There are certain guidelines for the use and display of the United States flag as outlined in the United States Flag Code of the federal government. These are guidelines, not laws; there is no penalty for failure to comply with them. This etiquette is as applied within U.S. jurisdiction. In other countries and places, local etiquette applies.
Standards of respect
- The flag should never be dipped to any person or thing, unless it is the ensign responding to a salute from a vessel of a foreign ship.
- The flag should only be flown upside down as a distress signal.
- The flag should not be used as a drapery, or for covering a speaker's desk, draping a platform, or for any decoration in general. Bunting of blue, white and red stripes is available for these purposes. The blue stripe of the bunting should be on the top.
- The flag should never be drawn back or bunched up in any way.
- The flag should never be used as a covering for a ceiling.
- The flag should never be used for any advertising purpose. It should not be embroidered, printed, or otherwise impressed on such articles as cushions, handkerchiefs, napkins, boxes, or anything intended to be discarded after temporary use. Advertising signs should not be attached to the staff or halyard.
- The flag should not be used as part of a costume or athletic uniform, except that a flag patch may be used on the uniform of military personnel, firefighters, police officers, and members of patriotic organizations.
- The flag should never have placed on it, or attached to it, any mark, insignia, letter, word, number, figure, or drawing of any kind.
- The flag should never be used as a receptacle for receiving, holding, carrying, or delivering anything.
- The flag should not be draped over the hood, top, sides, or back of a vehicle, railroad train, or boat.
- When the flag is lowered, no part of it should touch the ground or any other object; it should be received by waiting hands and arms. To store the flag it should be folded neatly and ceremoniously.
- The flag should be cleaned and mended when necessary.
- When a flag is so worn it is no longer fit to serve as a symbol of the United States, it should be destroyed in a dignified manner, preferably by burning. (Note: Most American Legion Posts regularly conduct a dignified flag burning ceremony, often on Flag Day, June 14.)
Contrary to a commonly believed urban legend, the flag code does not state that a flag which touches the ground should be burned. Instead, the flag should be moved so it is not touching the ground.
Displaying the flag outdoors
- When the flag is displayed from a staff projecting from a window, balcony, or a building, the union should be at the peak of the staff unless the flag is at half staff. When it is displayed from the same flagpole with another flag, the flag of the United States must always be at the top except that the church pennant may be flown above the flag during church services for Navy personnel when conducted by a Naval chaplain on a ship at sea.
- When the flag is displayed over a street, it should be hung vertically, with the union to the north or east. If the flag is suspended over a sidewalk, the flag's union should be farthest from the building.
- When flown with flags of states, communities or societies on separate flag poles which are of the same height and in a straight line, the flag of the United States is always placed in the position of honorto its own right. The other flags may be smaller but none may be larger.
- No other flag ever should be placed above it. The flag of the United States is always the first flag raised and the last to be lowered.
- When flown with the national banner of other countries, each flag must be displayed from a separate pole of the same height. Each flag should be the same size. They should be raised and lowered simultaneously. The flag of one nation may not be displayed above that of another nation.
- The flag should be raised briskly and lowered slowly and ceremoniously.
- Ordinarily it should be displayed only between sunrise and sunset, although the Flag Code permits nighttime display "when a patriotic effect is desired." Similarly, the flag should be displayed only when the weather is fair. (By Presidential proclamation and law, the flag is displayed continuously at certain honored locations like the United States Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington and Lexington Green.)
- It should be illuminated if displayed at night.
- The flag of the United States of America is saluted as it is hoisted and lowered. The salute is held until the flag is unsnapped from the halyard or through the last note of music, whichever is the longest.
Displaying the flag indoors
- When on display, the flag is accorded the place of honor, always positioned to its own right. Place it to the right of the speaker or staging area or sanctuary. Other flags should be to the left.
- The flag of the United States of America should be at the center and at the highest point of the group when a number of flags of states, localities, or societies are grouped for display.
- When one flag is used with the flag of the United States of America and the staffs are crossed, the flag of the United States is placed on its own right with its staff in front of the other flag.
- When displaying the flag against a wall, vertically or horizontally, the flag's union (stars) should be at the top, to the flag's own right, and to the observer's left.
Parading and saluting the flag
- When carried in a procession, the flag should be to the right of the marchers.
- When other flags are carried, the flag of the United States may be centered in front of the others or carried to their right. When the flag passes in a procession, or when it is hoisted or lowered, all should face the flag and salute.
- To salute, all persons come to attention.
- Those in uniform give the appropriate formal salute.
- Citizens not in uniform salute by placing their right hand over the heart and men with head cover should remove it and hold it to left shoulder, hand over the heart.
- Members of organizations in formation salute upon command of the person in charge.
Pledge of Allegiance and national anthem
- The Pledge of Allegiance should be rendered by standing at attention, facing the flag, and saluting.
- When the national anthem is played or sung, citizens should stand at attention and salute at the first note and hold the salute through the last note. The salute is directed to the flag, if displayed, otherwise to the music.
The flag, in mourning
- To place the flag at half-staff (or half-mast, on ships), hoist it to the peak for an instant and lower it to a position half way between the top and bottom of the staff.
- The flag is to be raised again to the peak for a moment before it is lowered.
- On Memorial Day, the flag is displayed at half-staff until noon and at full staff from noon to sunset.
- The flag is to be flown at half-staff in mourning for designated, principal government leaders.
- The U.S. flag is otherwise flown at half-staff (or half-mast, on ships) when directed by the President of the United States or a state governor.
- When used to cover a casket or coffin, the flag should be placed with the union at the head and over the left shoulder. It should not be lowered into the grave.
Folding the flag
Flags, when not in use, should be folded into a triangle shape. The final triangle shape result is said to invoke the image of the three-point hats popular during the American Revolutionary War. Former American territories, e.g. the Philippines, also use this method to fold their flags.
- To properly fold the flag, begin by holding it waist-high with another person so that its surface is parallel to the ground.
- Fold the lower half of the stripe section lengthwise over the field of stars, holding the bottom and top edges securely.
- Fold the flag again lengthwise with the blue field on the outside.
- Make a triangular fold by bringing the striped corner of the folded edge to meet the open top edge of the flag.
- Turn the outer end point inward, parallel to the open edge, to form a second triangle.
- The triangular folding is continued until the entire length of the flag is folded in this manner.
- When the flag is completely folded, only a triangular blue field of stars should be visible.