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Incorporated and Unincorporated - What's the Difference?

A view of South San Francisco, one of San Mateo County's incorporated cities.

The green areas of this map show unincorporated areas around Redwood City and Atherton.

All of the cities and towns in City Spotlight are incorporated. There are many parts of San Mateo County that are unincorporated. What's the difference? (Click here for the San Mateo County Unincorporated map).

Incorporation means that a community of homes and land has come together to form a city or town. The people who live there are then able to make more decisions about what happens in their city or town.

An incorporated city or town can

  • Have its own laws for the city or town
  • Decide how land will be used (for farms, for houses, for businesses, for open space)
  • Create its own services like fire and police
  • Tax residents to pay for services
  • Apply for money from the state or federal government
Unincorporated areas can't do these things. Instead, the County does them for unincorporated areas.

Why don't all areas want to be incorporated? Well, sometimes they are happy with the situation and don't want to change it.