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Unincorporated territory

Not to be confused with Unincorporated area.

Unincorporated territory is a legal term of art in United States law denoting an area controlled by the government of the U.S. "where fundamental rights apply as a matter of law, but other constitutional rights are not available".[1] Selected constitutional provisions variously apply depending on Congressional Organic Acts and judicial rulings according to U.S. constitutional practice, local tradition and law. All five modern inhabited territories are organized[2] but unincorporated. There are nine uninhabited US possessions; only Palmyra Atoll among them is incorporated. See Territory of the United States and Unorganized territory.[3]

All modern inhabited territories under the control of the federal government can be considered as part of the "United States" for purposes of law as defined in specific legislation.[4] But the judicial term "unincorporated" was coined to legitimize the U.S. late 19th century territorial acquisition without citizenship and their administration without constitutional protections temporarily until Congress made other provisions. The case law allowed Congress to impose discriminatory tax regimes with the effect of a protective tariff upon territorial regions which were not domestic states.[5]

From 1901 to 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a series of opinions known as the Insular Cases, held that the Constitution extended ex proprio vigore to the continental territories. However, the Court in these cases also established the doctrine of territorial incorporation, under which the Constitution applies fully only in incorporated territories such as Alaska and Hawaii, and applies only partially in the new unincorporated territories of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.[6][7]

To define what is an unincorporated territory, in Balzac v. People of Porto Rico, 258 U.S. 298, 312 (1922), the Court used the following statements regarding the court in Puerto Rico:

The United States District Court is not a true United States court established under article 3 of the Constitution to administer the judicial power of the United States therein conveyed. It is created by virtue of the sovereign congressional faculty, granted under article 4, 3, of that instrument, of making all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory belonging to the United States. The resemblance of its jurisdiction to that of true United States courts, in offering an opportunity to nonresidents of resorting to a tribunal not subject to local influence, does not change its character as a mere territorial court.[8]

In unincorporated territories:

Upon like considerations, Article III has been viewed as inapplicable to courts created in unincorporated territories outside the mainland, Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244, 266 -267; Balzac v. Porto Rico, 258 U.S. 298, 312 -313; cf. Dorr v. United States, 195 U.S. 138, 145, 149, and to the consular courts established by concessions from foreign countries, In re Ross, 140 U.S. 453, 464 -465, 480. 18

"The inhabitants of the ceded territory . . . shall be admitted to the enjoyment of all the rights, advantages, and immunities of citizens of the United States;" This declaration, although somewhat changed in phraseology, is the equivalent, as pointed out in Downes v. Bidwell, of the formula, employed from the beginning to express the purpose to incorporate acquired territory into the United States, especially in the absence of other provisions showing an intention to the contrary.".[9] Here we see that the act of incorporation is on the people of the territory, not on the territory per se, by extending the privileges and immunities clause of the Constitution to them.

List of unincorporated territories


Territory Population Area
American Samoa 55,519 197.1 km2
Guam 159,358[10] 541.3 km2
Northern Mariana Islands 53,883 463.63 km2
Puerto Rico 3,706,690 9,104 km2
United States Virgin Islands 109,750 346.36 km2
Baker Island Uninhabited 2.1 km2
Howland Island Uninhabited 1.8 km2
Jarvis Island Uninhabited 4.5 km2
Johnston Atoll Uninhabited 2.67 km2
Kingman Reef Uninhabited 76 km2
Midway Atoll Uninhabited 6.2 km2
Navassa Island Uninhabited 5.2 km2
Wake Island 120 7.38 km2
Total 4,085,320 12,272.24 km2
Territory Population Area





August 28, 1867

Captain William Reynolds of the USS Lackawanna formally took possession of the Midway Atoll for the United States.[11]

April 11, 1899

The 1898 Treaty of Paris 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.[12]

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

Emilio Aguinaldo, the Filipino leader in the Philippine–American War, surrendered, allowing the United States to form a civilian government.

February 23, 1903

Under the terms of a 1903 lease agreement, the United States came to exercise complete control over Guantanamo Bay in 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 U.S. Virgin Islands under the terms of a treaty with Denmark.[13]

May 17, 1932

The name of Porto Rico was changed to Puerto Rico.[14]

March 24, 1934

The Tydings–McDuffie Act was signed allowing the creation of the Commonwealth of the Philippines.

July 4, 1946

The United States recognized Philippine independence.

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, 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 § 737 and signed by President 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.[15]

July 25, 1952

Puerto Rico became a Commonwealth of the United States, an unincorporated organized territory, with the ratification of its constitution.[14]

July 22, 1954

The Organic Act for the United States Virgin Islands went into effect, making them an unincorporated, organized territory.[15]

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.[15]

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.[15][16]

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, making Palau de facto independent, as it was not a territory of the United States.

October 1, 1994

Palau attained de jure independence, but remained in free association with the United States.[17]

December 11, 2012

The Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico has 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.[18]


1. Puerto Rico. Scholars could agree as of 2009 in the Boston College Law Review, “Regardless of how Puerto Rico looked in 1901 when the Insular Cases were decided, or in 1922, today, Puerto Rico seems to be the paradigm of an incorporated territory as modern jurisprudence understands that legal term of art.”[19] In November 2008 a district court judge ruled that a sequence of prior Congressional actions had had the cumulative effect of changing Puerto Rico's status to incorporated.[20]


See also


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