How to Get Legally Married in California and Plan Your CA Wedding

Here's everything you need to know about getting your California marriage license.
lauren levy the knot
Lauren Levy
lauren levy the knot
Lauren Levy
The Knot Contributor
  • Lauren writes articles for The Knot Worldwide on a range of topics from Real Weddings and personal essays to registry and fashion.
  • Lauren has a decade of experience in the wedding industry.
  • Lauren was an intern as well as a Real Weddings Editorial Assistant at The Knot.
Updated Aug 31, 2021

Whether you're planning an elaborate wedding filled with jaw-dropping vendors and a high guest count or are planning on simply stopping by your County Clerk's Office to elope, there's one thing everyone needs in order to get married in the state of California: a marriage license.

While California is known for a range of wedding styles from scenic vineyards and oceanfront estates to modern rooftop celebrations, there's one thing that all of these weddings have in common: They require obtaining a public marriage license beforehand to make them legal. Not only does each state have their own marriage license process, whether it's applying at the superior court with a money order instead of cash or a debit card, or meeting with a clerk-recorder and proving you meet a certain minimum years of age with your birth certificate, we consulted with local experts to find out exactly what the deal is in California from the name change process to what you'll need to bring to the recorder's office — including any vital records. And although the process slightly varies by county, here's the lowdown on everything you need to know about getting a marriage certificate in the state of California.

How to Get Married in California

In order to get legally married in the state of California, you need to obtain a marriage license before your marriage ceremony. However, before you apply, the first step is knowing that there are two different options: a public marriage license and a confidential marriage license.

According to Bethel Nathan, an ordained officiant at Ceremonies by Bethel in San Diego, there are a few key differences between the two. A public marriage license, she explained, becomes a public record (so anyone can request an informational copy), the couple and specified relatives can order a certified copy of it, it requires the signature of at least one witness (but has space for two) in addition to the officiant's, and there are no restrictions on where the couple lives.

A confidential marriage license becomes a confidential record; therefore, the only people able to obtain information about it or order a certified copy are the couple (except by special court order), no witnesses are required other than the officiant, and the couple must be living together prior to the marriage. However, she noted that both types are good for the same amount of time post-issuance: 90 days.

Is there a waiting period to get married in California?

There is no waiting period to get married in California. Once a California marriage license is issued, you can get married immediately or anytime after but it is only valid for 90 days.

What are the legal requirements to get married in California?

In order to be legally married in California, first a couple must obtain a marriage license and then they must have a wedding ceremony within 90 days. You do not need to be a United States or California resident in order to purchase a California marriage license or get married in California.
The only legal requirements when presenting the marriage license application is that each party needs to bring a valid government photo identification, like a driver's license, and that both people must be present together when applying for the license, explained Renee Dalo of Moxie Bright Events in Los Angeles. California does not require a blood test.

However, Nathan noted that although typical both parties need to appear in person at the county clerk, there has been a slight exception during the Covid-19 pandemic with some counties offering virtual appointments and virtual ceremonies. In order for the marriage license to be valid, it must be used within the 90 days and signed by a proper officiant. "A public license requires one witness, but there is space for two to sign the license, in addition to the officiant, of course, while a confidential marriage license needs only the officiant's signature and there is no space for witnesses," she explained.

If either party was married in the last two years, he or she also needs to provide proof of dissolution, added Alan Katz, Presiding Officiant at Great Officiants. "And if they were obtaining a confidential marriage license, they would need to state that they live together, but no proof is required," he added.

What's considered a common law marriage in California?

California does not have common law marriage. Instead, you have to be legally married to be considered married in California.
"It seems that couples who were considered common-law spouses in another state before moving to California might be treated similarly when going through a 'divorce' in California, but there is no common law marriage in California," said Nathan.

However, she noted that there is another legal structure that exists in California and might be where some people get confused: A California domestic partnership. She explained that this is a legal relationship, analogous to marriage, created in 1999 to extend the rights and benefits of marriage to same-sex couples. This was created since same-sex couples weren't able to be legally married in California at that time and was also available for opposite-sex couples over the age of 62. "It was extended to all opposite-sex couples as of January 1, 2020. However, while this provides all benefits afforded to marriage within California, it is not recognized by the federal government," she said. "Therefore, it is not considered married for any federal benefits or rights."

California Marriage License 101

In order to get a California marriage license, you first need to apply for one through the county recorder and provide specific information as well as a requested fee. Here's what to expect as you go through the process.

What do you need to get a marriage license in California?

First, you need to know if you want to get a standard/public license or a confidential marriage license. Then you need to fill out the marriage license application, provide the information requested, bring your picture identification, and you must pay for the license. "Nothing else is required," said Nathan.

On the application, you need to provide:

  • Your legal name, place/date of birth (for both of you)
  • The same information for both sets of parents
  • The new name you or your spouse will take after marriage (if either or both of you are changing your last names).
  • Proof of divorce and the divorce date if either of you have had a previous marriage as neither party can be legally married at the time of license issue.

What does a California marriage license cost?

The price varies based on what county is issuing it and can range from around $60-$110. "In the Southern California region where I officiate weddings most often, San Diego charges $70 for a public license and $89 for a confidential, Orange County charges $61 and $66 respectively, Los Angeles County charges $91 and $85 respectively, and Riverside County charges $100 and $110 respectively," explained Nathan.

How long does it take to get a marriage license in California?

Getting the license itself takes just minutes, however ideally you should plan ahead to make an appointment. Prior to the pandemic, Dalo would advise couples to begin the process as soon as they were within the 90 days before the wedding day. "As soon as you hit the 90-day mark prior, you had to apply and then do the in-person meeting," she said. "Now, they're only making appointments in 2-week increments, so now we're telling clients to try for an appointment every two weeks once you're within the 90-day window."

