Should You Have a Receiving Line at Your Wedding? Everything You Need to Know

Dated tradition or easy way to greet guests? We'll let you decide.
Heather Bien - The Knot Contributor.
Heather Bien
Heather Bien - The Knot Contributor.
Heather Bien
The Knot Contributor
  • Heather contributes wedding, honeymoon, travel and relationship content for The Knot and WeddingWire.
  • Heather also writes for publications including Apartment Therapy, StyleBlueprint, MyDomaine, HelloGiggles and The Everygirl.
  • She holds a degree in Art History and Architectural History from the University of Virginia.
Updated Jul 31, 2023

Your wedding day goes by in a flash and one of the pressures nearly every couple faces is finding a way to say hello to all the loved ones who've traveled from near and far, all in the name of celebrating you. And a receiving line may sound like a formal and old-fashioned wedding relic, but it's actually an efficient way to greet and thank every single guest in attendance. You quickly offer a few words and then move on to the next guest. It's fast, yet focused, and it gives everyone just a few moments of your attention.

Here's how to incorporate a receiving line into your big day, how to time it perfectly, and what to say, particularly if you're feeling anxious about saying too much or saying too little as you work your way through long-lost relatives and never-before-met friends of your in-laws.

In this article:

What Is a Receiving Line at a Wedding?

A receiving line is a wedding tradition where the couple and the other hosts of the wedding, whether those are parents or grandparents, greet each guest individually. Guests move down the line, saying hello, and both parties express thanks both for the invitation and taking the time to celebrate together.

Jean Neuhart, former wedding planner, author and blogger at Weddings From the Heart, explains, "The purpose of a receiving line is to guarantee the newlyweds have face-to-face time with every guest, giving them the opportunity to personally greet and thank their guests."

While it can seem like an antiquated tradition, the receiving line can actually serve as a wonderful opportunity to give a quick hug and kiss to each and every guest, making sure no one slips through the cracks once the drinks start flowing and the dance floor gets going.

Benefits of a Receiving Line

Wedding coach Kara O'Brien Ghassabeh explains that receiving lines are often cut because of tight timelines, but they offer the perfect opportunity to dedicate just a few moments to focusing on and thanking each guest individually. "The wedding day can often be a blur, and it moves so quickly that couples wake up the next day and feel like they weren't able to connect with guests like they thought they would have," says Ghassabeh. She notes that just one moment of eye contact, a handshake or hug, and a genuine expression of joy and gratitude does wonders with guests who've traveled near and far.

Neuhart echoes the sentiment, "Nobody wants to be the guest who says 'I didn't even get a chance to say hello to the newlyweds on their wedding day.'"

Think about it this way: if you're having a larger wedding where you're going to have to say your hellos at some point, it's more efficient to knock them all out in one fell swoop. That way, you don't have to leave the dance floor to make sure you properly thanked your mother's colleague or said hi to your brother-in-law's cousin.

Drawbacks of a Receiving Line

But all those greetings take time and, if you're on a tighter timeline, you may not want to spend precious minutes and even hours missing out on your own celebrations. Danielle Rothweiler, Owner and Lead Wedding and Event Planner at Rothweiler Event Design, explains, "Typically receiving lines happen immediately following the ceremony, however, if the ceremony is on-site, then cocktail hour follows and you're preventing everyone from enjoying the full cocktail hour, including the couple."

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As a wedding receiving line alternative, Rothweiler suggests that the couple give a short toast at the beginning of the reception to acknowledge guests. "This is simple and can be a large thank you to everyone that has attended and especially to those that traveled," says Rothweiler.

Who Stands in the Receiving Line?

Traditionally, those throwing the celebration are all present in the receiving line, which includes the parents of the couple and the newlyweds. The hosts of the party will often stand at the head of the line, whether that's the couple themselves or their parents, and, typically, if each couple consists of a male and female, the female will stand first. In some cases, the bridal party may be included.

Of course, not all weddings are cut and dry when it comes to following decades-old tradition. Neuhart explains, "As with most wedding details, adjust and tweak to fit, whether that's choosing the order to stand in for a LGBTQIA+ marriage or putting grandparents at the head of the line if they are also involved in hosting the wedding." Make the wedding receiving line order rules work for you, not the other way around.

How to Include Divorced and/or Remarried Parents

With divorced or remarried parents, there often comes a bit of finessing with planning, and the receiving line is no exception. Neuhart explains that there are several considerations to take into account first, such as whether they're on civil terms, if they are remarried, and whether there are stepparents and what those relationships look like. She recommends, "If divorced parents get along, alternate them in the receiving line, such as bride's mother/spouse, groom's mother/spouse, bride's father/spouse, then groom's father/spouse."

However, you know your family's dynamic best, and you should try to avoid potentially awkward situations. Neuhart adds that if there is animosity either between divorced parents or between the couple and a stepparent, then parents can be omitted from the receiving line altogether.

When Do You Do a Receiving Line at a Wedding?

The key to timing the receiving line is finding an opportunity where all of the guests are going to be entering or exiting at the same time and the couple can get ahead of them. Ghassabeh says, "The easiest place to insert a wedding receiving line in the day is right after the reception as guests leave the venue. The key is to make it quick and keep people moving."

However, you could also do it as guests leave the ceremony or, if you can make a quick exit from the ceremony and dash to the reception, a cocktail hour receiving line catches guests while they're on the way to the party (and encourages them to keep it short so they can grab a drink!).

How Long Does a Receiving Line Take?

A receiving line is a commitment of time and energy, and you don't want to feel like you have one eye on the clock as you usher guests through. Build in a cushion and make sure you have a comfortable amount of time allocated for the receiving line, while also providing food, drinks and entertainment for guests while they wait for the line to finish.

Neuhart recommends estimating 20 seconds per guest in a receiving line. "That's 50 minutes for 150 guests, and even longer if a guest or two are chatty," says Neuhart. And there's always at least a few chatty guests.

What to Say During the Receiving Line

Back to the 20 seconds guideline, you have to keep your receiving line script short and sweet. There's no need to personalize your hellos too much for each guest — if you want to dive deeper into conversation with a particular guest, you can pick that up later at the reception. "The goal is to make the connection and express your gratitude for sharing the day with you," explains Ghassabeh.

If a guest hasn't met your spouse before, do a quick intro. And, if you haven't met the guest, offer a genuine thank you (and hope they introduce themselves!). On the other side of the coin, if you are a guest and you haven't met one of the receiving line participants before, give a brief sentence or two about how you know the couple or the hosts that invited you, express your thanks for being invited, and continue to make your way down the line, inching closer to the party.

Wedding Receiving Line Ideas

If you decide to do a receiving line, it's best to plan it when there's a natural transition point in the order of events. There will inevitably be a bottleneck as guests make their way through, so choose a time when they'll be eager to move quickly, and you can keep the flow of the line moving.

Greet Guests as They Arrive at Cocktail Hour

Guests are excited to arrive at cocktail hour and get the party started, so it's the perfect time to intercept them for a brief hello and thank you. However, this comes with a timing caveat, which could prove troublesome if you planned on taking photos after the ceremony. Neuhart explains, "It's necessary for the receiving line participants to be on site prior to the guests' arrival or entry if the cocktail hour will be held in a separate room than the reception."

Go Row-by-Row After the Ceremony

While guests may be tempted to make a run for the door as soon as the couple makes their grand exit, this is actually a perfect time to keep them in their seats and make your way back through the row. "Immediately following the recessional, the couple re-enters and goes row by row, greeting and releasing their guests," explains Neuhart, who suggests that this typically goes faster than the traditional receiving line.

Catch Guests as They Exit the Ceremony

One of the most natural times for a line to form throughout the day is as guests exit the ceremony. There's typically one obvious egress location, and the couple can position themselves there immediately following their walk down the aisle. Neuhart explains, "Everyone is already there. The guests naturally form a line, and there's no need to corral anyone." Plus, everyone is antsy after sitting and they'll be ready to quickly say hello and move on.

Prefer not to have a receiving line? Here are a few receiving line alternative ideas to greet your guests without funneling them through at one time.

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