This is it – the big day is finally here and you’re getting married at San Francisco City Hall. I’ve put together a little list of some lifesaving last-minute tips that can mean the difference between stressed and unsure vs. relaxed and confident 😎
My aim is to ensure that your San Francisco City Hall wedding goes as smoothly as possible and you get the best photos you can.
Check out my guide to how SF City Hall timelines work – and also don’t forget to check out your own custom wedding timeline that I provide!
Ready? Okay, let’s go!
Table of Contents
Arrive early. Like, really early (30 – 45 minutes)
Aim to arrive at least 30 minutes before the photography start time.
It’s worth making sure you’ve done everything in your power not to be late for your session, but in fact to be early. With City Hall ceremonies, photography is sometimes the highest-ticket item of your day. It’s a real shame to lose that time you’ve paid dearly for due to poor planning.
The biggest mistake I see is people arranging to arrive at the parking garage at the time the photography is due to start. ❌ This is a BIG no-no ❌.
This is how you will need to approach things. Let’s say your photography starts at 9am.
First: Either call Uber early, allowing up to 15 minutes for it to arrive just in case drivers are scarce or needs to cancel. Allow an extra 20 minutes for local traffic delays.
Or drive to Civic Center Garage, allowing extra 20 minutes for local traffic delays. Allow an extra 45-60+ minutes if traveling from outside San Francisco, depending on how far/ time of day/ route. Then allow 10 minutes from driving into the garage to actually walking into City Hall.
8:20 – 8.25 Enter City Hall security
8:25 – 8:35 Freshen up in restroom
8:35 – 8:40 Meet and greet photographer, take a moment to connect. Hide personal items away and get photo-ready!
8:40 – 9:00 Bonus shoot time!
9:00 Booked photography start time
Here’s what you need to allow so much time for:
- Traffic. Many couples are crossing a bridge or getting on a freeway to get to their wedding. What happens if there’s an accident or the roads are backed up with traffic? You will need to preempt this by allowing the maximum possible time. Yes, even allowing time for accidents that haven’t happened yet.
- Parking. City Hall is located in an area where 2 hour+ parking is almost impossible to come by. I recommend the Civic Center Garage (click to be taken to Google Maps) which is a large, underground garage but at times may be full. As the garage is huge, it takes at least 10 minutes to get down to level 2 or 3, find a spot, grab what you need, figure out where the exit is, cross the street etc.
- Entering the building. You’ll need to line up behind other couples, guests and City employees all using the same entrance on Polk. It’s airport-style security which means you’ll need to empty your bags and go through a metal detector. If there’s a large group of people entering at the same time as you, that takes time!
- Hair & make-up overrunning. Always, always tell your make-up artist that you’ll need them to be finished at least one hour before you actually need to be done! It often takes longer than planned, even if you had a trial. Why? You could have had a breakout. You might need to be on your phone or distracted with wedding day stuff, so the artist is not able to work on you. You or the artist may be late getting started.
- Freshening up. If you’ve got your make-up done, you may want a second for touch-ups and calming your nerves before photos begin. Using the bathroom can be quite a production in a long, lavish wedding dress that can sometimes require a helper.
- Slow walking. Walking in wedding attire won’t be anything like walking around in sweatpants and sneakers. Even the simplest of dresses can be pretty restrictive. Heels and formal shoes also tend to slow you down.
- Finding your way around. If you’ve booked a private ceremony, your guests will need more time to find the area. It’s easy to get lost in this huge building, and all of the rented areas are a bit of a hike from the entrance.
Chances are, if you allow to be there 30 – 45 minutes early, you’ll actually get there closer to our actual start time anyway because of all the delays that you may not have allowed time for.
We LOVE to get started a little before we’re contracted to. If you have already read our posing guide (linked below), we don’t even have to spend time giving you this spiel before beginning – you already know it!
If you are late, this will impact the rest of the day – and sadly it’s the photos of the two of you that will have to be compressed or even ditched to make time for the ceremony and family formals.
I recommend staying at a hotel in San Francisco the night prior to your wedding (and definitely after as well!). Not sure which hotel to book? Check out my article below:
Know where you’ll meet your photographer
Sometimes in the flurry of planning your big day, it’s possible to completely forget where you’re supposed to be meeting your photographer.
You could waste time by not having a solid plan set up in advance detailing exactly where you and your photographer will meet. Worse, you could completely miss them if you’re waiting in two different places!
The place I recommend for photographers to meet couples is next to the Grand Staircase. Not right on it (because why ruin someone else’s photo session, right?) but just to one side, so that when you enter the building through the main entrance, you cannot miss me! Just walk in, look to your right and there I’ll be!
