Proper American Flag Etiquette: The Dos and Don’ts

Learn about American flag display etiquette, the rules of the United States Flag Code and more.

The Star-Spangled Banner. Old Glory. Stars and Stripes.

The red, white and blue flag of the United States of America has many nicknames, along with several patriotic songs paying homage to it. Even the holiday Flag Day, which is celebrated on June 14, is all about honoring our country’s flag and its adoption.

But did you know our country’s flag even has an established United States Flag Code? There are certain guidelines for displaying the country’s flag, and learning how to properly respect the flag is important.

“Especially to veterans, it’s something we always looked at when we were overseas,” Jack Hall, U.S. Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam and chaplain of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Acorn Post 1669 in Royal Oak. And it’s significant information to teach kids. “It’s just part of being raised — learning to say the Pledge of Allegiance and what the flag means and (having) respect for one of the symbols of our country,” he says.

This Flag Day, brush up on proper American flag etiquette so your family can proudly and respectfully wave the grand-old, high-flying flag at your home all year round.

American flag display etiquette

As part of the United States Code, the United States Flag Code lays out the rules regarding the American flag. Also known as Public Law 94-344, the code does not list any punishment for disobedience, rather, it serves as a guide for proper American flag etiquette, the U.S. Senate outline of the code notes.

Here’s a summary of the American flag display etiquette for civilians according to the code:

  • The flag should be hoisted briskly and lowered ceremoniously.
  • Display the flag from sunrise to sunset. If flag is displayed 24 hours for patriotic effect, it must be properly illuminated in darkness.
  • Display on all days, but especially New Year’s Day, Inauguration Day, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Lincoln’s birthday, Washington’s birthday, Easter Sunday (variable), Mother’s Day, Armed Forced Day, Memorial Day (half-staff until noon), Flag Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Constitution Day, Columbus Day, Navy Day, Christmas Day. (Plus, other days proclaimed by the president, birthdays of states (date of admission) and state holidays).
  • The union, (the blue, upper corner displaying the 50 stars), should be at the peak of the staff when displayed from a staff projecting from a window, balcony or building.
  • When not displayed on a pole, the flag should be displayed flat, or suspended so it falls freely as though it were on a staff.
  • In a group, the American flag should be at the center and highest point of a group of state flags, flags of localities or pennants of societies.
  • You can fly the American flag and the flag of another nation on two separate staffs at the same height.

Flying at half-staff

When a flag is displayed at half-staff (meaning it’s positioned halfway between the top and bottom of the pole) the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs notes it’s to signify the nation’s mourning, whether nationally or locally, as declared by the president, governor of your state or territory — or depending on the jurisdiction — by heads of federal government departments and agencies. You can find out when and why flags are displayed at half-staff here.

To raise a flag to half-staff, you should first hoist it to the peak, then slowly lower to the half-staff position, the code states.

U.S. flag etiquette: What you shouldn’t do

Out of respect for the American flag, the United States Flag Code outlines what not to do with the flag. Here are a few key points:

  • Do not display the flag during inclement weather, unless it is an all-weather flag.
  • No other flag or pennant should be placed above, at the same level or to the right of the American flag.
  • Do not display with the union down. This is a signal of distress.
  • Never carry the flag flat or horizontally.
  • Don’t drape the flag over the hood, top, sides of back of a car, train or boat. If displayed on a car, fix it to the chassis or the right fender.
  • Do not dip the flag to any person or thing.
  • Never allow the flag to touch anything beneath it, such as the ground.
  • It should not be displayed or stored in a way that may damage or soil it.
  • Do not place anything on the flag. Also, the flag should not be used for advertising, printed on napkins or boxes, embroidered on cushions or handkerchiefs, used in costume, or used to cover a ceiling.

Care and disposal of flags

Over time, displaying your flag may cause wear. Although not discussed in the United States Flag Code, USA Flag Site suggests you care for your flag by cleaning it and also mending it if needed.

When disposing of an old, worn flag, the flag code states the flag should be “destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.”

Though not specified in the code, the Veterans of Foreign Wars website explains fires for disposing of flags should be large and of “sufficient intensity” to fully burn the flag. Fold the flag in its “customary manner” and place it on the fire. Next, come to attention and salute the flag, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and allow for a moment of silence. Afterward, extinguish the fire properly and burry the ashes. (VFW notes you should check with local fire codes, too).

Hall says the VFW collects flags to see that they’re properly burned. You can even contact your local VFW if you’d like help disposing of your flag respectfully.

This post was originally published in 2015 and is updated regularly. 

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