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What is a US Territory?


According to the US Department of the Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs, an insular area is a “jurisdiction that is neither a part of one of the several States nor a Federal district. This is the current generic term to refer to any commonwealth, freely associated state, possession or territory or Territory.” 

This generic term encompasses:

  1. Any commonwealth 
  2. Any freely associated state
  3. Any possession
  4. Any territory
  5. Any Territory 

Well, that didn’t exactly clear things up much. 

To dig deeper, a commonwealth is an insular area “which has established with the Federal Government, a more highly developed relationship, usually embodied in a written mutual agreement. Currently, two United States insular areas are commonwealths:  the Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico. A United States insular area from April 11, 1899, the Philippine Islands achieved commonwealth status on March 24, 1934 (Public Law 73-127), and remained as such until the United States recognized the Philippine Islands' independence and sovereignty as of July 4, 1946.”

A freely associated state is an insular area with a status which “recognizes an island government as a sovereign, self-governing state with the capacity to conduct foreign affairs consistent with the terms of the Compact. The Compact places full responsibility for military defense with the United States. The basic relationship of free association continues indefinitely; the economic provisions of the Compact are subject to renegotiation at the end of 15 years.” Examples of freely associated states are the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

A possession is a term for an insular area which has gone out of style. The Office of Insular Affairs website describes it as equivalent to a territory.

A territory (notice the little t) is an insular area which is unincorporated area. “There are currently thirteen, three in the Caribbean (Navassa Island, Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands) and ten in the Pacific (American Samoa, Baker Island, Guam, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Midway Atoll, the Northern Mariana Islands and Wake Atoll).”

A Territory (big T) is an insular area which is incorporated. At this time “only one exists currently, Palmyra Atoll. With an area of 1.56 square miles, Palmyra consists of about fifty small islands and lies approximately one thousand miles south of Honolulu.”

While those definitions are helpful, it can also be helpful to read the text of the laws, executive orders, and compacts which discuss the terms of these relationships. Fortunately, the text of these can be found online. For more information about the individual insular areas, see this page.

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