Difference Between Half-Mast & Half-Staff

The United States Flag

The U.S. flag often serves as a beacon of light to those in dark times and a symbol of freedom to all who behold it. With such a heavy weight placed on the flag, it is important to properly display the flag. The flag normally flies at full height except for on certain occasions.

1 Half-Staff and Half-Mast

Half-staff and half-mast mean the same thing. The flag is being flown halfway up the pole because of some national tragedy or significant person’s death. Half-staff merely refers to flying the flag on a pole in the ground, while half-mast refers to flying the flag on a ship. A flag staff is used to fly a flag on the dry land, while a ship’s mast is used to fly a flag at sea.

2 When to Fly the Flag at Half-Staff or Half-Mast

It is U.S. flag etiquette that the U.S. flag never fly lower than any other flag. For that reason, the flying of the flag at half-staff or half-mast should only be done under executive order from the president of the United States. This order is given during instances of significant national tragedy, such as the events of Sept. 11, 2001, or after the death of a significant national leader.

3 How to Raise the Flag

When flown at half-staff or half-mast, the flag is not merely raised halfway up the flag pole or mast and left there. The flag is to be raised and lowered during the playing of the national anthem, and the raising or lowering should be completed before the anthem is completed. To properly set the flag to half-staff, the flag is raised to the full height of the pole or mast and then lowered to half-staff or half-mast. If another country’s flag or a state flag is being flown adjacent to the U.S. flag, that flag must go up first so that at no time while on the pole or mast is it higher than the U.S. flag.

4 How to Lower the Flag

The flag should be lowered at the end of the day before the sun sets on it. If it is to fly at night, it must be lit from below. To lower the flag from half-mast or half-staff, first raise the flag to the full height of the pole or mast. Then slowly lower the flag, fold it and properly store it.

Based in Sacramento, Calif., Russel Langley has been writing professionally since 2006. His work has appeared in the "Tailwind," the local publication for Travis Air Force Base in California, as well as on several websites. Langley holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from The Union Institute.