Order of Precedence

Order of Precedence

The information contained herein is quoted from A Guide To Protocol And Etiquette For Official Entertainment (Pamphlet No. 600-60 Headquarters Department of the Army Washington, D.C., dated 15 October 1989)


  1. The need for a system of precedence may be explained by the idea that we cannot all walk through the door at the same time. This chapter contains some general rules which should be followed when determining precedence order.
  2. In unofficial life, precedence is determined according to age, friendship and the prominence of the guests. Age naturally receives deference, as do clergymen and persons of scholastic distinction, unless there is a noticeable difference in age. Married women take precedence over widows, widows over divorced women, and divorced women over unmarried women.
  3. In a private home, a foreign guest is always given the place of honor unless someone of advanced age is present. A stranger (such as a houseguest brought by a friend), an out-of-town guest, or a guest invited for the first time has precedence over frequent guests or relatives.
  4. In official life, protocol governs the precedence of government, ecclesiastical, and diplomatic personnel. Age is not honored in itself. A young official precedes an older one if the office of the younger one is higher, There is only one official precedence list, and it is the responsibility of the Chief of Protocol headquartered in the State Department.
  5. Unlike other countries with “official” lists of precedence, custom and tradition have established the order of precedence in the United States (see app C).
  6. In the United States, official position is determined by election or appointment to office or by promotion within the Military Establishment. The relative importance of different offices is weighed. The date an office was established determines its seniority.
  7. Military rank takes precedence over the principle of “courtesy to the stranger.” For example, a visiting British officer at an American dinner given in his honor would not sit in the guest of honor’s seat if another foreign officer of higher rank is a guest also. This holds true even though the other foreign officer is permanently stationed at the place where the British officer is visiting. The visitor would come after the highest ranking foreign officer on permanent duty.
  8. A visiting British officer would be given precedence over an American officer of a slightly higher rank. But, a British officer would never be seated ahead of the Army Chief of Staff unless he were of the same rank and position in his own country.
  9. A hierarchy of the church determines protocol within ecclesiasti-cal circles. In Catholic countries, dignitaries of the church may hold ranks equivalent to Government and diplomatic officials. This is not practiced in predominately Protestant countries. A Papal Nuncio ranks first in countries that recognize the precedence of the Pope. However, the United States does not recognize Papal precedence.
  10. Diplomatic precedence has been established by international agreement dating from the Regulation of Vienna of 19 March 1815. The precedence of the various Chiefs of Mission is decided by their length of service in the receiving country. The sending country’s size, date of independence, and importance in international affairs usually are not considered when establishing precedence.
    1. An ambassador accredited in May 1976 precedes another accredited in January 1977. An ambassador, however, always pre-cedes a minister.
    2. Below the rank of Charge d’Affaires, precedence is estab-lished according to the position in the mission. When the British Ambassador ranks the Danish Envoy, the British First Secretary precedes the Danish First Secretary at dinners. A change of ambas-sador or ministers alters the relative positions of his entire staff. An ambassador traveling on leave or visiting his home country does not have the same status as when “on post.”
    3. Although other officials may concede there positions on certain occasions, the Chief of the Mission, as the representative of his government, never yields his place.
  11. When persons without protocol ranking are included at an official dinner, age, local prominence, and mutual interests are considered when seating unofficial guests. Linguistic ability may also be a deciding factor when foreign guests are present. After the guest of honor and second ranking official have been seated, non-ranking guests may be placed between those of official rank in the most congenial arrangement.
  12. When it is impossible to avoid inviting someone of higher rank than the guest of honor, the host must decide whether to:
    1. Ask the ranking guest to waive his right for the occasion in favor of the guest of honor.
    2. Seat the guests strictly according to precedence, even if it places the guest of honor well down the table (when ambassadors and very high-ranking guests are present, this plan must be followed.)
    3. Make the senior guest the co-host if it is a stag party.
  13. At times it may not be possible to give a dignitary the seat that is due him by protocol. The host should express his regrets to the guest as soon as he arrives and explain to him the reason for the breach of protocol.
  14. In spite of all these established rules, protocol does not cover some unforeseen situations, such as a newly created official position, or the appointment of a female to a diplomatic or Cabinet post where her official position may far outrank that of her husband. Common sense and discretion usually resolve problems such as these.
  15. Protocol and precedence vary from country to country. For the proper protocol to observe in a foreign country, contact the protocol service in that country’s ministry of foreign affairs or equivalent department. The highest ranking local official sometimes determines protocol.


These individuals are entitled to all honors, courtesies and benefits of the higher grade except for pay and allowances. They are, therefore, seated ahead of others in their actual pay grade, but behind all individuals actually holding the rank to which frocked. When more than one frocked person is present (frocked to the same rank), date of rank in the actual paygrade will dictate precedence.


Such individuals differ from those who are frocked to the next higher grade in that they continue to wear the insignia of rank of the current pay grade. While there is no requirement to accord promotable individuals recognition, courtesy allows their seating above others in the same rank and grade. If more than one promotable individual is present (in the same grade) seating will be determined by date of rank.


At Army official and social functions, conferences, meetings and ceremonies, the Sergeant Major of the Army (SMA) is accorded protocol ranking equivalent to a general officer. He should be ranked at a point midway between the senior and the junior general officer present. This should apply equally in a group of field or company grade officers. Outside the Army, the SMA’s official protocol prece-dence is that for a sergeant major; however, he, as well as the senior enlisted representatives of the other services and Coast Guard, is commonly afforded a protocol position equivalent to general officers. These courtesies should, in addition to seating, include billeting, transportation and parking consistent with existing Army regulations. These policies should also apply to Command Sergeants Major within their commands or organizations. Among the senior enlisted repre-sentatives of each service, precedence is determined by date of appointment to the position, not by service seniority. When the SMA is visiting a command or installation that command’s Command Ser-geant Major should be consulted on protocol issues involving the SMA. Former SMA retain the rank of “Sergeant Major of the Army” and should be accorded similar courtesies as the SMA. When the SMA and one or more former SMA are present, the serving SMA takes precedence, and the former SMA are ranked by date of rank as SMA. In the case of those SMA who held the rank of CSM, use the date of appointment as SMA.


Retired officers are ranked with, but following, active duty officers of the same grade. They are authorized to wear the uniform of the highest grade held during their active service on ceremonial occa-sions such as military funerals, memorial services, inaugurals, patri-otic parades, national holidays, or other military parades or ceremo-nies in which any Active Army or Reserve unit is taking part. Retired General officers are authorized to display their personal flags privately in their homes as mementos of service, but are not authorized to display them in public. As an exception to this policy, a retired general officer’s personal flag may be displayed providing the following conditions are met:

  1. The ceremony or event is military related.
  2. The retired general officer is the guest of honor or honoree.
  3. The retired general officer is wearing his or her uniform