The Q Flag 101 . . . what it means and when to fly it

The Q Flag

The Q flag. The symbol of a cruising dream, heading into foreign ports and adventures in new countries.

Q stands for quarantine. In this case, quarantine in that you’re a new arrival, not yet officially checked into the foreign country.

I’ve seen a number of “arguments” online – each from apparently authoritative sources – with different interpretations as to exactly when and how the Q flag should be flown. The basics are the same but there are disagreements about some of the details.

Here’s my understanding, from going down the Pacific coast of Central America:

  • As you enter the territorial waters of a country, hoist the Q flag on the starboard spreader to indicate that you have not yet checked in. Some say you should fly the courtesy flag above it; others say no other flags on the same halyard. US practice is to have no others.
  • Theoretically, no one can go ashore until the boat is checked in with customs, immigration and other (usually health) authorities, who come to the boat. In practice, in many places the captain or the entire crew goes ashore to check in. Even within a country, the practice may change from one place to another. The bottom line, however, is that the first place you go ashore should be a Port of Entry and the first thing you should do is check in, following whatever the local custom is. Be sure to check cruising guides and Noonsite to learn the Ports of Entry and also the local practice!
  • After all the formalities have been attended to and the boat and all crew are officially checked in, the Q flag is lowered and the courtesy flag of the country is flown on the starboard spreader. Nothing should be higher than the courtesy flag and any burgees should be on the port spreader. In many countries, locals will be very offended by ratty looking courtesy flags, so if you intend to be in a country for more than a couple months, you may want to look into higher quality flags or carry several spares.
  • There is almost no guidance on what to do after clearing out of a country, while you are still in its territorial waters. We were told to fly the courtesy flag as long as we were in a country’s waters, then to change for the Q flag of the “new” country we were now in. When you return to your home country from a foreign country, you should fly the Q flag until you are fully checked in.

And yes, we just received our brand-spanking-new Q flag! Excitement is building as we’re starting to make plans . . . oops, I shouldn’t say plans. That’s a bad word for cruisers. We are hoping to head to the Bahamas in early March for several months.

If you sew, you can make your own Q flag pretty easily. However, I discovered that since I would only be making one flag, the supplies would cost far more than buying a Q flag. West Marine’s isn’t too outrageous, but I found one for a little less on Amazon (yes, the shipping is more than the flag, but the total is still less than others I found).

P.S. I’ve always thought that a Q flag is a great boat-warming present for would-be international cruisers, showing that you believe in their dreams!

The Q Flag 101: what it means, when to fly it and where to get one at a reasonable price

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  • Jim Allen
    Posted at 08 January 2016 Reply

    Wish I could go with you. Next year once I get the boat down there 🙂

  • Ed Robinson
    Posted at 08 January 2016 Reply

    We are looking at late March to cross.

  • Megan O'Kelly
    Posted at 05 January 2017 Reply

    thanks for all of your posts, your pet import info for the Bahamas worked like a dream! hope to see you in the Bahamas this spring!

  • Laine Common
    Posted at 05 January 2017 Reply

    Stupid questions, but gotta start somewhere.. we’re not due to leave the country for a while yet, but what is a courtesy flag? I’m assuming it’s the individual countries national flag? And since we’re on a power boat where would we fly it from? Thanks for all your info and hard work you put into your articles!

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 05 January 2017 Reply

      Courtesy flag is a small flag of the country you are visiting (most that you buy are 12 inches x 18 inches). On a mast-less powerboat, they are flown from the bow (in place of any burgee you might otherwise fly). No stupid questions here — we all started knowing nothing and learned by asking!

  • Aline
    Posted at 05 January 2017 Reply

    Excellent timing. We are heading south to Panama from Mexico this season. I was disappointed to be told no need for the Q flag here in Mexico, since so many boats arrive every day. My husband forgot that we even had one and said we needed to add it to the provision list. Lucky for him I remembered we had one because I was excited to use ours, finally, after two years enjoying wonderful MX. The Q flag and a bottle of champagne will be my new gift to soon-to-be cruisers! You always have the BEST ideas.

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