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American Flag Etiquette: How to Properly Display and Dispose of the Red, White, & Blue

I've lived in Flagstaff, AZ, since 2003, where I'm an active member of the Coconino County Sheriff's Search & Rescue team and an avid hiker.


Rules for the Stars and Stripes

Until I met my husband, a veteran and federal employee, I really had no idea there were specific rules for displaying the American flag or for properly disposing of a worn-out flag. In fact, I'd never actually flown one of my own, even though there was a pole right outside the house.

But my husband has influenced me in that department, and now, not only is there always a Red, White, and Blue flying at our home, but I'm also learning the proper etiquette for its display and handling.

I also find myself noticing that many people around town either aren't aware of some of these rules (most likely) or perhaps choose not to follow them. Then again, there are quite a few guidelines and, like me before being enlightened by my husband, many people probably don't even know those dos and don'ts exist.

So, here I'd like to share what I've learned about U.S. flag etiquette for displaying one at our own homes, places of business, and special events, and when and how to replace a flag, along with additional resources if you'd like to learn more about this subject.

The Correct, Respectful Ways to Display the Flag


American Flag Etiquette

Just as there are "rules of etiquette" for the dining table (which many of us at least partly ignore because they feel kind of silly or extreme), so too are there guidelines for displaying our nation's flag.

If you include specifics for the military, the list gets even longer, but I'll focus here on flag basics that apply to your average citizen. So, in no particular order....

  • Unless you have an "all-weather" flag, which is usually made of heavy weight nylon, you're supposed to take it down during inclement weather.
  • If you're flying other flags along with the national one, the U.S. flag should be higher -- on a taller pole -- rather than even with or below. So, even when at half staff, Old Glory should still be higher than the others. And it should be at the center of a grouping.
  • Unless your flag is lighted, it should be taken down at sunset. Flags can be lit from below or from above.
  • If you're displaying a flag on an indoor wall, the stars should be on the observer's left. (If it's backwards, it's actually a distress signal.)
  • If the U.S. flag will be displayed on a stage or in a parade, it should be to the viewer's left of any other flags in the line, as you see in the photo above.
  • When displayed on a vehicle in a parade or procession, for example, the flag should be attached to the right (passenger side) fender or to the frame (chassis) rather than draped over the hood.
  • My husband told me that the size of the flag should be "proportional to the height of the pole." What exactly does that mean, though, I asked him, because that could easily be left up to personal interpretation. He couldn't answer that specifically, so I looked for some information and found this rule of thumb: the length of the flag should be about one-quarter the height of the pole.
  • A small replica like a lapel pin should be worn on the left, near the heart.
The U.S. Stars & Stripes should always be flown higher than state, local, and other flags.

The U.S. Stars & Stripes should always be flown higher than state, local, and other flags.

What Not To Do with the American Flag

Some of these "don'ts" surprised me:

  • Did you know, the American flag isn't supposed to be used in any way as clothing or a costume, as bedding or drapery? I see that all the time at the Fourth of July parade.
  • Another thing I've seen a lot are large versions of the Stars and Stripes rolled out or held up by a bunch of people over a football field while the National Anthem is sung. That's done at NFL games all the time. Well, I've learned that that's actually contrary to flag etiquette, as it's never supposed to be displayed flat like that.
  • Also, the flag isn't supposed to be used in advertising in any way. Really? This is something I've seen a LOT.
  • The Red, White, and Blue shouldn't be used as a motif on products -- anything from furniture to throw-away items like napkins.
  • And there are some myths floating around about the flag, including one that states that a flag that touches the ground should be burned. This isn't true. It just needs to be removed from the ground right away.
U.S. flag at half staff

U.S. flag at half staff

When To Fly the U.S. Flag at Half Staff

Scheduled and Unscheduled Dates

National flags are lowered to half staff per presidential order, by order of the governor of a state, or by mayors. These proclamations can also be made by the heads of federal departments and agencies.

While no one is going to come knocking on your door if you fail to lower your own flag to half staff, you can certainly do so if you're aware of the scheduled dates and also unscheduled days of mourning.

Examples of unscheduled days of mourning would be things like the death of a current or former U.S. president, vice president, and other officials, including sometimes foreign dignitaries, or in the wake of tragedies such as the 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon.

