National flag

A national flag is a flag that symbolises a country. The flag is flown by the government, but usually can be flown by citizens of that country as well.

Both public and private buildings such as schools and courthouses often fly the national flag. In some countries, the national flags are only flown from non-military buildings on certain flag days.

There are three distinct types of national flag for use on land, and three for use at sea, although many countries use identical designs for several (and sometimes all) of these types of flag.

National flags on land

On land, there is a distinction between civil flags (FIAV symbol ), state flags and war or military flags (). State flags are those used officially by government agencies, whereas civil flags may be flown by anyone irrespective of whether they are linked to government. War flags (also called military flags) are used by military organisations such as armies.

In practice, many countries (including the United States and the United Kingdom) have identical flags for these three purposes; national flag is sometimes used as a vexillological term to refer to such a three-purpose flag (). In a number of countries, however—notably those in Latin America—there is a distinct difference between civil and state flags. In most cases, the civil flag is a simplified version of the state flag, the difference often being the presence of a coat of arms on the state flag which is absent from the civil flag.

Very few countries use a war flag that differs from the state flag; the PRC, ROC, and Japan are notable exceptions. The Philippines does not have a distinctive war flag in this usual sense, but the flag of the Philippines is unique in that it is flown with the red stripe on top, rather than the blue, when the country is in a state of war.

National ensigns at sea

The flag that indicates nationality on a ship is called ensign. As with the national flags, there are three varieties: the civil ensign flown by private vessels; state ensigns (also called government ensigns; ), flown by government ships; and war ensigns (also called naval ensigns; ), flown by naval vessels. The ensign is flown from an ensign-staff at the stern of the ship, or from a gaff when underway. Both these positions are superior to any other on the ship, even though the masthead is higher. In the absence of a gaff the ensign may be flown from the yardarm. (See Maritime flags.) National flags may also be flown by aircraft and the vehicles of important officials.

In some countries, such as the United States and Canada, the national ensign is identical to the national flag, while in others, such as the United Kingdom and Japan, there are specific ensigns for maritime use. Most countries do not have a separate state ensign, although the United Kingdom is a rare exception, in having a red ensign for civil use, a white ensign as its naval ensign, and a blue ensign for government non-military vessels.

Similar flags

Although the national flag is meant to be a unique symbol for a country, many pairs of countries have highly similar and thus easily confusable flags. Examples include the flags of Monaco and of Indonesia, which differ only slightly in proportion; of the Netherlands and of Luxembourg, which differ in proportion as well as in the shade of blue used; and of Romania and of Chad, which are almost completely identical.

There are three color combinations that are used on several flags in certain regions. Red, white and blue are common amongst Western nations, including France, the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States of America. Many African nations use red, yellow and green, including Senegal, Mali and Cameroon. Flags containing red, white and black can be found particularly amongst Arab nations such as Iraq, Yemen and Egypt.

While some similarities are coincidental, others are rooted in shared histories. For example, the flags of Venezuela, of Colombia, and of Ecuador all use variants of the flag of Great Colombia, the country they composed upon their independence from Spain, created by the Venezuelan independence hero Francisco de Miranda; and the flags of Egypt, of Iraq, of Syria, and of Yemen are all highly similar variants of the flag of the Arab revolt of 1916–1918. The Nordic countries all have the same design (Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, in addition to the autuonomus regions of the Faroe Islands and Åland), a cross on a single-colored background. The USA and UK both have red, white, and blue. This similarity is due to the fact that the first 13 states of the USA were former colonies of the United Kingdom. Also, Australia and New Zealand both share a very similar flag, they are both based on their British heritage. Both flags feature the Union Flag, both have royal blue background and both have the Southern Cross as a prominent feature. The only two differences between these flags is that the Australian flag have the Commonwealth Star, and that on the New Zealand flag, the Southern Cross is red instead of white.

Many other similarities may be found among current national flags, particularly if inversions of color schemes are considered (e.g., compare the flag of Côte d'Ivoire to that of Ireland). Still more identical or closely similar pairs exist comparing present day and historical flags; for example, the current national flag of Albania was the war flag of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire.

Unusual flags

The flag of Nepal is the only national flag which is non-rectangular.

The flags of Switzerland and the Vatican City are the only national flags which are exact squares.

The flag of Libya is the only national flag which consists of just one solid color (green) with no other designs or symbols.

The flags of Cyprus and Kosovo are the only national flags which depict the shape of the country that it represents (The Korean Unification Flag depicts the Korean Peninsula although it is not an official flag in either North or South Korea).

The flags of Moldova, Paraguay and Saudi Arabia are substantially different on their obverse and reverse sides.

The flag of Cambodia is the only national flag which depicts an actual building (the Angkor Wat temple).

The flag of Mozambique is the only national flag to incorporate an actual modern firearm into its design (an AK-47).

The flag of the Philippines is the only flag which may be hoisted upside-down when its Congress has declared a "state of war" (It is usually flown with the blue stripe over the red; when at war, it is the red over the blue).

Flag protocol

There is a great deal of protocol involved in the proper display of national flags. A general rule is that the national flag should be flown in the position of honor, and not in an inferior position to any other flag (although some countries make an exception for royal standards). The following rules are typical of the conventions when flags are flown on land.

  • When a national flag is displayed together with any other flags, it must be hoisted first and lowered last.
  • When a national flag is displayed together with the national flags of other countries, all the flags should be of approximately equal size and must be flown at an equal height, although the national flag of the host country should be flown in the position of honour (in the center of an odd number of flagstaffs or at the far right — left from an observer's point of view — of an even number of flagstaffs).
  • When a national flag is displayed together with flags other than national flags, it should be flown on a separate flagstaff, either higher or in the position of honor.
  • When a national flag is displayed together with any other flags on the same flagstaff, it must be at the top, though separate flagstaffs are preferable.
  • When a national flag is displayed together with any other flag on crossed staffs, the national flag must be on the observer's left and its staff must be in front of the staff of the other flag.
  • When a national flag is displayed together with another flag or flags in procession, the national flag must be on the marching right. If there is a row of flags, it should be in the position of honor.
  • When a national flag, with some exceptions, is flown upside down it indicates distress. This however is merely tradition. It is not a recognised distress signal according the International regulations for preventing collisions at sea. Further, a nation's flag is commonly flown inverted as a sign of protest or contempt against the country concerned.

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External links


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