In the great expanse of the South Pacific, islands and their exotic isolation have fascinated imaginations for centuries. White sandy beaches, crystal clear waters and a native culture that draws you in with a fascinating mixture of tribes and cultural preservation.
You’ll notice as seemingly endless stretches of water are punctured by single islands, atolls and vast archipelagos.
One archipelago has a particularly interesting setup; the Samoan Islands. This group of twenty-odd islands contains a patchwork of multi-culture, colonial pasts and a fascinating modern identity.
Although known geographically as the Samoan Islands, a large line can be drawn down the middle, both geographically, culturally, historically and politically. This line divides the Samoan Islands into two respective camps; Samoa and American Samoa. So, what Is the difference between Samoa and American Samoa, and how did it come to be that there is a difference at all?
Let’s take a look.
History of Samoa
Located in the South Pacific, 3,500 miles (5,600km) east of Australia, is the nation of Samoa. It’s made up of four inhabited islands; Savaiʻi, Upolu, Manono and Apolima along with several other uninhabited islands.
Populated by indigenous Polynesian Lapita people for thousands of years, the island was governed by ruling chiefs through a culture known as Faʻa Sāmoa. The everyday culture and governance of Samoa were interwoven with that of other Polynesian islands such as Fiji and Tonga.
The first European contact with the island of Samoa took the form of independent Dutch explorers during the 18th century. This then continued throughout the 19th century with European whaling ships, Christian missionaries and small trading expeditions interacting with the local Samoan tribespeople.
European interest in Samoa only grew as colonial expansion throughout the world began to boil over at an alarming pace. As the European imperialist powers of the day scrambled to divide up parts of Africa, Asia and the Pacific, greedy eyes turned to Samoa.
Both the British, Germans and Americans all had desires to take the islands of Samoa as their own.
Fighting a proxy war on the islands, these three Western powers took advantage of inter-tribal conflicts to decide the fate of Samoa themselves. It was decided that Germany would take Samoa, the Americans would take the eastern islands (known from then on as American Samoa), and the British would take the Solomon Islands to the north and Tonga to the south.
Based on this colonial carving up of south pacific islands, Samoa began the 20th century under new rulers and a new name, German Samoa. German rule in Samoa lasted for fourteen years until the outbreak of the First World War drew an invasion from New Zealand troops.
New Zealand continued to occupy and run Samoa after the end of the war. Now known as Western Samoa, an anti-colonial movement grew amongst the native Samoans, who resented yet another foreign colonial power governing their islands.
It took until 1962 for independence to finally be granted for Western Samoa, and in doing so, they became the first small-island country in the Pacific to become independent.
In 1997 the Western Samoan government made one last name change in a long line of names, renaming Western Samoa simply; Samoa.
History of American Samoa
American Samoa is made up of five main islands and two atolls (a ringed coral island with a lagoon at its centre). Before the arrival of Europeans, American Samoa was simply a series of islands that made up the eastern Samoan archipelago. The islands were inhabited and run by the indigenous Polynesian Lapita people for centuries, based on a culture of tribal communities.
As European nations began to try and export their own branch of ‘civilisation’ to the natives of Samoa, they were quickly rebuked. During the 18th century, a physical battle took place between French invaders and the natives of Tutuila, now American Samoa’s main island. With a French defeat, the ferocity of the Samoan warriors became famous but only encouraged a greater influx of European missionaries to the islands, with an aim to Christianise the Samoans.
With the British, Germans and the USA battling for political influence and control over the Samoan islands throughout the 19th century, a colonial agreement was made. The agreement stated that Germany would take the western Samoan islands and the Americans would take the eastern. These eastern Samoan islands were henceforth known as American Samoa, a title that still remains today.
A native independence movement, similar to the one that would eventually overthrow the New Zealanders on Western Samoa, did attempt to push back against US occupation, but with strong crackdowns on local chieftains and leaders, it was unable to gain much ground.
During the Second World War, a huge influx of US marines flooded the islands, eventually outnumbering the local population. This influx had a huge effect on Americanising the native population and with the US Army and US Navy stationed here, a particular militaristic form of American culture permeated through American Samoan culture.
So much so, that modern American Samoa has the highest rate of military enlistment of any U.S. state or territory, although the American government does include some pretty unfair loopholes in this agreement.
Throughout the 20th century, there was a push to have American Samoa incorporated into the United States, though this was always rejected by Congress in Washington. Instead, American Samoa is known as an Unincorporated Territory of the USA, with the population recognised as American Nationals, but not American Citizens.
Similarities Between Samoa and American Samoa
Although Samoa and American Samoa have spent much of the past two centuries as two separate nations, drawing their cultural and national identity from different sources, they are undeniably two halves of the same coin.
With the branches of both nations growing from the same tree, there is much the two countries share and the difference between Samoa and American Samoa seems a lot more superficial.
- Language. Both Samoa and American Samoa recognise Samoan and English as official languages. Samoan has been spoken across the Samoan archipelago for centuries and is classed as a Polynesian language.
