Territories of the United States are sub-national administrative divisions directly overseen by the United States (U.S.) federal government. Unlike U.S. states and Native tribes that have sovereignty alongside the federal government, territories are without sovereignty (according to a 2016 Supreme Court ruling called Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle). The territories are classified by whether they are "incorporated" (i.e., part of the U.S. proper) and whether they have an "organized" government through an Organic Act passed by the U.S. Congress.
The U.S. has sixteen territories in the Caribbean Sea, the south Pacific Ocean, and the western portion of the north Pacific Ocean. Five of the territories are permanently inhabited and are classified as unincorporated territories. The other eleven are small islands, atolls, and reefs with no native or permanent population. Of those eleven, only one is classified as an incorporated territory. Two territories (Bajo Nuevo Bank and Serranilla Bank) are administered by Colombia.
Historically, territories were created to govern newly acquired land. Most territories eventually attained statehood. Other territories at some point administered by the U.S. eventually became independent countries, such as the Philippines, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau.
Many organized incorporated territories of the United States existed from 1789 to 1959. The first were the Northwest and the Southwest territories, and the last were the Alaska Territory and the Hawaii Territory. 31 of these territories applied for and were granted statehood. In the process of organizing and promoting territories to statehood, some areas of a territory lacking sufficient development and population densities were temporarily orphaned from parts of a larger territory after residents voted on whether to petition Congress for statehood. For example, when a portion of the Missouri Territory became the state of Missouri, the remaining portion of the territory, consisting of all the states of Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota, most of Kansas, Wyoming, and Montana, and parts of Colorado and Minnesota, effectively became an unorganized territory.
U.S. territories tend to have infrastructure and telecommunications inferior to the United States mainland; for example, American Samoa's Internet speed was found to be slower than several Eastern European countries. Poverty rates are also higher in the territories than in the states.
Territories have always been a part of the U.S. According to federal law, the term "United States", when used in a geographical sense, means "the continental United States, Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the United States Virgin Islands". Since political union with the Northern Mariana Islands in 1986, they too are treated as a part of the U.S. An executive order adopted in 2007 includes American Samoa in the U.S. "geographical extent" as reflected in U.S. Department of State documents.
The U.S. has five territories that are permanently inhabited: Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the Caribbean Sea; Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands in the Marianas archipelago in the western North Pacific Ocean; and American Samoa in the South Pacific Ocean.
Approximately 4 million people in these territories are U.S. citizens. U.S. citizenship at birth is granted in 4 of the 5 major territories. American Samoa has about 32,000 non-citizen U.S. nationals. Under U.S. law, among the territories, "only persons born in American Samoa and Swains Island are non-citizen U.S. nationals." American Samoans are under the protection of the U.S., with the ability to travel to the U.S. without a visa. However, to become U.S. citizens, American Samoans must naturalize (as if they were foreigners).
Each of these territories is an organized, self-governing territory with three branches of government, a locally elected governor, and a territorial legislature.
Each territory also elects a non-voting member (or a non-voting resident commissioner in the case of Puerto Rico) to the U.S. House of Representatives. They "possess the same powers as other members of the House, except that they may not vote when the House is meeting as the House of Representatives." They participate in debate, are assigned offices and money for staff, and nominate constituents from their territories to the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, Air Force, and Merchant Marine service academies. They can vote in committee on all legislation presented to the House of Representatives. They are included in their party count for each committee, and they are equal to senators on conference committees. Depending on the congress, they may also vote on the floor in the House Committee of the Whole. As of January 2017, the members of Congress from these territories were: Gregorio Sablan for the Northern Mariana Islands, Madeleine Bordallo for Guam, Amata Coleman Radewagen for American Samoa, Jenniffer González for Puerto Rico, and Stacey Plaskett for the U.S. Virgin Islands. The District of Columbia also has a non-voting delegate.
Every four years, U.S. political parties nominate their presidential candidates at conventions, which include delegates from these territories. However, the U.S. citizens living in territories such as Puerto Rico cannot vote in the general election for president of the U.S. Non-citizen nationals in American Samoa also can't vote for the president.
