Update: Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Maria in September 2017. In the aftermath of the hurricane, the island is experiencing extreme hardship — and a number of organizations have stepped in to support relief and rebuilding efforts. Volunteers and aid are an ongoing need.
Many travelers wonder about the exact nature of the relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. And, to be fair, it can be confusing, because it is a unique social, economic, and political compromise. For example, bookstores in the U.S. put travel guidebooks to Puerto Rico in their "International Travel" section rather than "Domestic Travel," where it belongs. On the other hand, Puerto Rico is technically part of the United States. So ... what's the answer? Find out here.
Is Puerto Rico a U.S. State?
No, Puerto Rico is not a state, but rather a Commonwealth of the United States. This status provides local autonomy to the island and allows Puerto Rico to publicly display its flag. However, the government of Puerto Rico, while ostensibly a local responsibility, falls ultimately on the U.S. Congress. The elected governor of Puerto Rico occupies the highest public office on the island.
Are Puerto Ricans U.S. Citizens?
Yes, Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and make up about 1.3% of the total population of the United States. They enjoy all the benefits of citizenship, save one: Puerto Ricans who live in Puerto Rico cannot vote for the U.S. President in the general elections (those who live in the United States are allowed to vote).
Does Puerto Rico Want to Become a U.S. State?
In general, there are three schools of thought on this issue:
- The vast majority of Puerto Ricans want to keep the status quo and remain a Commonwealth.
- A less popular but vocal camp is in favor of becoming a U.S. state. Their reasons center on the right to vote and increased funding from Washington, DC.
- An increasingly smaller minority wants independence for Puerto Rico, arguing that national pride and complete autonomy will be worth the growing pains of a new nation that is not supported by Federal aid.
For the most part, the day-to-day governing of the island is left up to the local administration. Puerto Ricans elect their own public officials and their model of government closely resembles the U.S. system; Puerto Rico has a Constitution (ratified in 1952), a Senate and a House of Representatives. Both English and Spanish are the official languages of the island. Here are some other quirky examples of Puerto Rico's semi-independent status:
- The winner of the 2006 "Miss Universe" pageant was Miss Puerto Rico, not Miss USA.
- In the Olympic Games, Puerto Rico fields its own athletic team, separate from the Americans.
- Puerto Ricans don’t file federal income tax returns unless they work for the Federal government.
(The U.S. Virgin Islands also has its own Olympic squad and Miss Universe Pageant entrant.)
The simplest answer to the question of Puerto Rican "American"ness is that it is at the end of the day the U.S. territory and its people are U.S. citizens. In addition:
- Puerto Rico's currency is the U.S. dollar.
- Puerto Ricans serve in the U.S. armed forces.
- The island uses the U.S. Postal Service.
- The American flag flies over Puerto Rico's Capital.