The Northern Mariana Islands

The Northern Mariana Islands – A US Territory

The Northern Mariana Islands are located in the Pacific, right above the equator. It’s pretty far away from the contiguous United States – just a 3 hour plane ride from Japan! 

A Tropical Paradise Rich in History and Beauty

Full of history and beauty, The Northern Mariana Islands is made up of 14 islands. Also known as CNMI, The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands are a part of the 14 territories that belong to the US. 

Northern Mariana Islands ocean view
Beautiful views of crystal clear blue water

Although they are administered by the USA, neither one of its 50 US states or any other nation has officially claimed any of these lands. These territories are mostly  dependent on the United States for economic, social and military support but there are many US laws that do not apply to these territories.

Together the CNMI and Guam make up the Mariana Archipelago within the northern region of the Pacific Ocean. They are to the east of the Philippines and to the south-east of Japan.

Northern Mariana Islands quick fact sheet

History of the the Northern Mariana Islands

King Philip iv of Spain

The Northern Mariana Islands have a deep history that goes all the way back to the 1500’s.  The Islands were discovered by the Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1521. The CNMI is home to the Chamorro people. The islands were given the name ‘the Marianas’ in 1668 to pay homage to the widow of King Philip the fourth (King of Spain), Maria Anna.

A majority of the native Chamorro people are known to have died during the Spanish rule but a migratory trend from the nearby Caroline islands repopulated them in the 1800s.

The Northern Mariana islands were captured by Germany in 1899, ending the Spanish rule. Germany’s possession of the islands however did not last long as Japan received the islands because of the Treaty Of Versailles on 28th June 1919. 

Northern Mariana Island During WWII

The Japanese used most of these islands as military bases during World War I & II. Both the nations came face to face on the Island of Saipan. During World War II, in June of 1945, the battle of Saipan ended in American victory and since then these islands have remained a US territory.

World War 2 relics in Northern Mariana Islands
WWII Relics 

On 15th February 1975, local elections were held in the islands in which the majority of the population of the Northern Mariana Island voted in favor of becoming a commonwealth territory of the US, instead of seeking independence.

The Island of Saipan was declared the capital of the Mariana islands in 1976 by the US Congress, as a result of which 34,000 residents became permanent US citizens. Despite that, these residents cannot vote in the presidential elections.

In 1978, a new constitution and government was made effective in the Northern Mariana Islands. The new government set its own legislation for immigration, taxation and labor.

Land, Terrain & Geography

The total area of the Northern Mariana Islands is estimated to be 184 square miles. The capital, Saipan, has an area of 46.5 sq. miles; Tinian Island comprises an area measuring 39 sq. miles while Rota Island covers an area measuring 33 sq. miles. Around 65.5 % of the area comprises forests; the arable land is 2.2 % with permanent crops and pastures. 

Five of the southern islands namely Rota, Farallon De Medinilla, Aguijan, Tinian and Saipan are primarily made up of limestone and have a few mountains. 

Volcano at CNMI
Volcano in the Northern Mariana Island 

The Northernmost Islands are mostly volcanic and some have active volcanoes such as Asuncion, Pagan and Farallon De pajaros. One of the volcanoes in Pagan Island called Mount Pagan has erupted numerous times; the last time it erupted the island had to be evacuated. The northern islands do not have any population owing to the threat of volcanic eruptions.

The highest peak in the Northern Mariana Islands is that of Agrihan’s volcano, rising up to a height of 3,166 feet.

To the southeast of the Northern Mariana Islands, are the Caroline Islands, while the Bonin Islands are located to its North. The CNMI and Island of Guam together form the Mariana Archipelago within the northern region of the Pacific Ocean. The islands lie just 1,500 miles south of the Japanese coast. 


The Northern Mariana Islands have a tropical marine climate; the seasonal northeastern trade winds keep the island temperatures quite stable. The islands are considered to have the most stable climate in the world. The dry season usually lasts from December to June. They get around 70 inches of rain annually during the cold season, the southern islands getting more than the northern ones. Heavy rains and typhoons are common and have caused serious damage in the past.


Out of the fourteen islands, the majority population resides in Saipan, Tinian, Rota and Aguigan. The last population census reported a total population of close to 57,000. Out of these 48 thousand reside in Saipan, 3,000 in Tinian and 2,500 in Rota.

The indigenous people of Mariana Islands are the Chamorro people who are considered to have migrated from the Philippines around 1400-1500 BC. However they are in minority now and most of the inhabitants are considered to be Micronesians. 

More than 50 % of the people are of Asian descent. These include Korean, Chinese and Filipino while the remaining population consists of Pacific Islanders such as Chamorro and Carolinian. Above 37 % people fall in the age bracket of 25-54 Years and a vast majority are in fact not residents but workers from Asian countries recruited in the garment industry.


The Northern Mariana Islands do not see many Americans visiting. This is mostly because of the lack of awareness among the American people regarding the Mariana Islands. Another factor is the far distance and high travel costs. It is mostly visited by tourists from Japan and South Korea. 

One of the uninhabited islands, Managua Island, is popular for its water sports; it is very close to the capital Saipan. The islands are famous for its coral reefs, mountains and sandy shores. 

Woman snorkeling in the Northern Mariana Islands
A snorkeler enjoying the islands

Another famous tourist spot is the Lau Lau Beach, which is considered ideal for people who want to train in scuba diving. People also look forward to experiencing the incredible underwater caverns of Saipan’s Grotto which are littered with shipwrecks from World War II. People also come here for mountain biking and other outdoor activities. 

Obyan Beach is famous for its clear water and photographers come here to do underwater photography. There are also numerous Chamorro structures dating back to historical times. Memorials from World War II include the Suicide Cliff where during the battle of Saipan thousands of Japanese civilians and military men committed mass suicide rather than submitting to the US forces.