These territories pay some U.S. taxes and are under the protection of U.S. courts.
The capitals of these territories are Pago Pago in American Samoa; Hagåtña in Guam; Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands; San Juan in Puerto Rico; and, Charlotte Amalie in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The current governors of these territories are the following: Lolo Matalasi Moliga (American Samoa), Eddie Baza Calvo (Guam), Ralph Torres (Northern Mariana Islands), Ricardo Rosselló (Puerto Rico), and Kenneth Mapp (U.S. Virgin Islands).
|Name||Abbr.||Location||Area||Population||Capital||Largest Town||Status||Date Acquired|
|American Samoa||AS||Polynesia & South Pacific||197.1 km2 (76.1 sq mi)||55,519||Pago Pago||Tafuna||Unincorporated & unorganized||April 17, 1900|
|Guam||GU||Micronesia & North Pacific||543 km2 (210 sq mi)||159,358||Hagåtña||Dededo||Unincorporated & organized||April 11, 1899|
|Northern Mariana Islands||MP||Micronesia & North Pacific||463.63 km2 (179 sq mi)||53,467||Capitol Hill, Saipan||Garapan||Unincorporated & organized||November 3, 1986|
|Puerto Rico||PR||Caribbean & North Atlantic||9,104 km2 (3,515 sq mi)||3,667,084||San Juan||San Juan||Unincorporated & organized||April 11, 1899|
|United States Virgin Islands||VI||Caribbean & North Atlantic||346.36 km2 (134 sq mi)||106,405||Charlotte Amalie||Charlotte Amalie||Unincorporated & organized||March 31, 1917|
The inhabited territories (except Guam) have had negative population growth in recent years, as well as high poverty rates, but also high Human Development Index (HDI) rankings. All poverty rates are higher than the mainland United States. Several territories have an official language other than English.
(2010 to 2017)
|Poverty rate (2009)[A]||Life expectancy (years)||HDI ranking||GDP (dollars)||Driving Side||Time Zone||Calling Code||Official Language(s)|
|American Samoa||−2.39%||57.8%[A]||73.4||0.827 (Very High HDI)||$658,000,000||right||Samoan Standard Time (UTC-11)||+1-684||English and Samoan|
|Guam||+2.12%||22.9%||76||0.901 (Very High HDI)||$5,793,000,000||right||Chamorro Standard Time (UTC+10)||+1-671||English and Chamorro|
|Northern Mariana Islands||−0.68%||52.3%||75.4||0.875 (Very High HDI)||$1,242,000,000||right||Chamorro Standard Time (UTC+10)||+1-670||English, Chamorro,
|Puerto Rico||−10.43%||43.5%||80.9||0.845 (Very High HDI)||$103,135,000,000||right||Atlantic Standard Time (UTC−4)||+1-787, +1-939||English and Spanish|
|United States Virgin Islands||−3.25%||22.4%||79.4||0.894 (Very High HDI)||$3,765,000,000||left||Atlantic Standard Time (UTC−4)||+1-340||English|
The U.S. has eleven territories with no native or permanent population, called the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands. They are small islands, atolls, and reefs spread across the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean: Palmyra Atoll, Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, the Midway Islands, Bajo Nuevo Bank, Navassa Island, Serranilla Bank, and Wake Island. Palmyra Atoll (formally, the United States Territory of Palmyra Island) is the only incorporated U.S. territory, a status it has maintained since the Territory of Hawaii became a state in 1959.
