A city charter or town charter (generically, municipal charter) is a legal document (charter) establishing a municipality such as a city or town. The concept developed in Europe during the Middle Ages.
Traditionally the granting of a charter gave a settlement and its inhabitants the right to town privileges under the feudal system. Townspeople who lived in chartered towns were burghers, as opposed to serfs who lived in villages. Towns were often "free", in the sense that they were directly protected by the king or emperor, and were not part of a feudal fief.
Today the process for granting charters is determined by the type of government of the state in question. In monarchies, charters are still often a royal charter given by the Crown or the state authorities acting on behalf of the Crown. In federations, the granting of charters may be within the jurisdiction of the lower level of government such as a state or province.
In Canada charters are granted by provincial authorities.
Since the beginning of American colonial rule, Philippines cities were formally established through laws enacted by the various national legislatures in the country. The Philippine Commission gave the city of Manila its charter in 1901, while the city of Baguio was established by the Philippine Assembly which was composed by elected members instead of appointed ones. During the Commonwealth era, the National Assembly established an additional ten cities. Since achieving independence from the United States in 1946 the Philippine Congress has established 124 more cities (as of September 2007), the majority of which required the holding of a plebiscite within the proposed city's jurisdiction to ratify the city's charter.
In the United States, such charters are established either directly by a state legislature by means of local legislation, or indirectly under a general municipal corporation law, usually after the proposed charter has passed a referendum vote of the affected population.
A municipal charter is the basic document that defines the organization, powers, functions and essential procedures of the city government. It is comparable to the Constitution of the United States or a state's constitution. The charter is, therefore, the most important legal document of any city.
- Winfield, P.H., The charter of San Francisco (The fortnightly review Vol. 157-58:2 (1945), p. 69-75)