The College of Arms is the authority on the flying of flags in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and maintains the only official register of flags for these countries. It was established in 1484 and as part of the Royal Household operates under the authority of the Crown. The Lord Lyon King of Arms holds a similar role within Scotland. A separate private body called the Flag Institute, financed by its own membership, also maintains a registry of United Kingdom flags that it styles 'the UK Flag Registry', though this has no official status under UK law.
Certain classes of flag enjoy a special status within English planning law and can be flown without needing the planning permission normally required for advertisements. These include any country’s national flag, civil ensign or civil air ensign; the flag of the Commonwealth, the European Union, the United Nations or any other international organisation of which the United Kingdom is a member; a flag of any island, county, district, borough, burgh, parish, city, town or village within the United Kingdom; the flag of the Black Country, East Anglia, Wessex, any Part of Lincolnshire, any Riding of Yorkshire or any historic county within the United Kingdom; the flag of St David; the flag of St Patrick; the flag of any administrative area within any country outside the United Kingdom; any flag of Her Majesty’s Forces; and the Armed Forces Day flag.
The flags of England and of Scotland are ancient war flags which became by usage the national flags of the Kingdom of England (which included Wales) and of the Kingdom of Scotland respectively and continued in use until the Act of Union 1707. Thereafter they were as de facto flags of those parts of the United Kingdom. The flag of Wales was devised in 1959. The Flag of Northern Ireland (if any) is argued over endlessly. The coat of arms of the Government of Northern Ireland, a red cross on a white field, defaced with a Red Hand of Ulster within a six pointed star topped with a crown, became used as a local flag, though the end of the province's Government in 1973 ended its official status. This flag has continued to be the internationally recognisable de facto flag of Northern Ireland through its use by international sporting organisations (for example FIFA, UEFA, and the Commonwealth Games) to represent Northern Ireland, though locally it has the allegiance mainly of the Unionist community. The St Patrick's Saltire is also sometimes used by the government to represent Northern Ireland when a discrete Northern Ireland flag is required.
In 1999, the maritime flags of the British Overseas Territories were updated at the request of the Ministry of Defence. The white discs were removed from the field of the flags and each respective coat of arms was increased in size for ease of identification. As the MoD only had authority over sea flags, the Governments of the Overseas Territories were free to continue using the flags with white discs on land. The Overseas Territories' governments did switch to the updated flags over a staggered period of time, however some old-style flags with white discs may still be seen. Such flags have generally been adopted by Order in Council. Civil (Red Ensign) flags are under the control of the United Kingdom Secretary of State for Transport and are split into two categories: Category 1 is to register ships of unlimited tonnage and type. category 2 is to register commercial ships and yachts of up to 150 gross registered tons.