This will be relevant only to folks opting for a Civil Ceremony: photographers are no longer permitted to enter Room 168 (the County Clerk’s Office), or the corridor that leads up to it. This will mean anything between 10 and 30 minutes without photos of the couple. You should have a plan for reconvening with your photographer as soon as you exit that area. Because it’ll be game time very soon after!
During the time we’re separated, I recommend waiting with the guests at the same with guests location where we met up.
We want to ensure there’s a seamless gathering of all of your guests and photographer in advance of walking up those stairs to your Civil Ceremony, because it will begin very shortly after you exit check-in.
Are you planning a ‘first look’ – photos of the moment when you see each other for the first time in your wedding attire? That requires a bit more coordination – more info below!:
Select a witness in advance
For Civil Ceremonies, you only need one witness, so tell that person in advance so they know to head into the office (room 168) with you. Designating the person in advance can help speed things up when your number’s called.
You can have up to two witnesses but I would recommend keeping it simple. If the license has any single mistake, goes outside the line, or has a crossing-out on it, it will be deemed void. So, to avoid this risk it’s best to have as few people as possible writing on it.
Remember, you do not need a witness if you have opted for a ‘confidential marriage license’.
It can be a bit rushed during this part of the day, because you absolutely need to check in on time. So anything that speeds up the process and eliminates day-of decision-making is a really good thing.
For couples eloping with no guests, the photographer would be your witness. It’s always an honor, and photographers do not charge for this. Remember, photography is not permitted in Room 168 nor the corridor that leads up to it.
Familiarize yourselves with the City Hall vows
Personal vows aren’t permitted for Civil Ceremonies. If you are the kind of person that likes to be prepared, you might want to take a peek at the words that’ll be said at your Civil Ceremony.
The ceremony is only about 3-4 minutes long, and will be less if you choose not to exchange wedding rings.
Some officiants embellish proceedings quite a bit, and include some personal words. Others simply read what is in the script.
If you’re having a private ceremony, familiarize yourselves with what will be said and how long proceedings are expected to last. Your area rental is only 1 hour, and ideally we need to get family formals done in that time as well.
Look at each other during the ceremony
During your ceremony, look at each other, not the officiant. This is worth remembering, because by default we tend to look at whoever is speaking. Your officiant should start you off facing him/her, then at a certain point they will instruct you to look at one another. However, some officiants may not give the prompt, so if you can, make it a point to turn and face each other.
Make sure your hair isn’t covering the side of your face that’s facing your photographer. Keep it swept back so we can see your beautiful face and all those emotions.
It’s OK (usually) to have more than 6 guests at your Civil Ceremony
In May 2019 the rules regarding guest count changed. The 6-guest limit for the rotunda became strinctly enforced. Then City Hall closed for COVID. Now it’s reopened and I’ve never seen anyone turned away.
Since the reopening, we’ve seen large groups of 30 guests being welcomed in by Deputy Marriage Commissioners.
This tends to be at each officiant’s discretion, and the official rules of City Hall weddings remain unchanged. So, flexibility is key, as is being prepared for every eventuality. The official rules (which can be invoked without warning at anytime) is 6 guests maximum including children, photographers and videographers.
If you’re having a private rental, be sure you check with City Hall how many chairs they will put out and how you’d like them configured. (rows/ semi-circle/ horse-shoe)
My only requirement is an aisle for the best photos (full length photos of you without half being covered by the back of someone’s head).
Chairs aren’t provided by default, so if you do not specifically inform them, they will not put chairs out (as some couples do not want them at all).
Bring very little (if anything) with you
Pack light and embrace minimalism! You do not NEED to bring anything with you and I would encourage you not to bring ANYTHING except the essentials like official documents, flowers, rings and vow books.
It’ll waste precious time hiding your belongings for every picture as we explore City Hall. I’m photographing you the entire time we’re together – it’s not something that stops and starts. If you don’t want to be pictured holding a tote bag or cardboard box, then please, don’t bring it along.
If you have guests at your wedding, it’s easier to simply pass your belongings off to a guest for safekeeping. City Hall, being a public space, isn’t the safest spot to leave belongings unattended. Keep a watchful eye on your possessions if you do need to set things down.
I can keep small items of yours within my pouch in my lens belt or zipped securely in my bag which is on my back at all times. (This keeps them out of pockets for photos.) However, this is at your own risk (never had an issue so far though). This includes keys, phones, cameras, wallets, marriage licenses, rings boxes and shoes. Large items like bouquet vases, signs, dresses and coats however would not fit.
