National civil ensign of New Zealand flown from the stern of Hikitia

The ensign is a maritime flag that is used for the national identification of a ship.[1] The ensign is the largest flag, generally flown at the stern (rear) of the ship while in port. In ports, depending on the ship's origin, it is sometimes identical with a jack on the bow of the ship. Jacks are more common on warships than on merchant ships.


The Middle English ensign is derived from the Latin word insignia.


In vexillology an ensign is differentiated between a naval ensign (war ensign) and civil ensign (merchant), which both are the original expressions of the national flag.[2]

However, in the United Kingdom, Germany and Netherlands a separation between State and Armed ships on the one hand, and unarmed and private vessels was made earlier than in other Nations, see British ensign.

Vexillologists distinguish three varieties of a national flag when used as an ensign:

Today, some countries like the United States and France still use just one flag and also as a jack, while lacking special cantons and transparent identification. All ships of the seagoing services of the United States Government with the exception of the United States Coast Guard fly the national flag as their ensign, although the ships of some agencies also fly an agency flag as a 'distinctive mark'.

However, further countries like Ukraine, Italy, Russia, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Japan use different ensigns. Such are strictly regulated and indicate if the vessel is a warship, a merchant ship, a ship under contract to carry mail, or a yacht, for example.

Several Commonwealth countries' national flags had their origin in the ensigns of their original colonising power, the United Kingdom. Most notable of these national flags are those of Australia, New Zealand, and several smaller island nations. It is also very likely that the Grand Union Flag from which the flag of the United States developed was strongly influenced by the British Red Ensign or the flag of the (British controlled) East India Company.


In nautical use, any boat uses a specific flag of a specific Nation to indicate its organizational membership. The ensign is flown on a ship for that reason.[2] The flag signifies the home port of the ship owner and that his tax is paid there for his income made with the ship. Flagging out always means that the relevant laws of the country apply on the ship like employment contracts, safety, stamp duty or value-added taxes.[citation needed]

In most countries, especially in Europe and the countries of the Commonwealth of Nations, it is common for the ensign to display additional information as well. For example, whether it is a civil, state or military flag.[citation needed]

Ensigns are usually at the stern flagstaff when in port, and may be shifted to a gaff (if available) or mast amidships when the ship is under way, becoming known as a steaming ensign.[citation needed]

A boat flag is also often used as guest country flag and is flown on the boat when navigating in foreign waters or entering another country's port.[citation needed]

Air ensigns

With the creation of independent air forces and the growth in civil aviation in the first half of the 20th century, a range of distinguishing flags and ensigns were adopted. These may be divided into air force ensigns (often light blue in colour,[4] such as the Royal Air Force Ensign) and civil air ensigns.

Heraldic ensigns

In heraldry, an ensign is the ornament or sign, such as the crown, coronet, or mitre, borne above the charge or arms.[5]


See also


  1. ^ "Ensign". Archived from the original on July 27, 2012.
  2. ^ a b Alfred Znamierowski. "Types of flags". The World Encyclopedia of Flags. p. 31.
  3. ^ Znamierowski. "Naval ensigns and flags". The World Encyclopedia of Flags. p. 88.
  4. ^ Znamierowski. "Air force flags". The World Encyclopedia of Flags. p. 85.
  5. ^ Snell, Melissa. "Pimbley's Dictionary of Heraldry". Archived from the original on 2014-07-11. Retrieved 2014-06-15.