The black belt is usually what you hear about in popular culture when talking about martial arts. But when you walk into a Taekwondo school, you are met with a kaleidoscope of different belt colors.
What do all those different Taekwondo belt colors mean? Where did the idea come from? Is there some rhyme or reason to how the colors are ordered? It gets even more confusing as you might notice that Taekwondo belt order is not consistent among different schools.
Let’s take a moment to discuss. From the history of the Taekwondo belt system to the meaning of the colors, to how long it takes to reach the coveted black belt, we break it all down here!
Table of Contents
- The History of the Taekwondo Belt System
- How Many Belts in Taekwondo?
- Types of Taekwondo
- Taekwondo Belt Order and the Meaning of Each Belt Color (ITF Belt Ranking System)
- Taekwondo Black Belt Levels
- Black Belts for Children Under the Age of 15
- How long does it take to get a black belt in Taekwondo?
- What does it mean to be a Taekwondo black belt?
- What is the highest belt in Taekwondo?
- What does dan mean in Taekwondo?
- How many Dans are in Taekwondo？
- What is Taekwondo belt progression?
- How to promote a belt in Taekwondo?
- Is a red belt higher than black in Taekwondo？
The History of the Taekwondo Belt System
Though the art wasn’t named “Taekwondo” until the 1950s, traditional Taekwondo is based on a rich history of martial arts going back centuries. Over so much time, it’s no wonder that there are legends and confusion surrounding some of the traditions.
One of those traditions is the colorful belts that are worn by Taekwondo students.
The Legend Version of the Journey from White to Black
The legend is that there used to be only white belts. As the student trained over time, their sweat-stained belt turned yellow, dust and dirt darkened it, and eventually, the belt turned black.
Legend also states that it was forbidden for students to wash their belts because they would wash the “experience” off.
You’ll hear a similar legend circulating in Karate, Kung Fu, and many other martial arts schools.
The Actual Beginnings of Colored Belts
In reality, all martial arts belt systems are based on the ranking system devised by Judo founder Master Jigoro Kano.
As a school teacher, Kano recognized the need for a way to categorize students and show their experience level. Some of the older Samurai arts would award students certificates based on a five-level ranking system. However, there was no outward indication of their skill level.
Kano got the belt idea from Japanese competitive swimmers. The more advanced swimmers wore a black ribbon around their waist. Kano started using belts in his school in 1883.
At first, there were only white belts and black belts. White belts were given to students and instructors or advanced practitioners were given black ones. Eventually, Kano added three levels under the black belt.
These original belts did not look like what we see today. Instead, they wore a wide belt (called Obi) that was used to keep a kimono closed and hold a samurai’s sword.
A few decades later, (around the 1930s or 40s) European martial artists started using different colors. It caught on and spread to virtually all modern martial arts styles.
Surprisingly, not a very mystical or mysterious story, right? It makes sense why the legend version is still popular.
How Many Belts in Taekwondo?
There is no standardized belt system in Taekwondo and different styles or schools use different colors. However, there are general 11 belts — 10 color belt levels called geup (or geop) and the coveted black belt.
There are 10 Taekwondo levels of black belt — 1st through 10th dan. However, very few living people have attained the 10th dan in any style of Taekwondo. Most of these honors have been bestowed posthumously.
It takes approximately 55 years of Taekwondo practice to advance through all these ranks, which explains why so few ever “complete” the journey.
Types of Taekwondo
There are various styles of Taekwondo practiced around the world today. However, most fall under the umbrella of one of the three major Taekwondo governing bodies. Let’s look at each in turn.
International Taekwondo Federation (ITF)
This organization was founded by General Choi Hong Hi in 1966. He taught traditional Korean martial arts to military members in the 40s and 50s before and during the Korean War. After the war, he founded the Oh Do Kwan school and dedicated himself to teaching martial arts.
During this time various martial arts masters (9 kwans or schools) were coming together to unify and streamline Korean martial arts. In 1957, General Choi proposed the name Taekwondo and in 1959 the 9 kwans formed the Korean Taekwondo Association (KTA). Choi is considered the father of modern Taekwondo.
