Under United States law, an unincorporated territory is an area controlled by the U.S. federal government that is not "incorporated" for the purposes of United States constitutional law. In unincorporated territories, the U.S. Constitution applies only partially. In unincorporated territories, "fundamental rights apply as a matter of law, but other constitutional rights are not available", raising concerns about how citizens in these territories can influence politics in the United States.[1] Selected constitutional provisions apply, depending on congressional acts and judicial rulings according to U.S. constitutional practice, local tradition, and law.[citation needed] As a result, these territories are often considered colonies of the United States.[2][3]

There are currently 13 unincorporated territories, comprising a land area of approximately 12,000 square kilometers (4,600 square miles) containing a population of approximately four million people; Puerto Rico comprises the vast majority of both the total area and total population.[4]An additional territory (Palmyra Atoll) is classified as an incorporated territory.

Of the thirteen territories, five are inhabited. These are either organized or self-governing[5] but unincorporated. These are American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.[6] There are also eight uninhabited U.S. possessions (see insular area and territories of the United States).[7][8]


All modern inhabited territories under the control of the federal government can be considered as part of the "United States" for purposes of law as defined in specific legislation.[9] However, the judicial term "unincorporated" was coined to legitimize the late-19th-century territorial acquisitions without citizenship and their administration without constitutional protections temporarily until Congress made other provisions. The case law allowed Congress to impose discriminatory tax regimes with the effect of a protective tariff upon territorial regions which were not domestic states.[10]

From 1901 to 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a series of opinions known as the Insular Cases, held that the Constitution extended ex proprio vigore (i.e., of its own force) to the continental territories. However, the Court in these cases also established the doctrine of territorial incorporation, under which the Constitution applies fully only in incorporated territories such as Alaska and Hawaii, and applies only partially in the new unincorporated territories of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.[11][12]

To define what is an unincorporated territory, in Balzac v. People of Porto Rico, 258 U.S. 298 (1922), the Court used the following statements regarding the United States District Court in Puerto Rico:

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 therein conveyed. It is created by virtue of 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.[13]

In Glidden Co. v. Zdanok, 370 U.S. 530 (1962) the court cited Balzac and made the following statement regarding courts in unincorporated territories:

Upon like considerations, Article III has been viewed as inapplicable to courts created in unincorporated territories outside the mainland, Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244, 266–267; Balzac v. Porto Rico, 258 U.S. 298, 312–313; cf. Dorr v. United States, 195 U.S. 138, 145, 149, and to the consular courts established by concessions from foreign countries, In re Ross, 140 U.S. 453, 464–465, 480. 18

"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;"[14] "This declaration, although somewhat changed in phraseology, is the equivalent, as pointed out in Downes v. Bidwell, 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."[14]

List of unincorporated territories


See also: Territories of the United States

Territory Population Area (km2) Area (sq mi) Region
American Samoa[5] 55,519 197.1 km2 75.1 sq mi Pacific
Guam 159,358[15] 541.3 km2 209.0 sq mi Pacific
Northern Mariana Islands 53,883 463.63 km2 179.01 sq mi Pacific
Puerto Rico[1] 3,474,182 9,104 km2 3,515 sq mi Caribbean
United States Virgin Islands 109,750 346.36 km2 133.73 sq mi Caribbean
Baker Island Uninhabited 2.1 km2 0.8 sq mi Pacific
Howland Island Uninhabited 1.8 km2 0.7 sq mi Pacific
Jarvis Island Uninhabited 4.5 km2 1.7 sq mi Pacific
Johnston Atoll Uninhabited 2.67 km2 1.03 sq mi Pacific
Kingman Reef Uninhabited 76 km2 29 sq mi Pacific
Midway Atoll (administered as a National Wildlife Refuge) Uninhabited 6.2 km2 2.4 sq mi Pacific
Navassa Island (disputed with Haiti) Uninhabited 5.2 km2 2.0 sq mi Caribbean
Wake Atoll c. 150 non-permanent 7.38 km2 2.85 sq mi Pacific
Total c. 3,900,000 12,272.24 km2 4,738.34 sq mi



