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Courtesy Flags

Last modified: 2006-06-17 by phil nelson
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General Information

I can describe the practice of the US Navy which, broadly speaking is followed by navies around the world.

Flags of nationality (national ensign and jack) are flown as follows.

  1. When the ship is moored or anchored, the Union Jack is flown from the *jack staff* at the bow of the ship and the National Ensign is flown from the *ensign staff* at the stern of the ship.
  2. When the ship is underway, the National Ensign is flown from the ship's principal mast (for ships with two masts, this is the mainmast).

The US National Ensign is simply the Stars and Stripes. The US jack is called, somewhat confusingly, the Union Jack because it is actually the canton or "union" of the US flag, i.e. a dark blue flag with fifty stars. The US Navy rule is that the Union Jack should be the same size as the canton of the National Ensign with which it is flown.

Generally a courtesy ensign is flown from a ship's mast. When the ship is entering or leaving port and flying its own ensign at the mast, the courtesy ensign is flown at a slightly lower level. (For ships with two or more masts, I believe, the courtesy ensign is flown from the foremast and the ship's own ensign is flown from the mainmast.) When the ship is moored or anchored, the courtesy ensign remains at the mast while the ship's own ensign and jack are flown from their staffs at bow and stern. If the host nation has a distinctive merchant ensign, this is what is used as the courtesy ensign.

No doubt there are many variations on the above rules, but I believe that they are broadly applicable.
Tom Gregg, 12 August 1998 and 13 August 1998

There seems to be no general rule about courtesy flags. Some countries that have a civil ensign and a national flag, consider the national flag appropriate, others that it is the civil ensign which should be flown. Some ships don't bother with courtesy flags, some fly the wrong one through ignorance, and some fly the wrong flag, if that is the only one they have onboard, as being better than no flag.

In 1950 there was an attempt to have the regulations changed so that British merchant ships would be allowed to fly the Union Jack as a jack. One point made in favour of the change was that some foreign merchant ships flew the Union Jack as a courtesy flag, without any action being taken against them, whilst a British merchant ship that flew a Union Jack at the yard would be made to remove it. In considering the matter a survey was made of the foreign ships in the Port of London. Fifty percent flew no courtesy flag, forty percent flew the Red Ensign, and ten percent flew the Union Jack.
David Prothero, 17 October 2000

Regarding the courtesy flags, I seem to remember talking long time ago with some people who were used to sail to the Caribbean (one instance), and I remember they were telling a story how in several countries there the coast guard or some other official body on ships were intercepting the visiting yachts/sailboats, and requiring from those to have a courtesy flag hoisted at the moment when the vessels enters the territorial waters, or a penalty was to be paid. "Incidentally" the crew of the official boat had several of just appropriate flag that they were willing to sell to a "small price" (smaller then the penalty)...
Željko Heimer, 20 October 2000

I have seen, while surfing the web, regulations posted on the websites of several Caribbean countries (ex-British colonies in each case) requiring visiting vessels to fly courtesy ensigns. But the stipulated procedure was to hoist the international "Q" signal flag until after clearing customs, after which the vessel was to replace the Q flag with the courtesy ensign and keep it flying until departing territorial waters. Joe McMillan, 20 October 2000

I think that Section 454(a) of the US Code, posted by Joe on 29 - 09, must refer only to the possibility of foreign ships using American flags to pass themselves off as US ships in order to avoid customs or immigration. Taken literally it would prohibit flying the Stars and Stripes as a courtesy flag.
David Prothero, 5 October 2000

The question of courtesy flags came up in 1950 when the Metropolitan Police, who had instructions that they were to seek the removal of the Union Jack from any British registered ship in the London Docks, asked whether the instruction applied to foreign registered ships flying the Union Jack as a courtesy flag. The Admiralty looked into it and decided that the matter was so vague and so complicated, there being different attitudes to the practice in those countries that had distinctive merchant ensigns, that the question was best ignored.

