What's the Difference Between a Marriage License and Marriage Certificate?

These two official documents are both required in order to be legally married.
Ellen O'Brien - The Knot Contributor.
Ellen O'Brien
Ellen O'Brien - The Knot Contributor.
Ellen O'Brien
The Knot Contributor
  • Ellen is a contributor for The Knot, where she covers everything from honeymoons to wedding showers.
  • Formerly a fellow at Washingtonian magazine, Ellen has experience covering local weddings in the DC area.
  • Ellen also contributes to wedding venue round-ups at The Knot, helping compile the best wedding venues in cities across the country.
Updated Sep 28, 2021

Whether you've already had your wedding ceremony or you're planning on getting hitched in the future, you might be curious about the differences between a marriage license vs. certificate. It's important to know what differentiates these two legal documents so you can ensure your status as a married couple is official in the eyes of the law.

We know it can get complicated trying to figure out county and state laws, so we've broken down everything you need to know about the differences between a marriage license and marriage certificate. From legal requirements and license fees to payment forms and waiting periods, we've got you covered.

The Difference Between a Marriage License and Marriage Certificate

The difference between these two similarly named forms may seem complicated, but we promise you it's not. Below, we cover everything you need to know so you won't have to spend hours trying to figure it out for yourself. Read on to learn more about the differences between a marriage license and marriage certificate.

The Basics

Looking for the short of it? A marriage license is a document issued by the county clerk that allows you and your partner to get married. A marriage certificate is a document that shows you and your partner are legally married. So, a marriage license is obtained prior to your wedding ceremony, while a marriage certificate is issued following your ceremony.

The Requirements

In order to be eligible to apply for a marriage license, both partners typically must be at least 18 years of age. In some states, couples younger than 18 are allowed to apply for a marriage license with parental permission, consent forms or the approval of a court.

If you're in a domestic partnership, you're not able to apply for a marriage license. Rather, couples in a domestic partnership must apply for a certificate of domestic partnership in their state of residence. (Keep in mind that not all states recognize domestic partnerships.)

The Importance

Both of these documents are super important. A marriage license is required in order to conduct a marriage ceremony—and in order for you to later obtain your marriage certificate.

Following your wedding, your marriage certificate is used to prove your marital status. This is especially important for health insurance and taxes, as well as name changes and obtaining a mortgage.

The Process

The process for getting a marriage license varies depending on the state and county where you're getting married. Generally, you and your partner will apply at the county clerk's office. The county clerk typically requires you to show photo ID or proof of identification (such as a driver's license or birth certificate); fill out a marriage license application; and provide a form of payment (credit card, check, money order, etc.) in order to issue a marriage license. Some states also require you to provide a social security number if you have one.

In most states, licenses cost between $30 and $100. The forms of accepted payment vary state to state, so you'll want to research the accepted payment forms for your specific state.

Depending on the rules of your county, the clerk may be able to issue your marriage license in person, or you may receive it in the mail.

Some states have mandatory waiting periods following marriage license issuance. This is a time period during which you and your partner cannot yet legally say "I do." In a rush to tie the knot? Some states offer exemptions for these waiting periods.

Following your marriage ceremony, your officiant will return your signed marriage license to the county clerk's office. Make sure your officiant doesn't delay the return—many states require the marriage license to be returned within a set time period. Once your marriage license is processed by the county clerk, it's officially referred to as a marriage certificate.

All in all, it's really important to check online for general information related to your county's requirements so you don't have to make more than one trip to the county clerk's office.

The Big Picture

Want to hang on to these important documents? We don't blame you. In order to get a certified copy of your marriage license, contact your county clerk's office. Some county clerk's offices allow you to submit a request through the mail, while others require you to make the request in person.

To obtain a certified copy of your marriage certificate, contact your state's vital records office. Some states allow you to get a certified copy through the vital records office, while others may require you to contact the county clerk's office where the license was issued. Note: This step is especially important if you're planning on a name change—you'll need proof of your marriage record to apply for the change.

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