Congratulations on your forthcoming marriage and life together as a couple! A courthouse wedding, sometimes referred to as a civil ceremony or union, is often a preferred option for immigrant couples as well as domestic couples for a number of reasons. A courthouse wedding is generally faster to plan and more simple than a traditional wedding and the cost is significantly lower. In this complete guide, we’ll explore the process to plan a courthouse wedding, how to obtain your marriage license and much more!

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In 2019, the average American wedding cost was around $33,000. That includes things like the venue, catering for the ceremony and reception, formal attire, rings, a wedding planner, etc. For many couples, it’s very easy to go over their budgeted amount especially as guest lists increase and inflation continues to be on the rise. A courthouse wedding is one way to keep costs manageable while still obtaining the required documentation for immigration processing. The K-1 visa is a prime example of when a courthouse wedding could be an ideal choice. On a K-1 non-immigrant visa, the foreign fiance has 90 days from the time they enter the U.S to marry their partner, otherwise, if they don’t get legally married they have to return to their home country. Three months is quite a short period of time for most to get to know each other intimately, let alone plan an entire wedding so a courthouse marriage for immigration purposes can be a suitable option. There’s nothing stopping couples from planning a larger, more extravagant ceremony later down the line with all their friends and family.

How Does a Courthouse Wedding Work?

A courthouse marriage is non-religious in nature and legally binding. As the name suggests, it takes place in a courthouse or it can be at city hall within the U.S. At the end of the ceremony, you receive a marriage certificate which is considered an official government document that can later be provided when applying for a marriage green card.

One of the first decisions to make when planning a courthouse wedding is to decide where to have it. This decision coincides with the preliminary step of obtaining a marriage license. Certain counties require a waiting period from the time you get your marriage license to when you get married. Others, allow you to do it within the same day. Check with your local country clerk’s office to confirm this detail as well as the expiry date to ensure it is later than the actual wedding date.

If time is of the essence, you may want to opt for a courthouse or city hall in the city your live in. If you’d prefer to have it somewhere else, check with that state’s marriage license requirements to see if that’s possible since some require you to obtain the license where you plan to live after marriage.

After having an idea of where you want to have your courthouse ceremony and the particular requirements, you should apply for the marriage license.

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What do you need to get married at the courthouse?

To apply for the marriage license, you will need to bring:

  • Government-issued ID (ex: driver’s license, passport, certificate of naturalization)
  • Required payment for the license fees

What If I’ve Been Married Before? 

If either you or your partner has been married before, be sure to bring the divorce papers.

Again, check your local jurisdiction requirements. In Florida for example, if either one of the parties is a Florida resident, they must take a four-hour premarital preparation course or wait 3 days before the marriage license is effective. “To receive a waiver of the new three-day waiting period, a premarital preparation course must be completed within one year prior to obtaining a marriage license and a valid certificate of completion must be presented to the Clerk’s office. Taking the premarital preparation course also lowers the application fee.”

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How much is a courthouse wedding?

License fees vary (typically under $100) and sometimes there is a possibility to have it reduced further. In Florida, the marriage license fee is $86 but it is lowered to $61 if both individuals have taken a premarital class. Check out this article on marriage license costs by state.

Preparation on the Wedding Day

The big day has arrived!

Here’s a checklist to make sure everything is prepped on the day of:

  • Appointment if required by the courthouse (some permit walk-ins)
  • Valid Marriage License (paid for and valid)
    • Take into consideration the waiting period if your state requires it prior to marriage
  • Government-Issued ID for both partners
  • Witness (over 18) for the courthouse ceremony
  • Any special details to make the day memorable (photographer, formal attire, champagne toast, etc.)

Some courthouses require more than one witness to be present during the ceremony. Double-check with your local jurisdiction. The ceremony will last roughly 20 minutes and then it’s official, you’ll have your marriage certificate!

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Frequently Asked Questions

Who presides over a courthouse wedding?

A judge or county clerk officiates the ceremony.

Does a courthouse wedding qualify for a marriage-based green card? 

Yes, this is a great way to obtain an official document of your marriage for immigration purposes including obtaining lawful U.S. residency.

What’s the difference between a marriage certificate and a marriage license? 

The marriage license is what you obtain prior to the ceremony and the marriage certificate is issued after the ceremony at the courthouse.

Can I get married if my marriage license is expired? 

No, it must be valid. Schedule your ceremony so it takes place before your marriage license expires.

Can I record or bring a photographer to my courthouse wedding? 

This will depend on the courthouse and their rules – inquire with them.

Is there a dress code for my courthouse wedding? 

You can dress as formal or informal as you’d like, however, some immigration lawyers recommend staying on the formal side so the wedding photos reflects you’re taking it seriously.

Are proxy marriages considered valid by the U.S. government?  

A proxy marriage is when a third party stands in the place of the bride or groom. The only time this is recognized is if the couple consummates the marriage afterward.

Will my marriage from my home country be recognized in the United States?

If your marriage in your home country was recognized under the law in that place then it should be valid for U.S. immigration purposes. Exclusions may be made if one spouse was underage, married do another person at the time or closely related by blood. The State Department’s Reciprocity Tables provide info on the availability of marriage certificates by country. If the table shows that marriage records are available in the country your marriage took place then you will be required to submit those documents as evidence to USCIS. Information is also available in the reciprocity tables about whether religious ceremonies are recognized. In the event that your marriage is not recognized, you may need to have another marriage ceremony in the U.S. Get started with VisaNation and learn more about marriage-based green cards!

Tags: marriage, wedding