Hilary Mead, an Royal Navy Commander, referred to courtesy flags in an article in the October 4th 1951 issue of Shipbuilding and Shipping Record. He was generally critical of the section on flags in the then recently republished Admiralty Manual of Seamanship, and in particular of the assertion that the Red Ensign was the correct flag for a foreign merchant ship to fly as the courtesy flag in British waters. "What person in a position of authority is responsible for this dictum? The 'courtesy flag' is at best only a convention that has crept into its present rather pretentious position within the last few decades, and there is nothing to show that it is supported by any kind of authority." He went on to write that foreign ship-owners and masters could be excused for thinking that the Union Flag was the national colours of Great Britain and for using the emblem as a compliment to the country visited. "Questions have already arisen as to what steps are to be taken if a foreign vessel hoists the British Union Flag by way of compliment, and who is going to take such steps. And by what compulsion can the master of the foreign ship be made to haul down the flag?"
David Prothero, 22 October 2000


1. Which flag - national, state (?), civil ensign should be flown entering in foreign port?

A general rule is that the flag hoist that courtesy ensign which the ship would use as ensign if it was registered in the country in question. So, a merchant ship, yachts etc. should use, in general, the civil ensign, while naval ships should use naval ensign. Ships with state ensigns may be much less frequent in foreign waters, but still the vexillological principle is there.

However, there are cases where this is prescribed by regulations or practice/tradition otherwise. The most recent example that I can come up with is the courtesy ensign of Tristan de Cunha, where blue ensign is specifically prescribed (in spite of what one may expect).

As far as I am aware, there is no international rules obliging the ships to fly the courtesy ensign, but there are number of states that require it by local laws (which the sailors in territorial waters must obey). I was told that there are also some maritime countries that have coast guard/naval police/similar enforce the flying of the courtesy ensign quite strictly even if it is not clear if this is required by the local regulations, but since it is hard to discuss with the local police in those places, it's better to obey.

Also, as far as I understand, there are certain rules (different in different countries) that while require flying of the courtesy flag for large ships, this is not required for yachts and small boats etc. (usually determined by length of the boat/ship).

2. Upon entering in dependent territory port - metropolis or dependency flag (France or French Polynesia)?

Again, exact all encompassing answer is not easy to give, but in general - for French dependencies (whatever the exact status) the only correct courtesy flag is the French tricolour ensign. Any local flags (like French Polynesia) might be flown additionally (just as anything else as usual). For British dependencies the usual undefaced British red ensign should be appropriate wherever (right?). However, usually the sailors prefer to have more distinctive flags.

3. What to do when captain doesn't have particular flag?

Depends. In those countries where the courtesy flag is prescribed there may easily be (relatively) large fines for that. As I was told by some sailors, it is not unusual that the crew of the authority vessel that control the aquatorium "happens to have one such spare flag" ;-) that they are willing to sold for a "symbolical price". Again as far as I am aware, the captains are well aware of such rules and when they plan going to some "exotic" places they are prepared (at least should be). There is of course possibility that someone gets into some foreign waters by (mis)chance, due some storm or some such - for these cases, I presume the rescue authorities do not look first for such things as courtesy flags.

4. What happens if wrong flag is hoisted? (FLNK flag in New Caledonia for example) I suppose you get into trouble. It probably depends on the mood of the local officer that notice the error and may range from a polite observation and request to rectify the error to paying considerable fine and very inconvenienced. Flying of a wrong flag that the local authorities consider separatist (or otherwise "disrespectful") might be reason enough for confiscation of the entire vessel! In case that a wrong version of the national flag is used for courtesy flag (say state instead of civil ensign or something like that) the consequences are probably less severe and may be even unnoticed).

5. Where any person can obtain information about all of this stuff in web?

All in one place? I don't think there is any. FOTW is a good starting point. Also local yacht clubs (local meaning those in the destinations you like to visit) and similar.
Željko Heimer, 11 November 2002


Right in principle, but naval vessels as a rule don't fly courtesy ensigns--at least the U.S. Navy doesn't, and its international affairs publications say warships in general don't. However, they do fly foreign ensigns when firing salutes or hosting foreign officials, and in that case the ensign of choice is indeed the foreign country's naval ensign.
Joe McMillan, 12 November 2002


I am not sure that this is correct.

I believe that a distinction is made between "territorial waters", which extend out from the coast in a defined way, and "national waters" which covers ports and harbours and the approaches to them. Regulations about "enforced courtesy flags" could, I suggest, only be applied in "national waters".

There may also be a difference between a vessel passing through territorial waters, and a vessel entering a country's territorial waters, bound for a port in that country. In the first case no courtesy flag would be expected, in the second it might be deemed correct to hoist the courtesy flag at some point after entering territorial waters but before reaching national waters ?
David Prothero, 12 November 2002


The terminology has shifted over the years and from country to country. The current definitions are based on the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 1958 High Seas Convention:

- Internal Waters - waters landward from the baselines from which the territorial sea is measured.

