Territories of the United States

Territories of the United States are sub-national administrative divisions overseen by the United States government. The various U.S. territories differ from the U.S. states and Native American tribes in that they are not sovereign entities. Territories are classified by [|incorporation] and whether they have an "organized" government through an organic act passed by Congress. U.S. territories are under U.S. sovereignty, and may be treated as part of the United States proper in some ways and not others. Unincorporated territories in particular are not considered to be integral parts of the United States, and the Constitution of the United States applies only partially in those territories.
The U.S. currently has fourteen territories in the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Five territories are permanently inhabited, unincorporated territories; the other nine are small islands, atolls and reefs with no native population. Of the nine, only one is classified as an incorporated territory. Two additional territories are claimed by the United States but administered by Colombia. Historically, territories were created to administer newly acquired land, and most eventually attained statehood. Others, such as the Philippines, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau, later became independent.
Many organized incorporated territories of the United States existed from 1789 to 1959. The first were the Northwest and Southwest territories and the last were the Alaska and Hawaii territories. Thirty-one territories became states. In the process, some less-populous areas of a territory were orphaned from it after a statehood referendum. When a portion of the Missouri Territory became the state of Missouri, the remainder of the territory became an unorganized territory.
Politically and economically, the territories are underdeveloped. People in U.S. territories cannot vote for the President of the United States, and they do not have full representation in the U.S. Congress. Territorial telecommunications and other infrastructure is generally inferior to that of the continental United States and Hawaii, and some territories' Internet speed was found to be slower than the least developed countries in Eastern Europe. Poverty rates are higher in the territories than in the states.

Legal status of territories

The U.S. has had territories since its beginning. In the chapter of US federal law on immigration and nationality, the term "United States" is defined, unless otherwise specified, as "the continental United States, Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands of the United States, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands". A 2007 executive order on environmental, energy, and transportation management defined American Samoa as part of the US "in a geographical sense".
Organized territories are lands under federal sovereignty which were given a measure of self-governance by Congress through an organic act subject to the Congress's plenary powers under the of the Constitution's Article Four, section 3.

Permanently inhabited territories

The U.S. has five permanently inhabited territories: Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the Caribbean Sea, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands in the North Pacific Ocean, and American Samoa in the South Pacific Ocean. American Samoa is in the Southern Hemisphere, while the other four are in the Northern Hemisphere. About 3.56 million people in these territories are U.S. citizens, and citizenship at birth is granted in four of the five territories. Citizenship at birth is not granted in American Samoa—American Samoa has about 32,000 non-citizen U.S. nationals. Under U.S. law, "only persons born in American Samoa and Swains Island are non-citizen U.S. nationals" in its territories. Because they are U.S. nationals, American Samoans are under U.S. protection, and can travel to the rest of the U.S. without a visa. However, to become U.S. citizens, American Samoans must become naturalized citizens, like foreigners. Unlike the other four inhabited territories, Congress has passed no legislation granting birthright citizenship to American Samoans. In 2019, a federal court ruled that American Samoans are U.S. citizens, but the judge put the ruling on hold, and the litigation is ongoing.
Each territory is self-governing with three branches of government, including a locally elected governor and a territorial legislature. Each territory elects a non-voting member 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 debate, are assigned offices and staff funding, and nominate constituents from their territories to the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, Air Force and Merchant Marine academies. They can vote in their appointed House committees on all legislation presented to the House, 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 the 116th Congress the territories are represented by Amata Coleman Radewagen of American Samoa, Michael San Nicholas of Guam, Gregorio Sablan of Northern Mariana Islands, Jenniffer González-Colón of Puerto Rico and Stacey Plaskett of U.S. Virgin Islands. The District of Columbia's delegate is Eleanor Holmes Norton ; like the district, the territories have no vote in Congress and no representation in the Senate. Additionally, the Cherokee Nation has delegate-elect Kimberly Teehee, who has not been seated by Congress.
Every four years, U.S. political parties nominate presidential candidates at conventions which include delegates from the territories. U.S. citizens living in the territories cannot vote in the general presidential election, and non-citizen nationals in American Samoa cannot vote for President.
The territorial capitals are Pago Pago, Hagåtña, Saipan, San Juan and Charlotte Amalie. Their governors are Lolo Matalasi Moliga, Lou Leon Guerrero, Ralph Torres, Wanda Vázquez Garced and Albert Bryan.
Among the inhabited territories, Supplemental Security Income is available only in the Northern Mariana Islands; however in 2019 a U.S. judge ruled that the federal government's denial of SSI benefits to people in Puerto Rico is unconstitutional.
American Samoa is the only U.S. territory with its own immigration system. American Samoa also has a communal land system in which ninety percent of the land is communally owned; ownership is based on Samoan ancestry.
Name LocationAreaPopulation

