A Comprehensive Guide to a Marriage License vs. Marriage Certificate

These two official documents are both required in order to be legally married.
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 Apr 24, 2023

Whether you've already had your wedding ceremony or you're planning on getting hitched in the future, you'll need to know the difference between a marriage license vs. a marriage certificate. It's important to learn what separates these two legal documents from one another, so you can ensure your status as a married couple is official in the eyes of the law.

We have guides on how to get a marriage license in all 50 states of America, so we know it can get complicated trying to figure out county and state laws. That's why we've broken down everything you need to know about the differences between a marriage license and a marriage certificate with the help of Jemelle Wooten, wedding minister and owner of The Modern Officiant. From license fees to waiting periods, we've got you covered.

In this article:

What Is a Marriage License?

According to Wooten, a marriage license is a "legal permit that states you and your partner are legally allowed to marry. It's generally issued by a state authority such as the county court. The marriage license is legal confirmation from the issuing authority that there are no qualifications that would disqualify you from legally marrying."

Wooten wants to-be-weds to remember that being issued a marriage license doesn't mean you are legally married since it still needs to be presented during the ceremony and signed by an officiant. Once the date and location of the marriage and the officiant's information are documented, it can be taken to the county clerk's office to be recorded.

When to Get a Marriage License

You should apply for your marriage license at least one week before your wedding or as early as 90 days prior. Marriage licenses have validity for a limited period of time, depending on the state. You don't want to apply too early because your marriage license will expire, and you'll have to apply again. You also don't want to apply for your license too late since some states require a waiting period between when the license is received and the wedding day. Ensure you write down these important dates and time the application process properly, per your state's guidelines.

"Some counties may require you to fill out the marriage license application online before a scheduled appointment. Others may accept walk-ins. Either way, you and your prospective spouse must appear in person to apply for and obtain your marriage license. On the day you plan to apply for your marriage license, be sure to bring the necessary supporting documents of at least two forms of identification (driver's license, birth certificate, passport, etc.)," Wooten explains.

Also, if one or both parties have been married before, "you'll have to provide proof of how the union ended, such as death, dissolution/divorce or nullity. Official copies of your divorce decree or death certificate will suffice for this requirement. Having these documents will minimize your time at the courthouse and prevent you from having to make additional trips to complete the application process. Documents in foreign languages will have to be translated by a notary," Wooten says. As always, check with your local court for specific guidelines.

Where Do You Get a Marriage License?

If you don't know where to get a marriage license, you'll need to confirm which city, district or county your wedding will take place in first so you can go there and apply. Typically, marriage licenses are issued by county court clerks, but some states issue them from city hall or a marriage license bureau. Where you get your marriage license depends on the state. For example, Wooten is based in Georgia and says any marriage ceremonies performed in Georgia have to have a marriage license issued from the state, but residents can apply for a license in any county, not just the one they're being married in.

Marriage License Cost

The marriage license cost varies from state to state but is between $35 and $150. The accepted forms of payment vary as well, so you'll want to research the accepted payment forms for your specific state.

What Is a Marriage Certificate?

"A marriage certificate is a document issued to you after your wedding. This document proves that you are legally married to your spouse. The marriage certificate records the date, time and place of your wedding. In many places, the officiant's name is on the marriage certificate," Wooten explains. Marriage certificates help with sharing health benefits, filing taxes, applying for home loans/mortgages, proving identity or traveling internationally.

If you want to change your name to your spouse's, a marriage certificate is required. "You must bring a certified marriage certificate to the local social security office. Plus, your original birth certificate and social security card. You may also need to show a photo ID as proof of identity," Wooten says.

When to Get a Marriage Certificate

It's the wedding officiant's responsibility to submit the marriage license to the place where the marriage license was received. There is a limited time period to do this step—some states say within 10 days while others say within two months. Once this is done, the local officials can process and certify the document.

Where Do You Get a Marriage Certificate?

How the marriage certificate is received is contingent upon the state's guidelines. Some states have the marriage certificate automatically sent to the newlyweds in the mail, while others require the couple to request a copy of their marriage certificate.

Marriage Certificate Cost

Similar to marriage licenses, the marriage certificate cost varies from state to state. The price ranges between $5 and $26 and needs to be paid with an accepted form of payment specific to your state.

Difference Between a Marriage License and Certificate

If you're wondering if a marriage license is the same as a marriage certificate, the answer is no. Simply put, "the difference between a marriage license and a marriage certificate is that the license proves that you are legally allowed to marry, and the marriage certificate confirms that you did legally marry," Wooten says. A marriage license is obtained before your wedding ceremony, while a marriage certificate is issued following your ceremony.

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