- Breathtaking scenery. Nestled in the beautiful part of the world which is the South Pacific, both Samoa and American Samoa is home to stunning landscapes, coral reefs and a plethora of tropical wildlife.
- Ethnicity. Over 90% of both Samoa and American Samoa’s population is made up of ethnic Samoans. Both islands have similar proportions of Europeans and other Polynesians.
- Ancient history. Although both nations have gone down their own cultural routes over the past hundred years, the underlying culture and history of Samoa as a whole are seen everywhere. With tribal structures and family life at the forefront of both nations, there is a sense of shared history and origin.
24-Hour Time Difference Between Samoa and American Samoa: Explained
Before 2011, both Samoa and American Samoa followed the Samoa Time Zone and sat 11 hours behind GMT. With much of American Samoa’s economy, business and international relations existing through contact with the USA, this time zone works perfectly – they are only a couple of hours behind the USA’s Pacific Time.
On the other hand, Samoa’s economy, business and international relations exist through contact with nations such as New Zealand and Australia. Under the old time zone, this would mean Samoa would be a whole 21 hours behind Australia – not great for working out a conference call!
It was therefore decided, in 2011, that Samoa would move across the International Date Line and adopt a +13 time zone on GMT. This would mean they would only be a few hours ahead of Australia and New Zealand but a whole 24 hours ahead of neighbouring American Samoa.
P.S. I only know this because I panicked when booking flights to American Samoa from Samoa and saw that I had somehow time-travelled!
The Difference Between Samoa and American Samoa
I’ve tried my best to present the commonalities between the two and the complex history which divided them in the first place. Now I’ll have a crack at explaining the difference between Samoa and American Samoa…
Different political affiliation
When it comes to each nation’s political affiliation, there’s a clear distinction. As American Samoa is an Unincorporated Territory of the USA, it is no surprise that their political leaning is towards Washington DC and the US political system.
The United Nations gave American Samoa an opportunity to join independent Samoa in 1966. American Samoa chose to stay as part of the US, and American Samoa is therefore run by a federally elected governor.
Samoa, on the other hand, has far more political affiliation with nations such as New Zealand and Australia. The political system is based on a parliamentary representative state, with a prime minister at its head. Both nations are politically involved with the Polynesian Leaders Group, focusing on social and economic issues within the Pacific.
Different national sport
American Samoa has been culturally influenced by the USA for over a century, so it’s no surprise that their national sport is American Football. American Football has benefited hugely from American Samoa, with 3% of the league’s players coming from the islands.
Samoa, however, has made international waves in a whole other sport, Rugby. Brought to Samoa in the 1920s, Samoa has competed in every Rugby World Cup since 1990 and is regularly ranked amongst the top 15 international teams in the world.
Being an Unincorporated Territory of the USA, American Samoa uses the US Dollar as its currency. Samoa has its own currency, known as the Samoan tālā, a Samoanised version of the word dollar. At the time of writing, 1 US dollar is worth 2.5 Samoan tālās.
Samoa is an independent country; American Samoa is a territory
One of the main differences between Samoa and American Samoa is the fact that Samoa is an independent country. This means they are in complete control of external and foreign affairs and represent themselves at the UN. American Samoa is a territory of the US and must adhere to the rules and regulations put to them by Washington and is seen as a non-self-governing territory in the eyes of the UN.
It’s easier for American Samoans to get residency in the USA
Being an Unincorporated Territory of the USA, American Samoans who wish to reside in the USA can do so far easier than foreign nationals. They have the right to reside in the USA and can apply for US citizenship after just three months of living in one of the 50 US states. Samoans, on the other hand, will be treated as foreigners and must go through the same channels as any other non-US national would to get residency in the USA.
There are different visa entry requirements for each destination
Visas aren’t necessary for stays of up to 60 days when visiting Samoa. If you want to stay longer than 60 days, applications must be made at Samoa’s overseas missions in Brussels, Wellington, Auckland, Canberra or New York, or to the Immigration Office at the Prime Minister’s Department in Samoa.
If you’d prefer to visit American Samoa, then traditional USA visa rules apply. There is a list of over 30 countries that are part of a Visa Waiver Program – meaning you may not need a visa to enter US soil. American Samoan visa rules will all depend on the country you are travelling from and your own nationality (I flew directly from Samoa and got an on-entry visa as a Brit). US citizens can enter American Samoa freely.
Samoa is much more accessible
As I mentioned above, American Samoa is treated with the same laws as any other part of the United States. With strict immigration laws set in place, the US mainland can be a fortress to enter, and the same goes for American Samoa. With a huge military base and a slight reluctance to promote tourism, American Samoa is not as accessible as its neighbour Samoa.
This does have its advantages; however, American Samoa is far less touristy and can offer you a sense of Samoan culture without all the tourist traps (although all the American brands like Mcdonald’s are unfortunately loud and proud and gaining popularity over there).
This does nothing to take away from Samoa’s openness and willingness to attract tourists to the islands. If you don’t mind the odd touristy beach bar or hotel, Samoa’s accessibility makes it a great place to visit easily.
