The US is composed of 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, but the US territories are often forgotten about. The US territories are a group of islands and unincorporated areas in the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean controlled by the US federal government. These include Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and Minor Outlying Islands.
While they have varying levels of autonomy, all of the territories are ultimately subject to US law. Each has its own unique history, which makes them a fascinating part of America's culture. Here is a look at the major and some of the lesser-known US territories.
Part of Polynesia, American Samoa is an unincorporated territory located in the South Pacific Ocean. Administered by the US Department of Interior, it consists of five volcanic islands and two coral atolls. The bulk of the 55,000 inhabitants in American Samoa have native Samoan ancestry. American Samoa also has a vibrant culture that encompasses music, art, dance, language, and cuisine.
Northern Mariana Islands
The Northern Mariana Islands sometimes referred to as the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), has a population of over 57,000 people. It is an archipelago of 14 islands in the Pacific Ocean, located between Japan and the Philippines. This unincorporated US territory is home to a diverse population of indigenous Chamorro, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Bangladeshi, and Filipino people who practice a variety of cultural traditions.
Guam is an unincorporated US territory located in the western Pacific Ocean, acquired by the US after its victory in the Spanish-American War. It is home to over 170,000 people and is well-known as a popular military base location. Guam is a major tourist hub and has a unique culture that mixes traditional Chamorro customs with those brought over by settlers from Spain, Latin America, and other parts of the world.
US Virgin Islands
The US Virgin Islands is an unincorporated and organized US territory located in the Caribbean Sea, made up of three main islands and several smaller ones. The largest island, Saint Croix, has a number of popular attractions including Turtle Beach—known for its crystal-clear waters and white sand beaches. It is also home to a vibrant music scene with many local artists performing traditional calypso tunes throughout the year.
Puerto Rico, or the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, is technically an unincorporated US territory, although it has its own constitution and government. It consists of the main island and several other smaller islands, such as Culebra, Mona, and Vieques, in the Caribbean Sea.
Known for its tropical climate and stunning beaches Puerto Rico is the most populous US territory, home to 3.2 million citizens. While residents cannot vote for the president or vice president due to its status as an unincorporated US territory, they are still able to move freely between the island and the mainland. Puerto Rico’s culture combines indigenous Taíno traditions with elements brought over from Spain and other parts of the world.
Baker Island is an uninhabited island located in the central Pacific Ocean, administered by the US as part of its insular areas. Baker Island is a low-lying atoll which means that everywhere you look there are miles of sandy beaches and coral reefs. Plus, with its highest point being 26 feet above sea level, the isle offers stunning views from anywhere on the island.
Baker Island's neighbor, Howland Island, is also an unincorporated, unorganized territory of the US located in the central Pacific Ocean. It has no permanent population and no economic activity but is best known for its proximity to Amelia Earhart's 1937 ill-fated attempt to circumnavigate the globe by airplane. Howland Island is a US National Wildlife Refuge and part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.
Palmyra Atoll is an unincorporated US territory located in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. This remote island is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including hundreds of different species of fish and coral. It also has a unique landscape consisting of lagoons, sand bars, coral reefs, and various islets and is primarily used by scientists.
Jarvis Island is a small, uninhabited island located in the South Pacific Ocean. It is one of the islands belonging to the United States Minor Outlying Islands, administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. There are no permanent inhabitants or visitors on Jarvis Island but it does host visiting scientific research teams who use the island for studies on birds, crustaceans, turtles, sharks, and coral reef formation.
Johnston Atoll is an atoll in the North Pacific Ocean located southwest of Honolulu. It is one of the most isolated places in the world and consists of four small islands: Johnston Island, Sand Island, Akau Island, and Hikina Island.
The atoll was once an important refueling station for flights from Hawaii to other parts of the Pacific Ocean and served as an important military base during and after World War II. Today, it is an unincorporated territory of the US administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.
Kingman Reef is an uninhabited coral reef located in Oceania, near Jarvis. Annexed by the US as part of its Hawaiian Islands in 1922, it is currently administered as part of the US Minor Outlying Islands. Composed primarily of submerged reefs and sandbanks, Kingman Reef covers a total area of over seven acres.
Midway Atoll, located in the Pacific Ocean at the northwestern end of the Hawaiian Archipelago, is a US unorganized territory consisting of only 40 inhabitants. Comprised of two coral islands, Sand and Eastern Island form part of the larger Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.
The refuge encompasses an area of over 590,990 acres, making it one of the largest natural wildlife refuges in the world with millions of seabirds nesting on its shores and waters. In addition to being an important habitat for birds, this region also hosts several species of endangered monk seals, ducks, and many other aquatic animals.
Navassa Island is a small, uninhabited island located in the Caribbean Sea between Haiti and Jamaica. Originally controlled by Spain until 1801, Navassa was later claimed by the US in 1857. The island is now legally owned by the US, but managed as part of the Caribbean National Wildlife Refuge System and has no permanent human inhabitants.
On December 8, 1941 (December 7 in Hawaii), only hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan, forces from Imperial Japan also attacked Wake Island. During World War II, Japanese forces occupied the island until September 4, 1945, when American troops liberated it after intense fighting that left many casualties among American and Japanese combatants alike.
The US has many unincorporated territories in both the Pacific and Caribbean regions. From vibrant cultures to stunning natural landscapes, these territories are a fascinating part of America's story. The US truly has a diverse history.