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Everything You Need to Know About the Territories of the United States


Everything you need to know about United States Territories

This is a 4-part series explaining current day situation of the remnants of the colonial empires of the early 20th Century, almost all of which are small islands scattered around the world. Other parts of the series will examine the status of Dutch, British and French territories.

The United States came to the colonization game rather late. By the time of the presidency of William McKinley, the world had already been carved up by European powers. With strong desire to prove itself as the equal to Britain and France, the US closed out the 19th Century by engaging in a war with Spain that took from her the last of her colonies.

It turned out that US wasn’t very good at being a colonial power. A former colony herself, it had neither the stomach or long term desire for hold colonies. Its largest colony, The Philippines, was given independence 40 years after it had been ceded from Spain, and it would have been granted independence even sooner if it hadn’t been for WWII.

Today United States has long since given up its hopes of becoming a colonial empire, but it still holds on to many pieces of its early 20th Century attempt to become one. The story of the US Territories is one of the least known and most interesting parts of American history.

Legal Status of Territories

Territories are not new to the United States. Ever since independence the United States has had areas which were not states but were fully part of the country. Most states, outside of the original 13, were territories before they became states. The states of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois were created from Northwestern Territory. North and South Dakota used to form the Dakota Territory. In the 20th Century Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Hawaii and Alaska all made the jump from territory.

The creation of territories is addressed in the constitution and is a power given to congress. (It should be noted that Washington DC is NOT a territory. It is the Federal district that is distinct from a territory.)

Today there are two criteria that categorize American territories.

  • A territory can be incorporated or unincorporated.
  • A territory can be organized or unorganized.

Incorporated territories are considered to be integral parts of the United States. Prior to statehood, both Alaska and Hawaii were incorporated territories. In incorporated territories the constitution is in full effect. Incorporated territories would be similar to territories found in Canada (Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut). They are not large enough for statehood, but still considered part of the country.

Today the US has only one incorporated territory: Palmyra Atoll.

Most people have never heard of Palmyra Atoll, but it is legally the only incorporated territory of the US. It has this status because of a quirk of history. When Hawaii gained statehood in 1959, Palmyra was part of the territory of Hawaii. The act of statehood, which admitted Hawaii to the union, explicitly excluded Palmyra from joining the rest of the Hawaiian Islands from becoming a state. I have searched high and low for an explanation as to why Palmyra was not included with Hawaii as a state, but I could never find a reason.

Today Palmyra is owned by The Nature Conservancy and has no permanent human settlement.

All other US territories today are unincorporated territories. They are not considered integral parts of the United States that the US has permanent sovereignty over.

The other criterion which defines US territories are their organizational status.

Organized territories are territories subject to an Organic Act, passed by congress, which establishes a government in the territory.

Of the five populated territories in the United States, four of them have passed an Organic Act and are organized territories. They are (with date of organization):

  • Puerto Rico, 1900
  • Virgin Islands, 1936
  • Guam, 1950
  • Northern Marinas Islands, 1978

Citizens of all of the above territories are US Citizens, however they cannot vote in federal elections. They each have a representative in congress, which cannot vote on the floor but may vote in committee. The remaining US territories are all unorganized:

    Although American Samoa is non-organized, it is self governing

  • American Samoa (Pacific)
  • Palmyra Atoll (Pacific)
  • Baker Island (Pacific)
  • Howland Island (Pacific)
  • Jarvis Island (Pacific)
  • Johnston Atoll (Pacific)
  • Kingman Reef (Pacific)
  • Midway Islands (Pacific)
  • Wake Island (Pacific)
  • Bajo Nuevo Bank (Caribbean)
  • Navassa Island (Caribbean)
  • Serranilla Bank (Caribbean)

All of the unorganized territories except for American Samoa are uninhabited and have never had any permanent human population.

While American Samoa is officially unorganized, it is still self-governed and has a government. Citizens of American Samoa are not US citizens, but rather are US Nationals. They may live and work anywhere in the US, but cannot vote should they move to the United States. US Nationals may apply for citizenship as if they were resident aliens but do not have the same restriction for traveling and living in the US.

