How to Plan a Civil Wedding Ceremony—And Make It Feel Special (2024)

Sure, we love the pomp and circ*mstance—and flowers, and cake, and gowns—that go along with a traditional wedding, but when it comes to legally tying the knot, none of that is actually required. (And, let's be honest, it's never necessary if you don't want it to be!) To officially say "I do," all it really takes is a recognized officiant, a marriage license, and a few witnesses (and even those aren’t required in all states). A civil ceremony will cover it—and, while we often think a civil ceremony means jetting off to city hall, just the two of you, it can really take place anywhere and look however you'd like.

As with wedding planning, it's important to remember that your wedding can be whatever you want it to be, whether it’s a trip to city hall, a totally intimate celebration with just your families, or a huge to-do. And, even though the civil ceremony will likely be smaller in size, that doesn't mean it has to be any less important. "Whether you have just the two of you or your most immediate family attending, give it as much priority as a larger wedding," say Julie Bunkley and Courtney Wolf of Invision Events. "You'll want the moments documented so hire a photographer if even for a short period of time, get your hair and makeup done, and consider having a bouquet."

Meet the Expert

  • Julie Bunkley is the owner and creative director at Invision Events, a destination wedding planning studio based in Birmingham, Alabama.
  • Courtney Wolf is Invision Events' principal wedding planner.
  • Valorie Darling is a photographer based in Los Angeles. She has captured nearly 150 weddings in her time as a wedding photographer.
  • Chanda Daniels is aweddingplanner, founding partner of Ethos West Collective, and a member of theBridesreview board.

So, whether you’re saving up for the big celebration, want to get married before a major life change, or simply can’t wait to tie the knot, here’s what you need to know for having a civil ceremony now and a big reception later.

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How to Plan a Civil Wedding Ceremony—And Make It Feel Special (1)

What Is a Civil Ceremony?

A civil ceremony is a non-religious, legal marriage ceremony presided over by a legal officiant. These types of weddings often take place at a city hall.

Your Guide to Planning a Civil Ceremony

1. Do Your Research

It’s not as easy as waltzing into city hall with your IDs. Every state has its own set of rules when it comes to applying for a marriage license, so make sure to check first. Generally, a civil ceremony is subject to the same requirements as a religious one in regards to fees (such as venue and marriage license) and restrictions (like age). So, keep an eye out for fees, required documentation, and waiting periods. For instance, Thursdays and Fridays may be more popular days (which means longer lines) if you're thinking of city hall. Also, be sure to check if you'll need a witness (or two) or not.

Make sure to check your state's requirements because rules regarding witnesses and documentation vary.

2. Choose an Officiant

While, again, requirements vary from state to state—and, in some cases, by county—a civil ceremony is generally presided over by a legal official. That person can be a justice of the peace, county or court clerk, notary public, judge, or magistrate. If you go to the city hall, that person will be provided.

3. Decide Who to Invite

Having a civil ceremony doesn’t mean you have to skip the guest list entirely, but there are often limits on how many guests you can bring. Always check the rules at your ceremony venue before extending an invitation to any family members or friends. And don't forget that witnesses can be guests too. Some states require two witnesses over the age of 18, while others don’t require any witnesses at all. Sure, you can grab some strangers out of the waiting room, but why not give a few people you love the honor of signing your marriage license?

Another reason to boost that guest count? Chanda Daniels, a wedding planner based in California, says that bringing the "maximum number of guests" is an easy way to make your civil ceremony that much more special. Consider inviting your parents and siblings for an intimate celebration, or add on a few close friends. While you’ll be having a wedding later to celebrate your union, this is the moment, so invite those closest to you to be a part of it.

As for how you should invite guests? Bunkley and Wolf suggest being as personal as possible, especially considering the small guest list. "If you have time to send a personal note of invitation, that is the best way," they say. "No matter how small, being as intentional and personal as possible makes it more memorable and special." That said, if you're pressed for time, you can always make a phone call or send an e-vite.

How to Plan a Civil Wedding Ceremony—And Make It Feel Special (2)

4. Plan Your Looks

Accrording to Wolf and Bunkley, "the most memorable weddings are always the most personal," and an easy way to accomplish this is through your attire. "Put your spin on your civil ceremony with your own personality through your outfits (whether new or from your current closet)," they say. Daniels agrees: She suggests going all out—wear something truly special (don't count out a wedding dress!) and have your hair and makeup done, so you look and feel your best when you mark this major milestone.

