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Schematic map of maritime zones (aerial view).

Territorial waters are informally an area of water where a sovereign state has jurisdiction, including internal waters, the territorial sea, the contiguous zone, the exclusive economic zone, and potentially the extended continental shelf (these components are sometimes collectively called the maritime zones[1]). In a narrower sense, the term is often used as a synonym for the territorial sea.[2]

Vessels have different rights and duties when passing through each area defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), one of the most ratified treaties. States cannot exercise their jurisdiction in waters beyond the exclusive economic zone, which are known as the high seas.[3]


Main article: Baseline (sea)

Normally, the baseline is the low-water line along the coast as marked on large-scale charts that the coastal state recognizes. This is either the low-water mark closest to the shore or an unlimited distance from permanently exposed land, provided that some portion of elevations exposed at low tide but covered at high tide (such as mud flats) is within 3 nautical miles (5.6 kilometres; 3+12 statute miles) of permanently exposed land.

Straight baselines can alternatively be defined connecting fringing islands along a coast, across the mouths of rivers, or with certain restrictions across the mouths of bays. In this case, a bay is defined as "a well-marked indentation whose penetration is in such proportion to the width of its mouth as to contain land-locked waters and constitute more than a mere curvature of the coast. An indentation is not, however, regarded as a bay unless its area is as large as, or larger than, that of the semi-circle whose diameter is a line drawn across the mouth of that indentation". The baseline across the bay must also be no more than 24 nautical miles (44 kilometres; 28 statute miles) in length.

Internal waters

Main article: Internal waters

Internal waters are landward of the baseline. The coastal state has sovereignty over internal waters, enforce domestic law on vessels in internal waters, including to prohibit innocent passage.[4]: 4  Lakes, rivers and bays are considered internal waters.[5]: 51 

"Archipelagic waters" within the outermost islands of an archipelagic state, such as Indonesia or the Philippines, are also internal waters, but the state must allow innocent passage through them. However, archipelagic states can limit innocent passage to designated sea lanes within these waters. Each island in the archipelago can have its own baseline.[5]: 51 

Territorial sea

Indonesia's maritime territory and exclusive economic zone

Territorial sea is a belt of coastal waters extending at most 12 nautical miles (22 km; 14 mi) from the baseline (usually the mean low-water mark) of a coastal state.[6] The territorial sea is sovereign territory, although foreign ships (military and civilian) are allowed innocent passage through it, or transit passage for straits; this sovereignty also extends to the airspace over and seabed below. In international law, adjustment of these boundaries is called maritime delimitation.

A state's territorial sea extends up to 12 nmi (22 km; 14 mi) from its baseline. If this overlaps with another state's territorial sea, the border is taken as the median point between the states' baselines, unless the states agree otherwise. A state can also choose to claim a smaller territorial sea.

Conflicts have occurred when a coastal nation claims an entire gulf as its territorial waters while other nations only recognize the more restrictive definitions of the UNCLOS. Claims that draw the baseline at more than 24 nautical miles (two 12 nm limits) are judged excessive by the US. Two conflicts occurred in the Gulf of Sidra where Libya drew a line in excess of 230 nmi (430 km; 260 mi) and claimed the entire enclosed gulf as its territorial waters. The US exercised freedom of navigation rights, resulting in the 1981 and 1989 Gulf of Sidra incidents.

Contiguous zone

The contiguous zone is a band of water extending farther from the outer edge of the territorial sea to up to 24 nautical miles (44.4 km; 27.6 mi) from the baseline. Inside, a state can exercise limited control to prevent or punish "infringement of its customs, fiscal, immigration or sanitary laws and regulations within its territory or territorial sea".

The zone is typically 12 nautical miles (22 km; 14 mi) wide. However, it can be wider when a state claims a territorial sea of less than 12 nautical miles, or narrower if it would otherwise overlap with another state's contiguous zone. Unlike the territorial sea, there is no standard rule for resolving such conflicts and states must negotiate a compromise. The US invoked a contiguous zone out to 24 nmi from the baseline on 29 September 1999.[7]

Exclusive economic zone

Main article: Exclusive economic zone

An exclusive economic zone (EEZ) extends from the baseline to at most 200 nautical miles (370.4 km; 230.2 mi) and therefore includes the contiguous zone.[8] A coastal nation has control of all economic resources inside its exclusive economic zone, including fishing, mining, oil exploration, and pollution of those resources. However, it cannot prohibit passage or loitering above, on, or under the surface of the sea that complies with the laws and regulations adopted by the coastal state in accordance with the provisions of the UN Convention, within that portion of its exclusive economic zone beyond its territorial sea.

