How to get a marriage license: tips and tricks for the engaged and confused

How to get a marriage license via @offbeatbride
Jo & Spig sign the register at their goth-ish geeky intimate wedding.
Photo by Lisa Carpenter Photography

If you're planning to get legally married (which, given last week's news, will hopefully be available to more), the most important step to research is how to get a marriage license. This can be trickier if you're getting married out-of-state, out-of-country, are a same-sex couple, or don't get the process started early enough.

No matter if you're rocking a Vegas drive-thru wedding, a destination Scottish elopement, or a surprise wedding in your own front yard, make sure you know your location's rules before embarking on your magical wedding roller coaster.

Here are the basic steps to obtaining the golden ticket to your legal marriage. Note that we aren't lawyers, so this is just a primer before you get your legal ducks in a row.

Decide where you'll be getting married

License rules vary by state and country, so bone up on the requirements wherever you're planning to get married. Find your local office after that. Look under "marriage" in your phone book's city pages or Google for your local office.

Marriage license waiting periods

Find out if there is a waiting period and for how long marriage licenses are valid.

Documents for your marriage license

Most states require birth certificates, proof of citizenship and/or residence, a driver's license or other photo ID, maybe blood test results (only a few states still require this), and parental consent if you're underage. If you are divorced or widowed, you should bring along a copy of the death certificate or divorce paperwork.

Marriage license fees

There will most likely be a fee. You'll probably need to pay it with a money order, cashier's check, or even cash only. Some areas will give a discount if you can show that you had premarital education or counseling.

How to get a marriage license via @offbeatbride
Making it official at a Reno wedding. Photo by Beth Herzhaft

Marriage license timeframe

Most marriage licenses are valid for between 10 days and six months, which means that's how long you have to get married once you obtain it. Otherwise you'll be applying (and paying the fee) again.

Residency for marriage licenses

If you are having a destination wedding or getting married out of state, check into the requirements there. In most places, you don't have to be a resident, but you might have to get there a few days early.

Same-sex marriage licenses

Here is a list of countries and U.S. states that DO allow same-sex marriage (as of June 2015) so that you can be prepared if you're getting married away from your home state/country.

The marriage license at the wedding

Make sure someone is in charge of bringing it. After that, assign someone to return the marriage license to the county clerk's office or do it yourself. About a week later, you can purchase copies of the certified marriage certificate from the clerk's office.

Find out your specific location marriage license requirements here.

How to get a marriage license via @offbeatbride
Jacylyn and John's Vegas wedding had its rules, too! Photo by The Little White Chapel

Got a question? Ask or share your own marriage license tips in the comments!

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  1. This is a good list.

    Maybe you mentioned it, but you need to apply together, in person to get your license. You don't have to both be there to pick it up. And at least in MA, you get one certified copy for free, then multiple copies you have to pay for. We ended up getting 4 certified copies because I wasn't sure who would need to keep them and who only needed to see it for me to change my name. As it turned out, no one actually needed to keep it so now I have multiple copies. Also bring everything you THINK you will need to the clerk's office – it makes things go much faster especially if you have a limited time frame.

    1 agrees
  2. This is such a location specific thing so it is very confusing – you need to do your research for where you live and where you are getting married.

    For example, where I live only one applicant needs to apply (but needs the documents for the co-applicant). Also there is no waiting period; however sometimes it costs more to pick it up the same day (in one town near where I live it costs $150 for same day service but $100 if you can pick it up the next day).

    Also, each municipality sets their own rate so rates can be drastically different. For example in the city we live in it costs $166 but in the town where my husband grew up it was $100 when we got married two years ago (they have hiked the fee to $130 since then). My husband applied and picked up our marriage license when he was visiting his father and picking up his suit one day so we were able to save a lot of money.

    And if you are getting married in another country you might want to make sure that where you live recognizes the marriage.

  3. Research, research, research!

    Also, after you get married, order a bunch of certified copies. If one or both of you are changing your name, order even more. Not having enough is a pain in the butt, and I promise you will need them again later. Since they never go bad, just tuck them in a file for later. You can pretty much never have too many certified copies of any legal paperwork.