5. Hire a Few Key Vendors

Consider bringing a photographer to capture the day's special moments, as the civil ceremony is part of your wedding story. "Civil ceremonies can be incredibly special and powerful because of how intimate they are," says Valorie Darling, a photographer based in Los Angeles. "I usually hear that couples set off thinking it will be procedural and are surprised by how emotional it turned out to be, all of a sudden reciting vows to each other without anyone else. To capture this is something you'll return to—the purity of that moment together."

In addition, Darling says hiring a photographer for the civil ceremony has an added perk: "It's also an opportunity for your photographer to build a relationship so, on the big day, you're close and more relaxed, meaning your photographer can capture the wedding day with ease and you can enjoy living it."

You should also think about any extras you'd like to have with you: A wedding bouquet or boutonnière are always good ideas, but certain spots might allow you to include additional floral moments (Daniels says to check with your locale). You may also want to have a something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue to tie your civil ceremony to wedding tradition.

6. Celebrate Making It Official

You’re married! Mark the occasion in a way that feels special, whether it’s a Champagne toast and cupcakes with just the two of you, offers Daniels, a family dinner at home, or a late lunch after a midday ceremony. "In every city, there are amazing, iconic restaurants nearby where couples can celebrate with an amazing lunch," she adds. If you have witnesses or guests, make sure to include them in the fun.

Then, take a little time to revel in the moment together—alone. We love the idea of booking a room at a nice hotel for the night or heading out of town for the weekend for an early minimoon.

How to Plan a Civil Wedding Ceremony—And Make It Feel Special (3)

How to Plan a Wedding After a Civil Ceremony

Yes, you’ll already be legally married by the time your wedding rolls around, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be just as special—especially since rules no longer apply! A few ideas we love?

  • Include all the traditions you love, and skip the ones you don’t.
  • Have a short and sweet ceremony to symbolize your union.
  • Walk down the aisle with your father, or you and your partner can make your entrance together.
  • Exchange vows that you’ve personalized, and include a reading or two that speak to you.

Since this part doesn’t have to be legally binding (been there, done that), ask whomever you wish to serve as officiant—no online ordination required. And don’t worry about explaining the situation to your guests—they’re coming together to celebrate the two of you, and your love story is still your love story, so there will definitely be happy tears, whether your officiant is registered or not.

Then, once you’ve had your “first kiss,” continue to celebrate however you'd like! Now all you have to do is decide which anniversary you’ll celebrate...

How to Plan a Civil Wedding Ceremony—And Make It Feel Special (4)

Reasons to Have a Civil Ceremony

It's Less Expensive

Civil ceremonies can be appealing to couples for a variety of reasons, but a big one is the smaller price tag that accompanies them. If the civil wedding isn't followed by a religious ceremony and large-scale reception, the only costs are the fees that go along with it. If time is of the essence and you can't wait to start your lives together, a quick legal procedure can be far more attractive than the months of planning that go into larger weddings.

It Makes Navigating Religion Easier

Interfaith to-be-weds may opt for a civil ceremony as a compromise to avoid the pitfalls of navigating both of their religions. Similarly, non-religious couples may not want a religious ceremony that doesn't feel particularly authentic to their beliefs.

You Have More Freedom With Your Venue

Those with their sights set on an adventurous outdoor wedding could find themselves limited when it comes to the constraints of religious ceremonies—the Catholic church, for example, won't conduct weddings outside of a church. A civil ceremony can be much more flexible in this case, which can be a major draw, especially for creative couples looking to design their own ceremony.

It Reduces Family Drama

Last but not least, family can be a deciding factor. If you're navigating tricky family dynamics, a civil ceremony, attended by just a few guests, could be the simplest way to go.


  • What is the difference between a civil union and a civil marriage?

    A civil union is a legally recognized, non-marriage union whereas a civil marriage is a legal marriage with a non-religious ceremony. Semantically, a legal marriage can also be considered a civil union, but a civil union is not a marriage.

  • How long does a civil marriage ceremony take?

    A civil marriage ceremony can take between 10 and 15 minutes. This can vary depending on what you choose to include in the ceremony as well as any paperwork or formalities that need to be completed beforehand.

  • Is a civil ceremony the same as a wedding?

    A civil ceremony can be the same as the nuptial ceremony of a wedding for those who don't wish to include a religious ceremony. The civil ceremony is not the same as the wedding reception, or celebratory party, however. Usually, the civil ceremony takes place on a different day preceding the religious ceremony and reception.

