Flags, standards, banners and similar symbols identify nations, groups, and sometimes individuals. Flags of an international organization (such as the United Nations), a nation, or a province or state are physical symbols which represent the sovereignty, honour, pride and dignity of the organization, nation, province or state.

National flags, and indeed all flags, should be treated with the respect and dignity to which an important national symbol is rightly due. Similarly, the flags which represent individuals such as The Queen, or a Governor-General, or a Scottish Clan Chief, should also be accorded the same respect and dignity as would be offered the persons which they represent.

The display and flying of flags is a matter which has been regulated by established tradition for many years. In some states and nations, the flying of flags or other national symbols is regulated by statute. This is not necessarily the case everywhere, and in many cases, the etiquette of flag display is different depending on what country and what purpose a particular flag is displayed.

Types of Flags

Before we can examine the etiquette of displaying particular flags we must first identify the major types of flags and their purpose. There are at least six main groupings of flag types, each with a particular purpose, meaning, and etiquette. The types of flags are discussed in detail following the list below.
  • Flags of International Organizations
  • National Flags
  • Provincial, State and Territorial Flags
  • Corporate Flags (including Municipal Corporations)
  • Flags of Individuals
  • Flags Related to Boating
1. Flags of International Organizations
These include flags representing organizations such as the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Union, and The Commonwealth Nations].

The Flag of the European Union is a blue field, with twelve gold stars in a circle.

These flags are normally flown only at times and places relating to the organization, its creation, or an event relating to the organization. When the organization hosts the place or event, the flag is normally given the position of honour amongst other flags displayed there.

For example, at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, the UN flag is flown above the flags of the member nations. This is the only place in the United States where it is permissible to fly another flag higher than that of the flag of the United States of America. The flag of the United Nations also flies at major U.S./Canadian border crossings, such as The Peace Bridge at the Fort Erie, Ontario/Buffalo, NY border. At that location, the UN flag flies between those of the U.S. and Canada, representing the fact that both countries are UN members.

The flag of the Commonwealth Nations would normally be flown at an event such as The Commonwealth Games.

2. National Flags

Flags of nations are normally accorded the position of honour while flown on home soil. A national flag is also normally flown from the stern or mast of a vessel registered to that country while in its own seas, or while in harbours abroad, as well as at high sea when signalled by another vessel to identify its nationality.

It is normal practice for a vessel to fly the national flag of the country it is visiting from the bow or foremast of the vessel while it is in that nation's harbour.

The Royal Union Flag of Great Britain (the 'Union Jack') Note the flag is flown correctly when St. Andrew's Cross (the broad white saltire) appears above St. Patrick's Cross (the red saltire) in the upper hoist

Some countries prohibit the display of their national flag on its civilian and merchant vessels by statute. Instead, a civil ensign is flown which usually shows the national flag in the upper hoist (the uppermost corner nearest the mast, sometimes called the canton), and a plain, coloured background. For example, civil and merchant vessels in Great Britain may not fly the Royal Union Flag of Great Britain. Instead, they must fly the official civil or merchant ensign, which is a blue ensign showing the Royal Union Flag in the upper hoist. By contrast, Royal Navy vessels fly the white ensign, which is the St George's cross (red cross on a white background) with the Royal Union Flag in the upper hoist.

The National Flag of Canada (the 'Maple Leaf Flag') The flag was adopted in 1965 - Prior to this, the National Flag of Canada was a red ensign bearing The Royal Union Flag in the upper hoist, and the arms of Canada in the fly

National flags are national symbols which represent the nation, its armed forces, its institutions, universities, colleges, civil and military installations, government offices, airports, and other sites, as well as the people of that nation. In most countries, there is no law requiring its citizens to display the national flag, however, in most places, civilians are permitted and encouraged to do so.

A national flag is always treated with dignity and respect. While flown in its home country, it takes precedence over all other flags, including flags of other sovereign nations. The only exception to this practice is in the United Kingdom, or other Commonwealth countries, where the personal standards of members of the Royal Family, or of Her Majesty's official representatives, are always given precedence, even over the national flag.