Before the convention, coastal nations arbitrarily extended their territorial waters to attempt to control activities that are now regulated by the exclusive economic zone, such as offshore oil exploration or fishing rights (see Cod Wars).

The EEZ is still popularly, but incorrectly, regarded as coastal nation's territorial waters.

Extended continental shelf


Article 76 of the UN convention[9] defines continental shelf of coastal countries. For the physical geographical definition, see the article continental shelf.

A state's continental shelf extends to the outer edge of the continental margin but at least 200 nautical miles (370 km; 230 mi) from the baselines of the territorial sea if the continental margin does not stretch that far. Coastal states can explore and exploit the seabed and the natural resources on or beneath it. However, other states may lay cables and pipelines if authorized by the coastal state. The outer limit of a country's continental shelf cannot stretch beyond 350 nautical miles (650 km; 400 mi) of the baseline or beyond 100 nautical miles (190 km; 120 mi) from the 2,500 metres (8,200 ft) isobath, which is a line connecting the depths of the seabed at 2,500 meters.

The outer edge of the continental margin for the purposes of this article is defined as:

*a series of lines joining points not more than 60 nautical miles (110 km; 69 mi) apart where the thickness of sedimentary rocks is at least 1% of the height of the continental shelf above the foot of the continental slope; or
*a series of lines joining points not more than 60 nautical miles apart that is not more than 60 nautical miles from the foot of the continental margin.

The foot of the continental slope is determined as the point of maximum change in the gradient at its base.

The portion of the continental shelf beyond the 200 nautical mile limit is also known as the extended continental shelf. Countries wishing to delimit their outer continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles have to submit scientific information for the basis of their claim to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. The Commission then validates or makes recommendations on the scientific basis for the extended continental shelf claim. The scientific judgement of the Commission shall be final and binding. Validated extended continental shelf claims overlapping any demarcation between two or more parties are decided by bilateral or multilateral negotiation, not by the commission.

Countries have ten years after ratifying UNCLOS to lodge their submissions to extend their continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles, or by 13 May 2009 for countries where the convention was ratified before 13 May 1999. As of 1 June 2009, 51 submissions have been lodged with the commission, of which eight have been deliberated by the commission and have had recommendations issued. The eight are (in the order of date of submission): Russian Federation; Brazil; Australia; Ireland; New Zealand; the joint submission by France, Ireland, Spain and the United Kingdom; Norway and Mexico.

For the full list, see below.

Rights over the continental shelf

Articles 77 to 81 define the rights of a country over its continental shelf.

A coastal nation has control of all resources on or under its continental shelf, living or not, but no control over any living organisms above the shelf that are beyond its exclusive economic zone. This gives it the right to conduct hydrocarbon exploration and drilling works.


Territorial waters claims by coastal states in 1960[10]
Breadth claim Number of states
3-mile limit 26
4-mile limit 3
5-mile limit 1
6-mile limit 16
9-mile limit 1
10-mile limit 2
12-mile limit 34
More than 12-miles 9
Unspecified 11

From the eighteenth century until the mid twentieth century, the territorial waters of the British Empire, the United States, France and many other nations were three nautical miles (5.6 km) wide. Originally, this was the distance of a cannon shot, hence the portion of an ocean that a sovereign state could defend from shore. However, Iceland claimed two nautical miles (3.7 km), Norway and Sweden claimed four nautical miles (7.4 km), and Spain claimed six nautical miles (11 km) during this period. During incidents such as nuclear weapons testing and fisheries disputes some nations arbitrarily extended their maritime claims to as much as fifty nautical miles (93 km) or even two hundred nautical miles (370 km). Since the late 20th century the "12 mile limit" has become almost universally accepted. The United Kingdom extended its territorial waters from three to twelve nautical miles (5.6 to 22.2 km) in 1987.