If you have ever filled out an online form, you might have seen “US Minor Outlying Islands” as a country option in a drop down list. While that is an official designation for the uninhabited islands, no one actually lives there, so I’ve never understood why it is included in country lists.

Populated Territories

For all practical purposes, the United States has five territories, those being the ones that are inhabited. With my recent visit to the US Virgin Islands, I have now visited all five inhabited territories. Here is a brief overview of each territory and some interesting facts about each.

San Juan is actually the oldest city in the United States

Puerto Rico – By far the largest US territory, Puerto Rico has more people than every other territory combined. It is also physically the closest territory to the United States mainland. If it were a state, it would be the 29th largest state in terms of population and it is larger in area than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware. It is also the only US territory that does not have English as its primary language. It became a territory of the US as part of the 1898 Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish-American War.

Attitudes in Puerto Rico have changed considerably over the last century. In the early and mid 20th Century most Puerto Ricans wanted independence from the United States. By the 21st Century, most Puerto Ricans had family members living and working in the US and the desire for independence all but disappeared. In 2012 the people of Puerto Rico, for the first time ever, preferred statehood over continuing as a territory in a referendum. It is probably the only current US territory that has any reasonable chance at statehood.

Tumon Bay, Guam

Guam – Guam became a US territory in 1898 after it was ceded to the US in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War. It is often called the place where America Starts Its Day, because it is located on the other side of the International Date Line.

The natives of Guam are the Chamorro people, who also inhabit the Northern Marianas Islands. Guam is actually the southernmost island in the Marinas Archipelago. Europeans first visited it in 1521 when Ferdinand Magellan landed on his circumnavigation of the globe.

Today the economy of Guam is mostly tourism (primarily from Japan) and the US military. Military bases cover 29% of the island.

One of the most interesting attractions in Guam is Yukoi’s Cave. In 1972 Shoichi Yokoi, a Japanese soldier in WWII, emerged from the jungles in Guam unaware that the war was over. He became an instant celebrity in Japan and the hole where he lived is a popular attraction for Japanese tourists today. His story was foretold by an episode of Gilligan’s Island.

Guam was invaded hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and remained under Japanese control for over two years.

The US Virgin Islands were purchased from Denmark

US Virgin Islands – Unlike Puerto Rico or Guam, the United States didn’t acquire USVI by conquest. It was purchased from Denmark in 1916 via the Treaty of the Danish West Indies for $25,000,000 in gold. The islands were sold prior to the US entry into WWI as to not violate Danish neutrality.

The US Virgin Islands lies only 40 miles east of Puerto Rico and is approximately double the size of the District of Columbia.

The USVI is the only part of the United States that drives on the left, even though almost all vehicles are American and have left hand drive.

The Virgin Islands group is divided between the United States and the United Kingdom who control the British Virgin Islands as a territory.

There are 3 primary islands in USVI: St. Thomas, St. John and St Croix. St Thomas and St John are connected by ferry, where as St Croix is located south of the rest of the islands in the archipelago. Most of the island of St. John consists of Virgin Islands National Park.

You can still see some Danish influence on the islands including some Danish flags. Chartered flights from Denmark in the winter are the farthest direct flights to USVI.

Battle of Saipan Monument, CNMI

Northern Marianas Islands – The Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI) is the newest territory of the United States. Although culturally and geographically similar to Guam, the islands have had a very different history especially in the 20th Century.

The islands were, like Guam, part of the Spanish Empire. After the Spanish-American war, the islands were ceded to Germany, not the United States. In WWI, Japan declared war on Germany and used it as a pretext to invade and take over the islands.

The islands were liberated during the Battle of Saipan in WWII, one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific Theater.

The islands were put under US management after WWII by the United Nations as part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI), along with what today are Micronesia, Palau and the Marshall Islands. Unlike the other parts of TTPI, the CNMI choose to remain a US territory rather than opt for independence.

On several occasions the citizens of CNMI have voted to join Guam, but were rejected by Guam.

The CNMI has had a reputation of corrupt leadership since it became a territory and is probably the largest destination for sex tourism in the United States. When I walked around the capital of Garipan it seemed that almost half the businesses were massage parlors.