Unfortunately, there’s no designated storage area or that many trash cans around. Free-standing items like tripods are not allowed except during private ceremonies.
With our dynamic approach, unrestricted movement is crucial. Don’t let excess baggage weigh you down and hinder your experience – trust us, it’s no fun constantly moving stuff around especially when you don’t need it. Check out my next tip for yet another reason to pack light…
Dress for warm weather
It’s a super warm building, so it’s advised not to bring coats and jackets. That is, if you can brave being a little cold on your way to and from City Hall or you have someone to hold your jacket once inside.
The heating system there, whatever the outside temperature, feels oppressively hot all the time. Wedding attire tends to be heavy, with layered, synthetic fabric for women and heavy wool suits for men. Combined with the nerves of the occasion, that can make for a very sweaty combo. Trust me, as someone that runs cold I am always unbearably hot when I’m at San Francisco City Hall, year round.
And redness, puffiness and sweat in photos isn’t something we can do much about. So, keep your cool by 1) eliminating stress, 2) never rushing around and 3) not wearing or bringing extra layers beyond the ensemble you’ve chosen.
Have a plan in place for transportation
If we are going to other locations around San Francisco after your ceremony, the best way to get around is by Uber / Lyft. Public transit takes too long. So does parking.
Lyft will drop us off right where we need to be if going to a portrait location. The wait times are minimal in this busy area. A limo or friend-turned-chauffeur also works!
Communicate with your guests your timeline in advance
Designate a destination for your guests to go after formal portraits. Communicate the plan to them in advance. Goodbyes will be quicker so we have more time for photos of the two of you.
If you’re considering going for a meal or reception right after your SF City Hall wedding, I’ve created a guide to my 12 favorite hippest spots that welcome City Hall couples and their guests. Make sure you go through with them in advance where they’ll need to be so they can pull up the information later without bugging you.
It can take a while to detach from guests, as they will often want to be around you and hang out with you when we need to get started with the photos of the two of you. Having a firm plan makes it easier to dismiss them, without having to answer a million questions that people will have if not aware of the plan in advance.
Have a rain plan
I have a separate article all about what to do if rain is expected on your San Francisco City Hall wedding day. Be sure to check it out below! Find the option that suits you best. It definitely needs some advance planning, so don’t put off deciding on an adverse weather plan!
Be prepared for anything!
I’ve seen all kinds of stuff take place that has impacted my couples’ wedding days. Events that commonly take place at San Francisco City Hall (and that can scupper the best-laid plans) are:
- Press conferences
- Maintenance work
- Busloads of tourists
- Visiting schoolchildren
- Gala event set-up
- Motion picture filming
- … expect the unexpected!
The trick is to roll with it! Revel in the joy, the shared experience, and the uniqueness of your wedding at San Francisco City Hall.
An experienced photographer will be able to either shoot around stuff that’s going on, or incorporate the realness into the pictures. My couples tend to be attracted to the whimsy and the serendipity of this unique and sometimes unpredictable wedding experience.
All of this activity means that sometimes desired photo areas or ceremony locations are not available.
With a flexible and realistic attitude, you’ll have a great experience marrying at SF City Hall!
Ask if you can get married in a different area if you’re having a Civil Ceremony
The rotunda is the iconic and default spot. But there are some other even more sought-after areas that are usually only available if you spend $1,000 to rent them privately.
If you are the bold sort, ask your officiant if he/ she would marry you on the 4th floor or Mayor’s Balcony or other area.
I’ve photographed several ceremonies where the couples tied the knot in a prestigious spot at no extra cost to themselves. There is no logic or reasoning I can fathom as to when the judge might say yes to your request. So, it’s definitely worth a try.
There is one officiant in particular who lets couples get married on the platform level of the Grand Staircase! That’s so awesome as it’s usually only an option for couples that rent the entire City Hall for a full buyout.
Tip – if you get married on Valentine’s Day or during Pride Month (June), you can choose your spot!
There you have it! Do you have any tips for a seamless process and getting amazing photos at City Hall? If so, leave them in the comments!
In a panic and need to ask a last-minute question or get info directly from City Hall, or need to call them? Check out this page of their own dedicated info!
If you haven’t already done so, be sure to check out my ultimate guide to getting married at San Francisco City Hall! Always up to date, my guide takes you through it step by step and is the planning resource you’ve been looking for.
Savor the moment
Relax, breathe and take it in. The moment will be gone TOO QUICKLY.
We’ll typically be working together for just 2 hours within this beautiful building itself.
Savor every second and don’t worry about what’s going on around you during the ceremony.
Let the world around you melt away. Concentrate on the promises you and making and the lifetime of love ahead of you.