Insular area

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.[1][2] 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.

Locations of the insular areas of the United States, color-coded to indicate status
  Incorporated, unorganized territory
  Unincorporated, organized territory
  Unincorporated, organized territory with Commonwealth status
  Unincorporated, unorganized territory

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.[lower-alpha 1] 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.[1] All of the five U.S. territories with a permanent non-military population have constitutions, 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.

American Samoa


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).[3] 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.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6]

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.[7] 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.[8]
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.[9]
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.[10]
May 17, 1932
The name of Porto Rico was changed to Puerto Rico.[11]
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".[12] Over 1,100,000 Filipino American civilians died during the war.[12]
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.[12]
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.[13]
July 25, 1952
Puerto Rico became a Commonwealth of the United States, an unincorporated organized territory, with the ratification of its constitution.[11]
July 22, 1954
The Organic Act for the United States Virgin Islands went into effect, making them an unincorporated, organized territory.[13]
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.[13]
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.[13][14]
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.[15]
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.[16]


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.[17] 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.[18]


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,[19][20] federal commodity taxes,[21] 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[22] 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.[23]

Associated states

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.[1]

Current insular areas by status

The following islands, or island groups, are considered insular areas:

Organized incorporated territories


Unorganized incorporated territories

One (uninhabited)

Organized unincorporated territories

Capitol of Puerto Rico, the largest insular area

Four (inhabited)

Unorganized unincorporated territories

Wake Island lagoon

One (inhabited)

Eight (uninhabited)

Two (uninhabited, claimed)

  • Bajo Nuevo Bank (disputed with Colombia and Jamaica; administered by Colombia)
  • Serranilla Bank (disputed with Colombia, Honduras, 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 U.S. 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.[24] 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.

Former territories

See also


  1. Although an archaism, some older federal statutes and regulations still in force refer to insular areas as insular possessions.
  2. The Panama Canal itself was under joint U.S.–Panamanian control from 1979 until it was fully turned over to Panama on December 31, 1999.


  1. "Definitions of Insular Area Political Organizations". Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior. 12 June 2015. Retrieved March 3, 2018.
  2. 42 U.S.C. §§ 52041
  3. Tagliaferro, Linda (2004-01-01). Puerto Rico in Pictures. Twenty-First Century Books. ISBN 978-0-8225-0936-3.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Hansen, Jonathan M. (2011-10-11). Guantánamo: An American History. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 978-0-8090-4897-7.
  7. J, Clinton, William (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.
  8. Midway Islands History. (archived from the original on January 1, 2006)
  9. The World Almanac & Book of Facts 1901, p93
  10. "Transfer Day". Archived from the original on June 28, 2007. Retrieved August 10, 2006.
  11. "Municipalities of Puerto Rico". Statoids. Retrieved August 10, 2006.
  12. 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.
  13. "Relationship with the Insular Areas". U.S. Department of the Interior. Archived from the original on May 26, 2006. Retrieved August 10, 2006.
  14. "Municipalities of Northern Mariana Islands". Statoids. Retrieved August 10, 2006.
  15. "Background Note: Palau". Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Retrieved August 10, 2006.
  16. The Senate and the House of Representative of Puerto Rico Concurrent Resolution
  17. PBS Newshour, "American Samoans don't have right to U.S. citizenship", Associated Press, June 5, 2015, viewed August 13, 2015.
  18. US Department of Interior. "Insular Area Summary for American Samoa" Archived 2015-08-20 at the Wayback Machine. viewed August 13, 2015.
  19. "Puerto Ricans pay import/export taxes". Archived from the original on April 1, 2010. Retrieved August 14, 2010.
  20. U.S. State Dept. "Foreign Relations of the United States". 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.
  21. "Puerto Ricans pay federal commodity taxes". Archived from the original on 2010-04-01. Retrieved 2011-10-30.
  22. "Topic Number 903 - U.S. Employment Tax in Puerto Rico". December 18, 2009. Retrieved January 11, 2019.
  23. Publication 570 (PDF). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Internal Revenue Service. 2017. Retrieved April 12, 2018.
  24. "Foreign in a Domestic Sense": U.S. Territories and "Insular Areas"
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