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What is Proper Flag Protocol?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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In the United States, as in many other nations, there are a series of rules governing the display and disposal of the national flag. These rules are referred to as flag protocol. Although violation of these rules does not have legal repercussions, it is hoped that they will encourage respectful handling of the flag. More than simply a piece of fabric, a national flag represents the nation as a whole, and is an important symbol of national identity. The following flag protocol applies to the display of the American flag within the United States. Other nations have their own protocols involving the display of their national flag, along with the flags of other nations.

In general, the rules of flag protocol are very simple and easy to follow. In most cases, respectful handling of the flag includes common sense measures such as not allowing it to touch the ground. Unless a flag is being flown in the vicinity of militant neighbors, minor violations are unlikely to cause outrage, especially as the flag is often flown with a noble intent.

According to American flag protocol, an American flag must never be permitted to touch the ground. If the flag inadvertently touches the ground, it should be gently washed with soap and water. When displayed outdoors, if the flag is in the middle of a street, it should be suspended with the union, or field of stars, facing either north or east, depending on the alignment of the street. When displayed from a building, the flag should be set out union first.

The American flag should never hang lower than the flag of another nation. If the American flag is being flown with other national flags, the flags should be flown at equal height and should be the same size. If the American flag is being displayed with state or other flags, it should be flown higher, and should be raised first and lowered last. If displayed while crossing staffs with another flag, the staff from which the American flag is hung should be placed over the other staff, and the American flag should be to the left of the viewer.

Flag protocol also dictates that flags should not be flown at night unless properly illuminated, and that when the flag is flown at half staff it should first be fully raised and then lowered to half staff. When flown upside down, the flag is a symbol of distress. When displayed over a casket, the flag should be draped so that the union is located on the upper left hand corner, and it should not be allowed to touch the ground or lowered into the grave.

The American flag should not be written on or otherwise defaced, and should not be allowed to become tattered or dirty. For this reason, many companies make all weather flags which are designed to withstand poor weather conditions. If a flag will be flown outdoors and exposed to sunlight and rain, an all weather flag should be purchased. If a flag becomes damaged, it should be disposed of properly. The proper method of disposal for an American flag is respectful burning. A number of public service organizations such as the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Elks, and Boy Scouts are happy to assist with the proper disposal of flags.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon200596 — On Jul 27, 2011

I've seen before where paratroopers performing at a public event have the flag hanging a few feet below themselves as they parachute to the ground. Just before landing in these cases, the first thing to touch the ground is the flag. Is this a violation of the "flag must not touch the ground" rule?

By anon96527 — On Jul 15, 2010

dlsj8491- In my opinion if you have no desire to keep a memorial flag donate it to a local vfw letting them know the branch, name, and rank of the person whose casket it was on. They will be happy to display it in a case as a standing memorial.

By anon74160 — On Mar 31, 2010

If a large light picture of the usa flag is on a screen in a theatre during a performance, do I stand while it is illuminated?

By Donneave — On Mar 17, 2010

Can anyone advise me on protocols around displaying the US flag on items like pin-badges that are circular? Is it OK for the flag to be trimmed to this shape, provided all stars are shown, but stripes vary in length? Or must the full rectangular flag be shown with white space outside?

Thank you.

By anon43029 — On Aug 25, 2009

In an elementary classroom when the national flag and the state flag are both displayed, should the national flag be on the right side or the left side?

By anon42291 — On Aug 20, 2009

I have an unusual question. When planning a display of the following listed flags what is the order in which they should be displayed? The flag of the United States of America, the flag of the Republic of Vietnam, the flag of the United States Army, the flag of the United States Army retirees and the POW flag. Sure hope that somebody out there can help me get it right.

By anon24924 — On Jan 20, 2009

Hi .... We have several antique flags displayed in our store. Some are 100 years old, weathered and may have a rip or small hole, very slight..... Is this disrespectful?

By roberej130 — On Oct 29, 2008

I don't want to comment but have two burning questions. Once the Flag is posted it is not to be touched by hands, i.e. as in Pledge, someone holding the flag outstretched after it was posted? true or false and where is it stated.

Second, when carrying an American Flag or any flag it is incorrect after doing a halt to perform an about face with the flag. True or false and where is it stated.

By WMcBride — On Feb 12, 2008

What is the proper protocol to hang the American flag from the ceiling, along with many other countries flags? I would like to know how it should be hung and positioned.


By dlsj8491 — On Sep 04, 2007

Is it proper to fly a flag that has been draped on a casket? If I did not want this flag or can't fly it and there is no other "Next of Kin", what should I do with it? I do not wish to dis-respect the flag!

By anon3533 — On Sep 03, 2007

when the flag is hanging vertically, such as on a pin, it the field of blue on the left or the right? I thought it was always to hang with the field of blue to the left. I recently purchased a pin with the flag appearing to hang vertically from a baseball bat, but the field of blue hangs on the right.

Is this pin made incorrectly or is it OK to wear?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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