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There are 14 UK Overseas Territories (OT) across the globe, of which ten are permanently inhabited by British nationals.

All the Territories have historic links to the UK and, together with the UK and Crown Dependencies like Jersey and Guernsey, form one undivided realm where the King is sovereign. This means they have no separate international representation. They also have no representatives in the UK Parliament.

This briefing introduces the Territories, sets out the UK’s responsibilities towards them, and summarises their constitutions, human rights law and electorates, and issues of disputed sovereignty and independence. It primarily focuses on the ten inhabited Territories.

What are the 14 Territories?

The OTs have an estimated population of 270,000 (2021). Pitcairn is the populated Territory with the smallest population of 40 people, while the Cayman Islands and Bermuda have the largest populations of around 65,000.

The 14 Overseas Territories

Those permanently inhabited by UK nationals are marked with a *

Ascension, St Helena and Tristan da Cunha*

British Indian Ocean Territory


Akrotiri and Dhekelia

British Virgin Islands*



Cayman Islands*

Turks and Caicos Islands*


Falkland Islands*

South Georgia & The South Sandwich Islands

British Antarctic Territory


The diversity of the Territories

While this briefing considers the Territories together, they have diverse geographies, environments, economies, populations, political systems, strategic importance to the UK, and history.

Bermuda, for example, has a two-chamber parliament, a population of 64,000, a higher Gross Domestic Product per person than the UK, and is economically self-sufficient from the UK with a strong tourist economy and financial sector, though faces threats from hurricanes.

St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, in contrast, is a single Territory with three political systems for each island united under the same Governor, a total population of 6,000, is one of only three UK Territories eligible for UK aid, and has only fortnightly air flights to South Africa.

The British Antarctic Territory is the largest Territory in terms of land area, at 1.7 million km2, but is uninhabited aside from visiting scientists.

Like small island developing states, many of the Territories are highly vulnerable to natural disasters and experience development challenges, including in access to finance and being remote from trade and markets.

What powers does the UK have over the OTs?

As a matter of constitutional law, the UK Parliament has unlimited power to legislate for the Territories. Through the UK Privy Council, the UK Government can also issue Orders in Council, which are a form of law allowing changes to be made to Territory laws and constitutions. The UK Privy Council also acts as the final court of appeal for Territory courts.

The UK can also issue instructions to OT Governors to implement certain policies, where the Territory constitution gives the Governor such a power.

The UK has responsibility for the defence of the Territories, managing most of their foreign relations, and, usually following consultation, extending international treaties to them that the UK has ratified. In most cases, fiscal policy and liability for Territory debts is not an issue for the UK, but three Territories (Pitcairn, Montserrat and St Helena and Tristan da Cunha) are eligible for funding from the UK’s aid budget.

Many issues are devolved to Territory Governments and their Governors. This includes immigration policy, internal security like the police, financial services, the environment, and social policy including health and education (though the UK can provide support, such as through the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, and has the ultimate power to intervene).

This division has sometimes created tensions between UK and OT law: For example, same-sex marriage is not permitted in some Territories. While the UK Government has called for reforms, it has defended OT self-government.

In response to allegations of mismanagement and corruption, the UK has suspended the constitution of the Turks and Caicos Islands in 1986 and 2009 and has threatened direct rule in the British Virgin Islands following a Commission of Inquiry in 2022.

How are the Territories internally governed?

While the Territories have individual constitutions, in general:

  • Uninhabited Territories are administered by a UK appointed Commissioner. They have the power to make laws, establish courts, and regulate the Territory (in line with any instructions or the constitution).
  • Inhabited Territories have a UK-appointed Governor, who is commonly responsible for the Territory’s external affairs, internal security such as the police, and often has the power to make or reject law. Most Territories have a ministerial system of government, where a Premier and Cabinet must retain the confidence of a locally elected legislature. In others, a committee system of government is in place.

Details for each specific Territory can be found in the Library briefings on the UK’s OTs and their Governors and the Separation of powers in the UK’s OTs.

Sovereignty disputes and independence 

As the administrating power for the Overseas Territories, the UK has a responsibility under the UN Charter to support their political, economic, and social development and self-government. The Government says it will support any OT that wishes to become independent to do so, if this is demonstrated by a “clear and constitutionally expressed wish” of the population.

Of the 14 current Territories only Bermuda, in 1995, has held a referendum on independence since becoming an OT. The question of UK control has primarily been challenged by other states, rather than Territory populations and governments:

For inhabited Territories, the UK Government position is that it will only enter into negotiations over sovereignty with the agreement of locally elected governments and a demonstration of popular consent for any changes.

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