13 Rules for Displaying the American Flag
With Memorial Day, Independence Day, and a few others, there's no lack of patriotic holidays in the United States. And while celebrating each one of them—whether you’re at a public parade or a backyard barbecue with some friends—you'll probably notice that there's no shortage of American flags out on display.
The flag was officially adopted on June 14, 1777, at the Second Continental Congress, and since then, Americans have flown it at their homes, written songs about it and a pledge to it, and emblazoned it on everything from sunglasses to swim trunks. An estimated 150 million American flags are sold every year, with 76 percent of Americans 65 years and older saying they or their family owns a flag. Even 62 percent of 18-24-year-olds say they or their family owns one, according to the National Retail Federation.
Such an important emblem of American ideals brings with it strict decorum. In 1923, a group of organizations headed by the American Legion outlined the National Flag Code as a set of rules on how to correctly display the flag, which were then turned into law during World War II as the United States Flag Code. There are some obvious stipulations, like making sure the flag never hits the ground. But there are some out-of-left-field requirements as well. For instance, per the code, the flag is to be considered a living thing.
Just in case you need a quick rundown of the flag dos-and-don'ts, here are some lesser-known rules for displaying the flag.
1. You can fly the flag upside down.
The code goes to extreme lengths to define the rules of the flag, especially with regard to the position of the "union," or the blue field with the 50 state stars, being in certain positions. Obviously, the best way to fly the flag is on a pole with the union up, but you can also fly it upside down—with one catch: you have to be in some serious trouble to do so.
Fly the flag upside down only "as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property."
2. No flag can hold prominence over the American flag—though there are two exceptions.
For Americans, Old Glory is tops when it comes to the flag-flying game. But despite the general rule that it should always be the most prominent, it's not always the most important.
Section 7 of the flag code decrees that no flag should be placed above the flag of the United States, but one exception is that the flag of the United Nations can be flown in a superior position, although only at the U.N. headquarters in New York.
One other exception involves a church's pennant being allowed to fly above the American flag during services performed by naval chaplains while at sea. As for your house? It looks like you should definitely make sure the American flag is up top.
3. You can fly multiple country flags, but Old Glory gets dibs.
If, say, Mexican-Americans want to display their heritage with the stars and stripes and the bandera nacional together, both are to be flown from separate staffs of the same height, and they should be equal in size.
But on U.S. soil the American flag should always be placed in a position of honor, meaning fly the flag to its own right (the viewer's left). If you have a few different country flags, the flags should be raised and lowered at the same time.
4. Other flags get similar treatment.
Fly your gay pride flag, your Chicago Cubs "W" banner, a ceremonial POW flag, your state standard, or any other kind of banner all you want. But pair it with the American flag, and a few different rules must take effect.
The flag of the United States should be at the center and at the highest point when grouped together. If you put multiple flags on a halyard of your boat, the U.S. flag should always be at the top.
5. You can put the flag on your vehicle, but only in a certain way.
When you want to get patriotic on the go, the code specifies that the flag shouldn't be draped over any sort of means of transportation, be it car, motorcycle, train, boat, subway, dune buggy, or whatever. Instead, it should be either fixed on a pole to the chassis or clamped on the right fender.
6. Don't even think about laying your flag on a parade float.
Parades are a big part of American celebrations, and you'd better believe there are floats in those parades. These snail-paced, often extravagantly decorated vehicles might take ages to go a few blocks, but just because the flag might not catch wind doesn't mean it should be draped either. Treat a float like any other means of transportation and fly the flag vertically from a securely fastened staff.
If you're in a parade and carrying the flag in procession with other flags, the U.S. flag should be either on the marching right (like stage right) or in the front and center of the line.
7. You can fly the flag all year round if it's nylon.
If a storm's coming, take down your flag. It's as easy as that. Despite the fact that the code says "the flag should not be displayed on days when the weather is inclement," it does make an exception for "when an all weather flag is displayed."
An all-weather flag is one made from nylon, polyester, or other non-absorbent materials, which shouldn't be hard to find—most flags nowadays are meant to be flown outdoors and are made of all-weather materials. Best to leave that old cotton flag properly stored indoors.
8. Get the union side right when hanging the flag from a window.
When you don't have a flag pole at your disposal, you can just hang the flag—but make sure it's the right positioning. When displayed either horizontally against a wall or vertically hanging in a window, the union portion of the flag should be the uppermost part and to the flag's own right—that is, to the observer's left.
9. You can still fly your flag in the dark.
Lowering or taking down the flag at sunset isn't strictly enforced by the code, it's just a "universal custom." Yet when "a patriotic effect is desired," you can let that thing soar at all hours of the day and night [PDF] so long as it's "properly illuminated" during the evening and hours of darkness.
10. You need to be geographically inclined with your street flag.
Cities and towns across the country might want to adorn their fair streets with the stars and stripes, but even that has a strict set of rules.
When a city wants to fly the flag over the middle of the street, it needs to be suspended vertically with the union side of the flag pointing north on an east/west street or to the east on a north/south street.
11. Missing some stars on your flag? No problem.
Say you dig up a flag from before Hawaii and Alaska joined the United States. What's a person to do if they want to fly their throwback flag with only 48 stars? Unless you are an official curator of a museum of American history, you will be fined. Just kidding—display your historical flag with pride.
The 50-star flag is the official flag, designated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1959 (although the design wouldn't be official until July 4, 1960). But any personal flags lacking the full 50 stars may be displayed as long as they are in good condition, and they should be treated with the same respect and rules as the official flag.
12. Make sure to display it during particular days.
You don't necessarily have to mark your calendars since the code specifies how the flag "should be displayed on all days," but it does call out some highlights—so maybe mark your calendar after all.
Make sure to fly that flag on New Year's Day; Inauguration Day; Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday; Lincoln's birthday; Washington's birthday; National Vietnam War Veterans Day; Easter; Mother's Day; Armed Forces Day; Memorial Day; Flag Day; Father's Day; Independence Day; National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day; Labor Day; Constitution Day; Columbus Day; Navy Day; Veterans Day; Thanksgiving; Christmas; state holidays; states' dates of admission, and "such other days as may be proclaimed by the President of the United States."
13. Your rights to fly the flag in an apartment building are uncertain.
Sometimes it might seem a bit difficult to fly your flag when you live in a building with other tenants. The people in 3C could complain that the flag whipping in the wind is too loud or that it is obstructing their view. Most rental tenants and owners of co-ops and condominiums have to adhere to a certain set of ground rules that restricts flag-flying.
In general, your right to display the United States flag is protected by federal law via the Freedom to Display the American Flag Act of 2005. But it's not a complete protection. The law specifies that a condominium association, cooperative association, or residential real estate management association can put in "any reasonable restriction pertaining to the time, place, or manner of displaying the flag of the United States necessary to protect a substantial interest." So if the flag is a potential hazard or excessively restricts neighbors' views, you might be out of luck. It's also generally agreed that the law doesn't protect renters, adding an entirely different set of complications. You'll just have to figure out how to work around any confines your home happens to have.
A version of this story ran in 2019; it has been updated for 2021.