US Territories map from The Pacific Islands Matter for America [Courtesy: East-West Center]

What are US Territories?

The Pacific

The US territories are part of the sovereign territory of the United States. Unlike the 50 states, they have no voting representation in the federal government, or Electoral College. With the exception of American Samoa, people born in US territories are natural born US citizens. Unlike countries with free-association agreements with the United States, territories do not have independent foreign policies.

Originally administered by the US Department of Defense and Department of the Interior, the US territories of American Samoa (1951), Guam (1978), and the Northern Mariana Islands (1986) have constitutions, elections, and some political autonomy.

The first US territories in the Pacific were claimed under the Guano Islands Act of 1856. While most claims under the act have since been withdrawn, some—such as Baker and Jarvis Islands—remain US possessions. Further expansion came with the annexation of Hawaiʻi (which later became a US state in 1959) and the territorial acquisitions of the Spanish-American War, including the Philippines (which became independent in 1946) and Guam. In 1900, the United States annexed American Samoa as part of an agreement with Germany to partition the Samoan Islands. The Mariana Islands were part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTP), administered by the United States since the end of World War II. The Northern Mariana Islands elected to become a commonwealth of the United States in a public referendum in 1975, and became a formal US possession on November 4th, 1986.

Incorporated and unincorporated, organized and unorganized

US territories are divided into incorporated and unincorporated territories, and organized and unorganized territories. Incorporated territories are territories where the US constitution is enforced, unlike unincorporated territories where specific portions of the constitution may be suspended (such as automatic American citizenship). Organized territories have local self-government whereas unorganized territories do not.

Only three of the Pacific territories have large permanent populations, these are Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands. The populated territories are not the only US possessions in the Pacific. Nine unorganized territories have no permanent inhabitants: Midway Atoll, Palmyra Atoll, Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, and Wake Island. Palmyra Atoll is unique among US territories—an incorporated, unorganized territory, meaning the US constitution is fully enforced on the island but there is no local government.

Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands are unincorporated, organized territories, indicating that they have local government, and that the US constitution does not fully apply. By law, those born in these territories are US citizens. American Samoa, uniquely among the populated territories, is an unorganized, unincorporated territory. While American Samoa does have an elected local government, American Samoans are US nationals and not citizens. They can freely travel to the United States, but may not vote in an election outside of American Samoa. All three territories have non-voting representatives in the US House of Representatives.

Northern Mariana Islands: The Northern Mariana Islands were originally a Spanish territory, but were sold to Germany after the Spanish-American War. Following World War I, the islands were given as a League of Nations Mandate to Japan, which held them until the islands were occupied by US forces in 1944. After World War II, the United Nations gave the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands to the United States in 1947. While other parts of the Trust territory would become independent states in free-association with the United States (Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, and the Marshall Islands), the Northern Mariana Islands would forgo independence in favor of commonwealth status as a US territory.

Guam: Guam was annexed by the United States after the Spanish-American War, and until 1950, was governed by appointed US naval officers. The passage of the Guam Organic Act resulted in administration of the territory shifting from the US Navy to the Department of the Interior. In 1978, Guam became self-governing, resulting in a non-voting delegate being sent to represent Guam in the US House of Representatives. In 1997, the Commission on Decolonization was established, and the actions of the body have since drawn the attention of bodies such as the United Nations to declare support for greater self-determination, as well as for Guam to join the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization on July 31, 2020.

American Samoa: American Samoa is unique among the territories in that while heavily populated, it is an unincorporated, unorganized territory. The US constitution is not fully enforced nor was it granted a constitution by Congress like the organized territories. Instead, the Secretary of the Interior, who has formal jurisdiction over the island, permitted American Samoa to develop its own constitution in 1951, developing a bicameral legislature with a popularly elected lower house and an upper house selected by tribal chieftains. In 1981, American Samoans elected their first non-voting delegate to the US House of Representatives. American Samoans are not US citizens, but may freely travel within the United States.

Whit Lloyd is a Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center in Washington. Ryan Roden is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington.