Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Small Sampling of International Flag Etiquette and Protocol

The National Flag of the Republic of South Africa
Having emigrated from England to South Africa in August of 1992, my family arrived amidst much upheaval and change. The apartheid era was drawing to an end and the country was preparing to welcome Nelson Mandela as the nation’s first African president.    
The previous flag of South Africa, flown from 1928 to 1994
Part of the process in building a new South Africa was changing the design of the flag. The choice of a new flag that would incorporate all the attributes of a new South Africa, was not an easy decision to make. The decision was initially put to the public and a competition held in search of the perfect design. I remember well the excitement of this competition as we all discussed the designs at school and decided which ones we liked best; we even had the opportunity to design our own flags.

The competition proved fruitless, and with less than four months to go before the presidential inauguration of Nelson Mandela, they called on the talents of State Herald Fred Brownell. It was a high pressure task, but one that he met with little time to spare. The flag was initially intended to be used on an interim basis to be reviewed after five years however since being unveiled at the Presidential inauguration on 10 May 1994, the design has been well received.

South African National Flag Etiquette and Protocol

At all times the National Flag must be respected by adhering to the following etiquette and protocol:
  • The flag must never touch the ground, nor be used as a covering for tables, statues, podiums, railings etc.
  • The flag must never be flown upside down. To do so would be a sign of surrender.
  • The flag should be hoisted in the morning and lowered before sunset. It should not be flown at night unless illuminated.
  • When a flag is being hoisted or lowered one must stand respectfully to attention, remove ones hat and place their right hand over their heart.
  • The flag must be kept in good condition and is not to be defaced in any way.
  • When flown on South African soil amidst the flags of other nations it must take pride of place (furthest to the right) and no flag must exceed it in size.
  • The flag must always be displayed on the right hand side during gatherings of any kind.
  • The flag must never be dipped to any other person or object.
  • The flag is half-masted as a sign of mourning. This is on instruction from The Presidency only.
  • To dispose of the flag in the most dignified manner it should be burned.   
The Union Flag of the United Kingdom

The Union Flag of the United Kingdom

One of the most common things you hear from people who are possibly trying to look clever by knowing about the Union Flag, is that it is only ever known as the Union Jack when flown at sea. While a “Jack” does traditionally refer to a flag being flown by a warship, there is much debate regarding whether this is a true statement regarding the flag of the United Kingdom.

According to the Flag Society, “It is often stated that the Union Flag should only be described as the Union Jack when flown in the bows of a warship, but this is a relatively recent idea. From early in its life the Admiralty itself frequently referred to the flag as the Union Jack, whatever its use, and in 1902 an Admiralty Circular announced that Their Lordships had decided that either name could be used officially. In 1908, a government minister stated, in response to a Parliamentary question, that "The Union Jack should be regarded as the National flag.” So please don’t feel too badly if someone corrects you. It is a very small point that seems to provoke much debate.

After the union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801 a new flag was designed which combines the red cross of St George for England, the white saltire of St Andrews for Scotland and the red saltire of St Patrick to represent Ireland. There is no official Flag Act in the UK and the Union Flag is our national flag more by tradition and practice than governmental decree.

Union Flag 
Etiquette and Protocol

  • Ensure the flag is the right way up. The top most diagonal stripe must be the wider white stripe, situated above the red stripe and resting against the flag pole.
  • Do not use the flag in an undignified manner such as a table covering or to cover a statue or podium.
  • Flag shoulder patches on uniforms are worn on the left shoulder.
  • When draped over a coffin the flag’s top left corner should cover the deceased’s left shoulder.
  • The flag should be situated to the right of the speaker during a gathering of any kind.
  • During a salute the flag is lowered so that the flag pole is horizontal.
  • The flag is flown at half mast following the announcement of the death of a senior member of the Royal Family until the funeral.
  • The flag is flown from Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle when the sovereign is not in residence.
  • The flag is flown from government buildings on the Sovereign’s birthday.
  • When in disrepair the flag must be disposed of respectfully by burning or cutting so that it no longer resembles the flag.
The Royal Standard was the only flag to fly from Buckingham Palace until a break with protocol and etiquette took place after Princess Diana’s death in 1997.

