The key to a wedding day timeline that runs smoothly is planning ahead. Breaking down your entire wedding day into an organized timeline helps to keep everything on track when the big day finally arrives. The more detailed you can make the plan, the better. As a rule of thumb, wedding ceremonies typically last 30 minutes to an hour—although short and sweet wedding programs are okay, too—and most wedding receptions typically last four to five hours.
Expert wedding planner Tessa Lyn Brand of Tessa Lyn Events helped us create a sample modern wedding reception timeline based on a wedding starting at 5:30 p.m. (Adjust timing as necessary to work with your ceremony start time).
Meet the Expert
Tessa Lyn Brand is a California-based wedding planner and owner of Tessa Lyn Events. She has planned over 180 weddings.
Note that this wedding timeline also assumes the ceremony and reception are being held at the same venue, which means guests won't need to travel to a separate party location before cocktail hour can begin. If you're having your wedding reception at a different site, make sure to add travel time, accounting for the time it will take for the guests to make their way to the post-ceremony festivities.
Use the below as a guide to create your own wedding day timeline.
2 p.m. Photographer Arrives
The wedding photographer should arrive 30 minutes before the bride is ready. During this time, the photographer(s) can get shots of the dress, rings, invitation, etc.
2:15 p.m. Bridesmaids Are Ready; Bride’s Hair and Makeup Is Complete
The bridesmaids (as well as the mother of the bride, and any other bridal suite VIPs) should be dressed and ready by the time the bride’s hair and makeup is complete. This way, everyone can be in the background of the photos featuring the bride getting dressed.
If you want those super cute photos of everyone together in matching robes, pencil these in after hair and makeup but before the bridesmaids put on their dresses.
2:30 p.m. Bride Gets Dressed
Once you're mostly dressed, now's the time to have the photographer capture those intimate moments of your maid of honor (and maybe bridesmaids, too) helping you zip up your dress and slip on your shoes. Make sure your mom has a role, too! Perhaps she helps with your earrings and jewelry, or adjusts your veil.
2:45 p.m. Bridal Portraits
Once you're fully dressed and ready, the photographer will focus on capturing some beautiful portrait and detail shots at pre-scouted locations around your venue.
3:10 - 3:30 p.m. Bridesmaids Photos
These photos are meant to be casual and fun, capturing the moments of celebration between the bride and her friends. If you want any special shots, such as toasting with champagne, make sure you have the props ready (clean flutes, for instance).
3:30 p.m. First Look
The (optional) first look is a special moment where the two of you see each other for the first time, away from the hundreds of eyes that will be watching you exchange vows during the ceremony.
3:30 - 4:10 p.m. Portrait Photos Together
If you're opting for a first look, this is an ideal window of time for your photographer(s) to capture some intimate portraits of just the two of you at pre-scouted locations around your venue.
4:10 - 5:00 p.m. Wedding Party and Family Photos
"Have your family meet, dressed and ready, in the lobby of your venue at about 4 p.m. Make sure your photographer has a shot list of every family combination you want captured, and designate a family member to help the photographer identify everyone. It will be much easier for your sibling or cousin to go find Aunt Linda if she wandered away because they already know who she is," Brand advises.
5:30 p.m. Start Time Listed on Wedding Invitation
Most weddings don't start at the actual start time listed on the invitation. "Plan to start your ceremony about 15 minutes later than the invitation time. This gives guests a little extra time if they are running late and ensures all the seats will be filled! You don’t want anyone to miss your special moment due to traffic," says Brand. Also, now's a great time to have some music playing, to add to the ambiance and also indicate that the ceremony start time is indeed approaching.
5:45 - 6:15 p.m. Ceremony
This is the time block that varies the most for weddings, notes Brand. The time really depends on the type of ceremony you're having. Typically, non-religious ceremonies last around 20 minutes, while religious-based ceremonies can last up to an hour.
6:15 - 7:15 p.m. Cocktail Hour
Invite guests to cocktail hour while the two of you escape for some post-ceremony photos with the photographer. This will give you a much-needed break to re-energize for the rest of the night, and depending on how many photos you want to take, you can join cocktail hour halfway through, or spend some time in the bridal suite having appetizers and drinks privately.
If you don't opt for a pre-wedding first look, this is also when you would traditionally take your photos together, as well as family portraits and portraits with the entire bridal party.
7 p.m.(ish) Sunset Photos
Set aside time in your wedding itinerary to take additional portraits together during the 30 (or so) minutes leading up to sunset, which offers opportunities for some incredible natural lighting. "Timeanddate.com will give you the exact sunset time on your date and location to the minute. I find it is almost always completely accurate," says Brand. The actual time of sunset varies widely, depending on where and what time of year you're getting married. In the winter months, pre-sunset photos may need to be scheduled for as early as around 4 p.m.
7:15 p.m. Guests Invited to Dinner
7:30 p.m. Grand Entrance and First Dance
"Timing works great if you go from your grand entrance right into your first dance," says Brand. "This keeps the formalities and the fun going. You can dance for a full song for your first dance, or fade out two minutes in. You can also add a dance set consisting of three to five songs after the first dance to get the energy up before dinner."
7:35 - 7:45 p.m. Welcome Toasts From Hosts
The first two toasts in the wedding reception timeline are considered welcome toasts and they are typically offered by the parents or a family member of the newlyweds—traditionally, the father of the bride speaks first.
7:45 - 8:30 p.m. Dinner
8:30 - 8:40 p.m. Bridal Party Toasts
As dinner is wrapping up, the best man and maid of honor can offer their toasts during this slot of the wedding schedule. "For all toasts, set a time limit and recommend advising your speakers stay within that limit. I always say no more than five minutes," says Brand.
8:40 - 8:50 p.m. Parent Dances
"If you are doing father-daughter and mother-son dances I recommend doing them immediately after the toasts, and then transition into an open dance floor. After the last official dance, switch to a high-energy music and have your band or DJ encourage everyone to join you on the dance floor," says Brand.
9:30 - 9:45 p.m. Cake Cutting, Bouquet Toss and Garter Toss
First up is the cake cutting, followed by bouquet toss and garter toss (if those are traditions you're keeping). This is also a good time for the newlyweds to say a few words and thank their guests for coming.
9:45 p.m. Open Dance Floor
Dance until the night ends!
11:30 p.m. Grand Exit
Arrange for a final song with your DJ or band ahead of time, as well as to be alerted that the song is coming up. Say your final goodbyes and hug your final hugs. If you're having an exit with sparklers or other festive flair, have a designated member (or members) of your bridal party organize all the guests along your exit path and hand out the goods. When your final song comes on, grab hands and make a dash for happily ever after!