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Puerto Rico status: Is Puerto Rico part of the US?

by Juan José Herranz | October 20, 2020
blue house on a cliff in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is a Caribbean island located to the east of the Dominican Republic, which has an area of approximately 9000 km2 and a population of fewer than 4 million inhabitants. This island has an extensive history since being ‘discovered’ in 1493 by Christopher Columbus and then being a Spanish colony.

Here we will answer some of your questions regarding the status of Puerto Rico: is Puerto Rico part of the US? What is Puerto Rico to the US and when did Puerto Rico become part of the US?

Is Puerto Rico part of the US? Puerto Rico flag

Is Puerto Rico a US territory?

One of your first questions might be: Is Puerto Rico part of the US? Yes, Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. It is officially known as an unincorporated territory, meaning that while it is subject to US sovereignty, certain provisions of the US Constitution are not fully extended to Puerto Rico. 

Puerto Ricans are US citizens by birth, and they use US currency, but they do not have the same voting representation in the US Congress as residents of US states. Overall, Puerto Rico to the US is a US territory, but with some independence in its internal affairs and no power over its external relations.

When did Puerto Rico become part of the US?

The island was a Spanish colony until the US Hispanic War in 1898 when it came under US control. Since then, the United States has gradually ceded control back to Puerto Rico. In 1900, the US Congress passed the Foaker Act, which established a government on the island consisting of an elected assembly of Puerto Ricans and a governor appointed by the US president.

Subsequently, the Jones Act of 1917 granted American citizenship to Puerto Ricans and declared Puerto Rico an "organized but unincorporated" territory. This was mainly made to be able to enlist Puerto Ricans for war during World War I.

Both laws considered that, in any case, US federal law applied to the island. Puerto Ricans were able to elect their governors from 1947 onwards thanks to the Governors-Elect Act.

Later, in 1950, the United States allowed a Puerto Rican Constitutional Assembly to draft a Constitution concerning local affairs. This was approved in a referendum in Puerto Rico in 1952 and then ratified by the US Congress.

Since then, the island has had the status of a commonwealth. This form of organization gives Puerto Rico a representative with voice but no vote in the House of Representatives, the lower house of the US Congress. Although Puerto Ricans are US citizens, they cannot vote in US presidential elections if they reside on the island. They are also not required to pay federal income taxes but do not benefit from the same benefits as citizens of federal states.

Puerto Rico coastline with houses and sea

What is Puerto Rico to the US?

Is Puerto Rico a colony of the US? What is Puerto Rico to the US? Because Puerto Ricans ratified their status at the polls, the UN no longer considers Puerto Rico a colony of the United States. Five more referendums on the island's status have been held since the Constitution was approved, though none are binding.

The first referendum, held in 1967, ratified Puerto Rico's support for remaining a free-associated state with 60 per cent. However, statehood gradually gained support in the 1993 and 1998 consultations until it became the majority option in 2012.

It was again supported in the last consultation, in 2017, with 97% support, although the fact that only 22% of the population participated cast doubt on the legitimacy of this result. In contrast, the option of independence has always received less than 6% of support.

Although a significant proportion of Puerto Ricans appears to be in favour of a change in their relationship with the United States, it is the US Congress that has the power to bring about this change.

In recent years, the Puerto Rican government has submitted several measures to the US House of Representatives both to hold a binding consultation on statehood and to incorporate Puerto Rico into the federation as a state. However, the five consultations that the US Government has allowed to be held on the island have never been binding and have never resulted in any change.

In August 2020, a federal judge in Massachusetts ruled unconstitutional that Puerto Ricans are not eligible for the same benefits as other Americans, namely the Supplemental Income, Supplemental Nutrition and Low-Income Subsidy programmes.

Although the US government funds other services in Puerto Rico, these are much less than those in the states. This court ruling may be another step towards a more equitable relationship between Puerto Rico and the rest of the country, regardless of whether the island ever becomes a state or not.

Puerto Rico US territory Puerto Rican coastline with sea and trees

Is Puerto Rico a US state? 

No, Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. While Puerto Ricans are US citizens and have some of the same rights and responsibilities as residents of US states, Puerto Rico is not one of the 50 states of the United States. It has its own local government and unique political status within the US federal system.

What is the currency of Puerto Rico?

The currency in Puerto Rico is the same as in the rest of the United States: the US Dollar (USD). It has been since the end of World War I. Before this, it was the Puerto Rican peso.

Do I need a visa to go to Puerto Rico?

Yes, any foreigner whose nationality is eligible to apply for a visa to Puerto Rico must apply for a visa for Puerto Rico before arriving at the airport. If you are from the US you won't need a visa or a passport. You can get more information about this with our guide "Do you need a passport to go to Puerto Rico".