Largest townStatusAcquired
Polynesia 49,437Pago PagoTafunaUnincorporated, unorganizedApril 17, 1900
Micronesia 168,485HagåtñaDededoUnincorporated, organizedApril 11, 1899
Micronesia 51,433Saipan Saipan Unincorporated, organized November 4, 1986
Caribbean 3,193,694San JuanSan JuanUnincorporated, organized April 11, 1899
Caribbean 106,235Charlotte AmalieCharlotte AmalieUnincorporated, organizedMarch 31, 1917


Except for Guam, the inhabited territories lost population in 2020. Although the territories have higher poverty rates than the mainland U.S., they have high Human Development Indexes. Four of the five territories have another official language, in addition to English.
TerritoryOfficial languagePop. change
Poverty rateLife expectancy in 2018–2020

HDIGDP Traffic flowTime zoneArea code Largest ethnicity
American SamoaEnglish, Samoan–1.4%65%
74.80.827$636 millionRightSamoan Time 684Pacific Islander
GuamEnglish, Chamorro+ 0.2%22.9%
79.860.901$5.92 billionRightChamorro Time 671Pacific Islander
Northern Mariana IslandsEnglish, Chamorro, Carolinian–0.55%52.3%
76.10.875$1.323 billionRightChamorro Time670Asian
Puerto RicoEnglish, Spanish–1.59%43.1%
79.780.845$104.98 billionRightAtlantic Time 787, 939Hispanic / Latino
U.S. Virgin IslandsEnglish–0.37%22.4%
79.570.894$3.85 billionLeftAtlantic Time340African-American

The territories do not have administrative counties. The U.S. Census Bureau counts Puerto Rico's 78 municipalities, the U.S. Virgin Islands' three main islands, all of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands' four municipalities, and American Samoa's three districts and two atolls as county equivalents. The Census Bureau also counts each of the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands as county equivalents.
For statistical purposes, the U.S. Census Bureau has a defined area called the "Island Areas" which consists of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The U.S. Census Bureau often treats Puerto Rico as its own entity or groups it with the states and D.C. Puerto Rico data is collected annually in American Community Survey estimates, but data for the other territories is collected only once every ten years.

Governments and legislatures

See also: Politics of American Samoa, Politics of Guam, Politics of the Northern Mariana Islands, Politics of Puerto Rico, and Politics of the U.S. Virgin Islands
The five major inhabited territories contain the following governments and legislatures:
Government of American SamoaAmerican Samoa FonoBicameral
Government of GuamLegislature of GuamUnicameral
Government of the Northern Mariana IslandsN. Mariana Islands Commonwealth LegislatureBicameral
Government of Puerto RicoLegislative Assembly of Puerto RicoBicameral
Government of the U.S. Virgin IslandsLegislature of the Virgin IslandsUnicameral

Political party status

The following is the political party status of the governments of the U.S. territories as of 2020:


Each of the five major territories has its own local court system:
Of the five major territories, only Puerto Rico has an Article III federal district court ; it became an Article III court in 1966. This means that, unlike other U.S. territories, federal judges in Puerto Rico have life tenure. Federal courts in Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands are Article IV territorial courts. The following is a list of federal territorial courts, plus Puerto Rico's court:
American Samoa does not have a federal territorial court, and so federal matters in American Samoa are sent to either the District court of Hawaii or the District court of the District of Columbia. American Samoa is the only permanently inhabited region of the United States with no federal court.


