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12 Flag Etiquette Mistakes You Didn’t Realize You Were Making

If you want to fly Old Glory, make sure you follow these flag etiquette tips

American Flag with the sun shinning through in the background
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American flag etiquette

The United States flag has served as a symbol of pride and freedom in America since its adoption in 1777. It’s such an iconic symbol (just look at all the American flag pictures out there) that it even has its own flag etiquette code. Yep, there are certain things that, technically, you can’t do with the American flag. You know American history, can quote a few patriotic quotes and always celebrate July 4th and Memorial Day. But do you know what you technically can (and can’t) do with the flag? Here are some mistakes you didn’t realize you were making with the American flag—and what the official etiquette rules say to do instead. After you read, take this American flag quiz to test your knowledge of the stars and stripes.


You carry the flag horizontally during a parade

It’s tempting to mimic the pregame ceremonies at football games and carry a giant flag horizontally. But the U.S. flag etiquette code is pretty clear on this (and on other American flag facts). The flag should be held “always aloft and free.”

USA, Massachusetts, Detail
Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

You wear the flag as a shirt or swimsuit

The flag’s a flag, it’s not clothing. The etiquette code states that the flag should never be used as apparel, bedding or drapery. So no, wearing a flag is not how to celebrate Flag Day. However, there is an important apparel rule to note. You know those Old Navy T-shirts? Ushistory.org puts them in the same category as wearing the flag, whereas the American Legion says the design is not the actual flag, only a “representation,” and therefore they have no problem with it.

4th of July themed party decorations.
Jeff Greenberg/Getty Images

You buy American flag napkins for your Fourth of July picnic

It’s Independence Day, and you’re celebrating with a big picnic complete with hamburgers, hot dogs and American flag napkins. But you should consider some other design for your napkin. As with athletic uniforms, the code is very particular when it comes to wiping mustard off your mouth with the flag: “[The flag] should not be … printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard.”

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Dies At 87
Samuel Corum/Getty Images

You fly the flag at half-staff for a fallen friend

A soldier or veteran you know has died. You’d like to honor them by flying the flag at half-staff. But consider finding another way to honor your friend. According to the flag etiquette code, only the president or your state governor can order the U.S. flag lowered to half-staff. Keep an eye out for these other etiquette rules you may be breaking too.

Grungy American Flag
Klubovy/Getty Images

You burn a dirtied flag

Your flag has touched the ground, and you’ve been told it should now be destroyed. Don’t. While you should avoid letting the flag touch the ground, there’s no need to destroy it. According to the American Legion, the flag can be washed or dry-cleaned—just pay attention to the material before you decide to wash.

Patriotic Trash
andipantz/Getty Images

You throw away an American flag

If you’re thinking about tossing a tattered American flag in the trash, think again. One of the biggest points to remember about U.S. flag etiquette is that the flag is one of the most important things that shouldn’t be thrown in the garbage.

The flag code states: “The flag, when it is in such condition that it is no longer a fitting emblem for display, should be destroyed in a dignified way, preferably by burning.” The American Legion, however, points out that some American flags may be made from materials that, when burned, can create hazardous gases. It’s even illegal in some states to burn materials like nylon. In that case, the American Legion says flags made from synthetics may be buried instead of burned.

Tampa Bay Rays v Miami Marlins
Mark Brown/Getty Images

You sew an American flag patch onto your sports uniform

There’s nothing more American than baseball. And to reflect that, you’ve sewn an American flag patch onto your baseball uniform. Per U.S. flag etiquette, consider removing it. The flag code actually references this: “No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform.” Maybe try inspiring yourself with these sports quotes instead.

Weathered U S Flag Close-up
YinYang/Getty Images

You replace the stars with another image

For the same reason as the previous slide, don’t replace the stars with anything else: an image of a favorite candidate, 4th of July quotes and the like.

Raindrops Rear View Mirror and American Flag
Willowpix/Getty Images

You’ve left your flag flying, even in a rainstorm

Unless you have an all-weather flag, American flag etiquette states it should never be displayed in inclement weather, lest it gets ruined. Think you could match U.S. states with their flag? This state flag quiz will tell you.

US Flag in the Wind at Night
RGO_sportsman/Getty Images

You fly the flag at night without proper lighting

If you have an American flag flying in your yard, you may keep it up 24/7. Technically, though, flying the flag after sunset and before sunrise without proper lighting violates the flag code. The code states: “It is the universal custom to display the flag only from sunrise to sunset on buildings and on stationary flagstaffs in the open. However, when a patriotic effect is desired, the flag may be displayed 24 hours a day if properly illuminated during the hours of darkness.”

If you’re flying the flag in your yard, though, it’s understandable if you don’t have professional lighting. Instead, you can put garden lights or other ambient lighting fixtures near the flag so people passing by can properly see Old Glory. Outside your home is just one of the surprising places you can find the American flag!

The Today Show Gallery of Olympians
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

You ask a celebrity to sign your flag

It may be tempting to ask a governor, mayor or even a famous actor to autograph your flag. But this is a big no-no in flag etiquette. The flag code stipulates: “The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture or drawing of any nature.”

Low Angle View Of Flags Against Clear Blue Sky
Daniel Costales/Getty Images

You display another flag and the American flag on the same staff

It’s OK to fly different national flags in addition to, or instead of, the American flag. According to the flag code, however, the American flag must fly from a separate staff. The code also references this: “No other flag or pennant should be placed above or, if on the same level, to the right of the flag of the United States of America.”


Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Andy Simmons
Andy Simmons is a features editor at Reader's Digest.