Flag state

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The flag state of a commercial vessel is the state under whose laws the vessel is registered or licensed.

The flag state has the authority and responsibility to enforce regulations over vessels registered under its flag, including those relating to inspection, certification, and issuance of safety and pollution prevention documents. As a ship operates under the laws of its flag state, these laws are used if the ship is involved in an admiralty case.

The term "flag of convenience" describes the business practice of registering a merchant ship in a sovereign state different from that of the ship's owners, and flying that state's civil ensign on the ship. Ships are registered under flags of convenience to reduce operating costs or avoid the regulations of the owner's country. Since the 1921 Flag Right Declaration, it has been recognised that all states—including land-locked countries—have a right to be a flag state.

Panama is currently the world's largest flag state, with almost a quarter of the world's ocean-going tonnage registered there.[1]

Ship register[edit]

Each flag state has a ship register in which all ships that sail under their flag need to be registered. Flag registers in certain countries are open to ships with owners in other countries, which leads to a large discrepancy between fleet nationality by ownership and by flag state. Several countries have more than one register:

  • Denmark, France and Norway maintain an international register to compete with flags of convenience
  • The different constituent countries of the Netherlands are allowed to set up their own registers under the Dutch flag
  • Several territories for which the British Crown holds sovereignty over have their own register. Most notably, the Isle of Man has a significant register.


In Canada, Transport Canada is responsible for flag state control under the Canada Shipping Act, 2001.[2]

In Hong Kong, the Marine Department[3] is responsible for flag state control and enforcement under the Flag State Quality Control Scheme.

In the United Kingdom, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) is responsible for flag state control.

In the United States, the Coast Guard, under the authority of various federal laws, regulations, and international conventions and treaties, the Officer in Charge Marine Inspections is responsible for the inspection of U.S. flag vessels to ensure compliance operating throughout the world.

In Vanuatu, the Vanuatu Maritime Authority has the responsibility to enforce maritime laws and exercise flag state control.[4]

See also[edit]

References and sources[edit]

  • Mansell, J.N.K. (2009): Flag State Responsibility: Historical Development and Contemporary Issues, Springer.