The Ins and Outs of Planning a Civil Ceremony

Don't want a religious wedding? Get married in civil style. Here's everything you need to know.
chapelle johnson the knot associate editor
Chapelle Johnson
chapelle johnson the knot associate editor
Chapelle Johnson
Associate Editor
  • Chapelle writes articles for The Knot Worldwide. She covers all things wedding-related and has a personal interest in covering celebrity engagements and fashion.
  • Before joining The Knot Worldwide, Chapelle was an editorial intern for Subvrt Magazine.
  • Chapelle has a degree in English writing from Loyola University New Orleans.
Updated May 04, 2022

We know there are a lot of misconceptions about having a civil ceremony. Some people think they're quick marriage ceremonies in a courthouse lacking the whimsical romance or planning that a traditional wedding brings. But there are plenty of good reasons and benefits to having a civil wedding ceremony, so don't let other people's opinions impact your choice. A civil ceremony can be a beautiful and meaningful event at almost any destination, whether you choose a local courtroom or a garden wedding venue. No matter if you're considering a civil ceremony as an elopement or as a way to save on ceremony costs, you'll have some questions—like what is a civil ceremony, how do I plan one and what are the marriage license requirements? So, keep reading to get the answers to all your civil ceremony-related questions.

In this article:

What is a Civil Ceremony?

First things first, you need to know what a civil ceremony is before you can start planning one, right? Contrary to what you might think, a civil ceremony isn't a common-law marriage, a civil union (a legally protected relationship most often associated with same-sex couples) or even a drive-through, Vegas-style affair. A civil ceremony is a nonreligious, legal marriage ceremony. The ceremony is presided over by a legal official (rather than a priest, rabbi, etc.) and the marriage will be recognized in all 50 states.

Is a civil ceremony the same as a wedding?

Depending on varying state requirements and a couple's wishes, a civil ceremony and wedding share similar aspects but technically aren't the same. A civil ceremony is nonreligious and is officiated by a government representative (more on this in a minute). A wedding is a marriage ceremony where couples can incorporate religious and cultural elements and has a wedding officiant as a figure of authority. Traditionally, most weddings also include a reception to celebrate following the ceremony.

What is the difference between a civil union and a civil marriage?

A civil union is a legally recognized relationship that offers state-level protection for the couple in terms of taxes, insurance and other financial assets. The two major differences between a civil union and a civil marriage are federal and state recognition. Civil marriages are recognized by the federal government, while civil unions are not. Also, unlike civil marriages, civil unions aren't recognized by (or permitted in) every state, so if you're moving to another state, you will need to research if your civil union rights, like tax benefits, can transfer over.

How is a civil ceremony different from a religious one?

A civil ceremony is like a one-stop shop. It's legally binding, which means you don't need to have two ceremonies or make an additional trip to the courthouse. A religious ceremony is not legally binding, which is why most couples pay a visit to city hall to obtain a marriage license to make it legal either before or shortly after the wedding day.

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But whether your service is religious or civil, the ceremony will follow the same basic structure: processional, call to order/opening remarks, vows, ring exchange and other unity gestures, pronouncement ("I now pronounce you…"), kiss, closing remarks and recessional. With a civil ceremony, you'll potentially have more freedom to make it your own, so feel free to write your own civil wedding vows and include special readings, music selections, unity symbols and rituals in the proceedings.

Will my marriage be recognized by my religious community?

Some religious denominations will not recognize a marriage performed by someone ordained outside the faith. So, although you may be legally married, your congregation may not acknowledge it. For example, the Catholic church doesn't recognize marriage ceremonies that are not officiated by a Catholic priest. If one or both parties in the relationship is concerned about religious recognition, you can consider having two marriage ceremonies.

Bride and Groom share vows at civil ceremony.

Reasons to Consider Having a Civil Ceremony

Couples who opt for civil ceremonies usually fall into one of the following groups:

Nonreligious couples

Neither person is religious or subscribes to an organized religion, or they feel uncomfortable with the idea of a religious ceremony.

