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Courtesy flag etiquette and reducing their cost


What is the issue?
When a vessel visits another country, flag etiquette requires a small version of the coastal state’s ensign to be flown from the senior signalling position of the visiting vessel. This is the uppermost flag at the starboard crosstrees of a yacht with a single mast or, where there is more than one mast, at the starboard spreader of the forward mast. It is flown at the bow of a motor cruiser that does not have a dedicated signal halyard. The flags should be appropriately sized and in good condition.

Technically, the courtesy flag should not be flown until the vessel is properly cleared by customs and immigration. Until clearance is complete, you should only fly the yellow Q (quarantine) flag afterwhich the countries courtesy flag should be hoisted. In many countries it is courteously accepted to hoist the courtesy flag above the Q flag in anticipation of clearing customs and immigration.

There is no legal requirement to fly a courtesy flag. It is simply a gesture of courtesy that a visiting vessel should fly the foreign nation's ensign when they enter and operate in its waters. But how it is observed differs vastly. For instance, some waters may make it a local law to fly the flag whilst others will take more insult from an undersized, faded or tatty courtesy flag than having no courtesy flag at all. So it is best to simply play it safe and fly a quality courtesy flag. If you are flying the local flag in the right spirit i.e. as a matter of courtesy then you are unlikely to cause offence.

The problem with the custom of flying a quality courtesy flag is that it can start to cost a lot of money as courtesy flags can be expensive. When one is cruising areas that encompass a number of different nations, such as island hopping down through the Caribbean, the cost of these flags quickly mounts up. It may also be considered impolite to fly a regional flag such as in places like the Channel Isles where there are individual courtesy flags for each island. Worse, the flag you need for the next destination may not be readily available from the country of departure and highly expensive when bought in the port of entry.

Why address this?
Sailors should always seek to be agreeable and courteous guests, and it can be seen to be insulting to a host not to fly a courtesy flag. This is particularly the case when dealing with authorities who have powers that may present untold difficulties should they be put in a position where they put their minds to it. But getting ahead of this process can save a lot of money and eliminate some unnecessary running around to comply.

How to address this?
Before departing have a look at your planned itinerary and with the help of a sewing machine make up the courtesy flags you are sure to use before you go. This will save a lot of money and hunting-about down the line.

Likewise, take plenty of material in different colours so you can make up the courtesy flag of any country as required should there be any itinerary changes, which there are sure to be. Also, bring some fabric paint as some countries have complicated emblems which are far easier to paint on than sew.

The below summary list of world ensigns should provide a broad indication of what you should be looking for. The courtesy flags are usually Civil Ensigns and not the national flag of the country although not every country has a civil ensign.






Some locals may be particular whether it is the correct maritime ensign or the land flag but, in general, it is the effort made to be courteous which is important.

Courtesy flags are sized to the vessel. There is an old rule of thumb any flag, other than the vessel's national flag or ensign, such as club burgees, private signals etc, that they should be ½ inch for every foot of overall vessel length. Broadly speaking a boat from 21 - 26 ft should carry a 30cm flag, 27- 34 ft - 40cm, 35 - 42 ft - 45 cm, 43 - 50 ft - 56 and 51 - 60 ft - 76cm.


The flag at the stern of your boat, or the vessel’s national flag or ensign, should be one inch on the fly (2.54 cm) for every foot of overall vessel length. For instance, a 42” flag should be flown from a 42’ foot vessel. This should be hoisted when entering or leaving a foreign port and on demand. It is recommended that it is worn at all times in daylight, especially when near to or in sight of land or another vessel, but most people take it down at other times to keep it in good shape.

The stern of the vessel is considered a place of honour, for the vessel’s national flag and no other. No flag except for the vessel’s national flag should ever fly from there. If you want to fly your regional or county flag or even your cruising club flag it's best to hoist them on the port spreader to avoid any confusion with the Q or courtesy flag.

The Jolly Roger is best avoided
Photo: CC0
A particular divisive flag is the 'Jolly Roger'. Never fly this from the stern as authorities take a dim view of it and some foreign states may even have a specific local offence related to it. Offshore in international waters, outside the 3NM zone, it could lead to more difficulties.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas, largely an adoption of the 17th century Law of the Sea, a body of case law and treaties by the legal scholar Hugo de Groot, deals with piracy specifically. Flying the Jolly Roger, based on the case law, can be seen as signalling an intention to commit acts of piracy. This provides the Coast Guard or any territorial naval vessels with the right to immediately board a vessel that flies the Jolly Roger to ascertain for themselves of the real intentions. In short, just do not fly it as you will attract the ire of all authorities. If you have kids aboard and they want to have some fun, stick it on a port spreader but be prepared to take it down if you are annoying any authorities.

Finally, and technically speaking, the use of courtesy flags for 'dressing a vessel' is not appropriate. Dressing vessels usually takes place on national holidays, at regattas and on other special occasions. The nautical signal flags you see flying from the masts, as with the header shot, are carefully selected signal flags based on their meanings, plus national flags that are raised following strict protocol.

With thanks to:
Jayne Harpur, Yacht Obsession.
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Add your review or comment:

Clark Lopez wrote this review on May 26th 2022:
Hi I have question, what if you are going to the same country as your registered vessel? Ex. Vessel is going Norwegian Port and your vessel is Norwegian flag, is there a need to hoist Norwegian Flag (courtesy) knowing that we hoist our Norwegian flag on our stern post? or not? thanks in advance

Average Rating: Unrated

Michael Harpur wrote this review on Jun 15th 2022:
My understanding is, that once you clear in, all you have to show is the ship's Norwegian flag on the stern, no courtesy as the vessel is in its home country.

Average Rating: Unrated

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