Betsy Ross and the American Flag

FAQ part 1: General questions

FAQ part 2: Displaying the flag

FAQ part 3: Half staff; Half mast

FAQ part 4: Funeral flags

Please note: Our site contains the flag code in its entirety and dozens of answers to a very wide array of questions. We hope the information we have provided will be a useful resource to visitors. We are not expanding this section and cannot answer specific questions regarding the flag code and its interpretation.

Half-Staff, Half-Mast

Is there a difference between half-mast and half-staff?

According to Merriam-Webster's (3rd Edition):

Half-mast: a point some distance but not necessarily halfway down below the top of a mast or staff or the peak of a gaff.

Half-staff: HALF-MAST — used of a flag or a flagpole

The Associated Press Style Guide suggests using "half staff."

However, most dictionaries use "half-mast" as the preferred term.

The Flag Code (section 7-m) reads:

The term "half-staff" means the position of the flag when it is one-half the distance between the top and bottom of the staff;

Using Google, you find the term "half-mast" 592,000 times and the term "half-staff" 428,000 times. Searching White House press releases "half-staff" appears 80 times to "half-mast" only 4 times.

Naval flag protocol uses the term "half-staff" 10 times, and the term "half-mast" 61 times.

Our conclusion is that both terms can be used. The term "half-mast" is preferred by dictionaries and seems more appropriate at sea (as ships have masts). "Half-staff" seems more appropriate on land, and is the preferred term used in the Flag Code and in Presidential proclamations.

We call it a draw. The two terms may be used interchangeably for general use.

Should I fly my flag at half-staff today?

» Also see Should I fly my flag today?

When to half-staff the flag

  • May 15 — Peace Officers Memorial Day: half-staff from sunrise to sunset
  • Last Monday in May — Memorial Day: the flag should be displayed at half-staff until noon
  • September 11 — Patriot Day: half-staff from sunrise to sunset
  • Sunday, usually of week in which October 9th falls — Fire Prevention Week: half-staff from sunrise to sunset. See Public Law 107-51
  • December 7 — National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day: half-staff from sunrise to sunset


  • Upon reliable information that the current or former President, current Vice-President, current or former Chief Justice, or current Speaker of the House has died
  • Upon Presidential proclamation (see next) or your state's governor (see after)
President

Presidential proclamation
Click to see if the President has issued a proclamation to half-staff the flag.

Governors' Websites:

By statute, the President is requested each year to issue a proclamation requiring government buildings to half-staff the flag and inviting all the people of the US to do so as well, on Peace Officers Memorial Day, Patriot Day, and National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day (see above).

Section 7m of the Flag Code reads:

The flag, when flown at half-staff, should be first hoisted to the peak for an instant and then lowered to the half-staff position. The flag should be again raised to the peak before it is lowered for the day. On Memorial Day the flag should be displayed at half-staff until noon only, then raised to the top of the staff. By order of the President, the flag shall be flown at half-staff upon the death of principal figures of the United States Government and the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, as a mark of respect to their memory. In the event of the death of other officials or foreign dignitaries, the flag is to be displayed at half-staff according to Presidential instructions or orders, or in accordance with recognized customs or practices not inconsistent with law. In the event of the death of a present or former official of the government of any State, territory, or possession of the United States, or the death of a member of the Armed Forces from any State, territory, or possession who dies while serving on active duty, the Governor of that State, territory, or possession may proclaim that the National flag shall be flown at half-staff, and the same authority is provided to the Mayor of the District of Columbia with respect to present or former officials of the District of Columbia and members of the Armed Forces from the District of Columbia. The flag shall be flown at half-staff 30 days from the death of the President or a former President; 10 days from the day of death of the Vice President, the Chief Justice or a retired Chief Justice of the United States, or the Speaker of the House of Representatives; from the day of death until interment of an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, a Secretary of an executive or military department, a former Vice President, or the Governor of a State, territory, or possession; and on the day of death and the following day for a Member of Congress. The flag shall be flown at half-staff on Peace Officers Memorial Day, unless that day is also Armed Forces Day. As used in this subsection —

  1. the term "half-staff" means the position of the flag when it is one-half the distance between the top and bottom of the staff;
  2. the term "executive or military department" means any agency listed under sections 101 and 102 of title 5, United States Code; and
  3. the term "Member of Congress" means a Senator, a Representative, a Delegate, or the Resident Commissioner from Puerto Rico.

In addition to the Flag Code, Proclamation 3044 Section 5 states, "The heads of the several departments and agencies of the [federal] Government may direct that the flag of the United States be flown at half-staff on buildings, grounds, or naval vessels under their jurisdiction on occasions other than those specified herein which they consider proper, and that suitable military honors be rendered as appropriate."

Upon the death of a sitting or former President how long does the flag fly at half-mast? For a Vice-President? Others?
  • 30 days from the death of the President or a former President
  • 10 days from the day of death for: Vice President; Chief Justice of the US or a retired Chief Justice of the US; Speaker of the House of Representatives
  • Day of death until interment for: Associate Justice of the Supreme Court; Secretary of an executive or military department; Former Vice President; Governor of a State, territory, or possession
  • Day of death and the following day for: Member of Congress

Section 7-m of the Flag Code

How can I show mourning if my flag is on a fixed pole or staff and can't be half-masted?

