In the law of the United States, an insular area is a U.S.-associated jurisdiction that is not part of the 50 states or the District of Columbia. This includes fourteen U.S. territories administered under U.S. sovereignty, as well as three sovereign states each with a Compact of Free Association with the United States. The term also may be used to refer to the previous status of the Philippine Islands and the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands when it existed.
Three of the U.S. territories are in the Caribbean Sea, eleven are in the Pacific Ocean, and all three freely associated states are also in the Pacific. Two additional Caribbean territories are disputed and administered by Colombia.
Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution grants to the United States Congress the responsibility of overseeing the territories.[a] A series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions known as the Insular Cases created a distinction between "incorporated territories", where the full Constitution of the United States applies, and "unincorporated territories", where only basic protections apply. The only current incorporated territory, Palmyra Atoll, is uninhabited.
A U.S. territory is considered "organized" when the U.S. Congress passes an organic act for it. Three of the U.S. territories with a permanent non-military population have constitutions, and all five have locally elected territorial legislatures and executives, and some degree of political autonomy. Four of the five are "organized", but American Samoa is technically "unorganized" and subject to the direct jurisdiction of the Office of Insular Affairs.
The first insular areas that the United States occupied were Baker Island, Howland Island and Navassa Island (1857) then Johnston Atoll and Jarvis Island (both in 1858) would be claimed. After the War between the United States and Spain in 1898, several territories were taken that are still under U.S. sovereignty (Puerto Rico and Guam, both in 1898). Palmyra Atoll was annexed along with the Republic of Hawaii (formerly a Kingdom) that same year. American Samoa was reclaimed the following year (1899). In 1917, at the height of World War I, Denmark sold the Danish Virgin Islands to the United States.
The former British-American condominium of Canton and Enderbury, consisting of the atolls of Canton and Enderbury in the northeast of the Phoenix Islands, became part of this new island state on July 12, 1979, the day of independence from the State of Kiribati.
The U.S. Navy annexed Kingman Reef in 1922. Spain had sold the Northern Mariana Islands to Germany in 1899. The islands passed to Japan, which in turn lost them to the United States in 1945 after the end of World War II. The Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, located on the southern side of Guantanamo Bay and taken from Spain in 1898, is not a U.S. outlying territory but a U.S. military base on formally "leased" land on the island of Cuba.
The Marshall Islands became self-governing in 1979 and fully independent along with the Federated States of Micronesia in 1986. Palau achieved independence in 1994. The three countries maintain sovereignty with free association status with the United States, which provides them with defense assistance and economic resources.
- August 28, 1867
- Captain William Reynolds of the USS Lackawanna formally took possession of the Midway Atoll for the United States.
- 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.
- 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.
- May 17, 1932
- The name of Porto Rico was changed to Puerto Rico.
- 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". Over 1,100,000 Filipino American civilians died during the war.
- 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.
- 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.
- July 25, 1952
- Puerto Rico became a Commonwealth of the United States, an unincorporated organized territory, with the ratification of its constitution.
- July 22, 1954
- The organic act for the United States Virgin Islands went into effect, making them an unincorporated, organized territory.
- 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.
- 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.
- January 9, 1978
- The Northern Mariana Islands Commonwealth Constitution, which had been ratified by voters on March 6, 1977, goes into effect.
- 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.
- 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.
- December 22, 2022
- The U.S. House of Representatives voted in favor of the Puerto Rico Status Act. The act sought to resolve Puerto Rico's status and its relationship to the United States through a binding plebiscite to be held in November 2023; however, the Senate never acted on the bill.
- April 20, 2023
- Puerto Rico Status Act re-introduced in U.S. House with the plebiscite to be held in November 2025.
Congress has extended citizenship rights by birth to all inhabited territories except American Samoa, and these citizens may vote and run for office in any U.S. jurisdiction in which they are residents. The people of American Samoa are U.S. nationals by place of birth, or they are U.S. citizens by parentage, or naturalization after residing in a State for three months. Nationals are free to move around and seek employment within the United States without immigration restrictions, but cannot vote or hold office outside American Samoa.