See also: Demographics of American Samoa, Demographics of Guam, Demographics of the Northern Mariana Islands, Demographics of Puerto Rico, and Demographics of the U.S. Virgin Islands
While the U.S. mainland is majority non-Hispanic white, this is not the case for the U.S. territories. In 2010, American Samoa's population was 92.6% Pacific Islander ; Guam's population was 49.3% Pacific Islander and 32.2% Asian ; the population of the Northern Mariana Islands was 34.9% Pacific Islander and 49.9% Asian; and the population of the U.S. Virgin Islands was 76.0% African-American. In 2019, Puerto Rico's population was 98.9% Hispanic or Latino, 67.4% white, and 0.8% non-Hispanic white.
Throughout the 2010s, the U.S. territories lost population. The combined population of the five inhabited territories was 4,100,594 in 2010, and 3,569,284 in 2020.
The U.S. territories have high religiosity rates—American Samoa has the highest religiosity rate in the United States.


See also: Economy of American Samoa, Economy of Guam, Economy of the Northern Mariana Islands, Economy of Puerto Rico, and Economy of the U.S. Virgin Islands
The economies of the U.S. territories vary from Puerto Rico, which has a GDP of $104.989 billion in 2019, to American Samoa, which has a GDP of $636 million in 2018. In 2018, Puerto Rico exported about $18 billion in goods, with the Netherlands as the largest destination.
Guam's GDP shrank by 0.3% in 2018, the GDP of the Northern Mariana Islands shrank by 19.6% in 2018, Puerto Rico's GDP grew by 1.18% in 2019, and the U.S. Virgin Islands' GDP grew by 1.5% in 2018. In 2017, American Samoa's GDP shrank by 5.8%, but then grew by 2.2% in 2018.
American Samoa has the lowest per capita income in the United States—it has a per capita income comparable to that of Botswana. In 2010, American Samoa's per capita income was $6,311. As of 2010, the Manu'a District in American Samoa had a per capita income of $5,441, the lowest of any county or county-equivalent in the United States. In 2018, Puerto Rico had a median household income of $20,166. Also in 2018, Comerío Municipality, Puerto Rico had a median household income of $12,812 Guam has much higher incomes

Minor Outlying Islands

The United States Minor Outlying Islands are small islands, atolls and reefs. Palmyra Atoll, Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Midway Atoll and Wake Island are in the Pacific Ocean, and Navassa Island is in the Caribbean Sea. The additional disputed territories of Bajo Nuevo Bank and Serranilla Bank are also located in the Caribbean Sea. Palmyra Atoll is the only incorporated territory, a status it has maintained since 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 is disputed by Tokelau, and Bajo Nuevo Bank and Serranilla Bank are disputed by Colombia, Jamaica, Honduras, and Nicaragua. They are uninhabited except for Midway Atoll, whose approximately 40 inhabitants are employees of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and their services provider; Palmyra Atoll, whose population varies from four to 20 Nature Conservancy and Fish and Wildlife staff and researchers; and Wake Island, which has a population of about 100 military personnel and civilian employees.
The two-letter abbreviation for the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands is "UM".
Polynesia Unincorporated, unorganizedClaimed under the Guano Islands Act on October 28, 1856. Annexed on May 13, 1936, and placed under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of the Interior.
Polynesia Unincorporated, unorganizedClaimed under the Guano Islands Act on December 3, 1858. Annexed on May 13, 1936, and placed under the jurisdiction of the Interior Department.
Polynesia Unincorporated, unorganizedClaimed under the Guano Islands Act on October 28, 1856. Annexed on May 13, 1936, and placed under the jurisdiction of the Interior Department.
Polynesia Unincorporated, unorganizedLast used by the U.S. Department of Defense in 2004
Polynesia Unincorporated, unorganizedClaimed under the Guano Islands Act on February 8, 1860. Annexed on May 10, 1922, and placed under the jurisdiction of the Navy Department on December 29, 1934.
Polynesia Unincorporated, unorganizedTerritory since 1859; primarily a National Wildlife Refuge and previously under the jurisdiction of the Navy Department.
Caribbean Unincorporated, unorganizedTerritory since 1857; also claimed by Haiti
Polynesia Incorporated, unorganizedPartially privately owned by the Nature Conservancy, with much of the rest owned by the federal government and managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service. It is an archipelago of about fifty small islands with a land area of about, about south of Oahu. The atoll was acquired 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 Hawaii became a state in 1959, however, an act of Congress excluded the atoll from the state. Palmyra remained an incorporated territory, but received no new, organized government. U.S. sovereignty over Palmyra Atoll is disputed by the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.
Micronesia Unincorporated, unorganizedTerritory since 1898; host to the Wake Island Airfield, administered by the U.S. Air Force. Wake Island is claimed by the Marshall Islands.


