The Protocol of Flags

FlagsFlags: we raise them in pride and celebration, lower them in sadness and to commemorate death, burn or destroy them in anger and protest.  There is great emotion associated with this one symbol as very aptly noted by the Chief Protocol Officer for Toronto, Canada.

For several months now, my colleague William Hanson has been urging me to write something for the blog on the subject of flags. On the face of it, this was a simple request and should not have presented any difficulties as I can fairly easily recite the generally accepted guidelines for displaying flags and have often given advice in the matter (sometimes by invitation, other times not).

However, I felt that our readers expected more than mere rote and I wanted a different slant and in the process, inadvertently opened a can of worms (a modern metaphorical extension of Pandora’s Box). My research (if that is not too grand a term) included personal observation and study on three continents and many countries and eventually led to a meeting with the Lead Ceremonials Officer for the US State Department. The USA is the only country that has statute law dealing with flying or displaying its national flag (Title 36, Chapter 1).

The display of national flags is a very sensitive issue. Done correctly, you do honour to your own flag and country and to your international visitors.  Done incorrectly and you may create ill-will and animosity and perhaps even an international incident as happened on 18 October 1992 when a US Marine Corps colour guard displayed the Canadian flag upside down at a World Series (baseball) game in the USA.  The fault wasn’t intentional nor was it through ignorance, it was a mere technical glitch and the Marine had no choice but to carry on with the ceremony.  Nevertheless, it required the intervention of the President of the United States to apologise. He requested the opportunity to make amends by sending another Marine Corps colour guard to Canada to carry the Canadian flag in the following World Series game and in an unprecedented move, requested that a Royal Canadian Mounted Police colour guard carry the American flag. All was forgiven.

It seems that a thorough knowledge of flag protocol and etiquette, combined with a certain panache, allows one to flaunt the rules and get away with it, rather like a gentleman who tweaks his dinner suit (“tuxedo” in America) with a discreetly patterned bowtie rather than the standard black barathea silk version. Knowing the rules and flaunting them with style is entirely different from blundering through in ignorance.

Amongst the new twists I have observed is a display of repeating flag patterns. This display features the repetition of the flags starting with the host country’s flag on the left, then the guest nations in alphabetical order in the host country’s language, repeated any number of times across the podium or along the line and ending with the host country.  For example, host country is the USA, guest nations are Canada and Mexico: the flags are displayed USA – Canada – Mexico, repeat, repeat, repeat – USA (the host country’s flag parenthetically enclosing the entire display any time there are five or more flags displayed). This is appropriate for decoration of a room, political briefings or announcements, diplomatic and consular events and also as a background for photo opportunities.  However, one litigator I spoke with advises against trying this set-up in a court room and then trying to explain it to the judge.

In Toronto, a colourful display of flags adjacent to the city hall features 18 flag poles arranged in three rows of six poles. No reference exists for flying flags in such a configuration and only after the designers and architects had installed the poles was the protocol office consulted.  The result is a magnificent display of the Canadian, provincial and territorial flags as well as the City of Toronto flag and multiple Canadian flags included to make up the number. The provincial flags are flown in order according to when each province joined confederation, however this is not immediately clear nor, I suggest, particularly important in this configuration. It is fully inclusive and because there is no protocol or precedent for such a display, no rules have been broken and no-one could possibly take offence.

While it is considered courteous and gracious to display an international visitor’s national flag on special occasions or during brief visits, be aware of the do’s and don’ts of flying your own national flag outside your home country, at your vacation home abroad, for example. It is correct to fly it on your own national holiday but incorrect to fly it year-round without regard or deference to the flag of your host country. Host country flags always take precedence. (I am referring to private property, not embassies or government buildings.) Never fly two national flags on the same single staff flag pole although rules exist for displaying multiple national flags on a nautical (yard-arm) pole with the gaff being the point of honour.

It is correct to raise your flags in the morning and lower them at sunset.  Flags are hoisted briskly, but lowered slowly and should never touch the ground. If flags are to be left flying overnight, it is correct to illuminate them. Soiled or tattered flags should not be displayed.  Soiled flags should be washed or dry-cleaned and tattered flags destroyed in a respectful manner – burning is suggested.  Americans, especially, are very sensitive about issues surrounding their flag and old, disused or tattered flags may be delivered to any branch of the American Legion for appropriate disposal. Americans even specify the correct way to fold their flag while other nations simply fold theirs in a neat fashion ready for next use.

Finally, “half-mast” is only an expression. When flying a flag at half-mast (on land, technically “half-staff”) it is first raised to the top of the staff and then slowly lowered a distance equal to the flag’s length (the “fly”, its longest side).  The expression half-mast originated on ships where lowering the flag by a distance equivalent to its length brought the flag to the half-way point on the mast.  It is incorrect, however, to lower the flag half-way down a flag pole although this rule is almost always observed in the breach, even on government buildings, and is so widely practised that it is commonly accepted and expected to lower the flag to the mid-point. However, purists take note.

Do you find all this interesting? Stay alert to the issues as you go about your daily routines and you will see flags from a new perspective. Do not hesitate to encourage businesses you patronise to improve their standards; banks, especially, have been guilty of continuing to fly flags well beyond their useful life.

John Robertson
Tutor, The English Manner

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6 Responses to “The Protocol of Flags”


  1. 1 Jay Remer 9 September 2010 at 8:11 am

    A very informative article on a subject many places get wrong. I was fascinated by the “new twist” of using flags as background decoration. Have you any idea when this came into style? Thanks, John, for setting the standard high (pun intended).

  2. 2 Anne 27 January 2011 at 9:59 pm

    Most interesting, and timely. I have a beautiful old linen British flag that I rescued from certain demise at a junk shop in Canada. I dearly love this old flag (and have family ties to the UK), and would like to display it in my home somehow. Is that considered appropriate, or not? Are there any rules I should consider with regard to displaying an antique flag in my home?

  3. 3 William Hanson 8 February 2011 at 10:16 am

    Dear Reader,

    Flags are not normally used as decoration but a dignified display of the flag indoors would not be inappropriate. It must not, however, be used as a table cloth or draped across a sofa, for example. It may be hung from a staff or displayed flat on a wall. If hanging on a wall in the horizontal position (as normally flown on a flag staff), you will easily know the correct way to display it but perhaps you are thinking of hanging it as a banner. In this case, you need to be sure the correct canton remains in the upper left corner when displayed. When the red cross of St Patrick is overlaid on the cross of St Andrew, the white portion of the St Andrew cross is wider above the red cross of St. Patrick than it is below it on both the upper left and lower left quadrants (cantons), and the upper of these quadrants must always be in the upper left position when the flag is displayed. If hanging the flag in the vertical position, you may have to “turn it over” to achieve this. This complicated explanation will become clear when you examine the flag and try it out!

    John Robertson.

  4. 4 Jay Remer 8 February 2011 at 11:44 am

    Another pet peeve of mine is when “college students” steal flags from around town, take them back to their rented apartments, and then have the nerve to hang them in their windows as drapes or shades. It is almost like a local right of passage. A wall hanging is one thing; a window hanging is something altogether different. On a positive note, this ‘tradition’ is on the wane.

  5. 5 webmaster 11 April 2013 at 6:16 pm

    Good day! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this post to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!

  6. 6 John Robertson 11 April 2013 at 7:29 pm

    Thank you for your supportive comments. Since writing the original blog, I have learned that South Africa also has laws governing the display of its national flag (ref. the Government Gazette 22356, Notice 510 of 8 June 2001), as well as Australia (the Australian Flags Act of 1953). Kind regards. John Robertson


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