Soon after, General Choi fell out of favor with the Korean government and people over political differences. He left Korea and went to Canada where he founded the ITF as a separate organization. He continued to promote Taekwondo even though he no longer had the backing of the Korean government.
Kukkiwon/World Taekwondo (WT)
After the upheavals and disagreements with General Choi, the KTA continued to oversee Taekwondo in Korea. In 1972, a joint effort of the Korean government’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism and the KTA led to the founding of the Kukkiwon, the national academy of Taekwondo.
The next year, in 1973, the KTA and the Kukkiwon then founded the World Taekwondo Federation to promote Taekwondo as a sport. This organization was renamed World Taekwondo in 2017 because of negative connotations with the initials WTF.
Because of its work promoting Taekwondo as a sport, WT-style Taekwondo is more focused on the sports aspect of the art. It is unsurprisingly the style of Taekwondo that appears in the Olympics and the organization hosts various championships and tournaments around the world.
American Taekwondo Association (ATA)
US soldiers were introduced to Korean martial arts when they went to fight in the Korean war. They brought some of the techniques back with them and interest in the art began to spark in the US.
In 1969, South Korean Haeng Ung Lee founded the American Taekwondo Association in Omaha, Nebraska. This organization and style of Taekwondo quickly grew in the US as interest in Taekwondo blossomed during the 70s.
Today, the organization has grown to include more than 300,000 active members in 21 countries. It is still the most common type of martial arts taught in the US.
Taekwondo Belt Order and the Meaning of Each Belt Color (ITF Belt Ranking System)
Though Taekwondo belt colors are similar, the order and ranking vary between the major organizations and styles.
You can check out an overview of the colors and ranks in this video.
Now let’s break down the belt ranking system of each of the three main Taekwondo types we’ve just mentioned.
International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) Belt Order
We’ll start with the International Taekwondo Federation, the organization founded by General Choi. There are 10 levels though only 5 color belts. The tip of the belt is marked with the color of the next belt to denote the extra level in between each color.
The Taekwondo belt order used by the ITF are as follows:
- White belt
- White belt / yellow tip
- Yellow belt
- Yellow belt / green tip
- Green belt
- Green belt / blue tip
- Blue belt
- Blue belt / red tip
- Red belt
- Red belt / black tip
- Black belt
After this, there are 10 Taekwondo black belt levels. It takes decades to advance through these ranks and only a handful of people attain the highest black belt level.
Students generally must remain at each level for a minimum period of time. At that point, they are given the opportunity to test for the next level. If they do not demonstrate the required advancement of their skills (or proper etiquette and attitude) they will not pass the test.
In rare cases, exceptional students may skip a level (or pass two tests at once). Usually, this only happens at lower belt levels and is more common with students who already have martial arts experience.
The ITF Taekwondo belts meanings follow the life cycle of a plant. Let’s explore what stage each color represents and how long it takes to achieve.
White is the color of innocence. The student has no knowledge of Taekwondo and no test is required to earn this belt. They are starting their journey.
Students must stay at the white belt for 3 months. To get the yellow stripe, students must learn the Saju Jirugi and Saju Makgi patterns and demonstrate an understanding of basic techniques.
Students with the yellow stripe must train for another 3 months and learn the Chon Ji pattern to move on.
Represents the ground from which a tree will sprout. Roots are being laid during this stage as the student learns the basic foundational skills of Taekwondo.
Students train at this level for 4 months and learn the Dan Gun pattern to earn their green stripe. Once earned, they must train for another 4 months and learn the 24 moves of the Do San pattern.
The tree has sprouted and is growing. The student’s skills in Taekwondo are beginning to develop more rapidly, though there is still much to learn.
To get the blue stripe, students must train for 4 months and learn the Won Hyo pattern. Another 4 months of training and learning the 38 moves of the Yul Gok pattern are needed to move on.
The tree is growing quickly, stretching towards the sky. The student’s mastery of Taekwondo skills is progressing.
