We need clarification and constant reminders of standards of what many think they remember and what actually exists in reality. This is not an insult directed at anyone. There are thousands of well-meaning Americans who remember what they were taught in school or during their time in the military and those memories fade, just like every other aspect of teaching. We need a refresher. This article is a refresher and also addresses some information that may not be readily accessible.
There is a difference between carrying and displaying flags. A display of flags is already in a set of stands either for daily display or for an event/ceremony and not carried by a color guard.
Any flags carried first with the intention of posting them in stands for an event/ceremony must conform to the requirements of a color guard. Just because flags will eventually be posted does not mean the color guard can ignore these standards.
There is no documentation on the order of precedence for tribal flags. I find this unfortunate. The advice DeVaughn was given was to place the tribal flags after the territories because tribes do not have representation in Congress and are under the Department of the Interior.
When on tribal soil, the appropriate tribal flag would go to the marching left of the US (where the state should be).
For multiple tribal flags, alphabetical order is best as it eliminates a very contentious subject of establishment date.
All of this is reasoned opinion and not solid protocol.
Fringe on Flags
It’s best to avoid fringe on foreign national flags. Some foreign flags have a certain color and length of fringe, but international flag protocol settles the matter at leaving fringe off. Here is an example below.
You can see in the image above that both national flags do not have fringe even though the Army requires fringe on all flags carried by soldiers.
Color Guard: Foreign National, State, US Territory, and Tribal Flags
I need to emphasize this now: A color guard does not march with the American flag higher. Color guard flags are always carried at the same level unless the bearer height or waist levels are so different that the American flag must be carried higher, but it is then carried MINIMALLY higher.
Flags must be as close to the same dimensions as possible and flagstaffs must be the same length.
Foreign national, American Indian tribal, and US territory flags are considered foreign national flags when it comes to flag protocol. This is not about legal issues, that’s much too confusing and contentious. We are strictly addressing flag protocol.
Army, Air Force, and Space Force
If your color guard is Army, Air Force, or Space Force, the the foreign national, state, US territory, or tribal flag is carried directly next to the American flag on its left. If there is one of each that is the order for carrying.
Army, Air Force, and Space Force color guards can carry up to five flags with one having to be the departmental/organizational. For more about the Army color guard, read this article. For more on about the Air Force and Space Force color guard, read this article.
Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard
The Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard form a separate three-man color guard for the foreign national, tribal*, or US territory flag with two guards. If more than one flag in this category, then another three-man color guard is formed.
*As for the tribal flag, there is no guiding documentation as to how the Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard it represents a nation and the recommendation is to treat the flag just like a foreign national or US territory flag.
State flags cannot be carried at all. The Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard can only carry the national ensign and the departmental/organizational flags in the main color guard. For more, read this article.
The image above shows both teams standing together on US soil (Marine Barracks Washington) with the foreign national flag’s team to the left of the main team in line formation with approximately two steps in between. The team of three takes all commands from the color guard proper (main team). The main image at the top of this article shows these two teams in parade order with the main team in front and the second team centered behind at approximately six steps.
Display: Foreign National, State, US Territory, and Tribal Flags
A flag display follows established protocol, whether national or international. For this display, all flags are as close to the same dimensions as possible and all flagstaffs (indoors) or flagpoles (outdoors) are the same length/height.
- A foreign national flag is never displayed to the right of the American flag when on US soil.
- A foreign national flag is never displayed lower than the American flag.
- The American flag can be displayed at half-staff/mast while the foreign national flag is flown at full truck (all the way to the top). Some countries consider half-staff/mast to be insulting to their flag.
- A foreign national flag is never displayed under the American flag.
- The American flag is displayed to its’ right (viewer’s left).
- Any foreign national flag is next and if more than one will be displayed (not counting the US) they are displayed in alphabetical order in the English.
- Next comes any state flag and if more than one, the flags are arranged in order of acceptance into the union, not alphabetical.
- A US Territory flag is next and if more than one, they are arranged by territory establishment date.
- A tribal flag would be next and if more than one, the flags are arranged in alphabetical order.
American Flag Higher
It’s a myth that the American flag must always be higher. There is one display where having the American flag higher is a must.
I need to reemphasize this: A color guard does not march with the American flag higher. Color guard flags are carried at the same level unless the bearer height or waist level is so different that the American flag must be carried higher, but it is then carried MINIMALLY higher.
The only time the American flag is displayed higher is when it is in the middle of the display. The flags it is displayed with radiate out from it starting on the right.
The graphic above is ONLY for a static display indoors or outdoors. A color guard does not carry or post colors like this. These displays are always informally setup before a ceremony or for daily viewing.
Just because you may want or think that the American flag should be higher, doesn’t mean you force it. All flags are raised to full truck and when all of your flagpoles are the same height, that means the American is raised at the far right, viewer’s left. For more on outside displays, read this article.
Creating this Article
I collaborated on the fine details of this article with DeVaughn Simper, Vexillologist for Colonial Flag. The only flag manufacturer that I recommend with a very knowledgeable staff. Consultations were also with the Institute of Heraldry and the State Department Protocol Office.
Besides the consultations mentioned above, the following were part of the research. The Flag Code, TC 3-21.5 (Formerly FM 3-21.5 & FM 22-5), AR 840-10, MCO 5060.20, MCO 10520.3, AFPAM 34-1203 (formerly AFMAN 36-2203, AFM 50-14, & AFR 50-14), AFI 34-1201, and AFPAM 34-1202.
Thank you for this information! At times, I have seen colors posted incorrectly…even by branches of our Armed Forces! There is often debate on the proper display and posting of flags. This article sets the record straight. Well done!