  • Will my civil marriage be recognized by my religious community?

    Civil marriages are usually not recognized by religious communities unless they are followed by a religious ceremony, though it's always best to check with a member of the clergy first. A religious marriage is a marital union recognized by the canons, traditions, and constraints of a specific religion. It is not acknowledged by the law until a marriage license is filed.

  • Does the Catholic Church recognize a civil marriage?

    Catholic tradition does not recognize marriages that take place outside of a Catholic Church by Catholic individuals. A convalidation ceremony can transition a civil marriage to a Catholic marriage and have the union formally recognized by the Catholic Church.

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Based on the information provided in the article, here is a breakdown of the concepts discussed:

Civil Ceremony:

A civil ceremony is a non-religious, legal marriage ceremony presided over by a legal officiant. It does not require the traditional elements associated with weddings, such as a religious ceremony or a large celebration. Instead, it focuses on the legal aspect of getting married. Civil ceremonies often take place at city halls, but they can be held anywhere and can be personalized to the couple's preferences [[1]].

Requirements for a Civil Ceremony:

To plan a civil ceremony, there are a few key considerations:

  1. Research: Each state has its own set of rules for applying for a marriage license, including fees, required documentation, and waiting periods. It's important to check the specific requirements of your state before proceeding [[2]].

  2. Officiant: A civil ceremony is generally presided over by a legal official, such as a justice of the peace, county or court clerk, notary public, judge, or magistrate. If you choose to have your ceremony at city hall, an officiant will be provided [[3]].

  3. Guests: While civil ceremonies often have a smaller guest list, it's important to check the rules at your ceremony venue regarding the number of guests allowed. Some states require two witnesses over the age of 18, while others don't require any witnesses at all [[4]].

  4. Attire: Couples have the freedom to choose their attire for a civil ceremony. They can put their own spin on their outfits, whether they are new or from their current closet. It's recommended to wear something special and have hair and makeup done to feel your best on this important day [[5]].

  5. Vendors: Consider hiring a photographer to capture the special moments of the civil ceremony. It can be an intimate and emotional experience, and having a photographer can help preserve those memories. Additionally, think about any extras you'd like to have, such as a wedding bouquet or boutonnière [[6]].

  6. Celebration: After the civil ceremony, couples can celebrate in a way that feels special to them. This can include a Champagne toast, a family dinner, or even a short getaway to mark the occasion [[7]].

Planning a Wedding After a Civil Ceremony:

If you choose to have a civil ceremony first and plan a larger wedding celebration later, there are several options to consider:

  1. Include Traditions: You can include all the traditions you love and skip the ones you don't. This allows you to personalize your wedding ceremony and make it meaningful to you [[8]].

  2. Short and Sweet Ceremony: You can have a short and sweet ceremony to symbolize your union. This can be a chance to exchange personalized vows and include readings that speak to you [[8]].

  3. Choose Your Officiant: Since the civil ceremony is already legally binding, you have the freedom to choose whomever you wish to serve as the officiant for your wedding ceremony. There is no requirement for online ordination [[8]].

  4. Celebrate Your Love Story: Your love story is still your love story, regardless of the order of the ceremonies. Your guests will be there to celebrate you and your union, and there will be happy tears regardless of whether your officiant is registered or not [[8]].

Reasons to Have a Civil Ceremony:

There are several reasons why couples may choose to have a civil ceremony:

  1. Cost: Civil ceremonies tend to have a smaller price tag compared to larger weddings. If you're looking to save money or if time is of the essence, a civil ceremony can be an attractive option [[9]].

  2. Navigating Religion: Interfaith couples or non-religious couples may opt for a civil ceremony to avoid conflicts or to have a ceremony that aligns more closely with their beliefs [[9]].

  3. Venue Flexibility: Civil ceremonies offer more flexibility in terms of venue choices. Unlike religious ceremonies that may have specific location requirements, civil ceremonies can take place in various settings, including outdoor locations [[9]].

  4. Reduced Family Drama: For couples navigating tricky family dynamics, a civil ceremony with a small guest list can be a simpler option to avoid potential conflicts [[9]].

I hope this breakdown of the concepts discussed in the article is helpful to you! Let me know if there's anything else I can assist you with.

How to Plan a Civil Wedding Ceremony—And Make It Feel Special (2024)
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