National and state symbols

National and state symbols serve as a visual representation of the ideas that a nation and in particular its polity stand for. They give the nation a perceivable form, its people something with which they can personally identify, and are also symbols that are recognised on an international level.

National and state symbols (Greek: symbolon = token, insignia, means of identification) play a role on more than just special ceremonial occasions. We also encounter them in our everyday lives – when flags are displayed at public buildings, for instance, and of course when the national anthem is played at (inter)national sporting events. 

No state can dispense with symbols. First of all, they serve practical purposes: borders are marked by national emblems, official buildings are identified by official signs, and treaties, laws or documents are authenticated by official seals. In this respect, symbols are tokens of state sovereignty and authority. 

But they also have a non-material significance: the choice of symbols serving as flags and coats of arms and the designation of national holidays or days of remembrance to be publicly observed say something about the state’s perception of itself, about certain ideas and basic convictions that unite the polity. The historical and political identity of the state and its citizens is concentrated in its symbols. In addition to their representative function, symbols therefore also serve an integrative function: they are a vivid outward expression of the desire for and commitment to political unity. 

However, this is a multifaceted topic. It is essential that thorough research is carried out to allow you to create a consistent approach for Airbus and develop a better understanding of the significance of flags and banners, as well as what they symbolise.

The distinction between state symbol and national symbol
Due to the historical development of certain terms (e.g. the fact that we talk about national anthems, national holidays and the national flag), it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between the two. Strictly speaking, however, the distinction lies in whether a symbol represents the state or the people (nation). Only in nation states are state and national symbols to be seen as almost identical and used as such.

National emblems
National emblems are used as a means for the state to portray itself and show its presence, as well as for national identification. They identify and represent the state in question and the public authority it has through various laws.

National emblems usually include:

  • Flags/banners
  • Coats of arms
  • Insignia (e.g. arm badges, medals)
  • Official seals, etc.
  • The national anthem or a certain national holiday can also be considered a national emblem.

State symbolism can be seen as an overall generic concept that makes use of national emblems in its implementation.

All definitions illustrate the fundamental significance of how national flags are displayed in every country. For this reason, it is important to follow a number of basic rules.

Specific difficulties

Flag size and proportions

Flags are not standardised, which means there are a number of different formats. In particular, the side proportions of many flags differ from one to the next.

Here are some examples of quadrilateral formats with their corresponding proportions:

  • USA: 10:19
  • Austria: 2:3
  • Belgium: 13:15
  • Federal Republic of Germany: 3:5


  • Switzerland: square (as is the flag of Vatican City)
  • Nepal: the only country to use a double-pennon as its national flag instead of a quadrilateral one

As it is important to ensure the sizes of flags are uniform (regardless of whether they are displayed outside or inside), all flags, including those listed above, may be used in different proportions, for example:

  • the flag of the USA in 3:5 instead of 10:19 or
  • the flag of Belgium in 2:3 instead of 13:15. 

This is partly due to the fact that the proportions are defined by certain governments only when flags are used officially, but also because many flag manufacturers tend to only offer a few standard proportions (2:3; 1:2; 3:5) in order to save costs.
(Most of the countries recognised by the UN as sovereign states – 193 plus Vatican City – have defined proportions of 2:3, 1:2 or 3:5 for their flags.) 

Front and back
There is no standard definition for what is the front (obverse) and what is the back (reverse) of a flag. In the case of most states, the front of the flag is the side that has the flagpole on the left, as seen from the perspective of the observer. However, for several Arab countries, the flagpole is on the right from the perspective of the observer, as this corresponds with the direction in which Arabic script is read. 

The front of a flag is denoted by a vexillological Symbol . There’s also a certain symbol that denotes the back. However, most flags are identical on the front and the back.

Some states stress that the back of their flag may not be a mirror image of the front, while others remove asymmetrical symbols from the reverse side.

Vexillological symbols
In the study of flags (vexillology), vexillological symbols (also known as FIAV symbols) are used as a standard classification system for flags. The system was developed in 1959 by American vexillologist Whitney Smith and introduced by the Fédération internationale des associations vexillologiques (FIAV) in the early 1970s.

Important: Make sure the flag is the right way around!

  • In some countries, displaying a national flag upside down signals an acute threat or danger.
  • It can also be seen as demeaning to the country in question.
  • For this reason, flags are often hoisted upside down as a means of protest.

