What Is the Jones Act? Definition, History, and Costs

What Is the Jones Act?

The Jones Act is a federal law that regulates maritime commerce in the United States. The Jones Act requires goods shipped between U.S. ports to be transported on ships that are built, owned, and operated by United States citizens or permanent residents.

The Jones Act is Section 27 of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, which provided for the maintenance of the American merchant marine.

Key Takeaways

  • The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, better known as the Jones Act, is a protectionist law that regulates maritime shipping in the United States.
  • The Jones Act requires that any cargo traveling by sea between two U.S. ports must sail on an American-owned ship, built in the United States and with a majority crew of U.S. citizens.
  • The Jones Act was passed in the wake of the first World War to boost the shipping industry.
  • Critics say that the Jones Act increases the cost of shipping for U.S. islands like Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

Understanding the Jones Act

The Jones Act was introduced by Wesley Jones, the U.S. Senator from the state of Washington, who designed the legislation to give his state a monopoly on shipping to Alaska. It was enacted by the United States Congress to stimulate the shipping industry in the wake of World War I.

Considered protectionist legislation, the Jones Act focuses on issues related to maritime commerce, including cabotage or the transport of people or goods between ports in the same country.

The Act requires that goods shipped between U.S. ports be transported on ships built, owned, and operated by United States citizens or permanent residents. This provision and its restrictions increase the cost of shipping to Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, and other non-continental U.S. lands that rely on imports.

The Jones Act is a piece of protectionist legislation that considerably increases the costs of shipping goods between two U.S. ports.

Goals of the Jones Act

  • Launched to revitalize the U.S. maritime shipping industry, which had been depleted after World War I.
  • Support the shipping industry and prevent the United States from relying on foreign-built ships.
  • Generate jobs and business revenue. The Jones Act supports 650,000 American jobs, generating $150 billion in economic activity each year.

Jones Act Requirements

  • Ships transporting cargo between two U.S. ports must be owned by U.S.-based companies, with over 75% of the ownership stake held by U.S. citizens.
  • A ship's crew must consist of a majority of U.S. citizens.
  • The ships must be built and registered in the U.S.

Jones Act Waivers

  • In the wake of a natural disaster, such as a hurricane, the Act may be waived to increase the number of ships that can legally supply goods to an affected area.
  • The Secretary of Defense can request waivers in the "interest of national defense" and there is a separate procedure for non-defense entities. In both cases, the final authority for a waiver is the Secretary of Homeland Security.

Criticism of the Jones Act

The Jones Act has been cited as a factor affecting Puerto Rico's economic and budgetary troubles by affecting trade with the island. A 2019 report found that for Puerto Rico "the differentials between U.S. and foreign-flagged carriers range from about 41% to as high as 62% for bulk cargo and between 29% and 89% for containerized freight.” The additional costs caused by the Act for the island’s economy to be nearly $1.2 billion, which comes to roughly $374 per resident.

The waiver of the Act was implemented in 2022 only after Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico. The Biden administration allowed a non-U.S. flagged ship to transport fuel to Puerto Rico, following pressure to waive the rule in the face of a fuel shortage to ensure that citizens could run generators needed for electricity and the functioning critical facilities.

Opponents hope that a repeal of the Act will result in decreased shipping costs, lower prices, and less strain on government budgets. Proponents of the act include states with owners of navy yards, defense firms, and shipping industries, as well as the longshoremen and other personnel who work in ports.

In early 2022, the Jones Act made headlines for its potential role in the U.S.-Russia oil business. Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine in late February, the U.S. banned Russian oil and gas imports on March 8.

The U.S. has traditionally relied on imports from Russia, especially Hawaii, which imports Russian crude oil per year, accounting for up to a quarter of all Russian oil shipments to the U.S. Critics of the Jones Act suggest that it limits the viability of shipping oil and gas to remote areas like Hawaii, forcing the state to rely on imports from Russia.

How Does the Jones Act Affect Puerto Rico?

One consequence of the Jones Act is that it requires U.S. shipping for cargo between Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland, increasing the cost of development for the island's economy.

How Does the Jones Act Affect Cruise Ships?

While the Jones Act does not cover passenger vessels, a related law has a similar effect on cruise ships. Under the 1886 Passenger Vessel Services Act, a foreign ship cannot transport passengers directly between two U.S. ports. This means that a foreign-flagged cruise ship (the vast majority of cruise ships) must include foreign ports in any itinerary that begins and ends in a U.S. port. This often results in confusion or even fines for passengers who disembark at ports that violate the Jones Act.

How Long Can a Waiver of the Jones Act Be Implemented?

In 2020, Congress eliminated the federal government’s authority to issue long-term waivers, except in circumstances where a waiver is required to “address an immediate adverse effect on military operations.” Waivers that do not meet that standard must be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. 

The Bottom Line

The Jones Act is a 1920 law that limits how cargo is transported by sea. It requires any cargo shipped between U.S. ports to be carried by U.S. ships, with American crews. Originally intended as a measure to support the strategically-important shipping industry, it is now considered a classic example of protectionism.

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  1. U.S. Congress. "H. Rept. 111-521 - Securing Protections For The Injured From Limitations On Liability Act."

  2. U.S. Department of Transportation. "Domestic Shipping."

  3. Congressional Research Service. "Shipping Under the Jones Act: Legislative and Regulatory Background," Pages 1-30.

  4. Defense News. "Why the Jones Act Is Still Needed 100 Years Later."

  5. Maritime Administration. "Domestic Shipping."

  6. John Dunham and Associates. "The Jones Act: The Legacy of Economic Ruin For Puerto Rico," Pages 27-28.

  7. U.S. Department of Homeland Security. "Statement By Secretary Mayorkas on the Approval of a Jones Act Waiver For Puerto Rico."

  8. CBS News. "Biden bans Russian oil and gas imports to U.S., targeting "main artery" of Russia's economy."

  9. Wall Street Journal. "Jonesing to Give Up Russian Oil."

  10. The Points Guy. "What Is the Jones Act for Cruise Ships?"

  11. Legal Information Institute. "Jones Act."