Åland comprises Fasta Åland on which 90% of the population resides and a further 6,500 skerries and islands to its east. Fasta Åland is separated from the coast of Sweden by 38 kilometres (24 mi) of open water to the west. In the east, the Åland archipelago is contiguous with the Finnish Archipelago Sea. Åland's only land border is located on the uninhabited skerry of Märket, which it shares with Sweden.
Åland's autonomous status means that those provincial powers normally exercised by representatives of the central Finnish government are largely exercised by its own government.
The autonomous status of the islands was affirmed by a decision made by the League of Nations in 1921 following the Åland Islands dispute. It was reaffirmed within the treaty admitting Finland to the European Union. By law, Åland is politically neutral and entirely demilitarised, and residents are exempt from conscription to the Finnish Defence Forces. The islands were granted extensive autonomy by the Parliament of Finland in the Act on the Autonomy of Åland of 1920, which was later replaced by new legislation by the same name in 1951 and 1991. The constitution of Finland defines a "constitution of Åland" by referring to this act. Åland remains exclusively Swedish-speaking by this act.
In connection with Finland's admission to the European Union, a protocol was signed concerning the Åland Islands that stipulates, among other things, that provisions of the European Community Treaty shall not force a change of the existing restrictions for foreigners (i.e., persons who do not enjoy "home region rights"—hembygdsrätt—in Åland) to acquire and hold real property or to provide certain services.
Åland's original name was in the Proto-Norse language *Ahvaland which means "land of water". In Swedish, this first developed into Áland and eventually into Åland, literally "river land"—even though rivers are not a prominent feature of Åland's geography. The Finnish and Estonian names of the island, Ahvenanmaa and Ahvenamaa ("perch land"), are seen to preserve another form of the old name.