Pago Pago Harbor in American Samoa

American Samoa – In the late 19th Century, a civil war in Samoa almost lead to the United States and Germany to go to war. Each nation backed opposite sides in the war in hopes of gaining position to use the islands for whaling and as a coaling station. The Tripartite Convention of 1899 divided the Samoan Islands between the western islands (German) and the eastern islands (American).

Culturally there is little difference between American Samoa and the country of Samoa. They are geographically close to each other and there are many families with relatives in each part.

There have been some calls for either independence or greater autonomy for American Samoa, but in a 2010 referendum the majority of people opted to stick with the status quo.

Unlike other US territories, Americans need a passport to enter American Samoa and they have their own immigration and passport stamps.

American Samoa is noted for having the highest rate of military enlistment of any US state or territory.

Former US Territories

There are currently five independent countries which were former territories of the United States. One of which came from the Spanish-American war from which the US acquired Guam, and the other three coming from the aftermath of WWII.

If the Philippines were a US State, it would have 1/4 the of the population of the combined country.

Philippines – Many people are unaware that the Philippines were once a US territory. It was ceded to the United States from Spain in the same treaty which ceded Guam. After the conclusion of the Spanish War, the Filipino forces that were fighting Spain for independence turned their attention to the Americans. For several years, American and Filipino forces fought leading to the deaths of thousands on each side. It is one of the most forgotten wars in US history.

There were many in the US who never felt comfortable with the annexation of the Philippines. In the 1930’s the Philippines was declared a commonwealth and plans were developed for a transition for full independence. The Japanese invasion on Manila on December 8, 1941 (same time as the Pearl Harbor attack, but on the other side of the international date line) postponed independence for several years.

The Philippines eventually became independent on July 4, 1946. Today, however, the Philippines celebrates their Independence Day as June 12, the day they became free of Spain in 1898.

During its brief tenure as a US territory (brief compared to Spain’s 333 year rule), the Philippines had a non-voting representative in the US Congress and was covered by an Organic Act giving Filipinos full rights under the US constitution.

Today, if you visit the WWII Memorial in Washington DC, every state and territory is listed in stone pillars including the Philippines, recognizing their role in the war.

If the Philippines had remained a US territory and had become a US state, it would be the 6th largest state by area and largest state by population. In a fictional world where the Philippines is the 51st state, it would consist of 1/4 of the entire US population and have a population almost 3x larger than California.

Cuba – Cuba was another part of the territorial transfer from Spain to the US in 1898. However, Cuba was only a US possession for four years. US President Theodore Roosevelt was sympathetic to the Cuban independence movement and the US recognized a free cuba in 1902.

The drink Cuba Libre (aka rum and coke) comes from that period of history. When Coke was first imported to Cuba in 1900, it was mixed with rum and people toasted a free Cuba (Cube Libre in Spanish).

The other historical remnant from this period is the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay which was leased from Cuba. A treaty in 1934 made the lease period indefinite and set the monthly payments at $4,085. The figure was never indexed for inflation so the amount has never changed even though the value would have been the equivalent of $69,000/month in 1934 dollars.

Since the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Cuba has refused to cash the checks as it does not recognize US control over Guantanamo Bay.

Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands

In 1947 the United Nations created Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI) from former Japanese possessions given to them by a League of Nations Mandate. The TTPI existed form 1947 to 1986 when the constituent islands began to seek independence. The above mentioned Northern Marinas Islands is the only part of the TTPI which is still a US territory.

All of the former TTPI countries have US Postal zip codes and state codes

Marshal Islands – The Marshall Islands are best known as the location of many atomic bomb tests in the 40’s and 50’s on places like Bikini and Enewetak Atolls.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) was declared in 1979 and the country entered a Compact of Free Association with the United States in 1986. The compact is a unique agreement that the United States has with the former TTPI countries where they have access to many programs which are normally reserved for US citizens. For example, the Marshall Islands has mail delivered to it at US domestica postal rates. It has its own USPS state and zip code. (MH and 969xx). They can also work in the US without a green card.