The status of several territories is disputed: Navassa Island is disputed by Haiti, Wake Island is disputed by the Marshall Islands, Swains Island (part of American Samoa) is disputed by Tokelau, and Serranilla Bank and Bajo Nuevo Bank (both administered by Colombia) are disputed by Colombia, Jamaica, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
|Bajo Nuevo Bank||North Atlantic Ocean & Caribbean Sea||110 km2 (42 sq mi)||0||Unincorporated & unorganized||Administered by Colombia. Claimed by the U.S. (under the Guano Islands Act) and Jamaica. A claim by Nicaragua was resolved in 2012 in favor of Colombia by the International Court of Justice, although the U.S. was not a party to that case and does not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICJ.|
|Baker Island[a]||North Pacific Ocean||2.1 km2 (0.81 sq mi)||0||Unincorporated & unorganized||Claimed under the Guano Islands Act on October 28, 1856. Formally annexed on May 13, 1936, and placed under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of the Interior.|
|Howland Island[a]||North Pacific Ocean||4.5 km2 (1.7 sq mi)||0||Unincorporated & unorganized||Claimed under the Guano Islands Act on December 3, 1858. Formally annexed on May 13, 1936, and placed under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of the Interior.|
|Jarvis Island[a]||South Pacific Ocean & Polynesia||4.75 km2 (1.83 sq mi)||0||Unincorporated & unorganized||Claimed under the Guano Islands Act on October 28, 1856. Formally annexed on May 13, 1936, and placed under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of the Interior.|
|Johnston Atoll[a]||North Pacific Ocean||2.67 km2 (1.03 sq mi)||0||Unincorporated & unorganized||Last used by the U.S. Department of Defense in 2004|
|Kingman Reef[a]||North Pacific Ocean & Polynesia||18 km2 (6.9 sq mi)||0||Unincorporated & unorganized||Claimed under the Guano Islands Act on February 8, 1860. Formally annexed on May 10, 1922, and placed under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of the Navy on December 29, 1934.|
|Midway Atoll||North Pacific Ocean||6.2 km2 (2.4 sq mi)||40||Unincorporated & unorganized||Territory since 1859; primarily a wildlife refuge inhabited only by civilian contractors; previously under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of the Navy.|
|Navassa Island||North Atlantic Ocean & Caribbean Sea||5.4 km2 (2.1 sq mi)||0||Unincorporated & unorganized||Territory since 1857. Claimed by Haiti.|
|Palmyra Atoll||North Pacific Ocean & Polynesia||12 km2 (5 sq mi)||20||Incorporated & unorganized||As of 2007, partly privately owned by The Nature Conservancy with much of the rest owned by the federal government and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It is an archipelago of about 50 small islands with about 1.56 sq mi (4.0 km2) of land area, lying about 1,000 miles (1,600 km) south of Oahu, Hawaii. The atoll was acquired by the U.S. through the annexation of the Republic of Hawaii in 1898. When the Territory of Hawaii was incorporated on April 30, 1900, Palmyra Atoll was incorporated as part of that territory. When the State of Hawaii was admitted to the Union in 1959, however, the Act of Congress explicitly separated Palmyra Atoll from the newly federated state. Palmyra remained an incorporated territory, but received no new organized government.|
|Serranilla Bank||North Atlantic Ocean & Caribbean Sea||350 km2 (140 sq mi)||0||Unincorporated & unorganized||Administered by Colombia; site of a naval garrison. Claimed by the U.S (since 1879 under the Guano Islands Act), Honduras, and Jamaica. A claim by Nicaragua was resolved in 2012 in favor of Colombia by the International Court of Justice, although the U.S. was not a party to that case and does not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICJ.|
|Wake Island[a]||North Pacific Ocean & Micronesia||7.4 km2 (2.9 sq mi)||150||Unincorporated & unorganized||Territory since 1898; host to the Wake Island Airfield administered by the U.S. Air Force; claimed by the Marshall Islands.|
The U.S. Congress decides whether a territory is incorporated or unincorporated. The entire U.S. constitution applies to each incorporated territory, including its local government and all of its inhabitants, in the same manner as it applies to the local governments and residents of a state. Incorporated territories are considered an integral part of the U.S., not mere possessions.
