Myth Buster: Is Oahu the Big Island?

A conversation like the following is not uncommon:

Blissful Post-Hawaii Vacationer: “Oh, you write about Hawaii travel?  We just got back. We loved it!”

Sheila: “I’m glad you liked it. What island did you visit?”

Blissful Post Hawaii Vacationer : “We were on the Big Island.”

Sheila: “I love the Big Island. Where did you stay?”

Blissful Post Hawaii Vacationer: “We stayed in Waikiki Beach.”

Queue the sound of a needle scratching a vinyl record: skreeeetch!

Waikiki Beach is on Oahu — not the Big Island. I’m not sure why, but it is a common misconception that Oahu is the Big Island. So, let’s take a look at Hawaii’s geography.


As you can see, the Big Island is indeed a big island. It’s bigger than all the other islands put together. The Big Island is also known as the island of Hawaii. (That point might also add to the confusion. That’s why I usually try to refer to the Big Island as Hawaii’s Big Island or the Big Island of Hawaii.)

Perhaps one of the reasons folks think that Oahu is the Big Island is that they assume that the most populated island is also the largest. Oahu is indeed biggest in population, as it is home to almost 70% of Hawaii’s population. According to the HVCB, here’s the population data by island.

  • Oahu – 876,156
  • Big Island of Hawaii – 148,677
  • Maui – 117,644
  • Kauai – 58,303
  • Molokai – 7,404
  • Lanai – 3,193
  • Niihau – 160 (Not shown on the map. It’s a small island located on the southwest side of Kauai. It’s privately owned.)
  • Kahoolawe – (The small unlabeled island near Lanai and Maui on the above map. This island is uninhabited.)

Do you have any other theories as to why people may think that Oahu is the Big Island?

By the way, don’t feel bad if you once thought that Oahu was the Big Island. Believe me, you aren’t alone!

  1. Common indeed! I think it’s because of the name of the island. Honolulu must be part of Hawaii, right? Uh, the state, yes, the island, no.

    I have a feeling that it will always be a common misunderstanding. But, it opens the door to talk about both islands — so it’s a good thing! 🙂

    I think we have finally dispelled the myth that you have to pay customs if you’re shipping to Hawaii. That one used to be one of my favorites!

  2. @Evelyn – Haha…I hadn’t heard the customs one. Though I have heard of people asking if a passport is necessary if traveling from the US. Doh! 🙂

  3. The easy way to understand is each island is a separate county. Exception is Maui county includes Molokai, Kahoolawe and Lanai. Theres one other small exception on Molokai that is debatable. The Big Island is called Hawaii because it’s Hawaii county. Oahu is Honolulu county. ck here confused yet? Remember, don’t say “Back in the States we…” this is the USA.

  4. @ Chris – oh, that sounds like a plausible theory. Thanks for adding it!

    @ Bryan – the county thing is confusing, especially when Oahu is called Honolulu County. I absolutely cringe when I hear people saying, “Back in the states,…” I don’t hear it ofter, but when I do, I get embarrassed for the person who says it.

  5. Ha Ha, yeah it makes me wonder about the people who say that. I hear it often. Stunning vog free day here in Holualoa and Kona.

  6. Fun Fact – Honolulu is the largest city in the world – at least it has the longest borders.

    According to the state constitution any island (or islet) not named as belonging to a county belongs to Honolulu. This makes all islands within the Hawaiian Archipelago, that stretch to Midway Island (1,500 miles northwest of Hawaii) part of Honolulu. Honolulu is about 1,500 miles long or more distance than halfway across the 48 contiguous states.

    So… Since Honolulu is on Oahu & Honolulu is actually much bigger than the “Big Island” a person could argue that… Oh… Never mind.

  7. @ David Zuls – well that is a very interesting fact. I hadn’t heard that. I’m trying not to let my brain get balled up in a knot thinking about it, though. 🙂

  8. It drives me nuts to say I lived on the Big Island, and then have someone ask if I lived in Waikiki. Um no. I then have to figure out if I want to get into a geography lesson or if I’ll just let it go. Grrr!

  9. @JulieAnn hehe…I know what you mean about wanting to bust out a map for a lesson. Most times I just try to politely say, Waikiki is actually on Oahu…or just grin and bear it. 🙂

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