Micronesia – The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) consists of four island groups: Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae. Like the Marshall Islands, the FSM declared independence in 1979 and signed a compact of Free Association with the US in 1986. The FSM compact of free association also gives Micronesians access to US services and aid.

Palau has some of the best diving in the world

Palau – By population and area, Palau is the smallest of the former TTPI countries. With a population of only 20,000 people and area of 459 km2 it is one of the smallest countries in the world.

Palau declared independence in 1981 and signed their compact of free association with the US in 1994. Palau’s location combined with some of the best SCUBA diving in the world has given it a per capita GDP almost 4x greater than the other former TTPI countries.

The Future

Historically, most US territories have gone on to become states. However, most of those were located in North America and were contiguous to the other states. With the admission of Alaska and Hawaii as states in 1959, the idea of non-contiguous and non-North American states became real.

Of the current US Territories, only Puerto Rico has a reasonable chance at becoming a state. They have a population and land mass which would place them in the realm of current US states. It would be in the middle of states population-wise and small, but not the smallest state in terms of land area.

Of the remaining territories, only the Northern Marianas Islands has an area larger than Rhode Island. The rest are less than half the size or smaller.

The real reason why you won’t see any of the non-Puerto Rican territories become states is population. The most populous non-Puerto Rican territory is is Guam which has approximately 1/4 population of Wyoming, the least populous state. The rest are as small as 1/5 or 1/10 the size. It just isn’t enough for most states to justify giving 2 senators and a representative. Even if they were all to combine, it still probably wouldn’t be enough.

Could Puerto Rico become the 51st State???

The case for Puerto Rico becoming a state is becoming more interesting. During the 2012 elections, while everyone was focused on the race for President, for the first time Puerto Rico quietly had a referendum where the majority of voters approved the idea of statehood.

With population and land mass within reasonable parameters, the only two stumbling blocks to statehood: economics and language.

The per capita GDP of Puerto Rico ($27,384) would make it the poorest state in the union behind Mississippi ($32,967). While it is poorer, it isn’t radically so and probably shouldn’t be that big of an issue. Most new states have been on the frontier where they were poorer than older, more established states.

The real issue is language. Spanish is the dominant language in Puerto Rico. They would be the only state with a non-English speaking majority. While most of the population can speak English, they do so as a second language and at a level of proficiency lower than the rest of the country.

Over the last several decades English proficiency has increased dramatically in Puerto Rico as more families have members that work in the US. I would suspect this trend to continue even if Spanish is still the dominant language. English is an official language of Puerto Rico and has been since 1902.

It should be noted that there are three US states that have an official language other than English: Louisiana/French, New Mexico/Spanish, and Hawaii/Hawaiian. However in all three states, English is the most widely spoken. During my visit to Puerto Rico I had no problems getting by in English.

My guess is that we are still at least 20 years away from Puerto Rican statehood.

For the rest of the territories, the debate will be between the status quo and independence. This is most true of American Samoa, who has an independent sister country next door (Samoa). Likewise, if Guam and CNMI would merge, they would be far from the smallest country in the world.

  • 30 Comments... What's your take?

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  1. Bob says:

    Great information. Something I really plan to share with my Citizenship class.
    Can I assume that the U.S., President is the head of the government four organized territories? Which laws do the follow? Ours or their own? Do we have federal courts in these territories? Thanks again for a great research.

  2. Your wrote about the Philippines: “June 12, the day they became free of Spain in 1898″

    That is actually not quite accurate. June 12 is the day that Filipino revolutionaries proclaimed the Philippine Declaration of Independence from Spain. However, Spanish rule was effectively ended on May 1, 1898, when Commodore Dewey and the Asiatic Squadron of the U.S. Navy decisively defeated the Spanish fleet in the Battle of Manila Bay. That battle effectively ended Spanish rule. From that point on, the question was Who would replace the Spanish — the American government or a Filipino government? Following the Battle of Manila Bay, various Filipino forces took power in various rural areas and provincial cities and the Americans took over Manila after a mostly staged Battle of Manila.

    In short, Spanish rule ended not on June 12, 1898 but on May 1, 1898. June 12 and all other activity was just efforts by either the American or Filipino forces to gain the upper hand and win control of the post-Spanish Philippines.