Interfaith couples

Both partners come from different religious backgrounds, so they choose the civil route to avoid potential problems with interfaith ceremonies.

Innovative couples

Your ideal ceremony is more creative than a religion or culture will allow (for example, you want to include readings from your favorite poems or books, pop songs for your processional and recessional or performance art or Buddhist rituals).

Outdoorsy couples

An officiant at your place of worship won't preside over an outdoor ceremony, but you can't imagine saying "I do" anywhere other than that hillside location overlooking the ocean.

How to Plan a Civil Wedding Ceremony

Before you can say "I do," you'll have to mark some items off of your civil ceremony checklist first. Here are some answers to key questions you might have during the planning process.

Where can I have a civil wedding ceremony?

A civil ceremony can be held anywhere—the beach, a courthouse or even in a greenhouse—so it's up to you where you host your vows.

If you're choosing a courthouse, there are three important things to do:

  • Check if the courthouse takes appointments or is first come, first served: Some courthouses or city halls are popular civil wedding ceremony venues, which means those venues are booked far in advance. So, try your best to make your appointment as soon as possible. Also, certain states request you make one appointment for your marriage license and another for your ceremony. We recommend checking with your courthouse for their requirements before booking.

  • Ask if you can recite your own vows: Courthouses have limited time for each civil ceremony since they do multiple a day. The downside is that you might not have time to recite personal vows. If that's important to you, see which courthouses allow you to recite something other than the standard vows offered.

  • Find out how many guests you can invite: You may be going the nontraditional route for your ceremony, but there are still some restrictions. There is a guest limit at many courthouses, which means a wedding photographer counts as a guest too, so think carefully about who you want on your guest list.

Who officiates a civil wedding ceremony?

Exact requirements vary from state to state (and county to county in some cases), but generally, it's a legal official—a judge, magistrate, justice of the peace, county or court clerk, or notary public (and no, a ship captain doesn't count unless they are also one of the above).

Check in with the local marriage license bureau or municipal county clerk's office to determine who's legally recognized to perform a civil ceremony. They'll be able to give you the lowdown on all the policies and laws you need to keep in mind as you go through the planning process. Once you've found an officiant (The Knot Vendor Marketplace is a great place to start!), ask about counseling, fees, paperwork and any other logistics that may be required for your civil ceremony to be considered a legally binding event.

And if you're wondering whether or not you can have a friend officiate, the answer is yes! Pick a friend or family member to get ordained (they can do it online and it's super easy) to legally marry you. But keep in mind: Not all states recognize the certification, and even if yours does, it may require additional paperwork. Many states will allow people to obtain a one-time license to perform a marriage, which may require standing before a judge. Our tip: Show your loved one your appreciation by getting them a thoughtful officiant proposal gift.

Do I need a marriage license for a civil wedding ceremony?

If you want your civil ceremony to be legal, you'll need a marriage license. First, you'll have to check if you need to book an appointment to obtain the marriage license, and if there is a required waiting period between the time you obtain the license and when you can have the ceremony. If so, book as soon as you can since there is usually limited availability. The next step is to find out which legal documents you need to bring to the appointment, like state IDs, birth certificates or social security cards. (The legal documents required are determined by the state you're having your civil ceremony in.) Finally, the state where your civil ceremony takes place will influence if you require witnesses and how many you'll need, so contact close friends or family to serve as witnesses if necessary.

What do you wear to your civil wedding ceremony?

You can go for a casual look or opt for semi-formal wedding attire, but either way, wear whatever best fits your style and helps you feel good on your special day. For men or anyone not wearing a wedding dress, consider a button-down shirt and dress pants or chinos, plus accessories to personalize. If you're shopping for a courthouse wedding dress, we recommend experimenting with different gown designs like a column silhouette, a feather trim or a shorter hemline—why not be unconventional in more ways than one?

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