During the League of Nations Codification Conference in 1930, the issue of establishing international legislation on territorial waters was raised, but no agreement was reached.[11]

Claims by legislation to the adjacent continental shelf and fishing was first made by the United States government immediately following the Second World War. On 28 September 1945, US President Harry S. Truman issued two proclamations that established government control of natural resources in areas adjacent to the coastline. One of these proclamation was titled "Policy of the United States With Respect to the Natural Resources of the Subsoil and Sea Bed of the Continental Shelf", and stipulated in its operative clause:

the Government of the United States regards the natural resources of the subsoil and sea bed of the continental shelf beneath the high seas but contiguous to the coasts of the United States as appertaining to the United States, subject to its jurisdiction and control.[12]

The second proclamation was titled "Policy of the United States With Respect to Coastal Fisheries in Certain Areas of the High Seas", and stated in its operative clause:

the Government of the United States regards it as proper to establish conservation zones in those areas of the high seas contiguous to the coasts of the United States wherein fishing activities have been or in the future may be developed and maintained on a substantial scale.[13]

Following the US presidential proclamation, the issue of legally determining territorial waters by international agreement was raised, and in its first session in 1949, the International Law Commission of the United Nations added the subject to its agenda.

The important issue of the breadth of territorial waters could not be resolved at either the UNCLOS I (1956-1958) or UNCLOS II (1960) conferences, with neither the two major contenders of a 3-mile or 12-mile limit reaching the required two-thirds support. This lack of agreement had the potential to lead to serious international disputes.[10] It was only at the UNCLOS III (1973-1982) conference, whose provisions did not come into force until 1994, that this issue was resolved at twelve nautical miles.


Pirate radio broadcasting from artificial marine fixtures or anchored ships can be controlled by the affected coastal nation or other nations wherever that broadcast may originate, whether in the territorial sea, exclusive economic zone, the continental shelf or even on the high seas.[14]

Thus a coastal nation has total control over its internal waters, slightly less control over territorial waters, and ostensibly even less control over waters within the contiguous zones. However, it has total control of economic resources within its exclusive economic zone as well as those on or under its continental shelf.

Throughout this article, distances measured in nautical miles are exact legal definitions, while those in kilometres are approximate conversions that are not stated in any law or treaty.

Federal nations, such as the United States, divide control over certain waters between the federal government and the individual states. (See tidelands.)

Territorial sea claim

Main article: List of territorial disputes

Maritime controversies involve two dimensions: (a) territorial sovereignty, which are a legacy of history; and (b) relevant jurisdictional rights and interests in maritime boundaries, which are mainly due to differing interpretations of the law of the sea.[15]

Special cases

Peru claims territorial waters out to 200 nmi.

Contiguous zone claims

Extended continental shelf claims

As of 13 May 2009, 51 submissions by 44 countries have been lodged for claims over their extended continental shelf. Some countries have multiple submissions and joint submissions with other countries. Recommendations have been given for 8 of the submissions.

Submissions with recommendations

List with date of submission and adoption of recommendation by the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.[37]

Other submissions

List in order of date of submission, with date of submission.[37]

See also


  1. ^ DLM means that "the national legislation establishes the limits of a given zone only by reference to the delimitation of maritime boundaries with adjacent or opposite States, or to a median (equidistant) line in the absence of a maritime boundary delimitation agreement."