August 28, 1867
Captain William Reynolds of the USS Lackawanna formally took possession of the Midway Atoll for the United States.[16]
August 13, 1898
United States Navy under Admiral George Dewey, United States Army's Eighth Army Corps under Major General Wesley Merritt, and Lieutenant General Arthur MacArthur Jr. captured the City of Manila from Spain after Governor-General of the Philippines Fermin Jáudenes surrendered the city, which then remained Spanish-occupied even after the declaration of Philippine Independence from Spain and the establishment of the First Philippine Republic on June 12, 1898.
February 4, 1899
Philippine-American War began between the First Philippine Republic and the newly arrived US Military Government.
April 11, 1899
The Treaty of Paris of 1898 came into effect, transferring Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico from Spain to the United States, all three becoming unorganized, unincorporated territories. Puerto Rico's official name was changed to Porto Rico, a phonetic reinterpretation of the Spanish name for the territory.
April 12, 1900
The Foraker Act organized Puerto Rico.[17]
June 7, 1900
The United States took control of the portion of the Samoan Islands given to it by the Treaty of Berlin of 1899, creating the unorganized, unincorporated territory of American Samoa.
April 1, 1901
General Emilio Aguinaldo, President of the First Philippine Republic and Filipino leader in the Philippine–American War, surrendered to the United States, allowing the U.S. to form a civilian government for the Philippines.
February 23, 1903
Under the terms of a 1903 lease agreement, the United States came to exercise complete control over Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, while Cuba retained ultimate sovereignty over the territory.
August 29, 1916
The Philippine Autonomy Act or Jones Law was signed, promising the Philippines independence.
March 2, 1917
Jones–Shafroth Act reorganized Puerto Rico. This act conferred United States citizenship on all citizens of Puerto Rico.
March 31, 1917
The United States purchased the Danish West Indies and renamed it as U.S. Virgin Islands under the terms of a treaty with Denmark.[18]
May 17, 1932
The name of Porto Rico was changed to Puerto Rico.[19]
March 24, 1934
The Tydings–McDuffie Act was signed allowing the creation of the Commonwealth of the Philippines.
November 15, 1935
The Commonwealth of the Philippines officially inaugurated Manuel L. Quezon as the President of the Philippine Commonwealth, held at the steps of the Old Legislative Building. The event was attended by 300,000 Filipinos.
December 8, 1941
Commonwealth of the Philippines was invaded and occupied by Japan during World War Two, initiating "the most destructive event ever to take place on U.S. soil".[20] Over 1,100,000 Filipino American civilians died during the war.[20]
February 3 - March 3 1945
The month long Liberation of Manila led by General Douglas MacArthur took place, and consequently resulted in Manila Massacre committed by the Japanese forces throughout the Battle of Manila. An estimated 100,000 Manila civilians were killed during the massacre.
August 1945
The United States regains full control of its colony of the Philippines following the Philippines campaign.[20]
July 4, 1946
The United States formally recognized the Philippine independence, establishing the Third Philippine Republic and inaugurating Manuel Roxas as the President of the independent Philippines. The independence ceremonies and inauguration rites were held at the Quirino Grandstand.
July 14, 1947
The United Nations granted the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands to the United States, consisting primarily of many islands fought over during World War II, and including what is now the Marshall Islands, the Carolina Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Northern Mariana Islands, and Palau. It was a trusteeship, and not a territory of the United States.
August 5, 1947
The Privileges and Immunities Clause regarding the rights, privileges, and immunities of citizens of the United States was expressly extended to Puerto Rico by the U.S. Congress through federal law codified in Title 48 the United States Code as 48 U.S.C. § 737 and signed by President Harry S. Truman. This law indicates that the rights, privileges, and immunities of citizens of the United States shall be respected in Puerto Rico to the same extent as though Puerto Rico were a State of the Union and subject to the provisions of paragraph 1 of section 2 of article IV of the Constitution of the United States.
July 1, 1950
The Guam Organic Act came into effect, organizing Guam as an unincorporated territory.[21]
July 25, 1952
Puerto Rico became a Commonwealth of the United States, an unincorporated organized territory, with the ratification of its constitution.[19]
July 22, 1954
The Organic Act for the United States Virgin Islands went into effect, making them an unincorporated, organized territory.[21]
July 1, 1967
American Samoa's constitution became effective. Even though no Organic Act was passed, this move to self-government made American Samoa similar to an organized territory.[21]
September 12, 1967
Article Three of the United States Constitution, was expressly extended to the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico by the U.S. Congress through the federal law 89-571, 80 Stat. 764, this law was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
January 1, 1978
The Northern Mariana Islands left the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands to become a commonwealth of the United States, making it unincorporated and organized.[21][22]
October 21, 1986
The Marshall Islands attained independence from the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, though the trusteeship granted by the United Nations technically did not end until December 22, 1990. The Marshall Islands remained in free association with the United States.
November 3, 1986
The Federated States of Micronesia attained independence from the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, and remained in free association with the United States.
December 22, 1990
The United Nations terminated the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands for all but the Palau district.
May 25, 1994
The United Nations terminated the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands for the Palau district, ending the territory and making Palau de facto independent, as it was not a territory of the United States.
October 1, 1994
Palau attained de jure independence, but it remained in free association with the United States.[23]
December 11, 2012
The Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico enacted a concurrent resolution to request the President and the Congress of the United States to respond diligently and effectively, and to act on the demand of the people of Puerto Rico, as freely and democratically expressed in the plebiscite held on November 6, 2012, to end, once and for all, its current form of territorial status and to begin the process to admit Puerto Rico to the Union as a State.[24]