- Territorial Sea - a belt of ocean measured seaward from a series of baselines along the coast. (These are typically points of land located reasonably close together, usually within 24 nautical miles of each other, precluding the need to measure the territorial sea precisely according to the detailed indentations of the coastline.)

- International Waters - all waters not subject to the territorial sovereignty of a nation, i.e., everything other than internal waters or territorial sea.

The term "national waters" apparently has no current international legal meaning.

Treaty law is unclear on this point on vessels passing through international waters and entering territorial waters. What David is describing is called innocent passage--a ship passing through another country's territorial sea with no intention of entering its internal waters. UNCLOS gives coastal states the right to regulate the conduct of merchant ships exercising innocent passage through territorial seas. On the other hand they may do nothing that has the effect of impairing the free exercise of the right of innocent passage. The reasons for which coastal states may impose regulations are probably broad enough that some states would argue for a right to require flying of a courtesy ensign.

The original reason for courtesy ensigns was, primarily, to provide a signal of the ship's destination. The courtesy ensign was hoisted when sailing from the ship's own home port, then again on the morning of its planned arrival at its destination to indicate an intention of coming into port. Requiring the courtesy ensign on ships engaged in innocent passage would defeat this purpose. Nevertheless, I believe some states do in fact try to require all foreign merchant ships passing through their territorial sea to fly the courtesy ensign.
Joe McMillan, 12 November 2002

It seems to me that the first rule on the topic is not to cause offense to the host country. Thus, avoiding an improper courtesy flag is (and has always been) of the prime importance. The visitor is paying tribute to his hosts.

In Britain and possessions, there was/is a specific legal prohibition against civilian use at sea of the flags that had become deemed to be the national flags ashore. Hoisting the Union Flag as a courtesy flag (or a colonial / dependency Blue Ensign) may not be strictly illegal with respect to a foreign craft, but such usage is not likely to win the host's favour. I have stories of UK pilots strongly suggesting that visiting US tankers haul down a Union Flag being used as a courtesy flag. Thus, in the case of Britain, we have the birth of the notion that the civil ensign (Red Ensign) is a safe courtesy flag. In fact, it's the only safe flag seeing as St George is given over to Admirals and St Andrew is part of the International Code. In a sense, the use of the civil ensign was a prudential rule; the flag that is properly worn by local civilian craft can hardly be considered illegal, or offensive, by the host. This rule applies to UK and possessions.

Given the preeminence of Britain in the maritime world, many mariners assumed that the use of the civil ensign was "the rule" for visiting all lands, and thus we have lands such as Bahamas and India adopting a similar practice with their red ensigns. The civil ensign rule certainly makes sense, and it is the predominant practice.

It should be remembered, however, that in some lands with civil ensigns, the national flag on land is not illegal for use afloat. Malta is an exception to the usual rule, and she prefers the usage of the national flag as a courtesy flag (not the famous civil ensign). And in ensign-using lands such as Fiji and Solomon Islands, the national flag is not specifically outlawed afloat.

One should recognize a secondary (minority) position that the national flag is the courtesy flag in some countries. And a corrollary to this rule is that some lands with red ensigns may not care if the national flag is used because it is not a violation. The civil ensign rule is really intended to keep visitors from using improper flags, not attempting to prescribe what is proper.

The practice depends on the country.

Given that much flag 'scholarship' consists of repetition of other secondary sources, the civil ensign "rule" has come to be stated as gospel. Worse, some attempt to create a 'universal theory' of courtesy flags by stating that a visitor should fly the ensign to which she would be entitled if she were registered in the host country. This is not true. A yacht visiting Belgium does not fly the Belgian Yacht Ensign, a yacht visiting Spain does not fly the Spanish Yacht Ensign, and a US Coast Guard cutter visiting Britain does not hoist the Blue Ensign of HM Coastguards. Hoisting a specific yacht club ensign (or the ensign of a government department) would hardly be regarded as a courtesy even if the visiting skipper is a member of a local privileged club. US law places a heavy penalty on unauthorized hoisting of the US Coast Guard Ensign.

Civilian and governmental craft hoist either the host's civil ensign, or the national flag in a few cases.
James T.Liston, 18 May 2005


In the 1850s a warship entering a foreign port hoisted its ensign as a compliment to the country being visited and expected the port authority to raise its national flag in return.

