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For other uses, see Flag (disambiguation).
The tricolor flag of France
The tricolor flag of France

A flag is a piece of coloured cloth flown from a pole or mast, usually for purposes of signalling or identification. Flags were initially created for signalling (as in semaphore), and for the identification of those who displayed them, and are still used for that purpose today. Flags are also used in messaging or advertising, or for decorative purposes, though at this less formal end the distinction between a flag and a simple cloth banner is blurred. Generally, a piece of cloth is a flag if it is flown like a flag, with one side attached, though many flags are recognisable if displayed in other forms.

The study of flags is known as vexillology, from the Latin vexillum meaning flag or banner.



Although flag-like symbols have been used by ancient cultures for thousands of years, the origin of flags in the modern sense is a matter of dispute. Some believe flags originated in China, others hold that the Roman Empire's vexillum was the first true flag.

During the Middle Ages, flags were used mainly during battles to identify individual leaders: in Europe the knights, in Japan the samurai, and in China the generals under the imperial army.

From the time of Christopher Columbus onwards, it has been customary (and later a legal requirement) for ships to carry flags designating their nationality; these flags eventually evolved into the national flags and maritime flags of today. Flags also became the preferred means of communications at sea, resulting in various systems of flag signals (see International maritime signal flags).

Beginning in the 17th century, European knights were replaced by centralized armies, and flags became the means to identify not just nationalities but also individual military units. Flags became much more elaborate, and were seen as objects to be captured or defended. Eventually these flags posed too much danger to those carrying them, and by World War I these were withdrawn from the battlefields, and have since been used only at ceremonial occasions.

National flags

Main article: National flag

One of the most popular uses of a flag is to symbolize a nation or country. Some national flags have been particularly inspirational to other nations, countries, or subnational entities in the design of their own flags. Some prominent examples include:

Flags at sea

Main article: Maritime flags

Flags are particularly important at sea, where they can mean the difference between life and death, and consequently where the rules and regulations for the flying of flags are strictly enforced. A national flag flown at sea is known as an ensign. A courteous, peaceable merchant ship or yacht customarily flies its ensign (in the usual ensign position), together with the flag of whatever nation it is currently visiting at the mast (known as a courtesy flag). To fly one's ensign alone in foreign waters, a foreign port or in the face of a foreign warship traditionally indicates a willingness to fight, with cannon, for the right to do so. This custom is still (2004) taken quite seriously by many naval and port authorities and is readily enforced in many parts of the world by boarding, confiscation, and other civil penalties.

In some countries yacht ensigns are different from merchant ensigns in order to signal that the yacht is not carrying cargo that requires a customs declaration. Carrying commercial cargo on a boat with a yacht ensign is deemed to be smuggling in many jurisdictions.

There is a system of International maritime signal flags for numerals and letters of the alphabet. Each flag or pennant has a specific meaning when flown individually.

Shape and design

See also Flag terminology.

Flags are usually rectangular in shape, but may be of any shape or size that is practical for flying. Named shapes include square (e.g., the national flag of Switzerland and the state flag of the Vatican City), pennant, double pennant (e.g., the state flag of Ohio), swallowtail, triangular or swallowtail burgee, gonfanon and oriflamme. A more unusual flag shape is that of the flag of Nepal, which is in the shape of two stacked triangles.

Often the image is through and through, in which case there are two possibilities:

  • the image is symmetric in an axis parallel to the flag pole, so the image is the same when viewed from the other side
  • when viewed from the other side one sees the mirror image; this is very common and usually not disturbing if there is no text in the flag - the whole image of flag with flag staff is not the same anyway, with the staff on the other side; examples are the flag of the United States with stars and stripes on the hoist-side, and the former Nazi swastika flag at sea (compare with the flag on land mentioned below)

If the image is not through and through there are also two possibilities:

  • the image is not symmetric, nevertheless the image is the same when viewed from the other side; for example the former Nazi swastika flag on land ([1], at the bottom)
  • the image is different; examples are the former national flag of Paraguay, the state flag of Oregon, and the now-obsolete flag of the Soviet Union.

Common designs on flags include crosses, stripes, and divisions of the surface, or field, into bands or quarters - patterns and principles mainly derived from heraldry. A heraldic coat of arms may also be flown as a banner of arms, as is done on both the state flag of Maryland and the flag of Kiribati. Writing occasionally features on flags – for example, on several flags of U.S. states, or on revolutionary flags of the former Soviet Union. The practice is, however, not widely favoured, as it is expensive to reproduce accurately, and is either difficult to read on the reverse of a flag (in mirror image), or sewn on both sides of the flag, making the flag too heavy to fly properly.

The flag of Libya, which consists of a rectangular field of green, is the only national flag using a single color and no design or insignia.

In sports

Flags flown on a beach.
Flags flown on a beach.

Because of their ease of signalling and identification, flags are often used in sports.

