Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. You don’t need a passport to fly to Puerto Rico from anywhere within the United States. The island is located within U.S. borders and uses U.S. currency. Puerto Ricans have among the highest level of U.S. military service in the country.
Yet many people believe that Puerto Rico is a foreign country. It’s not. In a striking example, an expert witness recently had this to say about Puerto Rico when testifying before the United States Senate Judiciary Committee:
“[L]ook at what’s happened in Greece. You know, look at what Greece has to — the rates of interest they have to — they have to pay to borrow. You know, they’re in the double digits. And another country, look at Puerto Rico for goodness sakes. I mean, they’ve racked up so much debt that that country is coming running to Washington to get a bailout.” (See 2:25:15 in the hearing video.)
The country of Puerto Rico?
Unfortunately, this credentialed witness providing expert advice to U.S. Senators serving on the Judiciary Committee is not alone. Many people make the same mistake.
Puerto Rico is a territory
Puerto Rico is not a country but a U.S. territory. With 3.4 million U.S. citizens living there, Puerto Rico is the most populated of the five U.S. territories, which also include Guam, American Samoa, the United States Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands. U.S. citizens residing in these territories cannot vote for President, have no U.S. Senate representation, and are represented by a single member in the House of Representatives with no voting power.
Puerto Rico is sometimes referred to as a possession of the United States. It is also called a colony. People frequently call Puerto Rico a “Commonwealth,” implying that Puerto Rico has a special status, but this word has no practical meaning. Several U.S. states also call themselves “commonwealths.”
Feeling like a nation
Perhaps the confusion over Puerto Rico’s political status stems from the fact that Puerto Rico has sent athletes to the Olympics — sometimes playing for the U.S. and other times representing only Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has also sent contestants to the Miss Universe pageant, and they have won five times so far. Yet special recognition by Olympic and pageant committees does not make Puerto Rico an independent country.
An independent nation can negotiate treaties and trade deals with other countries, which Puerto Rico cannot. The Supreme Court has recently confirmed that Puerto Rico has no sovereignty.
Further, the U.S. does not grant U.S. citizenship to citizens of foreign countries. Not even the three sovereign entities that have Compacts of Free Association with the United States – the Republics of Palau and Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia – can provide U.S. citizenship to their citizens.
Sometimes the term “nation” is used to describe a culture without sovereignty. Penn State, for example, defines “nation” in this way: “Nations in some ways can be thought of as ‘imagined communities’ that are bound together by notions of unity that can pivot around religion, ethnic identity, language, cultural practice and so forth.”
Puerto Rico might be a nation in this sense. However, it is not a country.
Updated December 2021.