Islands Owned By The United States: An Overview

The United States may be bounded by the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, but do you know how many islands the country actually owns? From the Caribbean to the Pacific, the US has claimed sovereignty over a number of island territories far from the mainland over the course of its history.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: The United States currently has sovereignty over 8 major island groups in the Caribbean and Pacific, including the Hawaiian Islands, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.

In this comprehensive guide, we will provide an overview of the many islands owned and controlled by the United States, including some fascinating history and details about these beautiful and strategic island territories.

Hawaiian Islands

History of Hawaii’s Statehood

The Hawaiian Islands have a rich history that dates back centuries. Before becoming a state of the United States, Hawaii was a kingdom ruled by a monarchy. However, in 1893, a group of American businessmen, with the help of the US military, overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy.

Following this, Hawaii was annexed by the United States in 1898 and officially became a US territory.

It wasn’t until 1959 that Hawaii became the 50th state of the United States. This historic event marked the culmination of years of efforts by the people of Hawaii to gain statehood. Today, Hawaii is a beloved vacation destination known for its stunning landscapes, vibrant culture, and warm hospitality.

Hawaii’s Strategic Importance

The strategic location of the Hawaiian Islands in the Pacific Ocean has played a significant role in their importance to the United States. Situated roughly in the middle of the Pacific, Hawaii serves as a vital military outpost for the US, allowing for a strong presence in the region.

The US military has several bases in Hawaii, including the famous Pearl Harbor Naval Base. These military installations not only provide security for the United States but also serve as a deterrent to potential threats in the Pacific.

Additionally, the unique geography of the Hawaiian Islands makes them an ideal location for military training and exercises.

Hawaii’s Economy and Resources

The economy of Hawaii is diverse and relies heavily on tourism, agriculture, and the military. The tourism industry is a major contributor to the state’s economy, attracting millions of visitors each year.

The stunning beaches, lush landscapes, and unique culture of Hawaii make it a top destination for travelers from around the world.

Agriculture, particularly the cultivation of pineapples and sugarcane, has historically been an important industry in Hawaii. However, in recent years, the agricultural sector has faced challenges due to the global market and competition.

In terms of natural resources, Hawaii is known for its volcanic activity, which has created fertile soil and the opportunity for geothermal energy production. The islands also have a significant fishing industry, with an abundance of marine life in the surrounding waters.

U.S. Virgin Islands

The U.S. Virgin Islands is a group of islands located in the Caribbean Sea. It is an unincorporated territory of the United States, meaning that it is under the jurisdiction and sovereignty of the U.S. government.

The islands are known for their stunning natural beauty, warm climate, and rich cultural heritage.

Purchase from Denmark

The U.S. Virgin Islands were purchased from Denmark in 1917. The United States saw strategic value in acquiring the islands, as they provide a strong presence in the Caribbean region. The purchase also aimed to secure U.S. interests in the area, particularly during World War I.

Since then, the islands have become an integral part of the United States.

Tourism Industry

The U.S. Virgin Islands has a thriving tourism industry, attracting millions of visitors each year. The islands offer a wide range of activities for tourists, including pristine beaches, water sports, hiking trails, historical sites, and vibrant cultural events.

The tourism sector is a significant contributor to the islands’ economy, providing jobs and income for the local population.

The main islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John are popular tourist destinations, each offering its unique attractions. St. Thomas, in particular, is well-known for its duty-free shopping, making it a popular destination for cruise ship passengers.

The islands’ natural beauty and friendly atmosphere make them an ideal vacation spot for travelers from around the world.


The U.S. Virgin Islands has a unique governance structure. While it is an unincorporated territory under the jurisdiction of the United States, it has its own local government. The islands have a governor appointed by the U.S. president and a legislature consisting of senators elected by the residents.

The local government has the authority to enact laws and regulations that govern the islands. However, certain federal laws and regulations also apply to the U.S. Virgin Islands, as it is a part of the United States.

This dual governance system ensures that the islands are able to maintain their cultural identity while also benefiting from the resources and support of the United States.

For more information about the U.S. Virgin Islands, you can visit the official website of the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism: https://www.visitusvi.com/.

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico, an island located in the northeastern Caribbean Sea, is one of the territories owned by the United States. Let’s take a closer look at its history, economy, and the ongoing statehood debate.