A national flag is never used as a covering, masking, barrier, or decorative cloth. It never covers a table, seat, or floor. Indeed, a national flag should never be tied down, furled up, or in any way hindered. A national flag is only properly displayed from a flagpole or mast when it is flying aloft and free. This means the flag is properly attached to the flagpole or halyard, and the 'fly' is allowed to fly free with the wind, and not tied down or lashed to any object.

When a national flag is raised on a flagpole or mast, is it done so quickly. When it is lowered, it is done so slowly and with dignity. During the raising or lowering of a national flag, all those present should face the flag, men should remove their hats, and all should remain silent. Persons present in uniform should salute.

A national flag is normally not flown at night, unless illuminated.

3. Provincial, State and Territorial Flags

While in their own province, state or territory, these flags take precedence over all other flags except national flags. A provincial, state or territorial flag is normally not flown with a national flag other than the nation for which it belongs. If it is flown with the flag of another sovereign nation, its own nation's flag should also be flown.

The precedence of provincial, state and territorial flags is very confusing and often more complex than the etiquette of flying national flags with other national flags.

For example, in Canada, when flags of every province and territory are flown with the National Flag of Canada, there is a specific order in which the provincial flags should appear, based on the year of that province's entry into Confederation. When flown in a single line, the National Flag of Canada should appear at both ends, and between them, from left to right (from the observer's position), the flags of the provinces and territories appear in this order: Ontario (1867), Québec (1867), Nova Scotia (1867), New Brunswick (1867), Manitoba (1870), British Columbia (1871), Prince Edward Island (1873), Saskatchewan (1905), Alberta (1905), Newfoundland (1949), Northwest Territories (1870), Yukon (1878), Nunavut (1999).

The reader will note that four provinces joined Confederation in 1867. In Ontario, the flags of the provinces would be displayed with Ontario's flag taking precedence over those of other provinces who share this confederation date. Confusingly, The Northwest Territories and the Yukon flags appear after those of the provinces, though they have been a part of Canada for much longer than many provinces. The reason for this is likely due to their constitutional relationship with Canada. These territories do not have premiers, and are more directly administered by the federal government than are the provinces.

In the United States of America, too, the flags of the states take precedence depending upon their entry into the Union, when flown with the Stars and Stripes as well as flags of other U.S. states.

4. Corporate Flags

Flags of corporations are usually a simple one-colour background with the corporate logo superimposed over top.

In some cases, they are more elaborate flags, incorporating a coat of arms or heraldic crest. These flags are normally flown at buildings and plants which are owned by the company. They can be flown alone, or with a provincial or national flag. If they are flown with a provincial or national flag, that flag takes precedence over the company's flag.

5. Flags of Individuals

Flags belonging to individuals are extremely uncommon in this day and age. Historically, these flags were in fact banners or standards which representing knights in battle, during a far earlier period in history. The flag or standard was a rallying point, which identified the knight or commander while engaging the enemy at close quarters. Later, during the Napoleonic Era, the flags representing the regiment or its commander.

For example
  • 'The Royal Standard of Her Majesty The Queen'
    This standard shows the arms of the Sovereign, that is - quarterly, 1st and 4th, gules (red) three lions passant or (gold), in the 2nd quarter, the arms of Scotland (or, a lion rampant gules, in a brodure of fleur-de-lys), in the 3rd quarter, azure (blue) a harp or (gold, stringed argent (silver). The three gold lions on a red field in the 1st and 4th quarters represent England (and Wales), the arms of Scotland represent Scotland, and the harp represents Ireland (or, more correctly, Northern Ireland). The arms change only with the addition or change to the Kingdom and its dominion. The arms remain unchanged on the death of the sovereign. The Royal Standard is never half-masted, as on the death of the Sovereign, the heir apparent immediately ascends the throne and inherits the Royal Arms.