  4. Just two weeks ago I got married in Las Vegas. Our officiant pointed out that if you're changing your name and you send a copy to Social Security, they keep it, they do NOT send it back. So…think of how many copies you need and order a few extras. Because not every place you send them to, will send them back.

    • My experience from going to the Social Security office was that they looked at it and gave it right back to me – so that bit depends on whether you need to send it somewhere or just show someone.

    • We ended up needing four "originals" of our marriage licence for my DH's green card. I don't think the word "original" means what the INS thinks it means!

  5. Also, if a state has waiting periods (e.g. Minnesota), there are sometimes ways and reasons to have them waived. We got our marriage license Wednesday and got married that evening, when there's normally a 5 day waiting period. We/the hospital my mom was in ICU at asked for that waiting period to be waived for immediate/compassionate circumstances so that she could be present at our wedding. She passed away the next evening.

    7 agree
  6. A heads up for UK brides: for at least the last 2 years the period between giving notice and being able to get married was a minimum of 15 days but in the last couple of months it's jumped up to 28 days. I only checked it again by chance and luckily we will be just in time. There's often a wait to get an appointment to give notice, so that needs factoring in too. They said once you have given notice it lasts a year though so you can almost do it as early as you like. (Though you do have to know the venue, date etc of the actual ceremony.)

  7. Ok I have a question that I've been wondering about for a year. We are both from massachusetts and got legally married in Cancun. Now we live in Hawaii. I have no idea if I'm supposed to file my marriage certificate with someone in the US. From what I've seen it seems to be a case of "if you're married you're married" but I'm afraid it's not recognized here especially since we didn't change our names. Any ideas?

    • I have a friend getting married on a cruise ship in a few weeks and she confirmed that her marriage would be legal where we live (and she does not have to file anything where we live). I am not from the U.S. so I am not sure but I would think that marriages from Mexico would be legal in the U.S.

      • thanks! i guess i know that it is legal in the US i'm just not sure if i was supposed to tell anyone here or file a record. it kind of feels like the entire country has no idea i'm married haha

  8. If you have an officiant who is used to the process (ie, a judge, pastor, rabbi, etc. and not your favorite cousin), they likely have some hints and tips. For example, in the county and state we'll be getting married in, the officiant is one who submits the paperwork. It's super location-specific, obviously, but that's why an officiant can be a GREAT resource. They'll often be able to warn you about little intricacies of your specific situation and location.

    2 agree
    • Our officiant was great resource too. She told us about shopping around for the marriage license fee.

      Also where we live the officiant has to submit the paperwork to register the marriage. A friend's officiant did not register her marriage for almost a year (even though she followed up a number of times). And apparently there is extra paperwork if it is not registered within a year.

  9. ALSO, it's totally OK, allowed, and accepted if you sign and file your marriage certificate before your wedding ceremony! ­čÖé

  10. I would highly recommend for anyone having a destination wedding: if you go to said location ahead of time for planning, take your documents with you to wherever it is that will issue your license, and have them look everything over to make sure you have exactly what is needed for them to issue a license. The clerk in the county where we got married did not like the stamp on my then-fiance's 15 year old divorce papers. Thankfully, we had taken the paperwork into her in June, and our wedding was in September, so we were able to get a new copy with a stamp she could read. If you aren't going there, see if they will allow you to fax/email the documents ahead of time to be sure that everything looks fine for a license to be issued. Had we not done that, we would have been completely screwed as we were 8+hours from home, and the clerk wasn't going to budge.

  11. I can't recommend enough that you dig, dig and keep digging that extra info(or get an officiant who knows their deal) when planning a destination wedding.

    My husband and I are both Finnish natives and got married last september in NYC. What caught us by surprise was the fact that you actually need both your parents name when filing for marriage certificate. In Finland you can have only one parent listed on the civil register and I only have my mother's data there. Thus, I don't know my fathers name and any other details.

    The online form accepted "unknown" on the other parents fields and I only found out at the city clerks office that the data is invalid and that I really, really need to get a name. Of course that lead to a small panic and one really, really awkward phonecall to my mother.

    It was not really the end of the world, but I can imagine that the outcome could have been different if my mom did not have any name to give or would not want to do so. Obviously I could have lied on the form, but under stress etc it did not cross my mind.

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