The following two territories are claimed by multiple countries, and are not included in. However, they are sometimes grouped with the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands. According to the GAO, "the United States conducts maritime law enforcement operations in and around Serranilla Bank and Bajo Nuevo consistent with U.S. sovereignty claims."
Bajo Nuevo BankCaribbean Unincorporated, unorganized
Administered by Colombia. Claimed by the U.S. 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.
Serranilla BankCaribbean Unincorporated, unorganized
Administered by Colombia; site of a naval garrison. Claimed by the U.S., 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.

Incorporated and unincorporated territories

Congress decides whether a territory is incorporated or unincorporated. The U.S. Constitution applies to each incorporated territory as it applies to the local governments and residents of a state. Incorporated territories are considered to be integral parts of the U.S., rather than possessions.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1901–1905 Insular Cases, ruled that the constitution extended to U.S. territories. The court also established the doctrine of territorial incorporation, in which the constitution applies fully to incorporated territories and partially in the unincorporated territories of Puerto Rico, Guam and, at the time, the Philippines.
In the 1901 Supreme Court case Downes v. Bidwell, the court said that the U.S. Constitution did not fully apply in unincorporated territories because they were inhabited by "alien races".
The U.S. had no unincorporated territories until 1856. Congress enacted the Guano Islands Act that year, authorizing the president to take possession of unclaimed islands to mine guano. The U.S. has taken control of many islands and atolls, especially in the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, under this law; most have been abandoned. It also has acquired territories since 1856 under other circumstances, such as under the Treaty of Paris which ended the Spanish–American War. The Supreme Court considered the constitutional position of these unincorporated territories in Balzac v. People of Porto Rico, and said the following about a U.S. court in Puerto Rico:
In Glidden Company v. Zdanok, the court cited Balzac and said about 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..." The judiciary determined that incorporation involves express declaration or an implication strong enough to exclude any other view, raising questions about Puerto Rico's status.
In 1966, Congress made the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico an Article III district court. This sets Puerto Rico apart judicially from the other unincorporated territories, and U.S. district judge Gustavo Gelpi express the opinion that Puerto Rico is no longer unincorporated:
In Balzac, the court defined "implied":
In 2018, a lower court ruling ruled that former Illinois residents living in Puerto Rico, Guam, or the U.S. Virgin Islands cannot file absentee ballots because those regions are part of the United States.
In analyzing the Insular Cases, Christina Duffy Ponsa of the New York Times said the following: "To be an unincorporated territory is to be caught in limbo: although unquestionably subject to American sovereignty, they are not considered part of the United States for certain purposes but not others. Whether they are part of the United States for purposes of the Citizenship Clause remains unresolved."
The specifications of 22 USC 611 show that the United States may have additional territories under military jurisdiction.

Supreme Court decisions about current territories

The 2016 Supreme Court case Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle ruled that territories do not have their own sovereignty. That year, the Supreme Court declined to rule on a lower-court ruling in Tuaua v. United States that American Samoans are not U.S. citizens at birth.

Supreme Court decisions about former territories

In Rassmussen v. U.S., the Supreme Court quoted from Article III of the 1867 treaty for the purchase of Alaska:
The act of incorporation affects the people of the territory more than the territory per se by extending the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the Constitution to them, such as its extension to Puerto Rico in 1947; however, Puerto Rico remains unincorporated.

Alaska Territory

Rassmussen arose from a criminal conviction by a six-person jury in Alaska under federal law. The court held that Alaska had been incorporated into the U.S. in the treaty of cession with Russia, and the congressional implication was strong enough to exclude any other view:
Concurring justice Henry Brown agreed:

Florida Territory

In Dorr v. U.S., the court quoted Chief Justice John Marshall from an earlier case:
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'."

Southwest Territory

Justice Brown first mentioned incorporation in Downes:

Louisiana Territory

In Downes, the court said:

Former territories and administered areas

Organized incorporated territories

Unincorporated territories

Further information: Fauna of the United States: territories
The territories of the United States have many plant and animal species found nowhere else in the United States. All U.S. territories have tropical climates and ecosystems.


The USDA says the following about the U.S. territories :
Forests in the U.S. territories are vulnerable to invasive species and new housing developments. El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico is the only tropical rain forest in the United States National Forest system.
American Samoa has 80.84% forest cover and the Northern Mariana Islands has 80.37% forest cover—these are among the highest forest cover percentages in the United States.