See also


^1 Scholars agreed as of 2009 in the Boston College Law Review, "Regardless of how Puerto Rico looked in 1901 when the Insular Cases were decided, or in 1922, today, Puerto Rico seems to be the paradigm of an incorporated territory as modern jurisprudence understands that legal term of art".[25] In November 2008 a district court judge ruled that a sequence of prior Congressional actions had the cumulative effect of changing Puerto Rico's status to incorporated.[26]


  1. ^ U.S. Insular Areas Application of the U.S. Constitution, GAO Nov 1997 Report, p. 24. Viewed June 14, 2013.
  2. ^ "Non-Self-Governing Territories". The United Nations. Retrieved October 16, 2020.
  3. ^ David Vine (September 28, 2017). "Most countries have given up their colonies. Why hasn't America?". The Washington Post. Retrieved October 16, 2020.
  4. ^ "U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: Puerto Rico". Census.Gov.
  5. ^ a b American Samoa remains technically unorganized, since the U.S. Congress has not passed an Organic Act for the territory, but is self-governing under a constitution that became effective on July 1, 1967.
  6. ^ "Puerto Rico - territories of the United States". Puerto Rico Government. Government of the United States of America. Retrieved December 8, 2016.
  7. ^ Definitions of insular area political organizations Archived September 25, 2012, at the Wayback Machine, "Unincorporated territory". Retrieved June 14, 2013.
  8. ^ Government Accountability Office (GAO) November 1997 Report, U.S. Insular Areas Application of the U.S. Constitution, p. 35. Retrieved June 14, 2013.
  9. ^ See 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(36) and 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(38) Providing the term "State" and "United States" definitions on the U.S. Federal Code, Immigration and Nationality Act. 8 U.S.C. § 1101a
  10. ^ Vignarajah, Krishanti. Political roots of judicial legitimacy: explaining the enduring validity of the ‘Insular Cases’. Archived May 14, 2013, at the Wayback Machine, University of Chicago Law Review, 2010, p. 790. Viewed June 13, 2013.
  11. ^ Consejo de Salud Playa de Ponce v. Johnny Rullan, Secretary of Health of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico pp. 6–7. Viewed June 19, 2013.
  12. ^ The Insular Cases: The Establishment of a Regime of Political Apartheid (2007) Juan R. Torruella (PDF), retrieved February 5, 2010
  13. ^ Balzac v. People of Porto Rico, 258 U.S. 298 (1922)
  14. ^ a b Rassmussen v. U S, 197 U.S. 516 (1905)
  15. ^ "U.S. Census Bureau Releases 2010 Census Population Counts for Guam". 2010 Census. US Census. August 24, 2011. Archived from the original on September 24, 2011. Retrieved September 12, 2010.
  16. ^ Midway Islands History. Janeresture.com. Retrieved on July 19, 2013.
  17. ^ The World Almanac & Book of Facts 1901, p93
  18. ^ "Transfer Day". Archived from the original on June 28, 2007. Retrieved August 10, 2006.
  19. ^ a b "Municipalities of Puerto Rico". Statoids. Retrieved August 10, 2006.
  20. ^ a b c Immerwahr, Daniel (2019). How to hide an empire : a history of the greater United States (First ed.). New York. ISBN 978-0-3741-7214-5.
  21. ^ a b c d "Relationship with the Insular Areas". U.S. Department of the Interior. Archived from the original on May 26, 2006. Retrieved August 10, 2006.
  22. ^ "Municipalities of Northern Mariana Islands". Statoids. Retrieved August 10, 2006.
  23. ^ "Background Note: Palau". Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Retrieved August 10, 2006.
  24. ^ The Senate and the House of Representative of Puerto Rico Concurrent Resolution
  25. ^ Lawson, Gary, and Sloane, Robert. Puerto Rico's legal status reconsidered Archived July 14, 2014, at the Wayback Machine, p. 53. Viewed June 21, 2013.
  26. ^ Consejo de Salud Playa Ponce v. Johnny Rullan, p. 28: "The Congressional incorporation of Puerto Rico throughout the past century has extended the entire Constitution to the island ...."