From 1901 to 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court in a series of cases known as the Insular Cases held that the constitution extended by its own force to U.S. territories. The Court in these cases, however, also established the doctrine of territorial incorporation, under which the constitution applies fully to incorporated territories, such as the territories of Alaska and Hawaii, and applies partially in the unincorporated territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.
The U.S. had no unincorporated territories (also called "overseas possessions" or "insular areas") until 1856. In that year, the U.S. Congress enacted the Guano Islands Act, which authorised the president to take possession of unclaimed islands to mine guano. Under this law, the U.S. has taken control of and claimed rights in many islands, atolls, etc., especially in the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, most of which have since been abandoned. The U.S. also has acquired territories since 1856 under other circumstances, such as under the Treaty of Paris (1898) that ended the Spanish–American War. The U.S. Supreme Court considered the constitutional position of these unincorporated territories in Balzac v. People of Porto Rico, where the Court said the following about a U.S. court in Puerto Rico::312
The United States District Court is not a true United States court established under article 3 of the Constitution to administer the judicial power of the United States.... It is created ... by the sovereign congressional faculty, granted under article 4, 3, of that instrument, of making all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory belonging to the United States. The resemblance of its jurisdiction to that of true United States courts, in offering an opportunity to nonresidents of resorting to a tribunal not subject to local influence, does not change its character as a mere territorial court.
In Glidden Company v. Zdanok, the U.S. Supreme Court cited the Balzac case and said with regard to courts in unincorporated territories, "Upon like considerations, Article III has been viewed as inapplicable to courts created in unincorporated territories outside the mainland ... and to the consular courts established by concessions from foreign countries....":547
In the Balzac case, the Court defined the meaning of "implied"::306
Had Congress intended to take the important step of changing the treaty status of Puerto Rico by incorporating it into the Union, it is reasonable to suppose that it would have done so by the plain declaration, and would not have left it to mere inference. Before the question became acute at the close of the Spanish War, the distinction between acquisition and incorporation was not regarded as important, or at least it was not fully understood and had not aroused great controversy. Before that, the purpose of Congress might well be a matter of mere inference from various legislative acts; but in these latter days, incorporation is not to be assumed without express declaration, or an implication so strong as to exclude any other view.
The U.S. Supreme Court in Rassmussen v. U.S. first quoted from Article III of the 1867 treaty for the purchase of Alaska and then said, "'The inhabitants of the ceded territory ... shall be admitted to the enjoyment of all the rights, advantages, and immunities of citizens of the United States....' This declaration, although somewhat changed in phraseology, is the equivalent ... of the formula, employed from the beginning to express the purpose to incorporate acquired territory into the United States, especially in the absence of other provisions showing an intention to the contrary.":522
Part of the act of incorporation is on the people of the territory, not on the territory per se, by extending the privileges and immunities clause of the constitution to them, such as when it was extended to Puerto Rico in 1947 (despite this, Puerto Rico remains officially unincorporated).
The Rassmussen case arose out of a criminal conviction by a six-person jury in Alaska under a federal law allowing this procedure there. The Court held that Alaska had been incorporated into the U.S. because of the treaty of cession with Russia. In addition, the Congressional implication was so strong as to exclude any other view::523
That Congress, shortly following the adoption of the treaty with Russia, clearly contemplated the incorporation of Alaska into the United States as a part thereof, we think plainly results from the act of July 20, 1868, concerning internal revenue taxation ... and the act of July 27, 1868 ... extending the laws of the United States relating to customs, commerce, and navigation over Alaska, and establishing a collection district therein. ... And this is fortified by subsequent action of Congress, which it is unnecessary to refer to.
In his concurring opinion, Justice Brown expressed the same thought::533–4
Apparently, acceptance of the territory is insufficient in the opinion of the court in this case, since the result that Alaska is incorporated into the United States is reached, not through the treaty with Russia, or through the establishment of a civil government there, but from the act ... extending the laws of the United States relating to the customs, commerce, and navigation over Alaska, and establishing a collection district there. Certain other acts are cited, notably the judiciary act ... making it the duty of this court to assign ... the several territories of the United States to particular Circuits.
