How to Know Military Uniform Laws

Three Parts:Obtaining and Wearing a Uniform and Uniform PartsWearing a Uniform While Inactive, After Discharge, or After RetirementWearing a Uniform if You Have Never Served

Military uniforms are issued by the armed forces. In addition to wearing uniforms while on duty, members of the armed forces may wear uniforms in off-duty situations. There are strict laws covering the permissibility of wearing military uniforms by personnel who are not on duty. These laws apply to both service and dress uniforms. This guide describes laws pertaining to the United States armed forces, so be sure to check your local laws if you are located elsewhere.

Part 1
Obtaining and Wearing a Uniform and Uniform Parts

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    Obtain your uniform only from your branch of the armed services. It is illegal to wear a uniform or any uniform part that is not issued by the branch of the armed forces in which you serve. For example, a member of the Navy may not wear the uniform of the Army.[1]
    • Your military unit instructor will let you know how to obtain your uniforms and associated parts (like hats, badges, etc.).
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    Wear distinctive parts of a uniform only when the full uniform is worn. Some uniforms have parts that are easily identified with a particular branch of the military. While on- or off-duty, these "distinctive parts" can only be worn if you are wearing the full uniform. [2]
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    For example, the green beret is considered a distinctive part of the uniform of the Army's Special Forces and should not be worn unless the full uniform is being worn.
    • Some parts are not considered distinctive (like an undershirt or shoes) and can be worn at any time, on- or off-duty.[3]
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    Wear medals only on dress uniforms. If you earn any type of medal, you should wear it only on ceremonious occasions and not with your regular uniform.
    • This includes the Purple Heart, Medal of Honor, or any other award or medal.
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    Wear civilian clothing when off duty. You do not have to wear your uniform when off duty, but you do have to maintain your grooming standards and otherwise represent your branch of service in a professional way.[4]
    • You should not wear your uniform when you are off duty, except for transportation home.[5]
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    Familiarize yourself with other policies. In addition to your issued uniform, there are other policies regarding personal appearance and grooming including hairstyle, tattoos, and jewelry guidelines that are all considered part of the military uniform (because they keep everyone looking uniform in appearance). These differ within each branch of the military, so be sure to look through your handbook for specific instructions. For example, in the Army:
    • Soldiers may not wear any jewelry except a watch, ID bracelet, and two wedding rings. Female soldiers may additionally wear a single pair of round, stud-style earrings. [6]
    • Tattoos are permitted, but must not represent any extremist philosophy or group (including, but not limited to, recognized hate groups) or that are sexist, racist, or indecent. Additionally, soldiers may not have any tattoos on the face, neck, hands, or wrists. Be sure to talk with your commander before getting any new tattoos after joining the military.[7]
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    Understand accommodations for religious observation. For the most part, wearing religious apparel in uniform is frowned on, but recent rulings by the United States government have made it possible for exceptions to be made to accommodate practices that are central to your religious observance.
    • For example, a Muslim or Sikh serviceman can petition his squadron leader to wear a beard or turban while in uniform. Accommodations such as these are made on a case-by-case basis. If you require an accommodation, you have to apply to be an exceptions to the rules.[8]

Part 2
Wearing a Uniform While Inactive, After Discharge, or After Retirement

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    Keep only one uniform when you are honorably discharged. All other uniforms and uniform parts remain the property of the armed forces. You are allowed to wear one uniform home.[9]
    • You may continue wearing your uniform for up to three months after your honorable discharge.[10] Many recently discharged servicemen and women like to wear their uniform for coming home parties or other special occasions. If you want to wear your uniform for an important event (like your own wedding), be sure to schedule the event within three months of your discharge.
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    Keep no uniforms if you are discharged dishonorably. If you leave the military for bad conduct or any other reason that results in a dishonorable discharge, you are not permitted to keep any uniforms or parts of uniforms.[11]
    • The military will require you to purchase clothing to wear home.[12]
    • Because you were dishonorably discharged, you may never wear a uniform again (for example, for Veteran's Day ceremonies, funerals, or other purposes).
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    Wear your uniform after retirement. If you choose to, you may wear your uniform at any time if you have retired from the armed forces-- you have earned it! You must wear the uniform of the grade at which you retired. For example, if you retire as a Sergent, you must wear the uniform and badge of a Sergent.[13]
    • If you were nominated for promotion upon your retirement, you may wear the new higher grade.[14]
    • Many retired servicemen and women choose to wear their uniforms to weddings, funerals, Veteran's Day celebrations, and other special occasions. You are not obligated to wear it, but it is a great way to show others that you served.
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    Wear the uniform if you are not on duty and not an officer only when permitted by Presidential regulations. Check with your branch of the armed forces if in doubt. For example, the presence of retired military personnel may be requested at a government sponsored parade or function. You may only wear the uniform under these circumstances if you served honorably in time of war. If so, wear the uniform of the highest grade achieved during wartime.
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    Attend a course of military instruction in clothing deemed appropriate by the institution. This may or may not be an armed forces uniform.
    • Perform instructional duties for military courses wearing a uniform only if it bears some distinctive insignia to indicate that it is not a duty armed forces uniform.
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    Follow uniform regulations for Department of Veteran's Affairs buildings. Wear the uniform as prescribed by your branch of the armed forces while you are living in or an officer of a Department of Veteran's Affairs veteran's home.[15]
    • Check with the appropriate branch of the armed forces if in doubt.
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    Know how to behave while in uniform. Even if you are not currently serving, there are certain laws and regulations that apply to your behavior while in a uniform that represents the United States government. In general, you should behave in a respectful and becoming way. More specifically:
    • Any time you are in uniform, you represent the United States government. You are expected to maintain the grooming standards of the military even if you are retired, if you plan to appear in uniform. This includes being clean-shaven, keeping your hair neatly under your headgear, and not having facial piercings or tattoos.[16]
    • While saying the Pledge of Allegiance,[17] or while passing, lowering, or raising the United States flag, anyone in military uniform (active, inactive, or discharged) should stand at attention, face the flag, and perform a military salute, rather than placing his or her hand over the heart.[18]

Part 3
Wearing a Uniform if You Have Never Served

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    Do not wear a military uniform if you are a civilian. If you have never served in the armed forces, you are prohibited by the United States government from wearing the uniform of the Air Force, Army, Navy, or Marines.[19] You are also prohibited from wearing a uniform that is similar to that worn by the armed forces in any public place or in public view. Doing so is a Class A Misdemeanor.[20] The law is up for interpretation regarding how "similar" a replica uniform can be without being prohibited.
    • This includes wearing any "distinctive piece" of a military uniform, such as a beret , jacket, or insignia.
    • This includes the military uniforms of other countries, and the uniforms of past enemy regimes such as the Nazis, not just United States uniforms. For example, you are prohibited from wearing a Nazi uniform in public.[21]
    • There are several reasons for these prohibitions. The first is for security reasons; in one instance, a woman tried to gain access to a secure military base using someone else's uniform. Another reason is because civilians need to know that people in uniform are trustworthy in cases of emergency. Finally, it is considered disrespectful to those who have served, since they put their lives on the line for the privilege of wearing the uniform.[22]
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    Obtain costumes for dramatic roles from the production house. If you portray a member of the armed forces in a theatrical, television or movie role, you must use a uniform given to you by the production which they have created or purchased for the production. You cannot wear any uniforms you or others may have that were issued by the military.[23]
    • Unlike costumes worn in public or for Halloween or costume parties, replica uniforms for productions may be made to look exactly like real military uniforms, but can only be worn while working on the production. So if you have worn, for example, an exact replica uniform for a play, you cannot later wear it for Halloween.[24]
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    Wear appropriate uniforms for training. If you are attending a training camp or other course of instruction hosted by the military and you are a civilian, on some occasions you may be required to wear a military uniform. This is the only time that you are legally permitted to wear an authentic uniform as a civilian.[25]
    • You will be notified prior to the training whether you should wear a special uniform. Only wear a military uniform if you are instructed to do so by the Secretary of the branch of the military concerned.[26]
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    Never claim service or awards if you have not served. Under the United States Stolen Valor Act of 2013, it is against the law to claim that you have served in the military or that you have received medals or awards for your service if you have not. This includes making fraudulent statements in order to obtain money, property, or other benefits (although simply claiming it is considered protected speech), and also includes simply wearing a medal that you did not earn.[27]
    • Even if a medal was earned by a relative or has sentimental value, it is illegal for someone else to wear it. This includes medals such as the Purple Heart, the Navy or Air Force cross, a Congressional Medal of Honor, or any other medal or award, or replica of a medal or award.[28]


  • While the United States Federal Code §772 refers to paramilitary organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America as military, groups such as these may wear their uniform at any time.[29]
  • Different branches of the military may have more detailed regulations and laws regarding the use of the uniform.

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Categories: Careers in the Military