In December 1857, Captain Felix Jones, Indian Navy, the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf wrote to Ahmed Khan, Durya Begee, Governor of Bushire; "I allude to government vessels and others, whether foreign or British, entering this port with their national ensigns flying in compliment to the government of the country. Though in every part of the world this courtesy is returned by the immediate display of the local flag, in Bushire, from some unexplained cause, the Persian colours are never shown." The Governor replied that in Bushire it was not the custom to fly the national flag on such occasions. The British Minister in Tehran made representations to the Shah, pointing out that Persian ceremony in Bushire was observed by Britain, listing;

18 November 1857. Public entry into Bushire of Ahmed Khan the Persian Governor, and the hoisting of the flag of His Majesty the Shah of Persia at Bushire.

Royal Salute of 21 guns fired by Corvette Falkland.

30 November 1857. Nomination of Mahomed Kassim Mirza as heir apparent to the throne of Persia.

British Resident flagstaff dressed and Royal Salute fired by Steam Frigate Ferooz and Corvette Falkland and all ships of the squadron decorated from stem to stern with Persian flag at main.

15 Sep 1858. Birthday of His Majesty Shah of Persia.

Royal Salute fired by Steam Frigate Punjaub and Corvette Falkland, all ships dressed and flagstaff at British Resident dressed.

On 29 January 1859 the British Resident reported that the Persian flag was displayed on arrival and departure of Her Majesty's ships and of ships of the Indian Navy.
ADM 127/68
David Prothero, 17 July 2001


1890. A Chinese flag hoisted at the foremast of the White Star steamer Gaelic in Hong Kong was removed by the Harbour Master on the orders of the Admiral of the China Station.

The company sought legal opinion, which was that any flag could be flown providing that the Red Ensign was also hoisted. A Board of Trade official wrote that the practice of hoisting foreign colours went as far back as he could recollect in British and foreign steam ships.

An Admiralty letter stated that every mail steamer sailing from Queenstown (now Cobh the port for Cork) flew the American Ensign at the fore, and hoisted it again on arriving at New York, adding that it was the general practice in most parts of the world. [Public Record Office MT 9/358]

1947. The India Office asked what flags should be flown by ships in foreign waters. The Admiralty replied that naval ships were covered by King's Regulations and Admiralty Instructions. For merchant ships it was only a custom, although some countries had port regulations that insisted on a courtesy flag. [ADM 1/24946]

1951. The Board of Trade were asked which was the correct courtesy flag for a foreign ship to fly in Britain. They replied that as it was purely complimentary it did not matter, but thought that foreign ships were more likely to carry a Union Jack than a Red Ensign. It was customary for ships to hoist the flag of a country they were approaching and keep it flying until leaving territorial waters. Ships transiting territorial waters did not fly a courtesy flag. [MT 9/5743]

1951. A paragraph on courtesy flags was included in an Admiralty publication. "It is the custom among many merchant ships when entering a port of foreign nationality to fly the colours of that country at the fore masthead, and, when leaving, similarly to fly the colours of the port to which they are immediately bound.

Care is taken not to give offence by flying colours which may be exclusively reserved for warships, or for special purposes, or by displaying the colours of a country which may be at enmity with the country which the ship is leaving; for instance the correct flag for a foreign merchant ship to fly when leaving for or entering a British port is the Red Ensign." [Admiralty Manual of Seamanship 1951]

This "dogmatic statement" was criticised by Hilary Mead, a naval commander, Younger Brother of Trinity House, and author of "Sea Flags :Their General Use". ... "... The 'courtesy flag' is at best only a convention that has crept into its present rather pretentious position within the last few decades, and there is nothing on record to show that it is supported by any kind of authority." [Shipbuilding and Shipping Record 4 October 1951]
David Prothero, 17 September 2001


Courtesy flags in Panama Canal during Cold War era

At one time I lived in the Canal Zone. This is the area of (then) U.S. territory that surrounds the Panama Canal, (or as Zonians called it "The American Canal in Panama"). This was back in the days when the world was clearly divided into East & West. It was humorous to watch ships come through the canal. Without looking at the ensign you could tell if it was a ship from and Eastern or Western country by the courtesy flag flown. Western countries flew the United States flag as a courtesy, Eastern countries flew the Panamanian.

Nathan Bliss, 13 June 1996