What Are The US Territories?

By Victoria Simpson on August 14 2020 in Society

The shoreline of Guam, an American territory in the western Pacific Ocean.
The shoreline of Guam, an American territory in the western Pacific Ocean.
  • The US territories were acquired for their natural resources like sugar, and for their strategic military locations in the ocean.
  • People living in the US territories are US citizens by birth, except in American Samoa, but they are not allowed to vote for the US president unless they move to the mainland.
  • Some territories have no permanent inhabitants and are wildlife refuges.

When most people think of the United States, the 50 states come to mind. The legacy of the stars and stripes might bubble to the surface, along with a lengthy history of battles fought and freedoms won, the controversies and tensions arising from slavery that exist to this day, and the magic of Disney’s original home. The wonderful world of Hollywood can also be hard to forget. What might not come to mind at all are places like Puerto Rico, American Samoa and Howland Island. These locations and many others are part of the country, however. They form the US territories, and each has its own distinct culture and history. The US territories are located in the Caribbean and the South Pacific Ocean, and they form a specific function for the country as a whole.  

How did the US territories come to be, and are they being given the attention they deserve? These answers depend on your perspective. 

Origins of the Territories

The US territories are generally located in places that have been helpful to the US as military outposts or that have been home to useful natural resources. Howland Island, for example, like many other US territories, is a tiny place of less than one square mile located about 2000 miles southwest of Hawaii. No one lives on this isolated island ringed by beaches. It has been useful, however, as a strategic stopping point. Howland Island once helped the US gain air supremacy as a refuelling station for flights travelling from Australia to California. This happened from 1935 to 1942. Just a few men were deployed to occupy the island for about three months at a time during this period. 

Howland Island is also known for being a destination on Amelia Earhart’s infamous final flight trip. She never arrived, and the rest is history. What happens there today? This space is now an unorganized and unincorporated US territory existing as a designated national wildlife refuge, as is the case with other US territories like Baker Island, and Jarvis Island. 

Places like Puerto Rico, Guam, and the US Virgin Islands, however, are very much the opposite. These locations are much larger and are home to thousands of people, and were acquired for different reasons. Puerto Rico and Guam became US territories when the country was at war with Spain in the late 1800s. These areas along with the Philippines were taken over by the US in an effort to win the Spanish-American War. The Philippines was granted its independence in 1946, but Puerto Rico has remained a prominent part of the US and was originally important to the country as a place to grow and produce sugar.  

Incorporated/Unincorporated, Organized/Unorganized

A territory can be incorporated, meaning the US Constitution is fully applied there, or it may be unincorporated, with the Constitution partially applying. The only incorporated territory is Palmyra Atoll, which houses only scientists and researchers as this island is owned by the Nature Conservancy and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. 

If a territory is organized, the US Congress has granted it the ability to manage its own affairs with its own government. Most territories with a permanent population are organized, with the exception being American Samoa. 

San Juan, Puerto Rico. Image credit: Martin Wheeler III/Shutterstock


The US territories are useful to the national government, but many might argue the policies of the US national government are not always useful to the territories. The people of Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa can all join the US army and die for the country. There is a catch, however. They cannot vote for the US president unless they move to the mainland US. As such, these Americans are denied full participation in the country’s democratic system.

The result is that people living in the US territories are not always given the national aid and federal attention they could use. Puerto Rico, for example, was hit very hard by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. To this day, many people there have not recovered their homes and are still suffering from the aftermath. The natural disaster caused Puerto Rico to go bankrupt and left the country facing what amounted to a humanitarian crisis. Funding for schools in Puerto Rico is also severely lacking, and about one third have had to close. The US federal government did provide monetary aid at the time but many argue that more could have been done to help the people of Puerto Rico. 

Tumon Bay, Guam. Image credit: Michael Fitzsimmons/Shutterstock

Similar problems have been faced by US citizens living in the Northern Mariana Islands. This territory was hit by a category 5 typhoon in the fall of 2018. Some residents did not regain their electricity and water until three months after the storm had passed and school was held for a length of time in tents located in dirt-filled fields. 

Living in a US territory can mean you are in a beautiful location but it can also present problems. As poverty persists in many US territories, more Americans are moving to the mainland for a better future. 

What Are The US Territories?

1Puerto RicoCaribbean Sea2,860,853unincorporated, organized
2GuamPacific Ocean168,775unincorporated, organized
3US Virgin IslandsCaribbean Sea104,425unincorporated, organized
4Northern Mariana IslandsPacific Ocean57,559unincorporated, organized
5American SamoaPacific Ocean55,191unincorporated, unorganized
6Midway AtollPacific Ocean40unincorporated, unorganized
7Palmyra AtollPacific Ocean20incorporated, unorganized
8Baker IslandPacific Ocean0unincorporated, unorganized
9Howland IslandPacific Ocean0unincorporated, unorganized
10Jarvis IslandPacific Ocean0unincorporated, unorganized
11Johnston AtollPacific Ocean0unincorporated, unorganized
12Kingman ReefPacific Ocean0unincorporated, unorganized
13Wake IslandPacific Ocean0unincorporated, unorganized
14Navassa IslandCaribbean Sea0unincorporated, unorganized

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