If you want to have a courthouse wedding in San Francisco, there's only one place to do it: San Francisco City Hall. This type of wedding is called a civil ceremony, also known as a public ceremony.
SF City Hall civil ceremonies are simple. At least, In comparison to traditional weddings, anyway. And this is the typical goal for couples: simplicity. And that’s exactly what city hall provides - a smooth public ceremony process they’ve refined over the years.
But if you’re a planner like I am, you want to know what to expect. You want to know what to plan for, what to anticipate during the ceremony, how to choose the date and time, and everything else that goes into it.
Who Gets Married at SF City Hall?
In our experience, couples who choose to get married at city hall do so for one of several reasons, or a combination of reasons. Perhaps you can relate to these:
-They prefer a more private gathering
-They are generally private people
-They don’t want a big wedding
-They want a small wedding
-This is their second wedding and they want something less elaborate this time around
-They like the idea of elopement
-They only have a few guests anyway
Just the other day, I photographed a couple who chose a courthouse wedding because they only wanted 12 people to come. In the end, they had 40 guests. They still had their same ceremony and met up with everyone for dinner afterward. Every situation is different, and in the end everyone loves and appreciates their choice.
Planning the Wedding Day
No matter what your reason is for choosing a courthouse wedding in San Francisco, you will need to plan the day out ahead of time.
Just like a big wedding, you should start with a guest list since that can dictate everything else. City Hall only allows six guests during the ceremony, so you could choose up to six of the closest people in your lives to attend the ceremony and then meet up with a larger group afterward. It’s completely up to you. It’s not uncommon to have no guests at all, but remember that you do need a witness. Your wedding photographer should be willing to act as your witness. I do it all the time!
Choose a wedding photographer experienced with SF City Hall civil ceremonies. Contact them as soon as possible to check their calendar. Since city hall ceremonies are booked in a 90 day window, I personally am used to being contacted mere weeks (or even days) ahead of time. But my schedule does book rather quickly, so get in touch as soon as you can.
One of the things I love about civil ceremonies are the variety of attire I see couples wear. There are gorgeous gowns, matching suits, casual dresses, and everything in between. Browse through my city hall portfolio to see what other couples have worn, but I know that you’ll make it your own!
Most couples go out to eat after the ceremony, whether it’s on their own, with a few friends, or with a large gathering of loved ones. There are private dining options available nearby or a short distance away. We’ve written about this, with restaurants that I personally recommend. Some offer private rooms for 10 people, while others have spaces for up to 100 guests. Browse through my list and call ahead to make a reservation.
What Date and Time Should I Choose for my Courthouse Wedding?
First, I’ll say this: Whatever date and time you pick are going to be perfect. Not once have I ever met a couple who was disappointed with their choice. Once you get there, the excitement of the day will overpower everything else!
But, I still have some things that you may want to keep in mind.
- Fridays tend to be the busiest days at San Francisco City Hall. However, many couples still like to get married on Friday to give themselves a three day weekend.
- Your desired photographer may have limited availability during the timeframe you’re choosing, so that may affect which date you choose.
- Early morning weddings (starting at 9am) give you the rest of the day to celebrate in your own way. But, they don’t give you a lot of time to get ready.
- Civil ceremonies scheduled later in the day tend to give you better photos. The later it is, the more opportunity for natural light to enter the building. (No matter what, I provide beautiful photos, but I do get more light the later it is.)
- Be flexible. Since you can only book 90 days ahead of time, and the calendar can get competitive, keep your options open when it comes time to book.
Civil ceremony appointments are Monday through Friday, every half hour between 9:00 am and 3:30 pm.
How to Schedule Your Civil Ceremony and Marriage License
Once you have chosen your date and time, go to the County Clerk website 90 days before your date. You will need to schedule both your marriage license appointment and your ceremony appointment. These are two separate bookings.
If you live in or near San Francisco, I recommend getting your license ahead of time. It has to be within 90 days of your ceremony, so don’t do it too far in advance.
If you are from out of town, schedule your marriage license appointment the day before the ceremony. Or, if you prefer to do everything on the same day, schedule your marriage license appointment at least one hour before your ceremony to give yourselves plenty of time. It only takes 10 to 15 minutes, but you should still get it done early.
The Day of the Ceremony
Get to San Francisco City Hall early. The judge won’t wait for you! This building is an incredible place to spend time. After all, there is a reason that tourists flock here. Get there early and wander around - you won’t regret it.
If your marriage license appointment is the same day as the ceremony, you still need to be early. That’s a mandatory appointment - you can’t get married without it.
Plan for traffic. San Francisco is notorious for it.
Where to Park
There is an underground parking garage (link to Google Maps) across the street that I have relied on for the last decade. There are always spots available. It’s located on McAllister St, adjacent to Civic Center Plaza. It can be easy to miss. Look for the single Parking sign above the entrance.
When to Check In for the Ceremony
Fifteen minutes before your civil ceremony appointment, go to Room 168 on the first floor. If you hire me as your photographer, this is where I will meet you.
Check in with the clerk to let them know that you have arrived. They will check your paperwork, including your IDs and marriage license, and then you will get a number.
Then it’s time to wait! There will likely be one other couple who waits with you. Pre-pandemic, there used to be four couples for every half hour slot. Now there are two, and I'm not sure if this will change in the future.
Start of the Ceremony
Your number will be called in the order you arrive, and you will be instructed to go upstairs to the Rotunda. This is where the civil ceremonies take place. Once all couples and guests are situated, the judge arrives and get things started.
So far, everything I've described about the day sounds so formal. But I promise it doesn’t feel that way! The judges who volunteer as officiants love what they do. Everyone is excited to be there and celebrate this moment with you.
About ten minutes after your appointment time, the first public ceremony will begin. It’s short but really sweet and beautiful. Every judge says the same thing with only about 10% variation between each one. They are required to say certain words, but each one puts their own spin on it.
Keep in mind that personal vows are not permitted, due to the simplified nature of a civil ceremony. But I promise that you will love and appreciate every word from your officiant.
Judges are inclusive and welcome all couples. Instead of the traditional gendered pronouncement, judges will say “I now pronounce you spouses for life.” I love this!
When your ceremony is over, it’s time to leave the rotunda to make way for the next ceremony.
After the Ceremony
For every ceremony that I attend, I'm obviously there as the wedding photographer. So after the ceremony I immediately guide the couple to my go-to spots around the building for photos. The amount of time for this depends on how much time was booked with me. A lunch or dinner reservation can determine this as well. I communicate about all of this ahead of time.
Once your photos are done, whether it’s only inside the building or in different locations around the city, then it’s time to celebrate even more! Enjoy your day, enjoy your loved ones, and enjoy your time together.
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