Can We Have a Civil Ceremony Now and a Traditional Wedding Later?

Yes, and this is how to do it.

Photo by Nicola Thompson Photography

Sure, we love the pomp and circumstance (and flowers, and cake, and ball gowns...) that go along with a traditional wedding, but when it comes to legally tying the knot, that’s extra. All it really takes is a recognized officiant, a marriage license, and a few witnesses (and even those aren’t required in all states). 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 can’t forget if you’re having a civil ceremony before hosting a big reception.

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. If you’re having a civil wedding ceremony to make it legal, here are the things you need to know.

Check Your State’s Requirements

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. And this is where those witnesses come into play. 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?

Keep an eye out for fees (which you’ll want to pay in cash or by check to save on credit card processing), required documentation, and waiting periods (which could mean you’ll have to come back later to actually get married).

Choose Who Is Coming

Having a civil ceremony doesn’t mean you have to skip the guest list entirely, and you may want to bring a few select people along with you. 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.


You’re married! Mark the occasion in a way that feels special to the two of you, whether it’s a champagne toast at your favorite bar, a family dinner at home, or a late lunch after a midday ceremony. Invite your witnesses to be a part of the fun, then take a little time to revel in the moment together. 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 mini-moon.

Make Your Wedding Day Special

Yes, you’ll already be legally married by the time your wedding rolls around, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be special. Include all the traditions you love, and skip the ones you don’t. Have a short and sweet ceremony to symbolize your union. You can walk down the aisle with your father, or you and your SO 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. There’s no need to lie about whether you’ve already tied the knot, so just gloss over it—they won’t know if your officiant is registered or not. Once you’ve had your “first kiss,” head to a reception that speaks to the two of you, whether it’s champagne and hors d’oeuvres or barbecue in your parents’ backyard. Now all you have to do is decide which anniversary you’ll celebrate...

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