Flag ‘disposal’ (examples)

  • USA: once a national flag is worn out, it has to be burned in a ‘respectful’ way. Burning the flag in protest is seen as unseemly; however, the US Supreme Court has banned certain states from making it a crime to provocatively desecrate the flag.
  • On the other hand, other countries explicitly forbid the desecration of their flag. In Germany, for example, burning flags of the Federal Republic of Germany or of its Federal States in public is a criminal offence (Defamation of the state and its symbols, Sec. 90a of the German Criminal Code (Strafgesetzbuch, StGB)). Even attempting to do this is a criminal offence.
  • In Argentina it is forbidden to clean the national flag, as this would wash out the blood of the heroes who fought for the country. If a flag can no longer be used, it has to be buried in an honourable way.

The order of display of outdoor flags

Usually, the basic rule when displaying national flags is for the national flag to occupy the position of honour.

If international flags are flown, there is no obligatory order of precedence. Internationally, all national flags are considered to be of equal status and are therefore hoisted in alphabetical order.

  • At European Union events, the ‘EU alphabet’ applies. This means that the flags are displayed in alphabetical order based on the names of the member states in their own official languages.
  •  The flags of United Nations members should be displayed in English alphabetical order.

Position of honour

This is usually:

  • on the left when facing the flags from outside the building/site/facility
  • or, logically, on the right when viewed from the building

Should, however, European/international or supranational organisations be involved, for example the European Union, United Nations or NATO, then the flag of the organisation/community in question will normally occupy the position of honour.

Each rule for the position of honour also applies to indoor flags.

However, flags aren’t only displayed in a linear form; other special forms include:

  • a closed circle of flags or
  • a line, cluster or semi-circle of flags

There are a few basic rules here. See, for example, The United Nations Flag Code and Regulations (more on this document below).

At international level, the display of national flags involves having to determine and acknowledge the flag codes for the flags in question, and/or codes that in some cases are determined by an institution or organisation.

Let’s take the United Nations Flag Code and Regulations as a representative example.

This covers the following:

  • Design and dimensions of the flag
  • Dignity of the flag
  • Flag protocol (governs the significance of the flag and its status compared to other flags)
  • Use of the flag by the United Nations and specialised agencies of the United Nations
  • Use of the flag generally
  • Use of the flag in military operations
  • Prohibition
  • Mourning
  • Manufacture and sale of the flag
  • Violation
  • Regulations
  • Dimensions of the flag, etc.

Order of flag display – examples – United Nations:

A closed circle of flags
“The United Nations Flag should in no case be made a part of a circle of flags. In such a circle of flags, flags other than the United Nations Flag should be displayed in the English alphabetical order of the countries represented reading clockwise. The United Nations Flag itself should always be displayed on the flagpole in the centre of the circle of flags or in an appropriate adjoining area.”

Line, cluster or semi-circle of flags
“In line, cluster or semi-circle groupings all flags other than the United Nations Flag shall be displayed in the English alphabetical order of the countries represented starting from the left. The United Nations Flag, in such cases, should either be displayed separately in an appropriate area or in the centre of the line, cluster or semi-circle or, in cases where two United Nations Flags are available, at both ends of the line, cluster or semi-circle.” 

National flag of the country in which the display takes place
“The national flag of the country in which the display takes place should appear in its normal position according to the English alphabetical order.
When the country in which the display takes place wishes to make a special display of its national flag, such a special display can only be made where the arrangement of the flags takes the form of a line, cluster or semi-circle grouping, in which case the national flag of the country in which the display is taking place should be displayed at each end of the line of flags separated from the grouping by an interval of not less than one fifth of the total length of the line.”

Mourning – the display of the national flag during events or periods of mourning


  • Most countries around the world fly flags at half-mast or affix black crepe streamers to the top part of the flag as a sign of mourning.
  • This is, however, forbidden in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran, as their national flags are inscribed with Islam’s testament of faith.
  • One general rule at a (state) funeral is that if a national flag covers a casket, this flag must be lifted when the casket is lowered so that it doesn’t drop down into the grave. At a state funeral in the USA, for example, there is also a certain ritual where the national flag is folded and presented to the next of kin.

Pro Tip and No Go

Pro Tip

  • From the information provided above, we can see that flag displays follow specific rules to lend a well-balanced and appropriate sense of significance to an occasion (meeting, summit, visit, event, etc.).
  • However, as with all events where protocol plays a part, it is absolutely necessary to keep in mind the overall context, as this may make it necessary to adjust priorities and rules.
  • As always: if possible, consult a professional!


No Go

  • Flags may never be dirty or worn, as they are a national symbol and must be treated with the appropriate respect.
  • Empty flagpoles should always be avoided – while it is not necessarily always incorrect, the overall impression must remain a priority.
  • Care must always be taken to ensure that flags are raised correctly – they must never be raised upside down.
  • Flags may not be used for other purposes (e.g. as a table cloth or to decorate a lectern).
  • They should not make contact with the ground.
  • They must be ‘disposed of’ with respect.