The Royal Standard

The only flag that takes precedence over the Union Flag is the Royal Standard, the official flag of the reigning British sovereign. The Royal Standard was the only flag to fly from Buckingham Palace until a break with protocol took place after Princess Diana’s death in 1997.
The Royal Standard of the United Kingdom
Royal Standard Flag 
Etiquette and Protocol

  • The Royal Standard is only flown when the sovereign is in residence.
  • The flag is never flown at half-mast to indicate that the throne is always occupied.
  • The flag is never hoisted or lowered when the Sovereign is passing in procession.
  • Westminster Abbey is the only church permitted to fly the Royal Standard whether or not the Sovereign is present.
  • The flag accompanies the Sovereign when traveling.


Shipshape Flag Etiquette

It is law that when at sea you must display your proper national colours. It is most common to see private vessels and merchant ships flying the Red Ensign whereas the white Ensign is reserved for the Royal Navy.
The White Ensign Flying at Sea. The ensign is flown from the stern of the vessel.

Etiquette and Protocol at Sea

  • It is a criminal offence to fly the incorrect flag at sea.
  • When visiting a foreign company you hoist your host’s flag as a “courtesy” flag. It is displayed prominently and is superior to any other flag. Visitors to the UK by sea use the Red Ensign as the “courtesy” flag.
  • Do not hoist a tatty and dirty courtesy flag. This can cause great offence to your hosts and may even result in criminal action being taken.
  • It is polite to salute passing vessels by dipping the ensign (lowering it by one third).
  • The Union Flag should only be flown by the Royal Navy when alongside (side by side at the pier or another vessel), or else under very special circumstances.
  • Flying the Union Flag on a civilian vessel as an ensign is illegal.
  • The ensign is flown from the stern of the vessel.
  • Ensigns are flown at half-mast upon the death of a member of the Royal Family, and again on the day of the funeral. The flag only remains at half-mast in the intermittent period between death and burial for the Sovereign.
  • The White Ensign is flown at the stern while alongside and from the main mast when under way.
  • Traditionally, lowering the ensign was a mark of surrender.   
The Australian Flag was first flown in 1901 and is made up of a blue background that plays host to the Union Flag, the Commonwealth Star and the Southern Cross.

The Australian National Flag

My mother’s family immigrated to Australia soon after the war, and much of my extended family is Australian. As a little girl I spent some time there, although I was too young at the time to have paid any attention to the particulars of flag protocol. I was far too busy accosting the wombat in our back garden and climbing the steps of the giant pineapple in Queensland.

The Australian Flag was first flown in 1901 and is made up of a blue background that plays host to the Union Flag, the Commonwealth Star and the Southern Cross. It is a symbol ofnational pride for the Australian people and is permitted to be flown on any day of the year.

When thinking of the Australian flag it brings to mind a particular scene in an episode of Ladette to Lady, a questionable and somewhat disturbing reality television show, which purported to turn troubled ladettes into perfectly formed young ladies. There was an Australian girl who was selected to ride with the Hunt and when she was galloping along, supposedly representing her finishing school, she pulled out an Australian flag and let it fly along behind her. She was admonished quite severely and one of the tutors remarked, “Wars have been fought over less!” Talk about an over-reaction, 
that poor girl... However, it is a stark reminder that there are certain protocols that need to be observed particularly when you are visiting another country and particularly where national flags are concerned.

Australian Flag Etiquette and Protocol

  • The flag takes precedence over all other national flags when it is flown on national soil and no other flag should exceed it in size.
  • The flag is flown at half-mast during a period of national mourning.
  • The flag should only be flown during daylight hours, unless illuminated.
  • The flag is flown at half-mast from 10:30 AM to 11:03 AM on Remembrance Day.
  • The flag must not be allowed to fall to the ground.
  • The flag should be raised briskly and lowered ceremoniously.
  • The public are encouraged to fly the flag on public holidays.
  • The flag should not be flown if it is damaged or defaced in any way.
  • Never fly the flag upside down, even as a sign of distress.
  • The flag can be used to cover the coffin of any Australian national. 
  • The flag must be removed before burial or cremation.

Compiled by contributor Rachel North. Rachel is an etiquette and afternoon tea enthusiast with a love for anything ancient and historical. You can visit her here:

Rachel's Sources: British Flag Protocol 

Royal Northumberland Yacht Club: Flag Etiquette

It’s An Honour: Australia Celebrating Australians

Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J. Graber, is the Site Moderator for 
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