Taekwondo ranks vary from style to style and are not standardized. Typically, these ranks are separated into “junior” and “senior” sections, colloquially referred to as “color belts” and “black belts”. The junior section of ranks – the “color belt” ranks – are indicated by the Korean word geup 급 (also Romanized as gup or kup). Practitioners in these ranks generally wear belts ranging in color from white (the lowest rank) to red or brown (higher ranks, depending on the style of taekwondo). Belt colors may be solid, or may include a colored stripe on a solid background. The number of geup ranks varies depending on the style, typically ranging between 8 and 12 geup ranks. The numbering sequence for geup ranks usually begins at the larger number for white belts, and then counts down to “1st geup” as the highest color-belt rank.
The senior section of ranks – the “black belt” ranks – is typically made up of nine ranks. Each rank is called a dan 단 or “degree” (as in “third dan” or “third-degree black belt”). The numbering sequence for dan ranks is opposite that of geup ranks: numbering begins at 1st dan (the lowest black-belt rank) and counts upward for higher ranks. A practitioner’s degree is sometimes indicated on the belt itself with stripes, Roman numerals, or other methods.
Some styles incorporate an additional rank between the geup and dan levels, called the “bo-dan” rank — essentially, a candidate rank for black belt promotion. Additionally, the Kukkiwon/WTF-style of taekwondo recognizes a “poom” rank for practitioners under the age of 15: these practitioners have passed dan-level tests but will not receive dan-level rank until age 15. At age 15, their poom rank is considered to transition to equivalent dan rank automatically. In some schools, holders of the poom rank wear a half-red/half-black belt rather than a solid black belt.
To advance from one rank to the next, students typically complete promotion tests in which they demonstrate their proficiency in the various aspects of the art before their teacher or a panel of judges. Promotion tests vary from school to school, but may include such elements as the execution of patterns, which combine various techniques in specific sequences; the breaking of boards to demonstrate the ability to use techniques with both power and control; sparring and self-defense to demonstrate the practical application and control of techniques; physical fitness usually with push-ups and sit-ups; and answering questions on terminology, concepts, and history to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the art. For higher dan tests, students are sometimes required to take a written test or submit a research paper in addition to taking the practical test.
Promotion from one geup to the next can proceed rapidly in some schools, since schools often allow geup promotions every two, three, or four months. Students of geup rank learn the most basic techniques first, and then move on to more advanced techniques as they approach first dan. Many of the older and more traditional schools often take longer to allow students to test for higher ranks than newer, more contemporary schools, as they may not have the required testing intervals. In contrast, promotion from one dan to the next can take years. In fact, some styles impose age or time-in-rank limits on dan promotions. For example, the number of years between one dan promotion to the next may be limited to a minimum of the practitioner’s current dan-rank, so that (for example) a 5th dan practitioner must wait 5 years to test for 6th dan.
Black belt ranks may have titles associated with them, such as “master” and “instructor”, but taekwondo organizations vary widely in rules and standards when it comes to ranks and titles. What holds true in one organization may not hold true in another, as is the case in many martial art systems. For example, achieving first dan ( black belt) ranking with three years’ training might be typical in one organization, but considered too quick in another organization, and likewise for other ranks. Similarly, the title for a given dan rank in one organization might not be the same as the title for that dan rank in another organization.
In the International Taekwon-Do Federation, instructors holding 1st to 3rd dan are called Boosabum (assistant instructor), those holding 4th to 6th dan are called Sabum (instructor), those holding 7th to 8th dan are called Sahyun (master), and those holding 9th dan are called Saseong (grandmaster). This system does not, however, necessarily apply to other taekwondo organizations.
In the American Taekwondo Association, instructor designations are separate from rank. Black belts may be designated as an instructor trainee (red collar), specialty trainer (red and black collar), certified trainer (black-red-black collar) and certified instructor (black collar). After a one-year waiting period, instructors who hold a sixth dan are eligible for the title of Master. Seventh dan black belts are eligible for the title Senior Master and eighth dan black belts are eligible for the title Chief Master.
In the Kukkiwon/WTF-style students holding 1st-3rd dan are considered an Instructor, but generally have much to learn. Students who hold a 4th – 6th dan are considered Masters. Those who hold a 7th – 9th dan are considered Grandmasters. This rank also holds an age requirement of 40+. In this style, a 10th dan rank is sometimes awarded posthumously for practitioners with a lifetime of demonstrable contributions to the practice of taekwondo.