On the day of, Nathan suggests that you allocate 30-45 minutes for your appointment (or once you have started the process with a county clerk after waiting in line if doing a walk-in). "And it's faster if you've already completed the application ahead of time, which is now required by certain counties for the appointment to be set," she said. "Then, if you have that application completed, plus the required photo identification and payment ready, you will walk out with your license and be ready to be married immediately or at any point within the next 90 days."

Can you apply for a marriage license online in California?

Some counties, like San Diego, Orange, and Los Angeles county, allow you to apply online. However, some counties still require you to bring in an application in person for the marriage license to be issued by a county clerk. "All the information on what is needed to obtain a marriage license in the various counties is on their websites," explained Katz.

How do you get a copy of your California marriage license?

It depends on which exactly you are looking for — a copy of the marriage license (before you get married) or the certified copy of the marriage certificate (after you get married).

If it's for a copy of the marriage license, you follow the steps outlined above —You apply online (or prep the paper version if that county doesn't have an online option), set an appointment for a time to have it issued and signed by a county clerk, show up with photo picture identification and payment for the license fee, and walk out with your license.

If you're looking to order another copy of your marriage certificate, which is proof of your legal marriage, that can be purchased from the county clerk that issued the license after they process the completed and signed license (which happens after the wedding). "Each county has different options for purchasing certified copies of the marriage certificate – via mail, in-person, and online," explained Nathan.

However, keep in mind that when you first receive your marriage certificate, it's in a manila envelope with several papers in it. You receive a legal copy and then an additional piece that says 'copy' on it, the latter you want to hold onto for safekeeping, explained Dalo. "When you send in the legal one, there is a form that goes with it, allowing you to order additional copies on the spot," she added. "I always suggest getting 4-5 copies of the completed license because you need it for many things."

How to Plan a California Wedding

One of the best things about getting married in California according to Nathan is all of the options for styles of weddings within the state. Whether you prefer beach, mountain, desert, winery, luxury, or rustic, California can not only accommodate that vision but pull it off better than imagined with the help of experienced vendors.

The Different Cities and Areas to Consider for a California Wedding

As Dalo explained, "there's an embarrassment of riches here in California" when it comes to ideal locations for a memorable wedding. She personally loves Palm Springs because it feels like a destination, even though it's only two hours away from LAX. "Any time an out-of-state couple is considering California, my first inclination is to recommend Palm Springs," she said. "You may not get the ocean views, but it's very peaceful and feels like you're in a far-flung destination."

San Diego is also a great destination for both couples and guests alike, especially Casa Del Mar, where you're still in California but feel as though you're in Mexico. "You can't go wrong with San Francisco or Los Angeles for a beautiful city wedding, either," she added. "I feel like there is no wrong answer when selecting an area of California for your wedding. We literally have every option here—it just depends on the kind of wedding you want to have."

What to Look For in a California Wedding Venue

One of the most important things to know, according to Margaux Fraise of Harmony Creative Studio in Los Angeles, is that California is a very litigious state. "You will see increased legalities, insurance requirements, and things like that in your venue contract," she said. "Make sure that you actually read your contract and understand what you are agreeing to because here in California, you're going to find more legal jargon that you're going to have to follow."

But when it comes to the California wedding venue itself, Dalo recommends finding a spot with both indoor and outdoor space for a uniquely California experience. "We do have beautiful weather paired with unique geography, so an entirely indoor venue would feel off base," she said. "I'm personally a big architecture nerd, so I will always suggest spaces unique to the region—such as spaces boasting Spanish architecture or perhaps a property featuring an Arts and Crafts design."

How to Find California Wedding Vendors

One of the nice things about California is that there are a wealth of vendors here including some of the best in the country, according to Dalo. But she notes that it's not so much about finding amazing people because talented people are everywhere as much as it is about finding the right people for you. You need to know what you want of your vendors—be it, the kind of style of photography you like, the band you want, or a wedding planner you think you'll get along well with. "'Good' is subjective, so what we want is uniquely right for you," she explained. "Do your due diligence by taking time to read people's websites, visit their social media and read reviews. Take time to get to know the vendors by meeting with them in person or on Zoom."

The best possible way to start your search for California wedding vendors is to narrow it down more specifically by city or region, explained Fraise. "Because if you put in 'California wedding planner,' you're going to get everyone from Fresno to the Central Valley to San Diego, and those are not close to one another," she said. "If you know you're getting married in Temecula wine country—then only search 'Temecula wedding planner,' etc ... Getting specific about the cities and the regions is a great way to hone in on, and find, the best vendors for you."

Katz also advises against choosing a non-professional or a friend or family member who is not a professional as it can "be a recipe for disaster" in his experience. "Probably one of the best places to find quality vendors is on The Knot and WeddingWire platforms," he added. "The most important thing is to find the person with the most and best reviews. This tells the story."

The Best Times of Year to Have a California Wedding for Good Weather

"We're blessed here in California, as we have great weather pretty much year-round," said Fraise.

However, in her experience it is rainier in the early spring, so March and early April are where you're going to find the most instances of having to utilize a rain plan here in California. "I would say late spring to late April, May, June is the perfect time," she added.

It's also important to remember that California is very hot in August, September, and October. "I know that October is the most popular month for weddings in the US, and that's because, in most regions, it's very temperate fall weather," she said. "Here in California, October has been the hottest month of the year for several years running, as the weather patterns shift. If you want real fall weather in California, you need to consider November instead."

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