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!
This guide is mostly intended for couples having Civil Ceremonies (the short one that takes place in the Rotunda area at the top of the Grand Staircase), but all couples can find some value in this guide.
Ready? Okay, let’s go!
1. Arrive early. Like, really early (30 – 45 minutes+)
Aim to arrive at least 30 minutes early before the photography start time.
This might seem excessive. But 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.
- 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 lot but at times may be full.
- Entering the building. You’ll need to queue 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.
- Hair & make-up overrunning. Always, always tell your make-up artist that you’ll need her to be finished at least one hour before you actually need her to be finished! 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, so the process keeps starting and stopping. You may be late, or she may be late.
- Freshening up. If you’ve got your make-up done, you may want a second for touch-ups before photos begin. Or using the bathroom (which can be quite a production in a lavish wedding dress).
- Slow walking. Walking in wedding attire won’t be anything like walking into that place in jeans and sneakers. Even the simplest of dresses can be pretty restrictive, I’ve noticed. 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 main area.
- Got large bags? There’s a different entrance (the loading bay on Grove) for anyone entering with a backpack or large bag. This includes if you have a bag with a change of outfit or guests bringing photography equipment. More on this below.
Chances are, if you allow to be there 30 – 45 minutes early, you’ll actually get there closer to our actual start time.
And if you do, your photographer will normally be happy to throw in a few extra minutes of photography at the start of the session after saying hello and giving you some quick pointers.
If you are late, this will impact the rest of the day due to how compacted the timeline has to be for maximum efficiency.
2. Know which entrance to use for hassle-free entry
Since November 2018, enhanced security has been in operation. This is a permanent change. Anyone with a large bag (backpack or larger) must enter through the side door – the loading dock entrance on Grove Street. This is what it looks like:
The front entrance (on Polk – also known as Dr Carlton B. Goodlett Place for this block of Polk) takes a while to enter as you’ll have to go through a metal detector and open up all bags. Sometimes there’s a line.
The Grove Street entrance takes even longer, as you have to go through airport-style security. All bags have to go through a scanner, plus you’ll have to go through the metal detection gate. After that, you’ll have to find your way up the stairs and into the back of one of Light Galleries and back into the main area.
Bonus tip: The loading dock entrance on Grove Street officially opens at 8am, but it’s sometimes possible to enter sooner than 8am, as this is the entrance that City employees use. I, as the photographer, use this entrance and usually enter around 7.40am.
However, I’m not sure that they’ll allow brides and grooms to enter, given that officially the entrance time for couples is 8am. If you’re early, it’s worth a try so that you can be inside and ready to start photos as early as possible.
3. 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 about 15-20 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 either with guests (typically the same place where we met up!) or inside the North Light Court, out of the way of other people checking in. This is the entrance to that area, in relation to room 168’s corridor:
Either way, make sure there’s a seamless gathering of everyone in advance of walking up those stairs to your Civil Ceremony!
4. There’s no photography permitted in the County Clerk’s office (as of June 2021), nor for marriage license pick up
If you’re having a Civil Ceremony, this is a good one to know.
There was a rule change in mid-2018. Now, it’s not permitted for the photographer to accompany you into the office for your license-signing.
Since the reopening after the COVID shutdown, there’s been another change to the rules.
Photographers are no longer permitted in room 168 even during the check-in process before the marriage ceremony. A staff member stops everyone as they come in, and requests that only the couple (and one witness), is permitted to enter the hallway and line up to wait to check in with the Justice of the Peace (your officiant).
However, this area isn’t particularly attractive. All you will miss are photos of you signing your marriage license, your witness signing, and you sitting in front of the judge.
So here’s what you actually need to know (because many couples are confused by whether what’s going on there is normal). It takes about 20 minutes for the check-in process in that area. Sometimes more, sometimes less.
You’ll need to take a number (DMV-style), and wait for it to be called out.
It will be a ‘B’ number. ‘A’ numbers are for something else (not weddings). Two couples will be married per each 30-minute slot, so there’ll typically be a couple the officiant marries while you’re waiting to meet him/ her.
5. 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.
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, I am sure the photographer would be permitted to enter as your witness, but they would be there in exactly that capacity – a witness, not as a photographer.
6. 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, take a look at the words that will be recited during your wedding 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 go off 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 would want to get family formals done in that time as well. Be sure that you’ve timed the ceremony to cover what you would like to be said, and also be able to get the full set of your family photographs done before the hour’s up.
It also helps to know how long private ceremonies will last from the photographer’s standpoint, and the order of proceedings. This is so I can decide if there’s enough time to get an epic wide shot from far away (including from the other side of the building) without missing a crucial ceremony moment.
7. 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.
Turning towards one another best captures show the electricity and tenderness between the two of you.
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.
8. Make sure your guest count is 6 or fewer (or be prepared to marry in the private room)
In May 2019 the rules regarding guest count changed. Now the 6-guest limit for the rotunda is enforced, but the amount of leniency varies between judges. Officially, the photographers/ videographers are included in the count. There is another room where larger groups can be accommodated, make sure you’re familiar with this option.
*HOWEVER* in more recent weeks, since the 2021 reopening, I have seen judges allowing much larger groups of about 10 guests to join the civil ceremony.
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.
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).
With new COVID rules, maximum guest count for private rentals does vary, so be sure to keep in touch with your events coordinator to avoid disappointment.
9. Bring very little with you
Bring as little as you can! Hand stuff off to a guest when it’s time for couples pics. We’ll save time having to put everything down and hide the bags in every shot as we move around. City Hall is a public building, and leaving items unattended is not advised. You’ll need to keep an eye on your stuff.
There’s nowhere to leave your items such as a storage location, and also no trash receptacles. Free-standing items such as tripods are not permitted except for private ceremonies.
Because of how we’ll be working, maximum movement is important. You don’t want to feel weighted down by your belongings as it can really be a drag to constantly pick things up and move them.
10. Dress cool 😎
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.
The heating system there, whatever the outside temperature, feels oppressively hot all the time. With wedding attire tending to be heavy (layered, synthetic fabric for ladies and heavy wool suits for guys) – combined with the nerves of the occasion – can make for a very sweaty combo.
And redness, puffiness and sweat in photos isn’t something we can do anything about. So, keep your cool by 1) eliminating stress, 2) never rushing around and 3) not wearing extra layers you don’t need.
11. Have a solid plan 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!
12. 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.
13. Savor the moment
Relax, breathe and take it in. The moment will be gone TOO QUICKLY.
We’ll typically be working together between 2-3 hours. But the ceremony is just 3-4 minutes!
Savor every second and don’t worry about what’s going on around you during the ceremony. Random onlookers and tourists will be snapping pics, so let them.
Let the world around you melt away. Concentrate on the promises you and making and the lifetime of love ahead of you.
14. 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 – there’s way more than I can fit into this one bullet point. Find the option that suits you best. Tip: Needs some advance planning, so don’t put off deciding on a rain (or adverse weather) plan!
15. Bonus Civil Ceremony tip: Ask if you can get married in a different spot
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.
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.