  • 'The Standard of the Governor General of Canada'
    The standard is the crest from the coat of arms for Canada - 'on a wreath, argent (silver) and gules (red), a lion passant guardant, or (gold), crown imperially, a maple leaf (gules) in the dexter paw' - all on a blue background

    Nowadays, flags of individuals include the Royal Standard of Her Majesty The Queen, or of other members of the Royal Family, as well as Chiefs of Scottish Clans, Clan Lairds, Governors, Governors-General, Lieutenant-Governors, as well as members of the British peerage, and those entitled to bear arms.

    The purpose of a personal flag or banner is to locate and identify its owner. Flown over his house, it identifies his property. Flown elsewhere, it indicates his presence. Normally, a heraldic house flag is square in shape, and large enough to be identified from a distance.

    Any individual may have a personal flag, pendant, standard, gonfalon, or banner. However, in some places, the use and public display of such are matters regulated by statute. In Scotland in particular, the Lord Lyon must grant letters patent permitting the display of some personal flags.

    6. Flags Related to Boating

    This is a very wide aspect of flag etiquette. Flags or different types may mean different things to different people, depending on where or when they are flown on a vessel. Generally speaking, a national flag flown from a vessel should be flown from 8:00am to sunset, or as the harbour's rules dictate.

    Display of Flags

    In general, a flag is displayed in a manner which recognizes the honour and dignity of the nation or body it represents. A flag is never flown or displayed upside down. To do so would express grave alarm or distress on the part of the person or persons flying the flag. For example, a foundering vessel would fly its flag upside down to denote its distress (in addition to making radio distress calls, and flares and other distress signals).

    A flag of a nation is never displayed above that of another nation, where possible, and never on the same flagpole (unless it is a yardarm, which is a specific type of marine flagpole, with rules unique unto itself). To display a national flag above that of another on the same flagpole is normally associated with the military defeat or domination of the nation represented by the lower flag on the pole. This practice has not been in fashion for many decades, however. In modern context, it is usually an error made in ignorance of tradition and etiquette.

    A flag must never be allowed to touch the ground or become soiled.

    Disposal of a Flag

    A flag is never burned, except when it becomes so tattered and frayed that to display it would insult the dignity of the nation or body it represents. In some places, it is preferred that a worn-out flag be buried instead. In the United States, it is usual practice to give a worn-out flag to a local Legion hall for appropriate disposal by burning. To burn an unworn flag, especially in public, is a form of protest, denoting extreme dislike or hatred for the nation the flag represents.

    To some, this form of protest shows the utmost contempt and indignity for the nation, which many people feel strongly about. In the United States, there is a movement to make burning of the Stars and Stripes a criminal offence. In Canada, there is no law or statute prohibiting flag burning as a form of protest, however, it is thoroughly 'un-Canadian' to do so, and it is not a common for of protest in Canada.

    Displayed Indoors

    Etiquette and usual practice still apply to flags when they are displayed indoors. At an event in an auditorium or at a church, the national flag should either be dislayed against the wall behind the speaker, or on a staff on the speaker's right as they face the audience. When the flag is displayed on a staff, but not on the speaker's platform - in other words, in the 'body' of the auditorium or church - the staff is positioned to the right of the audience as they view the speaker.

    Displayed on a Wall

    When displayed on a wall, a flag is either displayed horizontally, or vertically. If displayed vertically, the upper hoist of the flag is on the viewer's left hand side. For example, with the Canadian flag, the stem of the maple leaf would point to the viewer's right, and the points - or top - of the leaf would point to the viewer's left.

    As a Covering for a Casket

    When used as a covering for a casket at a funeral, the upper hoist or canton of the flag is always at the upper left corner of the casket. The flag is removed before the casket is lowered into the ground. A national flag is normally only used as a covering on the casket of a deceased person if they were an important member of government, the military, or of similar standing. In the United States, it is more common for a deceased state or municipal police officer to have the flag of the state in which they served cover their casket.