Becoming a U.S. Territory

Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory as a result of the Treaty of Paris in 1898, following the Spanish-American War. Since then, Puerto Rico has been under U.S. sovereignty but is not a state. It is classified as an unincorporated territory, which means that while Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, they do not have the same rights and representation as those living in states.

Over the years, Puerto Rico has enjoyed a unique status within the United States, with its own government and a certain level of autonomy. However, decisions made by the U.S. federal government still have a significant impact on the island.

Economy and Infrastructure

Puerto Rico has a diverse economy, with key industries including manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, finance, and tourism. Its strategic location in the Caribbean has made it a hub for trade and investment.

Unfortunately, Puerto Rico has faced economic challenges in recent years. The island has struggled with a high poverty rate, limited job opportunities, and a public debt crisis. In 2017, Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Maria, causing widespread devastation and further exacerbating its economic difficulties.

Efforts are being made to rebuild and revitalize Puerto Rico’s economy. The government is focusing on attracting new investments, promoting entrepreneurship, and developing sustainable tourism. However, there is still much work to be done to ensure long-term economic stability for the island.

Statehood Debate

The question of Puerto Rico’s political status has been a subject of debate for many years. Some Puerto Ricans advocate for statehood, believing that it would provide them with equal rights and representation in the U.S. government.

Others prefer to maintain the current territorial status or pursue independence. These differing opinions have led to ongoing discussions and referendums to gauge the preferences of the Puerto Rican people.

It is important to note that any change in Puerto Rico’s political status would require approval from the U.S. Congress. The statehood debate continues to be a significant issue for both Puerto Rico and the United States as they navigate the complexities of their relationship.

For more information about Puerto Rico, you can visit the official website of the Government of Puerto Rico: https://www.pr.gov/.

American Samoa

American Samoa is a group of islands located in the South Pacific Ocean. It is an unincorporated territory of the United States and is one of the few remaining colonies in the world. American Samoa is known for its stunning natural beauty, rich cultural heritage, and unique political status.

Ceded by Chiefs

The islands of American Samoa were ceded to the United States by the local chiefs in the early 20th century. This agreement, known as the Deed of Cession, granted the United States control over the islands while allowing the Samoan people to retain their traditional customs and way of life.

The Deed of Cession continues to shape the relationship between American Samoa and the United States today.

Economy and Culture

American Samoa has a diverse economy that is heavily dependent on the tuna industry. The islands are home to a major tuna canning facility, which provides employment opportunities for many Samoans. Additionally, tourism plays a significant role in the economy, with visitors attracted to the pristine beaches, vibrant coral reefs, and traditional Samoan culture.

The culture of American Samoa is deeply rooted in Polynesian traditions and values. The Samoan people have a strong sense of community and kinship, and traditional practices such as dance, music, and storytelling are still cherished and celebrated.

The fa’a Samoa, or Samoan way of life, is characterized by respect for elders, communal living, and a deep connection to the land and sea.


American Samoa has its own unique form of self-government. While it is an unincorporated territory of the United States, it has its own constitution and elects its own governor and legislature. The local government has authority over many aspects of daily life in American Samoa, including education, healthcare, and transportation.

However, American Samoa does not have voting representation in the United States Congress. Instead, it has a non-voting delegate who can participate in committee meetings and introduce legislation, but cannot vote on the House floor.

This unique political arrangement has sparked ongoing discussions about the status of American Samoa and its relationship with the United States.

For more information on American Samoa, you can visit the official website of the American Samoa Government at www.americansamoa.gov.


Strategic Location

Guam is an island located in the western Pacific Ocean and is one of the territories owned by the United States. It is strategically positioned between Asia and the United States, making it an important military outpost for the U.S.

It is often referred to as the “tip of the spear” due to its proximity to potential conflict zones in the region.

With its strategic location, Guam serves as a crucial hub for military operations, hosting various facilities such as Andersen Air Force Base and Naval Base Guam. These installations support U.S. military presence and readiness in the Asia-Pacific region, maintaining stability and security.

Economy and Culture

Guam’s economy is driven primarily by tourism, with visitors attracted to its stunning beaches, rich cultural heritage, and vibrant local cuisine. The island offers a unique blend of Chamorro traditions, Spanish influences, and American influences, resulting in a diverse and dynamic culture.

The tourism industry plays a significant role in Guam’s economy, contributing to employment opportunities and revenue generation. Visitors enjoy activities such as snorkeling, diving, and exploring historical sites like the ancient latte stone pillars that dot the landscape.

Political Status

Guam is an organized, unincorporated territory of the United States. Its political status is defined by the Organic Act of Guam, which grants the island limited self-governance under the authority of the U.S. federal government.

While Guam is part of the United States, its residents are U.S. citizens but do not have the right to vote in presidential elections. However, they do have a non-voting delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Guam’s political relationship with the United States has evolved over time, with discussions surrounding the possibility of statehood occasionally arising. However, the majority of Guamanians have expressed a preference for maintaining the island’s current political status.

For more detailed information about Guam’s history, culture, and current affairs, you can visit the official website of the Government of Guam at https://www.guam.gov/.

U.S. Minor Outlying Islands

The United States is not only composed of the 50 states we often hear about, but it also has a collection of islands known as the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands. These islands, although not widely known, hold great significance for the United States as they serve various purposes including wildlife conservation, scientific research, and military operations.

Far-Flung Islands

The U.S. Minor Outlying Islands are scattered across the globe, each with its own unique characteristics and natural beauty. From the remote Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean to the pristine Howland Island in the central Pacific, these islands are truly a sight to behold.

These far-flung islands offer a getaway from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and provide a true sense of isolation and tranquility.

One of the most notable islands in this category is Wake Island. Located in the western Pacific Ocean, Wake Island is primarily used as a strategic airfield for military purposes. It played a crucial role in World War II and continues to be an important base for military operations in the region.

Wildlife Refuges

Several islands within the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands are designated as wildlife refuges, providing a safe haven for numerous species of plants and animals. These islands serve as critical breeding grounds and habitats for various marine and terrestrial species.

For example, Palmyra Atoll, located in the Pacific Ocean, is home to a diverse range of wildlife including nesting seabirds, sea turtles, and unique coral reefs. The protection of these habitats is vital for the preservation of biodiversity and the overall health of our planet.

Scientific Research

Another important aspect of the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands is their role in scientific research. These remote islands offer scientists a unique opportunity to study and understand various aspects of our natural world.

One such example is the Midway Atoll, located in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. This atoll is not only a designated wildlife refuge but also serves as a hub for scientific research. Scientists conduct studies on marine ecosystems, climate change, and the impact of human activities on these fragile environments.

Furthermore, remote islands like Baker Island and Jarvis Island are used for meteorological research, helping us better understand weather patterns and climate trends.

The U.S. Minor Outlying Islands may not be widely known or frequently visited by tourists, but their importance cannot be overstated. These islands contribute to wildlife conservation efforts, facilitate scientific research, and play a role in national defense strategies.

They are a testament to the United States’ commitment to protecting and understanding our natural world.

Northern Mariana Islands

The Northern Mariana Islands is a group of 15 islands located in the western Pacific Ocean. These islands are a part of the United States and are considered an unincorporated territory.

UN Trusteeship

The Northern Mariana Islands were formerly a part of the United Nations Trusteeship Council. This council was responsible for administering the trust territories that were under the control of various countries after World War II.

In 1978, the islands chose to become a commonwealth in political union with the United States, ending their status as a UN Trusteeship.


Since becoming a commonwealth, the Northern Mariana Islands have had a certain level of autonomy in their governance. They have their own elected governor and legislature, and they have the ability to draft and enforce their own laws.

However, the United States still maintains control over certain areas such as defense and immigration.

Economy and Culture

The economy of the Northern Mariana Islands is primarily based on tourism, garment manufacturing, and agriculture. The islands are known for their beautiful beaches, historical sites, and unique cultural heritage.

The indigenous Chamorro and Carolinian cultures are an integral part of the islands’ identity, and efforts are made to preserve and promote their traditions.

The Northern Mariana Islands also have a rich history that includes Spanish colonization, Japanese occupation during World War II, and later becoming a part of the United States. This diverse history has influenced the islands’ culture and adds to their appeal as a tourist destination.

For more information on the Northern Mariana Islands, you can visit the official website of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands: https://www.gov.mp/


The United States controls over a dozen island territories scattered across the Pacific and Caribbean, each with their own unique history, culture, and relationship to the mainland. While some are states, others have varying degrees of autonomy.

From Hawaii’s inclusion as a state to the complex status of Puerto Rico, America’s overseas islands play important economic, military, and cultural roles while introducing thorny questions around governance, rights, and identity.

This article reviewed the major islands under U.S. sovereignty, but there is still more to explore about these beautiful and strategic American territories scattered far from the continental states.

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