The flag rules make no provisions for this. You can affix a streamer of black crepe to the staff immediately below the spearhead of the U.S. flag. It should be no wider than 1 foot, but may be less wide to match the proportionality of the flag. It should be about 1-1/2 times the hoist of the fly (the shorter dimension; the height of the flag). Attach a black streamer with a bow-knot to the spearhead (top) of the pole, allowing the streamer to fall naturally. Alternately, you can affix black bow-knots, with or without streamers, placed at the fastening points.

Can the US flag be flown at half staff and the state flag be flown underneath of it on the same pole?

Yes. The US flag should be at a point midway on the pole and the state flag should fly beneath it.

When the US flag is at half-staff, do other foreign flags fly at full-staff?

Yes. "The flag of the United States will be flown at half-staff whether or not the flag of another nation is flown at full staff alongside the United States flag."

Reference: Department of the Army Pamphlet 600–60

When the US flag is at half mast, should other flags (state, city, company) be flown at half mast?

Yes, they should. Here is what Section 7f of the Flag Code states:

When flags of States, cities, or localities, or pennants of societies are flown on the same halyard with the flag of the United States, the latter should always be at the peak. When the flags are flown from adjacent staffs, the flag of the United States should be hoisted first and lowered last. No such flag or pennant may be placed above the flag of the United States or to the United States flag's right.

Therefore, when the US flag is flown at half-mast, other non-national flags should also fly at half-mast.

On Memorial Day, should we place small flags at gravesites?

Yes, it is customary to honor fallen soldiers every Memorial Day by placing a small flag at the gravesite. At Arlington Cemetery, on the Thursday before the Memorial Day weekend, small flags are placed at every burial site in a ceremony called "Flags In." The small flags are removed at the end of the Memorial Day weekend.

Memorial Day is the last Monday of May and the flag should be displayed at half-staff until noon and then raised to full-staff. Full staff shows that the nation lives, for the flag is the symbol of the living nation.

Memorial Day began after the Civil War to honor the fallen Union soldiers. Over time it expanded to memorialize those who served from all branches of the military and in all wars. It was traditionally celebrated on May 30. In 1968, it was changed to the last Monday in May, traditionally kicking off the unofficial beginning of the summer season. At 3:00pm a minute of silence is observed across the nation.

Reference and more history: US Dept. of Veterans Affairs

Can the governor order the US flag half-staffed for anyone he or she chooses?
halfstaff_state

No. Section 7m of the Flag Code authorizes a governor to half-staff the US flag upon the death of a present or former official of the government of the state, or the death of a member of the Armed Forces from that state who dies while serving on active duty.

The President, by comparison, is authorized to half-staff the US flag by proclamation upon the death of principal figures of the US Government and the Governor of a State, territory, or possession, as well as in the event of the death of other officials or foreign dignitaries.

Governors can order the flag to half-staff to honor fallen soldiers from their state (see Public Law 110-41). The change was the result of governor proclamations, like this one from Governor Granholm of Michigan.

Some object to this extension of a governor's authority because they feel half-staffing the flag for every fallen soldier can be seen as anti-war. Some feel that overuse cheapens the symbolic power of half-staffing the flag, traditionally reserved for political leaders.

Can the mayor order the US flag to half-mast?
halfstaff_city

No. According to the Flag Code, only the President of the United States, your state's Governor, and the Mayor of the District of Columbia can order the US flag lowered to half-staff.

If everyone were to half-staff the US flag at will, the symbolic value of that honor would be lost. Another option is to display black crepe near the entrance to your building, perhaps with a photograph of the former mayor, firefighter, police officer, etc.

Also see Can the governor order the US flag half-staffed for anyone he or she chooses?

Can my company fly the US flag at half-mast for a former employee?
halfstaff_com

No. According to the Flag Code, only the president of the US or your state governor can order the US flag lowered to half-staff. You can half-staff your company flag, which has the advantage of informing passersby and uninformed employees, clients, etc., that someone important to your company has died.

Can my school fly the US flag for a former student killed in Iraq?

No. According to the Flag Code, only the president of the US or your state governor can order the US flag lowered to half-staff. You can half-staff your school flag. You can also display black crepe near the entrance to the building, perhaps with a photograph of the former student.

I was told there are 5 places the flag is never lowered to half staff.

We receive this question periodically. The five proposed locations are:

  • The Betsy Ross House (false, it is half-staffed)
  • The Alamo (false, it is half-staffed)
  • USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor (false, it is half-staffed)
  • The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in Arlington (false, it is half-staffed when others are, and, in addition, it is lowered to half-staff 30 minutes before each funeral)
  • The Moon (true)

A flag, however, is never half-staffed on the battlefield. There are locations so remote that it is not lowered to half-staff. And, half-staffing the flag is done on a voluntary basis by citizens, so there are certainly many flags that are never half-staffed. However, there are no locations where the flag is not half-staffed by Congressional or Presidential authority.

Also see Where does the flag fly 24 hours a day?

Flag code FAQ part 2: Displaying the Flag Flag code FAQ part 4: Funeral Flags


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