I quote from a somewhat dated source, the "DK Essential World Atlas" (1999), which states:

America's overseas territories have been seen as strategically useful, if expensive, links with its "backyards." The US has, in most cases, given the local population a say in deciding their own status. A US Commonwealth territory, such as Puerto Rico, has a greater level of independence than that of a US unincorporated or external territory.

I highlight the part that most caught my attention. Looking at the list of territories, what stands out is that neither population size nor location appears to be decisive in determining status. For instance, Guam (claimed 1898, population (in 1999) 144,000) is an unincorporated territory, whereas Northern Mariana Islands (claimed 1947, similar total area to Guam, pop 47,000) is a Commonwealth. Virgin Islands (claimed 1917), comparable area and twice the population (1999) of the Marianas is like Guam unincorporated. Puerto Rico, with its large population and proximity to mainland USA, seems an outlier. It is sensibly a Commonwealth and could presumably become a state someday if some get their way.

Can one generalize and say that there is a general coherent set of guidelines that determine what territories have been assigned particular status by the USA? Naturally historical events are at play, but is there more than "accident" involved?

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    I should note that the number of territories relevant to this discussion - namely those with larger populations (comparable to Marianas) - is small. It should be possible to discuss cases one by one. The small number of cases may limit the need for a general policy for handling overseas territories or provides a limited sample size in which to find patterns. Finally, perhaps I should edit the question to "why do the Marianas have special statues relative to most other American overseas territories?"
    – Buck Thorn
    Jul 10, 2021 at 19:11
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    I know absolutely nothing about this, but your own quote says "The US has, in most cases, given the local population a say in deciding their own status". So why would you expect some sort of consistent "rule" determining what status is assigned based on size or location, rather than the result of political processes in each territory?
    – Ben
    Dec 12, 2022 at 5:09
  • @Ben From the USA government's point of view it might be best not to show preferential treatment. Consideration of the local populations desires with regard to self-determination is certainly important, but if history is a guide such considerations have often taken second place to geopolitical questions. These territories ended up in US hands because of WWII or the Spanish-American War and remain strategically important.
    – Buck Thorn
    Dec 13, 2022 at 10:44

2 Answers 2


Q: How have America's overseas territories been assigned a particular political status?

A US Commonwealth territory, such as Puerto Rico, has a greater level of independence than that of a US unincorporated or external territory.

That excerpt seemingly implies that a Commonwealth territory is not an unincorporated territory. Perhaps, "than that of other US ... territories" would have been more clear.

Q: Can one generalize and say that there is a general coherent set of guidelines that determine what territories have been assigned particular status by the USA?

I think one can be more specific regarding the guidelines.

Definitions of Insular Area Political Organizations from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Organizational Term: Definition

insular area: 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 and from July 18, 1947, until October 1, 1994, the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. Unmodified, it may refer not only to a jurisdiction which is under United States sovereignty but also to one which is not, i.e., a freely associated state or, 1947-94, the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands or one of the districts of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.

sovereign: An independent or non-independent jurisdiction which itself possesses or whose people possess in their own right the jurisdiction's supreme authority, regardless of the jurisdiction's or people's current ability to exercise that authority.

possession: Equivalent to territory. Although it still appears in Federal statutes and regulations, possession is no longer current colloquial usage.

commonwealth: An organized United States 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.

incorporated territory: Equivalent to Territory, a United States insular area, of which only one territory exists currently, Palmyra Atoll, in which the United States Congress has applied the full corpus of the United States Constitution as it applies in the several States. Incorporation is interpreted as a perpetual state. Once incorporated, the Territory can no longer be de-incorporated.

Territory: An incorporated United States insular area, of which 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.

unincorporated territory: A United States insular area in which the United States Congress has determined that only selected parts of the United States Constitution apply.

territory: An unincorporated United States insular area, of which 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).

organic act: The body of laws that the United Congress has enacted for the government of a United States insular area; it usually includes a bill of rights and the establishment and conditions of the insular area's tripartite government.

organized territory: A United States insular area for which the United States Congress has enacted an organic act.

unorganized territory: An unincorporated United States insular area for which the United States Congress has not enacted an organic act.

Compact of Free Association: The status of free association 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.

Disputed Island: Formerly or currently considered U.S. possession by the U.S. The U.S., through negotiation, has disclaimed ownership of most islands in favor of another country. Two islands remain contested.

  • Thank you, this is useful to begin to understand the different terms involved. Perhaps there is room for improvement in the DOI use of terminology. If I understood correctly according to this "territory" is the same as "unincorporated territory" ("unincorporated" is implied when the term "territory" is used) but "Territory" (of which there is only one) is not the same as "territory" (caps matter!!). Probably just an issue with clarifying past usage \\ It's useful that it refers to "organic acts". I suppose unincorporated territories are all subject to such acts, or only commonwealths?
    – Buck Thorn
    Dec 12, 2022 at 9:03
  • My original question was a bit ambiguous in hindsight but I wasn't sure where to start. This is a good guide. Other countries also have (or have had) a rather complicated mix of designations, for instance the Netherlands.
    – Buck Thorn
    Dec 12, 2022 at 9:06
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    @BuckThorn - Among the five inhabited territories, only American Samoa is an "unorganized territory". See also, politics.stackexchange.com/q/69809/26455
    – Rick Smith
    Dec 12, 2022 at 12:23

The term "Commonwealth" has no legal meaning in the political division schema of the United States. There are, in addition to two territories, four states that are Commonwealths and not States in their official title (Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) and are formerly identified as "Commonwealth of [name]" while the remaining 46 States are formally titled "State of [Name]" legally speaking there is no difference between a Commonwealth and it's equivalent State/Territory title. 3 of the states use the term because it was what the area was called in it's colonial charter granted by the British (Mass, PA, VA). In the case of Kentucky, the title was likely taken because Kentucky used to be part of the Commonwealth of Virginia before it broke off into a separate state.

Commonwealth is an archaic term that has several meanings and generally is synonymous with "Republic" which just means a country without a Monarchy as head of State (That said, of the three nations that are officially called Commonwealths, two are Constitutional Monarchies. However, by Constitutional Law, Monarchy is illegal in the U.S. so all states and territories with this titles are republics).

Incorporated vs. Unincorporated typically speaks to a territory's rights under the constitution. Citizens of incorporated territories benefit from full protection of Constitutional Rights while Citizens of Unincorporated territories benefit from basic rights granted by law and not by the Constitution. These day's the laws tend to grant rights to a level that this is a distinction without a difference, but historically this was territory that was acquired without granting those living in the territory full rights as Citizens of the United States (though in modern America, most people living in unincorporated territories are full U.S. Citizens since they were born in U.S. territory).

Unorganized territory typically refers to territorial holdings that are not fully occupided. America Samoa is the only U.S. territory with permanent residents that is not fully inhabited. Two islands in the territory have no permanent residents. One is a wildlife sanctuary and has strict controls on entry to protect the endemic ecosystem, while the other is wholly private property of a coconut plantation that is no longer operational and on which nobody permanently resides any more. In addition, this island is in dispute with a neighboring island nation and as such, any attempts to eminent domain development are likely on hold as the owners are U.S. Citizens and give the U.S. a claim on the island.

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