Fireworks Guide: Chinese Lanterns

Once-popular floating sky lantern now largely out of favour in the UK.

Key information

  • Technically not classed as a firework; consists simply of a large paper bag and a wick.
  • Contrary to popular belief, lanterns are still fully legal in the UK.
  • Only use high quality lanterns which do not contain metal wire and are biodegradable.
  • Silent in operation so ideal for low noise, commemorative or remembrance events.
  • A potential fire risk in dry conditions; only use where appropriate.
  • Known as sky lanterns, Chinese lanterns or khoon fay lanterns.
  • Guides to other fireworks can be found in the Firework Guides main menu.

A closer look at Chinese lanterns

They’re generally quite simple in design; a paper bag fills up with hot air created by the attached wick which then causes the lantern to lift. The lantern will stay aloft until the wick goes out at which point the lantern will return to the ground. Note that this could be many miles away!

The better lanterns from an environmental point of view have string supports for the wick rather than metal which used to be the standard design but was considered very hazardous to wildlife (particularly cows and livestock). 

You get what you pay for with Chinese lanterns; cheap versions available on Ebay often contain metal supports and wax blocks as wicks which can drip hot or flaming wax. Please, use only good quality lanterns that are biodegradable. Budget for £3+ per lantern for better quality ones.

Haven't these been banned?

In the last few years a number of local authorities have banned the use of Chinese lanterns from their own land because of concerns over littering, fires, pollution and the dangers to wildlife from spent lanterns.

However Chinese lanterns themselves are still fully legal in the UK. Available online or from many specialist firework shops, it is still perfectly legal to launch these from your garden.

The publicity over local authorities banning the use of these on their own land has created a considerable amount of misinformation as far as the public’s perception goes, many (if not most) consumers assume there is a blanket ban on these when there is not.

Important safety information

Despite their previous popularity and continued legality, lanterns have fallen out of favour in the UK. To put it simply, attitudes are changing towards a product which can create a potential fire risk for miles downwind and which will leave a dustbin sized bag to slowly degrade somewhere.

In some respects this is a shame since these are the ultimate low noise sky effect and are incredibly beautiful to watch. They can create a very poignant effect when used for remembrance events such as the anniversary of a death.

If you do use these it’s important to try your best to do so safely. Each lantern should have comprehensive instructions on the side of the packet. A good tip for launching these safely is to use a quality firework lighter to get the wick going strongly (see Lighting Fireworks by Hand) and not to let go of the lantern until it is full of hot air and raring to go. This can take a few minutes and helps avoid the lantern dragging along the ground.

If you’re wanting to mark an occasion with something quiet, have you considered using quiet fireworks instead? A large number of fountains are quiet in operation and very pretty. Or how about sparklers? In fact I have a whole article devoted to quiet fireworks so please have a read.

Chinese lanterns FAQ

No. They are still legal in the UK. The confusion is because some local authorities in England have banned their use from their own land. They are still legal to buy and launch from your own garden.

Many firework shops sell Chinese lanterns and you can also find some on Ebay and occasionally Amazon. Only buy good quality lanterns which are wire-free and biodegradable. They are not as widespread as in previous years due to them falling out of fashion.

If used correctly, Chinese sky lanterns are perfectly safe. Do not release them until they are very full of hot air and raring to go; this can take a few minutes so be patient. This reduces the risk of them dragging along the ground when you let go.

If you delay releasing them until they're very full of hot air and raring to go, they will rise quickly and not pose a fire risk. They won't come back down until well after the wick has gone out. The key is not releasing them too soon.

Yes, you can write a tribute (say to a loved one) on a lantern. Use a wet marker - not a sharp pen or pencil - to avoid tearing the paper. Also, write on them while the lantern is still folded and before you light them.

They can go for many miles depending on wind direction and strength.

Chinese lanterns can reach several thousand feet depending on size, temperature and other conditions.

You shouldn't launch Chinese sky lanterns if there is more than a breeze. The main danger here is a side wind taking the lantern sideways into trees and buildings before it reaches sufficient height.

As Chinese lanterns are paper-based it is not recommended to use these in the rain.

The impact of Chinese lanterns is still being debated. Only use lanterns which are wire-free and have biodegradable paper. Low noise fireworks offer a useful alternative to lanterns.

Further information and next steps

If you are following the Beginner’s Guides then you can click here to return to that page. Alternatively you can click here to see the main menu of each firework type in this section if you want to read more (or click on the menu at the top of this page to access all of my guides).

If you’re ready to buy fireworks for your display then the Buying Fireworks section will guide you further.