Residents of the five major populated insular areas do not pay U.S. federal income taxes but are required to pay other U.S. federal taxes such as import and export taxes, federal commodity taxes, Social Security taxes, etc. Individuals working for the federal government pay federal income taxes while all residents are required to pay federal payroll taxes (Social Security and Medicare). According to IRS Publication 570, income from other U.S. Pacific Ocean insular areas (Howland, Baker, Jarvis, Johnston, Midway, Palmyra, and Wake Islands, and Kingman Reef) is fully taxable as income of United States residents.
The U.S. State Department and the U.S. Code also use the term "insular area" to refer not only to territories under the sovereignty of the United States, but also those independent nations that have signed a Compact of Free Association with the United States. While these nations participate in many otherwise domestic programs, and full responsibility for their military defense rests with the United States, they are legally distinct from the United States and their inhabitants are neither U.S. citizens nor nationals.
Current insular areas by status
The following islands, or island groups, are considered insular areas:
Incorporated organized territories
Incorporated unorganized territory
- Palmyra Atoll – U.S. Territory of Palmyra Island (mostly owned by the Federal Government and The Nature Conservancy; administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Unincorporated organized territories
- Guam (organized under the Guam Organic Act of 1950)
- Northern Mariana Islands (Commonwealth, organized under the 1975 Covenant)
- Puerto Rico (Commonwealth, organized under the Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act of 1950)
- U.S. Virgin Islands (organized under the 1954 Revised Organic Act of the Virgin Islands)
Unincorporated unorganized territories
- American Samoa (self-governing even though officially unorganized and under the authority of the U.S. Department of the Interior)
- Baker Island (administered as a National Wildlife Refuge)
- Howland Island (administered as a National Wildlife Refuge)
- Jarvis Island (administered as a National Wildlife Refuge)
- Johnston Atoll (administered as a National Wildlife Refuge)
- Kingman Reef (administered as a National Wildlife Refuge)
- Midway Atoll (administered as a National Wildlife Refuge)
Two (uninhabited, disputed)
- Navassa Island (administered as a National Wildlife Refuge; claimed by Haiti)
- Wake Island (administered by the U.S. Air Force; claimed by the Marshall Islands)
Two (uninhabited, claimed)
- Bajo Nuevo Bank (disputed with Colombia and Jamaica; administered by Colombia)
- Serranilla Bank (disputed with Colombia and Jamaica; administered by Colombia)
Freely associated states
Three sovereign UN member states which were all formerly in the U.S. administered United Nations Trust Territory and are currently in free association with the United States. The U.S. provides national defense, funding, and access to social services.
After achieving independence from the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, these states are no longer under U.S. sovereignty and thus not considered part of the United States. Some programs in these states are administered by the U.S. Office of Insular Affairs, along with other federal entities such as the Department of Defense.
- Commonwealth of the Philippines (after establishment of 1935 Constitution of the Philippines; U.S. sovereignty relinquished and the Philippine independence recognized July 4, 1946, by the Treaty of Manila)
- Insular Philippines (acquired through 1898 Treaty of Paris; succeeded by the Commonwealth of the Philippines)
- Panama Canal Zone (acquired through 1903 Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty; abolished October 1, 1979, by 1977 Torrijos–Carter Treaties[b])
- Republic of Hawaii (acquired by the U.S. in 1898; territory incorporated by the Hawaiian Organic Act of 1900; territory disestablished by the Hawaii Admission Act, creating the State of Hawaii in 1959)
- Dependent territory
- Guano Islands Act
- Guantanamo Bay Naval Base
- Insular Cases
- List of states and territories of the United States
- Territorial evolution of the United States
- Territories of the United States on stamps
- "Definitions of Insular Area Political Organizations". Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior. 12 June 2015. Archived from the original on 13 July 2018. Retrieved March 3, 2018.
- 42 U.S.C. §§ 5204–1
- Tagliaferro, Linda (2004-01-01). Puerto Rico in Pictures. Twenty-First Century Books. ISBN 978-0-8225-0936-3. Archived from the original on 2023-06-30. Retrieved 2020-10-02.
- Statistical Abstract of the United States 2001: The National Data Book. U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistical Administration, Bureau of the Census. 2001. ISBN 978-0-934213-84-4. Archived from the original on 2023-06-30. Retrieved 2020-10-02.
