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What are the United States Minor Outlying Islands?

Michael Anissimov
Updated May 17, 2024
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The United States Minor Outlying Islands consist of 11, mostly uninhabited islands in the Pacific (8 islands) and the Caribbean (3 islands) that are considered insular areas of the United States. In other words, they are territories of the United States where the residents do not pay federal taxes and are not represented in the United States federal government. The term is also a statistical designation defined by the 3166-1 code of the International Organization for Standardization, a powerful non-governmental organization whose standards are often adopted by international law, the United Nations, and the US government.

The history of the United States Minor Outlying Islands begins with the Guano Islands Act, passed by the US Congress in 1856. This law allowed any US citizen to claim uninhabited, unclaimed islands with guano deposits for the US government. The guano would then be mined for use as fertilizer, since synthetic fertilizer was not invented until 1910. The US military would be responsible for the defense of the islands, just like any other US territory. Upon completion of the guano mining, the United States would then (theoretically) renounce its claim to the land. Over 100 islands were claimed under the Guano Islands Act, and all but a few were subsequently abandoned.

As of 2008, only one of the islands, Wake Island in the Pacific, is permanently inhabited by the US Navy and US Army. The other islands have had transient military activity or small colonies over the course of the last century. The Pacific islands are the following:

  • Midway Atoll, part of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, declared a Marine National Monument in 2007,
  • Johnston Atoll, a barren atoll featuring an abandoned airstrip that was created mostly by coral dredging,
  • Wake Atoll, which is to the far east, and holds a small Army and Navy base,
  • Kingman Reef, a largely submerged atoll with just a tiny strip of dry land),
  • Palmyra Atoll, a forested atoll owned by the Nature Conservancy, the only incorporated territory of the islands,
  • Jarvis Island, a small, barren island with little foliage,
  • Baker Island, another small barren island, and
  • Howeland Island, a low-lying sandy island best known as the island that Amelia Earheart disappeared near.

All the islands are administered by the Department for Insular Affairs with the US Department of the Interior.

The Caribbean islands considered part of the United States Minor Outlying Islands include Navassa Island, a small island off the coast of Haiti that is claimed by both Haiti and a small group of Columbians calling the island a sovereign nation; the Baja Nuevo Bank, a small uninhabited sand bank; and the Serranilla Bank, a larger, mostly submerged atoll with a few islands overbuilt with military buildings that were used during the Cuban Missile Crisis. None of these islands have any appreciable plant life or mineral resources, and are currently uninhabited.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated America Explained contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By anon993229 — On Oct 30, 2015

My understanding is that any place outside the 10 square miles of DC is/can be considered to be the US minor outlying islands. Can someone shed some light on this? Thanks.

By anon929833 — On Feb 02, 2014

Where is CE United States outlying island located?

By highlighter — On May 24, 2011

@Parmnparsley- You are asking a very complicated question. I will only be able to answer part of it, but maybe someone else will be able to answer the rest. The places you mentioned in your post are either United States Territories or Commonwealths.

For example, American Samoa is an unincorporated territory, meaning it is fully under the protection of the United States government, but it is a self-governing state. Samoans are United States nationals, but not United States citizens. They are allowed unlimited access to the United States, but they cannot vote in federal elections. Samoans do have a non-voting representative in congress that represents the needs of the people. Like all other USA islands, territories, and commonwealths you can travel there without a passport.

At one point and time, Samoa was a strategic military and NASA territory that housed a number of soldiers and scientists. Now the island is made up of mostly Samoans and a few non-native residents.

By parmnparsley — On May 22, 2011

I never knew the USA had minor outlying islands until I read this article. I learn something new on this site every day. What are islands like Guam, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands, and others like them classified as? Do these islands pay taxes to the United States Government even though they are not represented in the government?

Are these islands colonies, or are they nearly sovereign with only a minor reciprocal agreement (military installations in return for protection) with the United States? Do you need a passport book or card to visit any of the places I mentioned earlier?

By anon81338 — On May 01, 2010

how are the people there?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated America Explained contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics,...
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