richard Barrans
Department of Physics and Astronomy
University of Wyoming

NOTE: The ^ in the following text means 'to the power of'.

The word 'billion' literally means million to the power of two (bi), hence the proper billion is 1 million-million (10^12).

Likewise 'trillion' literally means million to the power of three (tri), hence the proper trillion is 1 million-million-million (10^18).

This allows you to multiply by adding prefixes, eg. billion x trillion = quintillion (2+3=5).

The American system does NOT allow you to do this. The American billion x the American billion = American quintillion (10^9 x 10^9 = 10^18), 2+2 does NOT equal 5. The American billion x the American trillion is 10^9 x 10^12 = 10^21 (= American sextillion), 2+3 does NOT equal 6.

The American billion (10^9) should be called the sesquillion (literally 'million to the power of 1.5'). In fact, this is where the slang word 'squillion', meaning a large amount, comes from. Most people who are 'in the know', call this amount a thousand-million.

Sorry America, but the European billion, trillion ... centillion system is actually both grammatically and mathematically correct!

... and Rey, you will have to buy your Hispanic employees lunch.

Howard Barnes,
New Zealand.

Well Rey, the original meaning for Billion was Bi-Million, and thus, one muillion million. This is the typical European understanding of the term.

However, the typical American understanding of Billion is the next set of decimal places after Millions. Thus, What a European would consider as a Billion, we would typically call a Trillion.

I suppose for any authoritative answer as to which one is correct, we should probably refer to the only people likely to use such numbers from day to day, Mathematicians and Scientists. Both of those groups generally accept the American version, 10^9.

Probably not a real helpful answer, but it is the most correct way I know to explain it.

Ryan Belscamper

I think you are all correct. There are a few instances of numbers not having the same names in different languages. This is one of them. When scientists communicate, they will often put numbers in both word and numeric form to make it very clear, or you must already know how the other language uses it when you are reading an article.

You are all winners!

Patricia Rowe

Dear Rey,

You are both right; everybody wins! So everyone can pitch in and buy lunch for everybody else. I did not know there were two definitions of billion until I looked in Webster's Unabridged New Twentieth Century dictionary.

According to Webster's, 1. In the United States and France, a thousand millions (1,000,000,000) 2. In Great Britain and Germany, a million millions (1,000,000,000,000)

So there is more than one definition. (So I guess numbers are not as "black and white" as we would presume them to be.)

Have a great lunch with everyone!

Martha Croll

Unfortunately, there is an ambiguous definition of the term "billion". The increasingly accepted definition of the term "billion" is 10^9 -- i.e. "1" followed by "9" zeros. Historically, the same term "billion" was used by some to mean 10^12 -- i.e. "1" followed by "12" zeros. That definition has been "officially" discarded, but may crop up in some older literature. See:

or Wikipedia discussions. the 10^9 bunch is going to get a free lunch, Enjoy.

Vince Calder

Click here to return to the General Topics Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory