The New Zealand Red Ensign with the Union Flag in the first quarter, and the Southern Cross, represented by four five-pointed white stars featured in the fly became the official flag in New Zealand for merchant vessels in 1901. Previously a plain red ensign was used.
The red ensign may continue to be flown on land in Māori areas or during Māori events under the Flags, Emblems, and Names Protection Act 1981 in recognition of long held Māori preference for red flags. New Zealand law allows the defacement of the flag in accordance to Māori custom in which white capital letters identifying a particular family or Māori tribe are added.
Today, private and merchant craft can choose to fly the Flag of New Zealand (which is a blue ensign) or the Southern Cross red ensign.