American Samoa is more Americanised (duh)
It kind of goes without saying American Samoa is the more Americanised nation, but just how Americanised it is can come as a shock. When visiting American Samoa, you could easily be fooled that you’re on another Hawaiian island or in a sun-soaked town in south Florida.
This might be a taste of home for some Americans and even desirable for your average Americanophile. If you want to say goodbye to Uncle Sam for a while and truly soak up Polynesian culture at its purest, a visit to Samoa over American Samoa is for the best.
American Samoa has a crystal meth problem
Being cut off from the world on a South Pacific Island means the usual underworld drug routes pass the country by. These drug routes are what normally flood Western countries with drugs such as cocaine and heroin. The absence of such drugs has forced the criminal underworld to turn to man-made drugs such as crystal meth.
The drug of choice for many Americans, negative cultural exports such as this also find their way to American Samoa. American Samoans may argue that their meth issues are no worse than California or Michigan, but the problem seems far worse due to the smaller landmass and population.
American Samoa is much shyer than its brother to promote tourism
With tourism accounting for 25% of Samoa’s GDP, it is no surprise that they welcome their tourists with welcome arms. American Samoa, on the other hand, is far more reluctant to open the floodgates to tourism.
The difference between Samoa and American Samoa in this regard is the fact that Samoa relies economically on tourism, whereas American Samoa can rely on federal appropriations and grants from the US to boost its economy and keep it going. This lack of willingness to push tourism has created a vicious circle – there are limited commercial flights, a lack of well-trained workers in the hospitality sector and a lack of quality tourist accommodation.
My Experience of Travelling Samoa
Samoa is a tropical bliss filled with family-orientated, jolly and welcoming people. From the first step off the plane at Faleolo Airport, we were greeted by a band of harmonic singers with guitars; a cute and charming little addition to every other Pacific Islands nation’s airports upon landing.
One thing that stood out to me was the prominence of the “fa’afafine,” Samoan’s proclaimed “3rd gender,” where a Samoan person is born as a man and also grows to have feminine-dominant characteristics, is accepted as this name and is said to be neither a woman nor a man.
There have been some concerning theories that the 3rd boy in a family is often forced into this identity if the family have a surplus of sons, but this has been strongly refuted by voices in Samoa. The fa’afafine have been a strong part of Samoan cultural identity for generations, however, the Catholic Church isn’t a big fan due to same-sex coupling (most fa’afafine partner up with men).
The more famously known on a global scale, “Kathoeys” of Thailand would be a close enough analogy for the fa’afafine people of Samoa.
Beauty was everywhere in Samoa, with the main pick of the bunch being the natural wonder that is To Sua Ocean Trench, a stunning 100-foot deep sinkhole, hidden away in pure paradise.
My Experience of Travelling American Samoa
The initial landing was confusing due to the aforementioned time difference, but once we got our baffled heads around that, we were ready to take on quite possibly THE coolest-sounding name of a capital city I’ve ever heard… “Pago Pago!”
Pago Pago was incredibly scenic with highly-spraying blowholes shocking us as we walked around taking in the overabundance of beauty. It felt crazy to think we had just stepped out of an international airport in a capital city, only to be surrounded by so many contrasts from the trees, mountains and ocean.
Much like its cousin, Samoa, American Samoa is certainly worth a wolf whistle, or two.
American Samoa’s shy tourism immediately translated when we were out there. Most travelling around between points of interest was a DIY job, which suited us perfectly. After a lot of trips under our belt, we were more than happy to take the reins and it also feels a bit more ‘raw’ when you have to rely on no one but yourself and get to navigate with the locals on public transport is such a cool experience.
The public buses in both American Samoa and Samoa are the wildest and most unique that I’ve ever experienced so far. They have painted all sorts of jazzy colours, show up whenever the hell they like and blast out amazing Samoan/reggae hybrid music. Something that struck me was that when the bus was full, there was interesting gentlemanly conduct agreed upon by all parties…
In Western countries, if you have any good manners on you, you will offer your seat to a lady of any age and stand up for the rest of your trip. In the Samoan islands, a lady takes a seat on the lap of the sitting man! That might seem a bit weird in the West, but imagine that – “take a seat right here, love” on the London Underground, you’d probably get the warm side of a palm.
But this is American Samoa and it works!
I initially thought that this fascinating custom was only an American Samoan thing, but apparently, it happens in both Samoas – I guess I only witnessed it in American Samoa.
The usual suspects, such as KFC, McDonald‘s et al were all over the American Samoan islands, and the locals spoke with much more of an American dialect, they also dressed in more high street American brands clothing than their neighbours over the water did.
I’ve seen a fair share of negative comments regarding the American Samoa travel experience, but I honestly loved it.
That’s about it for now, as I plan to write a full travel guide on both countries very soon. I tried my best to describe to enquiring minds what is the difference between Samoa and American Samoa. I hope I did a decent enough job and I welcome any feedback from expats and most importantly locals of both nations with any critiques of my assessment.