  3. Russ says:

    Your website is the only one I could find that provides comprehensive info on US Territories. Thank you! You also have an interesting personal story to tell which I enjoyed reading. Happy travels!

  4. Hi, everything is going perfectly here and ofcourse every one is sharing
    data, that’s really good, keep up writing.

  5. Thanks! says:

    I found this as a result on a Google search about us territories. This is great information! Thanks for it! Really interesting stuff. I’d love to read more.

  6. Peter says:

    A nice reminder to our history and territories. I want to visit all of these territories and this article is my initial guide to that.

  7. anthony john says:

    On the other hand these US territories have some of the post powerful economies in the Caribbean

  8. anthony john says:

    I am from Caribbean and many of us consider the US territories as crime and drug ridden. A real pity

  9. Eric says:

    Your explanation/tips to Christy on 6/28 of how to travel to Samoa was very helpful! Thanks Gary!

  10. Lina says:

    Really great post. Very interesting to see how the US has expanded their footprint. Will be curious to see if Puerto Rico does become a state in the not so distant future.

  11. Barbara says:

    Wow, you really did a lot of work on this post. It contains excellent information, and I really learned a lot. I was amazed at the fact that Cuba has not cashed the checks paid for the monthly leasing fee for the US naval base at Guantomano Bay. What an interesting bit of information!

  12. Gary,

    I just came across your blog and I’m glad I did. Thank you for putting so much time into a very foggy subject that is quite interesting. I look forward to being part of this community.


  13. Wow Gary, you put quite a bit of time into this. I was completely unaware of all the uninhabited islands that are U.S. Territories.

    I found this very interesting. Thank you. It made my treadmill jaunt a breeze:-)

  14. Really really like this post! Yeah, you gave me the good tip. Yub i will go to there soon.

  15. When we were in Albania, they were very keen to join the United States. If we paid with dollars instead of euros we got better prices. That was quite a surprising finding in the Balkans. They might be willing to settle for a colonial status.

  16. Bruno says:

    Really insightful post! I really enjoyed the idiosyncrasies of each territory. Great!

  17. Loved this post! A real history lesson — good information! Thanks, Gary!

  18. Shit, they’re giving both France and england a run for their money on overseas territories

  19. Beth says:

    Very interesting! I didn’t know about half of these former territories…it’s amazing the things that get overlooked in the US school system.

  20. Nancy says:

    I love learning things about the U.S.that are never taught in school. Social Studies or history of the U.S. was always the same and covered only the important states. A mention would be made of the less important, but you never got a full grasp of the magnitude of our nation.

  21. Isaac says:

    What is the statue in the picture at the top of the article?

  22. Melissa says:

    Interesting! I actually never knew that about the Philippines. Or Cuba for that matter.

  23. Ben says:

    This was one of the best posts I’ve read here in a long time and the most clear explanation of the U.S. Territory relationship. It made me smarter!

  24. David R says:

    Great post! I really enjoyed it. This sort of thing is a nice addition to your normal posts. Thanks.

  25. James R says:

    Gary, this a really interesting article. I am looking forward to the next ones on Eurpean territories. Enjoy your Caribbean trip!

  26. Christy says:

    This is really interesting. Thanks for the history lesson! How was your visit to American Samoa? Would you recommend going? I was considering it, mostly because I’m obsessed with islands.

    • Gary says:

      If you go to American Samoa, go through Samoa, not Hawaii. The Honolulu-Pago Pago route is considered a domestic route, so foreign carriers can’t do it. Hawaiian Airlines has a monopoly on the route and it is very expensive.

      If you fly through Apia, it is much cheaper and the Apia-Pago Pago leg is only a 45 minute flight.

  27. Kaleb says:

    I really like this post a lot ! Because I am fascinated by US territories and because I was born in one! I Agree with everything about Puerto Rico, I was just there a week ago and I think I will be Dr. Garcia before we become state. No body really cares! (In our mind we are a nation, but we are also crazy)

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About Gary Arndt

My name is Gary Arndt. In March 2007 I set out to travel around the world...
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