    When a member of The Royal Family dies, their casket is normally covered with their Royal Standard. A prime example of this is the reburial of the members of the Russian monarchy, who were assassinated near the beginning of this century. Recently, their remains were recovered, and afforded a State Funeral at St. Petersburg, Russia. Each Royal member's casket was draped in their Royal Standard, which was removed and folded in a ceremonial manner, before their casket was lowered into a crypt for their final peace. In 1997, the British monarchy broke with tradition and allowed the Royal Standard to drape the coffin of Diana, Princess of Wales, who through her divorce to HRH The Prince of Wales, was no longer a 'royal'. Normally, her coffin would have been draped in the Royal Union Flag, or in a personal standard, if she bore arms (being the daughter of an earl, it is very likely she did).

    Flown Alone

    When a flag is flown alone on top of or in front of a building with two or more flagpoles, it is flown either on the left flagpole (if there are only two) - when viewed by an observer facing the building, or the pole nearest to the centre.

    National Flag Displayed with Other National Flags

    The flag of the host nation is always given the position of honour before the other national flags. When two national flags are flown from the top or in front of a building with two flagpoles, the host nation's flag appears on the left as viewed facing the building.

    When flown from an odd number of flagpoles, the host nation's flag is flown from the centre position.

    When displayed on crossed staffs, the host nation's flag is displayed on the pole in front of and pointing to the left of the other flag's staff.

    At all times, national flags displayed with flags of other nations should be of the same size and displayed at the same height. If any fringes or tassels are displayed on any of the flags, the same decorations should appear on all the other flags.

    National Flag Displayed with Other Flags

    A national flag should appear to the left of any other flags it is displayed with, such as other sovereign nations, provinces, states or territories, corporate flags, or flags of individuals.

    In a line of flags, for example, the host nation's flag should appear at the far left, or on both ends of the line of flags. The other flags are arranged according to importance. In the case of other national flags, the flags of the other sovereign nations are displayed in alphabetical order. National flags take precedence over provincial/state/territorial flags, which take precedence over corporate and individuals' flags.

    Except for the standards of a member of the Royal Family, or Her Majesty's representative, a individual's personal flag or a corporate flag does not take precedence over the national flag, even when displayed on that person's or corporation's property. However, that person may choose to display their personal flag, or corporate flag as he case may be, with precedence over flags of other sovereign nations other than the flag of the nation they are in.

    A national flag can be flown from the same flagpole as any other flag, except another national flag. For example, if a corporate or private building has only one flagpole, the national flag may be displayed on the same pole as the corporate or personal flag, if the national flag is higher than the other flag on the pole. 'Corporation' includes universities and other schools, clubs, and other organizations.

    Raising and Lowering

    A national flag is raised first and lowered last when flown or displayed on its own soil, unless the number of flags and persons allows the simultaneous raising and lowering of all flags. A flag is raised quickly and lowered in a slower, ceremonial manner.

    If a flag is lowered to 'taps' or a National Anthem, all those present pay respect or salute as the case may be, until the flag is detached from the flagpole or the ceremonial music ends, whichever is last.

    Half-Masting the Flag

    A national flag is normally half-masted on the death of the head of state, head of government, or other very important person. The procedure is normally initiated following notification to the public and other government departments by a particular government body.

    In Canada, for example, the Department of Heritage is responsible for notifying government institutions and bodies on when to fly the flag at half-mast. For example, this would be done on the death of the Sovereign, a Prime Minister, a Governor, or other government official.

    However, in practice, a national flag is often half-masted at any institution, agency, or body where an important member has died. For example, on the death of Detective Constable William Hancox of the Toronto Metropolitan Police Service (Toronto, Canada), flags at all units and commands within the police service, and indeed at many private corporations buildings, were flown at half-mast. It is appropriate to also half-mast any other flag displayed with the national flag which is half-masted, except flags of other sovereign nations.

    The flag of the United Nations, European Union, or of NATO, are never half-masted, except in accordance with the rules of those organizations.

    The Royal Standard is never half-masted. Nor would it be appropriate to half-mast any 'personal' heraldic banner or flag. In accordance with the laws of arms, the arms which have been granted to a private individual normally pass on to the heir by right, on the death of the bearer of the arms. Thus, the arms and their representation as shown on a flag, banner, or standard, immediately pass on to the deceased person's heir. The 'house' or armiger represented by the arms does not cease, unless there is no heir.