Again, 4 months of training is expected at this level as well as mastery of the Joong Gun pattern. Once the red tip is earned, another 5 months of training and the 37 moves of the Toi Gye pattern are required before moving to the advanced red belt.
Red is the universal color of danger. It is a warning both to the student, who is cautioned to exercise control, and to the opponent. The student’s skills are becoming formidable, but they need mental discipline.
This level requires a significant amount of mental preparation. Students must demonstrate an understanding of when it is appropriate to use their skills and when to refrain.
Students should stay here for a minimum of 6 months and learn the Hwa Rang pattern to get their black stripe.
The coveted Taekwondo black belt is near at hand, but students must train for another 6 months before they are eligible to advance. Mastery of the Choong-Moo pattern is also required.
Black is the opposite of white. The tree has matured and the student has developed a deep proficiency in Taekwondo. The student leaves darkness and fear behind.
World Taekwondo (WT) Belt Order
Like the ITF, the World Taekwondo system has 10 color belt levels. There are a couple of main variations used throughout the world. One is the same as the ITF with the colored tip being replaced by a colored Taekwondo belt stripe.
The other main variation World Taekwondo belt order is as follows:
- No belt
- Red / Black stripe
Taekwondo students must stay at each level for at least 2 months, with the exception of the two red belts. Students must train at those levels for 4 months each before testing for a black belt.
The WT system does not widely use the symbolism of the tree as the student progresses, though the colors are similar.
The first two levels (no belt and white belt) don’t require students to learn a form to progress. Of course, the student must demonstrate a basic understanding of the techniques in order to pass the test.
To move from yellow to orange, students learn Taegeuk Il Jang. Orange to green requires Taegeuk Yi Jang. To earn blue, students learn Taegeuk Sam Jang and purple requires Taegeuk Yuk Jang.
To get the brown, taekwondo students learn Taegeuk Chil Jang and Taegeuk Pal Jang is required for red. To move from red / black stripe to black belt, proficiency in all previous forms is required.
American Taekwondo Association (ATA) Belt Order
Finally, let’s look at the belt order system used by the American Taekwondo Association (ATA). As with the others, there are 10 levels of color belts. Students can move to the next color belt level every 2-3 months depending on their proficiency.
Like the ITF, the colors are meant to represent the student’s growth by comparing the student to a tree. However, there are more colors and thus more nuance in the meanings of each belt.
The ATA belts colors are:
Represents innocence and ignorance. The student doesn’t know anything about Taekwondo, they are a blank slate ready to learn. One of the requirements for advancement is to learn the Songham 1 form.
The sun is rising on the little plant. The seed of knowledge has just begun to sprout and is feeling the warm kiss of sunlight for the first time. However, as the sun has not shone strongly on the plant yet, the student is not aware of the full extent and power of Taekwondo techniques.
Students must learn the 23-move Songahm 2 form to advance.
The sun is shining stronger on the little tree. Students are more aware of how much they have to learn. They must learn the 28-move Songham 3 form and demonstrate proficiency in basic techniques to move to the next level.
There is a forest of trees that the little tree must fight its way through to break through the canopy. So also the students must struggle to find their place in the world of Taekwondo.
The 31-move Songham 4 form is required as well as demonstrating ability in basic sparring to progress.
As the tree is growing stronger, the student’s knowledge is deepening. At this point, all basic techniques should be mastered and the student should be able to use the techniques harmoniously together.
The Songham 5 form has 34 moves and sparring will be a requirement from here on out.
The student has reached the first “intermediate” belt level. Purple represents the steep mountain the student has arduously begun to climb. The In Wha 1 form for this level contains 44 moves and they must perform well in sparring.
As the tree stretches up toward the blue sky, the student must focus their effort to progress. There are 2 fewer moves (42) in this belt’s In Wha 2 form than the last one. However, the difficult moves require more precision and concentration to execute.
