Tracing the exact origins of any flag from around the world can be difficult as many of them do not have concrete histories. Several of the oldest flags have histories that are based on legends, which may not be historically accurate. Additionally, flags often undergo several changes and its rare for a country’s flag to look the same as it did when it was first used. Despite these challenges, we have compiled a list that best represents what are widely believed to be the world’s oldest flags.
Year First Used: 1785
Year Formally Adopted: 1981
Official Name: Rojigualda
Main Colors: Red and yellow triband with the Spanish coat of arms
Spain’s current flag traces its history to the country’s naval ensign of 1785 known as Pabellón de la Marina de Guerra. The flag’s design was personally chosen by King Charles III of Spain from 12 different flags designed by Antonio Valdés y Bazán. Over the next few decades, the flag was primarily used over coastal fortresses, marine barracks and other naval property.
The flag was not used by a Spanish land unit until 1820 and it was not used outside of military purposes until 1843 when Queen Isabella II of Spain made the flag official. Since then, the flag’s red and yellow color scheme has remained in tact (with the exception of the Second Republic period from 1931 – 1939) with only the coat of arms changing.
Year First Used: 1696
Year Formally Adopted: 1993
Official Name: Триколор (Trikolor)
Main Colors: White, blue, and red triband
The modern version of the Russian flag was first adopted in 1696 by the Tsardom of Russia, but has not been in continuous use because of Russia’s turbulent history. The tricolor flag has been used and disused several times throughout Russia’s history and was finally restored in 1993.
Russia’s flag looks very similar to the Dutch flag and according to two different origin stories this was intentional. Both stories connect Russia’s tricolor flag directly to the one used in the Netherlands. According to both stories, a Russian tsar (either Alexis I or Peter the Great) was inspired to fly his own naval flag after witnessing the naval flags used by the Dutch.
Year First Used: c.16th century, possibly older
Year Formally Adopted: 1870
Official Name: Nisshōki of Hinomaru
Main Colors: White with red sun (disk)
Like many of the oldest flags, the Japanese flag’s origin is shrouded in myths and legends. The Japanese consider 660 BCE to be the country’s founding date and they believe that the first Emperor of Japan was a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu. Due to this (legendary) history, the sun symbol has always been important in Japan, especially on the country’s flag.
The first recorded use of a sun-motif flag in Japan dates back to 701 – if this story is true, it would make Japan’s flag the oldest. However, this history is often disputed and outside of Japan the country’s flag is rarely considered the oldest in the world. The oldest existing Japanese flag only dates back to before the 16th century and again, comes with legendary history that places it from the 11th century.
Year First Used: c.1572
Year Formally Adopted: 1937
Official Name: Flag of the Kingdom of the Netherlands
Main Colors: Red, white, and blue triband
The modern Dutch flag (Netherlands) is a variation of the Prince’s Flag used by William Prince of Orange in the Dutch Revolt against King Philip II of Spain during the late 16th century. This tricolor flag was originally orange, white, and blue.
Eventually, the top orange strip was changed to red sometime after 1630. According to the CIA World Factbook, the color change may have been due to the orange dye fading to red over time. Additionally, the CIA Factbook considers the Dutch flag to be the oldest tricolor in continuous use. This claim is helped by the fact that most of the earliest flags only used two colors.
Year First Used: c.1562, possibly earlier
Year Formally Adopted: 1906
Official Name: None
Main Colors: Blue with yellow Nordic cross
The history of the Swedish flag can be hard to trace as several different stories about its origin exist. Some theories suggest that the blue and yellow of the flag have been used by the Swedish royal court since at least 1275. Another story says that the flag’s colors were inspired by the present Swedish coat of arms from 1442.
A few of the oldest preserved Swedish flags show that the early flag’s colors may have actually been blue and white. In fact, the first legal description of the flag with a yellow cross on a blue background only dates to 1562.
Year First Used: c.1470, possibly earlier
Year Formally Adopted: 1889
Official Name: None
Main Colors: Red with white cross
The flag of Switzerland is one of only two square sovereign-state flags in the world, the other belongs to Vatican City. Although officially the flag is square, Swiss ships, boats, and non-government bodies often fly a rectangular version of the Swiss flag.
The Swiss flag’s history can be traced back to three different legends: the Theban Legion, the Reichssturmfahne (Imperial War Banner) during the 12th century, and the Arma Christi in the 13th century. While all of these groups may have used a red flag with white cross, the square flag was first used sometime in the 1470s.
The Red Cross symbol (a red cross on a white background) is a direct inverse of the Swiss flag. This symbol became the original protection symbol declared by the first Geneva convention and pays tribute to the founder of the Red Cross, the Swiss Henry Dunant.
Year First Used: c.1443, possibly earlier
Year Formally Adopted: 1912
Official Name: Flamuri Kombëtar
Main Colors: Red with a black double-headed eagle
The imagery of a black double-headed eagle on a red background was used by noble families of Albania as far back as the Middle Ages. These families borrowed the double-headed eagle from the banner of the Byzantine Empire.
The design of Albania’s modern flag is directly traced back to the House of Kastrioti’s coat of arms. Gjergj Kastriot Skanderbeg used a red flag with a black double-headed eagle when he led a revolt against the Ottoman Empire resulting in Albania’s independence. Since then, the symbol of the double-headed eagle has been re-used by Albanian nationalists each time the country has fought for its independence. The flag was formally adopted in 1912.
Year First Used: c.1279
Year Formally Adopted: 1918; re-adopted in 1990
Official Name: None
Main Colors: Red with thin white band
The Latvian flag looks similar to many of the world’s oldest flags, which also have a red and white color scheme. While no one knows for sure when the red and white flag was first used in Latvia, there is historical evidence that shows the flag could have been used as early as the 13th century. A red flag with a white stripe was first mentioned in the Rhymed Chronicle of Livonia – the flag was used in 1279 during a battle between ancient Latvian tribes from Cēsis.
The red and white flag was formally adopted in 1918 and was used until Soviet occupation of Latvia began in 1940. The flag of independent Latvia was finally restored in 1990.
Year First Used: c. late 12th century but fist officially documented in 1230
Year Formally Adopted: 1918
Official Name: None
Main Colors: Red and white triband
The flag of Austria is often one of the top contenders for world’s oldest flag. The red and white triband may have been used as early as 1105 and is based on the coat of arms of the medieval Babenberg dynasty. Although this predates the Danish flag by a century, the first documented official use of the triband did not occur until 1230.
According to Austrian legend, the country’s flag was invented by Duke Leopold V of Austria as a consequence of his fighting during the Siege of Acre (1189 – 1191). While this story is probably not true, the rulers of Austria have been using red-white-red triband colors since the late 13th century.
Year First Used: c.1219, possibly earlier
Year Formally Adopted: 1625
Official Name: Dannebrog
Main Colors: Red with white Nordic cross
Although several countries lay claim to having the oldest flag, the flag of Denmark is widely considered to be the oldest existing flag in the world. Officially, the flag is known as Dannebrog and traces its history back to at least 1219. The flag is recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest continuously used national flag.
According to legend, the flag fell from heaven during a battle in Lyndanisse, Estonia. While the legend may have appeared around 1500, there is evidence that a red flag with a white cross was being used by the Danish since around 1340 – 1370. The Dannebrog is shown in a Gelre Armorial from around this time alongside the coat of arms of the King of Denmark at the time.