The proper way to place a flag at half staff is to first run it all the way to the top, swiftly, and then slowly lower it back to half staff. When the National flag is at half staff, all other flags -- state, local, POW, etc. -- should also be at half staff.

The US flag at half staff at the Capitol

The US flag at half staff at the Capitol

As of this writing, the current scheduled dates for lowering the flag are....

  1. May 15, Peace Officers Memorial Day: From sunrise to sunset
  2. Memorial Day, the last Monday in May: Lower the flag at sunrise until noon, then raise to the top of the staff.
  3. September 11th, now known as Patriot's Day: Sunrise to sunset
  4. National Firefighters Memorial Day, the first Sunday in October: Sunrise to sunset
  5. December 7th, Pearl Harbor Day: Sunrise to sunset

    Note: If you have a flag that can't be lowered because it's permanently affixed to the pole, you can instead attach two black ribbons or streamers to the end of the pole but not to the flag itself.

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An event at the American Legion

An event at the American Legion

When Is It Time for a New Flag?

This is one instance where there's no hard and fast rule. Generally, though, if your flag is becoming tattered, torn, faded or otherwise damaged, it's time for a new one.

Use your discretion: If it looks dull or dingy, replace it. For the most part, flags really aren't expensive, and a good, all-weather flag can last at least a year -- often much longer -- before it starts to look worn.

If your flag is just dirty for some reason, you can wash it or have it dry cleaned -- depends on the type of fabric -- and some dry cleaners will even do it for free.

It's also acceptable to do repairs, like sewing a stripe that's coming off or clipping a ragged edge and re-hemming it. But you're not supposed to do so to the point that the proportions are off. Again, use your discretion here, but you don't want to fly a flag with an uneven edge or that's been shortened on one side or the other.

Where to Take Your Old American Flag for Proper Disposal

Please don't just throw it away.

The reason: a symbol of a nation shouldn't just be discarded but instead "retired" in a respectful manner. In the case of the American flag, there are guidelines for holding a retirement ceremony, with burning being the preferred ending. (I'd always been under the impression that burning a flag was a big no-no, but I've since learned that that's not the case when it's no longer fit for display.)

If you'd like to hold your own flag retirement ceremony, you can read about the process (a couple different versions) on the National Flag Foundation website. This can be a nice tradition for a family and a good opportunity to teach kids.

If you don't want to hold your own retirement process, many communities have one or more of these organizations in the local area where you can drop off your flags that are no longer fit to display:

  1. The American Legion
  2. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America
  3. The VFW
  4. Junior ROTC Corps at local high schools
  5. The Marine Corps League
  6. Or send your retired flags to Flag Keepers at 349-L Copperfield Blvd #105, Concord, NC 28025. This is an organization specifically devoted to the proper disposal of tattered, worn out flags. The organization is made up of network of patriotic volunteers across the country and even internationally as well.
  7. USA Flag Supply also performs free retirement ceremonies. You just have to send them the flag, and they'll also give you 10% off a new one.

More Resources for American Flag Rules and Etiquette

  • The United States Flag Code
    This set of official guidelines really gets into the nitty-gritty details of how to display and otherwise use and pay respect to the Stars and Stripes. It can be confusing for the average citizen, who doesn't need to follow these rules to a T. But th
  • The National Flag Foundation
    Click on the links in the left-hande side bar under Proper Flag Etiquette -- ie. "across a street," "flags on a pole," "folding the flag," etc. -- for an easy to understand explanation of each rule or set of guidelines.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Deb Kingsbury

Do You Fly a Flag at Your Own Home or Business? (I mean, any country's flag)

fennirose on June 27, 2013:

I learned a lot! Big thanks for the information.

Tricia Deed from Orlando, Florida on June 27, 2013:

I hope you don't mind but rather than what was left out I wanted to comment that you did a well written article. And in the changing climate of today it is my opinion that the American flag or at least our flag colors be demonstrated in any way possible in order to bring back patriotism. I am very concerned that we are loosing our country. For now I will compliment anyone who is proud to display our flag or its colors even if it means breaking etiquette rules.

trying2Bhealthy on June 25, 2013:

Thanks for the great information.

Demaw on June 24, 2013:

Informative lens. Back in the day we were taught flag etiquette in school.