  • In American and Canadian football, referees use flags to indicate an error has been made in game play. The phrase used for such an indication is flag on the play. The flag itself is a small, weighted handkerchief, tossed on the field at the approximate point of the infraction; the intent is usually to sort out the details after the current play from scrimmage has concluded. In American football, the flag is usually yellow; in Canadian football, it is usually red.
  • In auto and motorcycle racing, racing flags are used to communicate with drivers. Most famously, a checkered flag of black and white indicates the end of the race, and victory for the leader. A yellow flag is used to indicate caution requiring slow speed and a red flag requires racers to stop immediately. A black flag is used to indicate penalties.
  • In Association football (soccer), linesmen carry small flags along the touch lines. They use the flags to indicate to the referee potential infringements of the laws, or who is entitled to possession of the ball that has gone out of the field of play, or, most famously, raise the flag overhead to indicate an offside offence. Officials called touch judges use flags for similar purposes in both codes of rugby.
  • In addition, fans of almost all sports wave flags in the stands to indicate their support for the participants. Many sports teams have their own flags, and, in individual sports, fans will indicate their support for a player by waving the flag of his or her home country.
  • Capture the flag is a popular children's sport.

Bathing flags

Image:Flags - swim between the.jpg

Image:Flags - crossed - do not swim.jpg

In Australia, New Zealand, Philippines and the United Kingdom a pair of red/yellow flags is used to mark the limits of the bathing area on a beach, usually guarded by lifesavers. If the beach is closed, the poles of the flags are crossed. The flags are coloured with a red triangle and a yellow triangle making a rectangular flag, or a red rectangle over a yellow rectangle. On many Australian beaches there is a slight variation with beach condition signalling. A red flag signifies a closed beach (or, in the UK, some other danger), yellow signifies strong current or difficult swimming conditions and green represents a beach safe for general swimming. Blue flags may also be used away from the yellow-red lifesaver area to designate a zone for surfboarding and other small, non-motorised watercraft.

Reasons for closing the beach include:

  • no lifeguards in attendance.
  • waves too strong.
  • dangerous rip.
  • sharks.
  • tsunami.

A surf flag exists, divided into four quadrants. The top left and bottom right quadrants are black, and the remaining area is white.

Signal flag "India" (a black circle on a yellow square) is frequently used to denote a "blackball" zone where surfboards cannot be used but other water activities are permitted.

Railway flags

Railways use a number of coloured flags, usually with the following meanings:

  • red = stop
  • yellow = proceed with care
  • green or white or blue = proceed.
  • a flag of any colour waved vigourously means stop

At night, the flags are replaced with lanterns showing the same colours.

Railway signals are a development of railway flags.


The world's tallest flagpole (160 m), over Panmunjeom, North Korea
The world's tallest flagpole (160 m), over Panmunjeom, North Korea

A flagpole or flagstaff can be a simple support made of wood or metal. If it is taller than can be easily reached to raise the flag, a cord is used, looping around a pulley at the top of the pole with the ends tied at the bottom. The flag is fixed to one lower end of the cord, and is then raised by pulling on the other end. The cord is then tightened and tied to the pole at the bottom. There is often a decorative ball at the top of the pole called a finial or, in the US Military, a truck.

Very high flagpoles may require more complex support structures than a simple pole, such as guy wires, or need be built as a mast. The highest flagpole in the world, at 160 metres, is that at Gijeong-dong in North Korea, the flag weighing about 270 kilograms when dry. The world's biggest regularly hoisted flag, however, is the Brazilian national flag flown in the Square of the Three Powers in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. This flag weighs about 600 kilograms when dry and measures 70 x 100 metres. It can be seen from all parts of Brasilia and its flagpole is the tallest structure in the city. The Tallest Free Standing flag pole in the world is in Aqaba Jordan, with a total height of 132 meters. The Second tallest free standing flagpole in the world is also in Jordan but in the capital, Amman, it reaches a height of 126 meters, and hoist a flag with measurments 60 x 40 meters, and is illuminated at night, and can be seen from 25 km away.

Sometimes a flag hangs from a pole or rope, the latter especially in the case of multiple small flags.

A flag patch is also often sewn on uniforms.

See also


  • William G. Crampton; The World of Flags; Rand McNally; ISBN 0-528-83720-6 (hardcover, 1994).
  • Ultimate Pocket Flags of the World; Dorling Kindersley; ISBN 0-7894-2085-6; (1st American edition, hardcover, 1996).

External links

Lists of flags
List of national flags | List of non-sovereign nation flags | List of flags
Visual: Number of colours | Color | Design | British ensigns
Countries: Australia | Austria | Barbados | Belgium | Brazil | Canada | China | Germany | Greece | India | Ireland | Italy | Jamaica | New Zealand | Pakistan | Poland | Russia | Scotland | South Africa | Spain | Switzerland | U.K. | U.S.
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