- Goldberg, Walter M. (2017-12-08). The Geography, Nature and History of the Tropical Pacific and its Islands. Springer. ISBN 978-3-319-69532-7. Archived from the original on 2023-06-30. Retrieved 2020-10-02.
- Hansen, Jonathan M. (2011-10-11). Guantánamo: An American History. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 978-0-8090-4897-7. Archived from the original on 2023-06-30. Retrieved 2020-10-02.
- Clinton, William J (1994-01-01). Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton, 1994. Best Books on. ISBN 978-1-62376-794-5. Archived from the original on 2023-06-30. Retrieved 2020-10-02.
- Midway Islands History. Janeresture.com. (archived from the original on January 1, 2006)
- The World Almanac & Book of Facts 1901, p93
- "Transfer Day". Archived from the original on June 28, 2007. Retrieved August 10, 2006.
- "Municipalities of Puerto Rico". Statoids. Archived from the original on May 26, 2006. Retrieved August 10, 2006.
- Immerwahr, Daniel (2019). How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (First ed.). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 978-0-3741-7214-5.
- "Relationship with the Insular Areas". U.S. Department of the Interior. Archived from the original on May 26, 2006. Retrieved August 10, 2006.
- "Municipalities of Northern Mariana Islands". Statoids. Archived from the original on August 21, 2006. Retrieved August 10, 2006.
- "CNMI Constitution". cnmilaw.org. Archived from the original on 2023-06-01. Retrieved 2023-05-24.
- "Background Note: Palau". Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Archived from the original on January 21, 2017. Retrieved August 10, 2006.
- "The Senate and the House of Representative of Puerto Rico Concurrent Resolution" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2013-03-20. Retrieved 2021-09-01.
- Acevedo, Nicole (December 15, 2022). "House votes in favor of resolving Puerto Rico's territorial status". NBC News. Archived from the original on February 16, 2023. Retrieved February 15, 2023.
- Acevedo, Nicole (April 20, 2023). "Bill to resolve Puerto Rico's territorial status reintroduced in the House". NBC News. Archived from the original on 8 June 2023. Retrieved 9 June 2023.
- PBS Newshour, "American Samoans don't have right to U.S. citizenship" Archived 2017-09-15 at the Wayback Machine, Associated Press, June 5, 2015, viewed August 13, 2015.
- US Department of Interior. "Insular Area Summary for American Samoa" Archived 2015-08-20 at the Wayback Machine. viewed August 13, 2015.
- "Puerto Ricans pay import/export taxes". Stanford.wellsphere.com. Archived from the original on April 1, 2010. Retrieved August 14, 2010.
- U.S. State Dept. "Foreign Relations of the United States". Archived from the original on June 17, 2016. Retrieved May 18, 2016.
The people of Puerto Rico will continue to be exempt from Federal income taxes on the income they derive from sources within Puerto Rico, and into their treasury, for appropriation and expenditure as their legislature may decide, will be deposited the proceeds of United States internal revenue taxes collected on articles produced in Puerto Rico and the proceeds of United States tariffs and customs collected on foreign merchandise entering Puerto Rico.
- "Puerto Ricans pay federal commodity taxes". Stanford.wellsphere.com. Archived from the original on 2010-04-01. Retrieved 2011-10-30.
- "Topic Number 903 - U.S. Employment Tax in Puerto Rico". Irs.gov. December 18, 2009. Archived from the original on July 3, 2017. Retrieved January 11, 2019.
- Publication 570 (PDF). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Internal Revenue Service. 2017. Archived (PDF) from the original on April 7, 2018. Retrieved April 12, 2018.
- ""Foreign in a Domestic Sense": U.S. Territories and "Insular Areas"". 12 April 2021. Archived from the original on 2021-08-19. Retrieved 2021-08-30.
- Department of Interior Office of Insular Affairs
- Department of the Interior Definitions of Insular Area Political Organizations
- Rubin, Richard, "The Lost Islands", The Atlantic Monthly, February 2001
- Chapter 7: Puerto Rico and the Outlying Areas, U.S. Census Bureau, Geographic Areas Reference Manual