The United States flag has flown over Puerto Rico since 1898. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and can vote in U.S. presidential primaries. They can even become president of the United States. Puerto Rico contributes more soldiers to the U.S. armed services per capita than any state, and Puerto Ricans pay federal payroll and other taxes. U.S. citizens can travel freely between Puerto Rico and the rest of the U.S. – no passport required. Puerto Rico uses the U.S. dollar for currency.
Sounds like Puerto Rico is part of the U.S., right?
Technically, no. Puerto Rico belongs to the United States. It is a possession of the United States. It is a U.S. territory. But it is an unincorporated territory, and it has not yet been incorporated into the U.S. Therefore, it is not legally a part of the United States. The Supreme Court made this clear in a series of decisions known as the Insular Cases.
It is not foreign, though. A U.S. citizen from Utah who moves to Spain can still vote in U.S. elections with an absentee ballot. If this U.S. citizen becomes a resident of Puerto Rico, however, he or she will not be able to vote with an absentee ballot from Utah, because Puerto Rico is not a foreign country.
In fact, it’s not a country at all. Puerto Rico doesn’t manage its own foreign trade and diplomacy, and the U.S. generally stops it when the island’s government tries to do so. Immigration is also regulated by the U.S.
As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is treated like a state under many U.S. laws, but it is not a state. There is no requirement that Puerto Rico be treated equally, and often it is not. Federal funds are often distributed unequally to Puerto Rico, and the people of Puerto Rico don’t have the same access to some tax credits as the people living on the mainland do.
The question is hotly debated in forums around the internet, but the answer is clear: Puerto Rico is a territory and a possession of the United States, not technically a part of the United States under U.S. law.