When Did Puerto Rico Become a US Territory?

U.S. and Flag of Puerto Rico
Flags of the United States and Puerto Rico.

TexPhoto / Getty Images

Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory in 1898, as a result of the Treaty of Paris that officially ended the Spanish-American War and dictated that Spain cede the island to the U.S.

Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship by birth in 1917, but were not given the right to vote in U.S. presidential elections unless they were residents of the mainland. Since 1952, Puerto Rico has been a commonwealth of the U.S., which is similar to statehood. On several occasions, citizens of the island have voted on the issue of whether to remain a commonwealth, to petition for official statehood, or to become an independent nation.

Key Takeaways: When Did Puerto Rico Become a U.S. Territory?

  • Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory as a result of the Treaty of Paris, signed on December 10, 1898. According to the terms of the treaty to end the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the U.S., along with the Philippines and Guam.
  • Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship by birth in 1917, but they are not allowed to vote in presidential elections and must live on the mainland to gain full citizenship rights.
  • Since 1952, Puerto Rico has been a commonwealth of the U.S., a status that enables the island to elect its own governor.
  • In a referendum held in 2017, citizens of the island voted to petition the U.S. government for official statehood, but it's unclear whether Congress or the president will grant it.

Treaty of Paris of 1898

The Treaty of Paris, signed on December 10, 1898, officially ended the four-month Spanish-American War that guaranteed Cuba's independence and forced Spain to cede Puerto Rico and Guam to the U.S. From that point on, Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory. This also marked the end of 400 years of Spanish colonialism and the rise of U.S. imperialism and dominance in the Americas.

Are Puerto Ricans American Citizens?

Despite widespread misconceptions, Puerto Ricans are American citizens. In 1917, with the passage of the Jones-Shafroth Act by Congress and President Woodrow Wilson, Puerto Ricans were granted American citizenship by birth. This act also established a bicameral legislature in Puerto Rico, but laws passed can be vetoed by either the governor of Puerto Rico or the U.S. president. Congress also has power over the Puerto Rican legislature.

Many believe the Jones Act was passed in response to World War I and the need for more troops; opponents argued that the government was only granting Puerto Ricans citizenship in order to be able to draft them. In fact, many Puerto Ricans served in WWI and other 20th century wars.

While Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, they don't enjoy all the rights of mainland American citizens. The biggest issue is the fact that Puerto Ricans (and citizens of other U.S. territories) are not allowed to vote in presidential elections due to provisions outlined in the Electoral College. However, Puerto Ricans can make a difference in presidential elections because they are allowed to participate in the Democratic and Republican primaries by sending delegates to the nominating conventions.

In addition, it's significant that more Puerto Ricans are residents of the mainland U.S. (five million) than of the island (3.5 million), and the former have the right to vote in presidential elections. Hurricanes Maria and Irma, which devastated the island in 2017—Maria caused a total, island-wide blackout and the deaths of thousands of Puerto Ricans—only accelerated the increase in Puerto Rican migration to the mainland U.S.

Commemoration of victims of Hurricane Maria
A man looks at hundreds of shoes displayed in memory of those killed by Hurricane Maria in front of the Puerto Rican Capitol, in San Juan on June 1, 2018. Ricardo Arduengo / Getty Images

The Puerto Rico Statehood Question

In 1952, Congress granted Puerto Rico commonwealth status, which allowed the island to elect its own governor. Since that time five referenda (in 1967, 1993, 1998, 2012, and 2017) have been held to allow Puerto Ricans to vote on the island's status, with the most popular options being to continue as a commonwealth, to request U.S. statehood, or to declare full independence from the U.S.

The 2012 referendum was the first in which statehood won the majority of popular votes, 61%, and the 2017 referendum followed suit. However, these referenda were non-binding and no further action was taken. Furthermore, only 23% of eligible voters turned out in 2017, which cast doubt on the validity of the referendum and made it unlikely that Congress would approve a request for statehood.

Posters advocating for statehood in Puerto Rico
A man rides his bicycle in front of a wall covered with campaign posters promoting Puerto Rico's statehood in San Juan, on June 9, 2017.  AFP / Getty Images

In June 2018, in the aftermath of the devastation and economic crisis linked to Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rican resident commissioner Jenniffer González Colón introduced a bill to make the island a state by January 2021. While she is allowed to introduce legislation to Congress and take part in debates, she is not allowed to vote on it. The process for Congress to approve a petition for statehood involves a simple majority vote in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The petition then goes to the president's desk.

And this is where Puerto Rico's petition for statehood may stall: advocates face an uphill battle while Republicans control the Senate and Donald Trump is president as Trump has openly declared his opposition. Nonetheless, a July 2019 poll indicated that two-thirds of Americans were in favor of granting statehood to Puerto Rico.