    When a national flag is half-masted, it is normally flown there for a period of seven days, or until the funeral of the deceased person. This is an area in particular where different countries have widely different traditions and etiquette.

    A flag is also sometimes half-masted to commemorate special holidays, such as Rememberance Day (as November 11th is known in Canada), or some other natonal holiday. On Rememberance Day in Canada, the national flag is flown at half-mast only until noon.

    When rasing a flag in order to fly it at half-mast, the flag is first raised fully, and then slowly lowered to the half-mast position.

    It is the normal practice to lower the flag until the middle of the hoist is precisely centred between the top and bottom of the flagpole. However, according to one source, in the United Kingdom, a half-masted flag is lowered until it is 2/3rds towards the top of the flagpole. On a vessel, where the flagpole is often attached to the side of a structure or part of the vessel, and not free-standing, the flag is normally lowered until it is at half of the visible, free-standing portion of the flagpole.

    (((I thought i quoted my source for most of this information, the 'Canadian Passport website' and other embassy web sites)))
  • Just nitpicking

    British registered craft fly one of three types of Ensign (basically a nautical type of flag) depending on their classification.

    The White Ensign

    Flown by the following

    Warships of the Royal Navy

    Private craft of the Royal Family along with the relevant royal standard).

    The Royal Yacht Squadron

    The Blue Ensign

    Flown by the following

    All Unarmed ships of the Royal Navy

    All private vessels owned by members and ex members of Her Majesties Armed Forces.

    The Red Ensign

    Flown by the following

    All British privately registered vessels which dont fall into the above categories.

    A couple of extra points

    The Royal Air Force Ensign is the flag flown at all working RAF stations and formations. It is described as "on a field sky blue, a Union Flag in the upper hoist, the field charged with a Royal Air Force roundel". It is accorded the same dignity as the national flag, and the two are rarely flown together except at joint Army/Air Force formations. It is permitted to drape the Ensign over aircraft under specific circumstances, but it is forbidden to use the Engsign for decoration or to drape caskets of deceased servicemen. In this respect, there are strict rules in the Queen's Regulations for the Royal Air Force, laying out exactly where the Ensign may be used. On working stations it is usually raised at 0730hrs throughout the year, and lowered at 1630 (winter) or 1800 (summer). When it is raised or lowered, the Orderly Sergeant plays a single blast of the whistle, all personnel stop and face the Engsign, and all officers salute. When it has been lowered or raised, the Orderly Sergeant plays two blasts of the whistle, and all personnel return to normal duties.

    The White Ensign is the flag of the Royal Navy, and, again, very strict rules in the Queen's Regulations for the Royal Navy set out exactly where it can and cannot be used/flown. When it is raised a bugler will play Reveille, and all personnel face the ensign pole (officers salute). When it is lowered, the bugler plays Sunset, all personnel doing the same as for raising. In either case, when it has been raised or lowered the bugler plays two notes to signify the end of the ceremony.

    Half-masting, certainly in the UK, is performed in a specific manner.

    1. If the flag is not flying, when it is flown at half-mast it is to be raised fully, then lowered slowly to 2/3 the length of the flag pole. During the ceremony, all spectators are to stand and salute or uncover (remove hats) as appropriate.
    2. If the flag is already flying, it is first lowered fully, then the above actions are performed. Throughout the ceremony, spectators are to stand and salute or uncover.
    3. When the flag is lowered from half-mast, it is first raised to the top of the flag pole, then lowered slowly in the usual manner.
    4. To raise the flag fully from half-mast, it is first lowered at at 3, then raised normally to full-mast. It is usual for individuals to remove black armbands following this procedure (if applicable).

    When flown on Army Units the Union Flag is treated in the same way as the RAF Ensign. The Union Flag is NOT to be called the "Union Jack" unless it is flown from a ship or vehicle.

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