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American Flag Etiquette and Rules: What You Need to Know

Nov 11th 2021

American Flag Etiquette and Rules: What You Need to Know

American flags are a common decoration for most American households, but many people are not aware of the rules behind how to display them. Keep reading to make sure your American flag etiquette knowledge is up to date! 

American Flag Code

There are many rules and guidelines you should know if you'd like to display the American flag in your home or business. Start with the United States Flag Code, which describes how citizens should act around the American flag. 

This code entails detailed descriptions of what should or should not be done to the American flag. One key rule is to show no disrespect to the flag. It should also not be dipped toward anyone or anything.

The phrase "dipped" means a person lowers a flag and turns it to an angle, which shows respect. This respect should be reserved for specific instances. Additionally, the flag should not be shown upside down unless it is being used as a signal of dire distress. 

The next sections of the code say that the flag should never touch the ground, including flooring in general or water, as this can cause damage to the flag long term. Along with this, the flag should be displayed vertically when hanging over something like a corridor or a street. When the flag is horizontal, the union — the stars section — should be on the viewer's left.

One of the Flag Code points that many people might not realize is that the American flag is not supposed to be used as apparel, and doing this violates federal law. This being said, there is not a penalty for violating the law, so this is a fairly common practice, especially around the Fourth of July. It is acceptable for people to wear the American flag as a patch on a uniform for those in patriotic organizations such as firemen and members of the military. 

Some of the final points are as follows: 

  • - American flags should not be used to cover a ceiling.
  • - The American flag should never be manipulated by having a drawing, insignia, figure or picture added to it.
  • - The American flag should never be used as a bag or receptacle for carrying items.
  • - The American flag should always be destroyed in a way that is dignifying and should only be destroyed if absolutely necessary.

These are some of the main points mentioned in the Flag Code: Respect for the Flag section. There are many other points mentioned in the United States Code Title Four chapter, like how to deliver the pledge of allegiance and how to lower the flag. This information is insightful as to why the display methods are so specific for the American flag and why following them is important. 


Generally, the appropriate time you should be displaying an American flag is just from sunrise to sunset. You can, however, display your flag for 24 hours a day if at night your flag is properly illuminated throughout the night


Etiquette for Displaying an American Flag

When you do choose to display the flag, there are some additional U.S. flag etiquette items you should keep in mind. 

If we move past some of the strict points in the American Flag Code, many Americans choose to display their flags in less traditional ways. If you choose to display your flag vertically, you must make sure that the blue portion with the stars should always go on the left. If you are displaying other flags along with the American flag, the American flag should be placed above the other flags. If that is not possible, then it should be placed highest in the center and should be taken down last. 

If you plan on displaying your flag on a flagpole, you should also know the difference between half-mast and half-staff. The main differentiator is that half-mast refers to the mast of a ship, and half-staff is the term you would use for a flag flown on land. Having a flag flown at half-staff — one-half of the distance between the top and the bottom of the pole — is reserved for days where the nation at large is mourning a date or an individual's death. 

Generally, the appropriate time you should be displaying an American flag is just from sunrise to sunset. You can, however, display your flag for 24 hours a day if at night your flag is properly illuminated throughout the night. Along with this, there are a few occasions where it is especially important to display the American flag.

Here is a list of some of these dates: 

  • - New Year's Day
  • - Inauguration Day
  • - Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday
  • - Easter Sunday
  • - Mother's Day
  • - Father's Day
  • - Armed Forces Day
  • - Memorial Day 
  • - Flag Day
  • - Independence Day
  • - Labor Day
  • - Constitution Day
  • - Columbus Day
  • - Navy Day
  • - Veterans Day
  • - Thanksgiving
  • - Christmas
  • - State holidays 
  • - Birthdays of States

Some locations where it is important to have an American flag are polling locations, schools and administration buildings of any public institution. 

Etiquette for Stowing or Retiring an American Flag

There are certain points where flags cannot be used anymore, but before you decide to retire your flag, you should assess the status and quality of your flag. 

For newer flags that are too dirty to be used, if the flag is made out of synthetic material, you can wash the flag in the washing machine on cold with mild water.

For older or more fragile flags, you should hand wash them with a very gentle detergent. If you are seeing minor tears, you should attempt to get them repaired. As long as the repairs are not easily visible, you should not have to retire the flag. 

For best practices on stowing the American flag, you should fold your flag how it is traditionally folded. There are many resources on how to do this, including this resource from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Last, if you have no other options for preserving your American flag, the Flag Code states that the best way to retire flags is to burn them in a respectful and ceremonial way. To avoid any misinterpretations, this ceremony is best done in private and in a subtle way. If the process is too uncomfortable for you, American Legions regularly have flag retirement ceremonies, and you can contact your local legion to find out when their next one will be held.  


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