This belt is considered “advanced.” As the tree anchors its roots strongly in the brown earth, students must revisit basic techniques in preparation for the black belt test. Any holes or weak areas in their training should now be addressed. The 46-move Choong Jung 1 form is required to progress.
The sun is setting, and darkness is falling. The first phase of Taekwondo training is coming to a close. Students must demonstrate mastery of physical techniques, though they may still lack control.
However, to earn the next belt, their physical and mental preparation should be nearly perfect. The required Choong Jung 2 form has 46 moves.
Taekwondo Black Belt Levels
Though each of the major Taekwondo organizations recognizes 10 levels of black belt, there are some differences.
Practitioners must remain at 1st Dan for 1 year and a half before they are eligible for examination and it gets longer with every level. 8th Dan black belts must hold the belt for 8 years before they can test for 9th.
1st Dan black belts are not considered instructors yet. 2nd and 3rd Dan can be assistant instructors. 4th through 7th Dan black belts can be instructors but they only gain the title of Master once they reach 8th Dan. Only 9th Dan black belts are considered Grand Masters.
In the WT system, 1st Dan through 3rd Dan black belts are considered assistant instructors. 4th-degree black belts through 6th enjoy the honor of being master instructors. 7th through 9th Dan black belt holders are called Grandmasters.
Practitioners must hold each belt for a specific number of years before they are eligible to move to the next level. For example, 2nd-degree black belts must hold it for 2 years before they can test for 3rd.
In the ATA, 6th-degree black belts are called Masters, 7th-degree Senior Masters, 8th-degree Chief Masters, and 9th-degree Grand Masters.
Black Belts for Children Under the Age of 15
Taekwondo black belt age requirements have changed somewhat over the years. Currently, it is set to 15.
Children under 15 can still progress through the ranks and test for their black belt. However, instead of being awarded a Dan rank, they get a Poom rank. You can think of it as a junior black belt and they often get a red and black belt to wear.
Once they turn 15, the junior black belt converts to a regular one.
Still have a few questions? Let’s see if we can answer them here!
How long does it take to get a black belt in Taekwondo?
It takes between 3 to 5 years for a student to advance through the color belts and earn a black belt.
What does it mean to be a Taekwondo black belt?
Simply put, you have mastered the basics of Taekwondo. This includes not only physical aspects such as punching and kicking, but also self-discipline, respect, and other character qualities. Remember, Taekwondo is a way of life, not just a sport.
What is the highest belt in Taekwondo?
Black is the highest belt in Taekwondo, but it isn’t that simple. There are 10 levels of black belt, each one taking between 2 – 9 years to earn.
Those that reach the 9th level are considered Taekwondo Grand Masters. There are only about 300 Taekwondo Grand Masters and most of them live in Korea. Very, very few reach 10th dan and most of those black belts have been awarded posthumously.
What does dan mean in Taekwondo?
Dan refers to a black belt in Taekwondo, though the literal translation to English is “stage” or “level”. In English, each level of black belt is referred to as 1st dan, 2nd dan, etc.
How many Dans are in Taekwondo？
Most styles of Taekwondo have 10 Dans. Kukkiwon/WT has awarded the 10th dan to a small handful of individuals, though most were awarded posthumously.
What is Taekwondo belt progression?
A series of color belts to indicate where a student is on their Taekwondo journey. All Taekwondo styles begin with white and end with black and there are usually either 10 or 11 ranks.
Other colors typically include yellow, orange, green, blue, brown, purple, and red. The order varies from style to style and some may use stripes or divide the colors into two shades (e.g. light blue, dark blue).
How to promote a belt in Taekwondo?
Through sweat, determination, and perseverance, students earn each Taekwondo belt. Most schools have an orderly set of curricula that students must master to get promoted to the next belt.
They must exhibit physical mastery of techniques, sparring, and forms as well as demonstrate a respectful and disciplined attitude.
Is a red belt higher than black in Taekwondo？
No. Red belts typically come right before black belts in the Taekwondo belt order system. Some schools may use a red and black striped belt before awarding 1st dan (black belt). Regardless, black is always higher than any other color belt.