See also: Birds of American Samoa, Birds of Guam, Birds of the Northern Mariana Islands, Birds of Puerto Rico, Birds of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Birds of the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands, and List of birds of the United States
U.S. territories have many bird species that are endemic.
Introduction of the invasive brown tree snake has harmed Guam's native bird population—nine of twelve endemic species have become extinct, and the territorial bird is extinct in the wild.
Puerto Rico has several endemic bird species, such as the critically endangered Puerto Rican parrot, the Puerto Rican flycatcher, and the Puerto Rican spindalis. The Northern Mariana Islands has the Mariana swiftlet, Mariana crow, Tinian monarch and golden white-eye. Birds found in American Samoa include the many-colored fruit dove, the blue-crowned lorikeet, and the Samoan starling.
The Wake Island rail was endemic to Wake Island, and the Laysan duck is endemic to Midway Atoll and the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. Palmyra Atoll has the second-largest red-footed booby colony in the world, and Midway Atoll has the largest breeding colony of Laysan albatross in the world.
The American Birding Association currently excludes the U.S. territories from their "ABA Area" checklist.

Other animals

See also: Mammals of American Samoa, Mammals of Guam, Mammals of the Northern Mariana Islands, Mammals of Puerto Rico, Mammals of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Mammals of the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands, Reptiles of American Samoa, Reptiles of Puerto Rico, Fauna of Puerto Rico, and Fauna of the U.S. Virgin Islands
American Samoa has several reptile species, such as the Pacific boa and Pacific slender-toed gecko. American Samoa has only a few mammal species, such as the Pacific sheath-tailed bat, as well as oceanic mammals such as the Humpback whale. Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands also have a small number of mammals, such as the Mariana fruit bat; oceanic mammals include Fraser's dolphin and the Sperm whale. The fauna of Puerto Rico includes the common coquí, while the fauna of the U.S. Virgin Islands includes species found in Virgin Islands National Park.
American Samoa has a location called Turtle and Shark which is important in Samoan culture and mythology.

Protected areas

There are two National Parks in the U.S. territories: the National Park of American Samoa, and Virgin Islands National Park. There are also National Natural Landmarks, National Wildlife Refuges, El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico, and the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.

Public image

In The Not-Quite States of America, his book about the U.S. territories, Doug Mack said:
Organizations such as Facebook view U.S. territories as not being part of the United States—instead, they are viewed as equivalent to foreign countries. In response to Facebook's view, former Guam representative Madeleine Bordallo said, "It is an injustice that Americans living in the U.S. territories are not treated as other Americans living in the states. Treating residents of Guam and other U.S. territories as living outside the United States and excluding them from programs perpetuates misconceptions and injustices that have long had a negative impact on our communities".
Representative Stephanie Murphy of Florida said about a 2018 bill to make Puerto Rico the 51st state, "The hard truth is that Puerto Rico's lack of political power allows Washington to treat Puerto Rico like an afterthought." According to Governor of Puerto Rico Ricardo Rosselló, "Because we don't have political power, because we don't have representatives, senators, no vote for president, we are treated as an afterthought." Rosselló called Puerto Rico the "oldest, most populous colony in the world".
Rosselló and others have referred to the U.S. territories as American "colonies". David Vine of the Washington Post said the following: "The people of are all too accustomed to being forgotten except in times of crisis. But being forgotten is not the worst of their problems. They are trapped in a state of third-class citizenship, unable to access full democratic rights because politicians have long favored the military's freedom of operation over protecting the freedoms of certain U.S. citizens." In his article How the U.S. Has Hidden Its Empire, Daniel Immerwahr of The Guardian writes, "The confusion and shoulder-shrugging indifference that mainlanders displayed at the time of Pearl Harbor hasn't changed much at all. give a truncated view of their own history, one that excludes part of their country." The 2020 U.S. Census excludes non-citizen U.S. nationals in American Samoa—in response to this, Mark Stern of Slate.com said, "The Census Bureau's total exclusion of American Samoans provides a pertinent reminder that, until the courts step in, the federal government will continue to treat these Americans with startling indifference."


Members of the House of Representatives

Territorial governors

Satellite images

Inhabited territories

Uninhabited territories (minor outlying islands)