In Dorr v. U.S., the U.S. Supreme Court quoted Chief Justice Marshall from an earlier case as follows::141–2
"The 6th article of the treaty of cession contains the following provision: 'The inhabitants of the territories which His Catholic Majesty cedes the United States by this treaty shall be incorporated in the Union of the United States as soon as may be consistent with the principles of the Federal Constitution, and admitted to the enjoyment of the privileges, rights, and immunities of the citizens of the United States.' ... This treaty is the law of the land, and admits the inhabitants of Florida to the enjoyment of the privileges, rights, and immunities of the citizens of the United States. It is unnecessary to inquire whether this is not their condition, independent of stipulation. They do not, however, participate in political power; they do not share in the government till Florida shall become a state. In the meantime Florida continues to be a territory of the United States, governed by virtue of that clause in the Constitution which empowers Congress "to make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States.'"
In Downes v. Bidwell, the Court said, "The same construction was adhered to in the treaty with Spain for the purchase of Florida ... the 6th article of which provided that the inhabitants should 'be incorporated into the Union of the United States, as soon as may be consistent with the principles of the Federal Constitution.'":256
In the Downes case, the first mention of incorporation is made in the following paragraph by Justice Brown::321–2
In view of this it cannot, it seems to me, be doubted that the United States continued to be composed of states and territories, all forming an integral part thereof and incorporated therein, as was the case prior to the adoption of the Constitution. Subsequently, the territory now embraced in the state of Tennessee was ceded to the United States by the state of North Carolina. In order to insure the rights of the native inhabitants, it was expressly stipulated that the inhabitants of the ceded territory should enjoy all the rights, privileges, benefits, and advantages set forth in the ordinance 'of the late Congress for the government of the western territory of the United States.
In the Downes case, the Court said::252
Owing to a new war between England and France being upon the point of breaking out, there was need for haste in the negotiations, and Mr. Livingston took the responsibility of disobeying his (Mr. Jefferson's) instructions, and, probably owing to the insistence of Bonaparte, consented to the 3d article of the treaty (with France to acquire the territory of Louisiana), which provided that 'the inhabitants of the ceded territory shall be incorporated in the Union of the United States, and admitted as soon as possible, according to the principles of the Federal Constitution, to the enjoyment of all the rights, advantages, and immunities of citizens of the United States; and in the meantime they shall be maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their liberty, property, and the religion which they profess.' [8 Stat. at L. 202.] This evidently committed the government to the ultimate, but not to the immediate, admission of Louisiana as a state....
Lands under the sovereignty of the federal government (but not part of any state) that were given a measure of self-rule by the Congress through an Organic Act subject to the Congress' plenary powers under the territorial clause of Article IV, sec. 3, of the U.S. Constitution.
No incorporated organized territory has existed since 1959, with the last two being the territories of Alaska and Hawaii, both of which achieved statehood in that year.
Many incorporated unorganized territories became incorporated organized territories or states. For example, when the eastern part of the incorporated organized territory called Minnesota became the state of Minnesota in 1858, the western part became part of an unorganized territory. Later, that became a part of the Dakota Territory, out of which two states and some parts of other states were created. California was part of an unorganized territory when it became a state. Currently, only Palmyra Atoll is incorporated and unorganized.
There are also territories that have the status of being incorporated but that are not organized:
The U.S. Minor Outlying Islands have no permanent human population. All are unincorporated and unorganized, except for Palmyra Atoll, which is incorporated and unorganized. There are non-permanent human populations at Palmyra Atoll, Wake Island and Midway Atoll.
The U.S. exercises some degree of extraterritorial jurisdiction in overseas areas, such as:
Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau gained independence under the Compact of Free Association (COFA), which gives the U.S. full authority over aid and defense in exchange for continuing access to U.S. health care, government services such as the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Postal Service, and the right for COFA citizens to work freely in the U.S. and vice versa.
The United States exercises a high degree of control in defense, funding, and government services in: