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For Educators: What Are the Freely Associated States?

The United States is made up of states and territories. Our nation has treaties with other nations and relationships, official and unofficial, all over the world. But we also have three independent countries which have a special and unique relationship with the United States: the Freely Associated States (“FAS”). Enrich your study of U.S. geography by learning about these three close relationships.

The three FAS are the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau. All of these nations we once part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, which was administered by the United States on behalf of the United Nations from 1947 to 1994.  The Northern Mariana Islands was also part of the Trust Territory, but its people sought U.S. citizenship so it became a U.S. territory.

All of the islands that made up the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands began as Spanish colonies, were turned over to Germany in the 19th century, and then became part of Japan after World War I. The United States in turn captured them in 1944. Following WWII, they were put under the care of the United Nations. In 1947, the United States was given the job if administering the islands. This continued until 1986, at which point a gradual transition to independence began.

In 1994, the trusteeship ended completely. All three of the nations became independent countries at this point, and they negotiated documents called Compacts of Free Association. These treaties gave the United States the responsibility of defending the FAS. They also gave the United States the right to make military decisions for the FAS and to keep a military presence in those countries as part of U.S. national security responsibilities.  Limited economic assistance and circumscribed access to federal programs were also provided.

What are freely associated states?

Free association is a relationship between two independent countries in which a small nation delegates its sovereign right to defend itself to the larger nation. A Compact of Free Association (COFA) is negotiated that spells out the details of this relationship.  The Compact is subject to renewal.

Citizens of the FAS are not citizens or nationals of the United States, but they do have the right to live, study, and work in the United States without a visa. The countries access some U.S. services like the Post Office and the Weather Service. Their citizens can serve in the U.S. military. The details of the COFAs are currently being renegotiated, since the original agreements are expiring in 2023 and 2024.

For older students, the U.S. government has a PDF with the details.

Use five themes of geography to study the FAS

Develop a research project for students.


Use this map to identify the FAS and find them on your classroom world map or globe. Use Google Maps to answer these questions:

  • What are the nearest neighboring countries?
  • How far are these nations from the United States?
  • What are the capital cities of each?


Divide the class into groups to research the nature of the FAS. Here are some questions for a starting point:

  • What is the topography of these islands like? Are there mountains, rivers, and other landforms?
  • What languages are spoken in these nations?
  • What is the heritage of the people living in these places?
  • What human-built landmarks are found in the FAS?
  • What about the architecture and infrastructure?

One interesting point that may come up during research is that the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) has nine native langurs: English, Chuukese, Kosrean, Pohnpeian, Yapese, Ulithian, Woleaian, Nukuoro, and Kapingamarangi. English is the official language of the FSM, although it is not the official language of the United States.


The FAS are all in the region known as Micronesia. This region includes three sets of islands: the Marianas, the Carolines, and the Marshalls. The U.S. territory of Guam is also in Micronesia.

Note that people sometimes say “Micronesia,” with refers to a region of the Pacific,  when they mean the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the independent country.


DNA evidence suggests that Micronesian people originated in Southeast Asia and traveled through New Guinea in prehistoric times to reach Micronesia.

Footprints of the Ancestors is a downloadable comic book showing the archaeology involved in studying the origins of the people of Yap, one of the states in the FSM. Share this resource with students.

Once settled in Micronesia, few residents left. They might relocate to a neighboring island, but outmigration was unusual before independence. Since 1986, large numbers have left the FAS to come to the United States.

Many COFA citizens (citizens of the FAS) now live in U.S. states and territories. For example, Hawaii has a population of about 24,700 COFA citizens. Washington state, Oregon, Arkansas, California, and Guam all have more than 3,000 COFA citizens among their residents. See a report from the Government Accountability Office for more details. This document provides good practice in reading graphs and charts.

Challenge students to find out about COFA citizens living in your community or in your state. Census records may answer the question of whether there are any FAS citizens living near your school.

Human-environment interaction

One of the biggest issues for the FAS is the effect of climate change. Micronesia is composed of thousands of islands, many of which are scarcely above sea level. As the sea level rises, their homes are being threatened.

Another human-environment interaction issue is the problem of nuclear testing conducted by the United States in the Marshall Islands. Here are some resources:

After conducting their research, ask students to present what they’ve learned using PowerPoint or Prezi.

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