Deb Kingsbury (author) from Flagstaff, Arizona on June 23, 2013:

@anonymous: Hi, Gordon. Thanks for your comment and the correction about Veteran's Day. I could have sworn I read that somewhere, but I did a new search and see that's not a half staff day. Also, it looks like the Mayor of Washington D.C. is officially able to order the flag to be flown at half staff, having the same authority as the governors of other states. Here where we live, when a local member of the military dies and his or her body is brought home, we've heard the mayor of our city has ordered U.S. flags in town be lowered to half staff. Maybe they don't have the actual authority, but it seems some do this anyway.

anonymous on June 23, 2013:

Good page however a couple of errors the flag is never flown at half staff on Veterans Day and mayors do not have the authority to order the flag to half staff other than that very nice work

Kay on June 22, 2013:

Yes, we do fly our flag and try to abide by the etiquette rules. Excellent page!

anonymous on June 22, 2013:

This is a good reminder, or even a good first lesson for all Americans!

Renaissance Woman from Colorado on June 14, 2013:

I don't currently have a flag, but I've been thinking a lot about getting a new one. I love flying Old Glory. Sure appreciate the etiquette reminders. Very important.

WhiteIsland on June 14, 2013:

I don't have a flag, although we have a flagpole setting on our roof (doesn't seem like the most secure thing ever, so I'm a bit concerned about using it). Those are the ones I see most (rather than a full, upright flagpole). I didn't know there were guidelines about the proportion of flag size to flagpole. I'm sure the attached poles don't follow that, at all. People usually pick the largest flag they find, it seems. I did read most of these etiquette rules in school, and I've always thought it was fascinating to learn, but I never can remember them all. Thanks for the refresher! I've always remembered the one about not using it for clothing and products, so that does bug me a little, because it's so widespread. Of course, there's nothing I can do about it, besides maybe not wearing the clothes myself. :)

ChrisRulton on June 14, 2013:

Very informative and interesting, especially as a British Person. Here the feeling of nationality is more internalised. You fly it, cast it down, throw it in the trash or burn it entirely and we'll usually just shrug. We'll wave a flag when we feel like it but it really is just a piece of cloth, it doesn't increase nor decrease our sense of national identity. The same as we never swear allegiance, it's not seen as necessary to indoctrinate national identity because it's running through your veins.

Northerntrials on June 14, 2013:

A lot of these etiquette points are the same with other countries as well. National flags are a great symbol of pride for a country. Common sense should prevail. Thanks.

HughSmulders LM on June 11, 2013:

Wow! Now I can regard myself as a real patriot knowing how to treat to my native Flag!

CaztyBon on June 06, 2013:

Very informative and well done. Thank you for creating this very important lens.

pawpaw911 on May 30, 2013:

The only flag I have in my home flew over a base in Afghanistan. Won't be flying that one. It stays in a case.

anonymous on May 28, 2013:

Great article. I would have liked to have seen something on how to fold the flag, however. I learned this as a child when I was in Brownies but never have done it since then.

anonymous on May 27, 2013:

I thought that I knew a good bit about flag etiquette, so I was surprised during my visit here today to learn just how much I didn't know. Thank you for sharing this with us.

Mary Beth Granger from O'Fallon, Missouri, USA on May 27, 2013:

thank you for the great information. I just got a new flag so needed to know how to retire the old one.

SheilaMilne from Kent, UK on May 26, 2013:

How interesting! I know there are some similar rules about the Union Jack but I'm sorry to say I have only a very hazy idea of them.

mariacarbonara on May 26, 2013:

Well you learn some new stuff every day! Great information

Michey LM on May 24, 2013:

I like the idea that an old flag must be "retired" in a respectful manner. Bravo! I also like the Solar Power Flag Pole which will make flag more visible. Great lens!

hmommers on May 24, 2013:

I never fly a flag. My parents did when I graduated. It's a custom over here to flag with your schoolbag in top.

The only rule I know is that a flag should be taken down by sunset. But i don't know if it is allowed over here in Holland to keep it up when it's lit.

Arod17 on May 23, 2013:

I remember learning flag etiquette in school

LisaDH on May 22, 2013:

I was familiar with some of these rules, but certainly not all of them. Thanks for the info!

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