  1. ^ IAEA (2020). Revised exposé des motifs of the Paris convention as amended by the protocols of 1964, 1982 and 2004. pp. 5–6.
  2. ^ "Territorial waters | international law". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 29 July 2020.
  3. ^ Law of the Sea: A Policy Primer (PDF). 2017.
  4. ^ Bardin, Anne (2002). "Coastal State's Jurisdiction over Foreign Vessels". Pace International Law Review. 14 (1): 27. doi:10.58948/2331-3536.1188. S2CID 159298818.
  5. ^ a b Churchill, R. R.; Lowe, A. V. (1988). The Law of the Sea (2 ed.). Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0719026342.
  6. ^ "UNITED NATIONS CONVENTION ON THE LAW OF THE SEA". Retrieved 27 April 2016.
  7. ^ "New Action to Protect & Preserve U.S. Shores & Oceans". Archived from the original on 12 April 2016. Retrieved 27 April 2016.
  10. ^ a b Major Thomas E. Behuniak (Fall 1978). "The Seizure and Recovery of the S.S. Mayaguez: Legal Analysis of United States Claims, Part 1" (PDF). Military Law Review. 82. Department of the Army: 114–121. ISSN 0026-4040. Archived from the original (PDF) on 28 December 2016. Retrieved 21 July 2014.
  11. ^ Yearbook of the International Law Commission, 1949, p. 43
  12. ^ text in Department of State Bulletin, September 30, 1945, p. 485
  13. ^ text in Department of State Bulletin, September 30, 1945, p. 486
  15. ^ Ji, Guoxing. (1995). [1] "Maritime Jurisdiction in the Three China Seas" (abstract), UC Berkeley: UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation; retrieved 15 November 2010.
  16. ^ "Αιγιαλίτιδα ζώνη – Casus belli - Ειδικότερα κείμενα". Archived from the original on 25 October 2011. Retrieved 30 June 2022.
  17. ^ "Turkey Maritime claims - Geography".
  18. ^ "Lov om Norges territorialfarvann og tilstøtende sone §7".
  19. ^ "Lov om afgrænsning af søterritoriet –". Retrieved 27 April 2016.
  20. ^ Accession of Ecuador to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)
  21. ^ "Lógasavn". Retrieved 27 April 2016.
  22. ^ "41/1979: Lög um landhelgi, efnahagslögsögu og landgrunn". Alþingi. Retrieved 27 April 2016.
  23. ^ Jordanian 12 NM, Flanders Marine Institute (2019). Maritime Boundaries Geodatabase: Territorial Seas (12NM), Retrieved 26 July 2023
  24. ^ a b Executive order no. 48, Liberia Government, January 2013.
  25. ^ "Lov om Norges territorialfarvann og tilstøtende sone §2".
  26. ^ "Fishing - Title 27".
  27. ^ "Legge 3 giugno 1978 n. 347".
  28. ^ "Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea". President of Russia.
  29. ^ a b "Table of claims to maritime jurisdiction" (PDF). 15 July 2011. Retrieved 28 October 2020.
  30. ^ Act amending the Act on the Limits of the Territorial Waters of Finland (981/95)
  31. ^ "Laki Suomen aluevesien rajoista 463/1956 - Ajantasainen lainsäädäntö - FINLEX ®". Retrieved 27 April 2016.
  32. ^ "DoD Issuances Website: 404 Error Page". Archived from the original on 20 September 2012. Retrieved 27 April 2016.
  33. ^ "LIMITS IN THE SEAS NO. 32 STRAIGHT BASELINES : TURKEY" (PDF). U.S. Department of State. 25 March 1971. Retrieved 18 June 2016.
  34. ^ PO Box 23, St Peter Port (30 July 2019). "THE BAILIWICK OF GUERNSEY'S TERRITORIAL WATERS HAVE BEEN EXTENDED FROM 3 TO 12 NAUTICAL MILES WITH EFFECT FROM 23rd JULY". Retrieved 29 December 2020.((cite web)): CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  35. ^ Park, Choon-ho (October 1978). "The 50-Mile Military Boundary Zone of North Korea". American Journal of International Law. 72 (4): 866–875. doi:10.1017/S0002930000142095. S2CID 149681176. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
  36. ^ Panda, Ankit (26 September 2017). "Would North Korea Shoot Down a US B-1B Bomber? Yes. Could It?". The Diplomat. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
  37. ^ a b "Submissions, through the Secretary-General of the United Nations, to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, pursuant to article 76, paragraph 8, of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982". United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. 30 October 2009. Retrieved 9 December 2009.
  38. ^ Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf Summary of recommendations re: Ascension Island
  39. ^ UN confirms Australia’s rights over extra 2.5 million square kilometres of seabed. Archived 25 October 2009 at the Wayback Machine Minister for Resources and Energy, The Hon Martin Ferguson AM MP, Media Release, 21 April 2008. With map Archived 14 May 2009 at the Wayback Machine of areas.
  40. ^ "Ireland extends its underwater territory". 23 October 2007. Retrieved 27 April 2016.
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  42. ^ UN confirms NZ’s extended seabed claim, New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Updated 20 January 2009. Retrieved 29 May 2009.
  43. ^ "Submission by New Zealand". United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. 8 April 2009. Retrieved 29 May 2009.
  44. ^ "Canada's Extended Continental Shelf Program".
  45. ^ "Continental Shelf - Submission by the Canada".
  46. ^ "Continental shelf of Somalia" (PDF).
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