Just another guide to getting married at City Hall, with a plug at the end for my wedding photography services. I’m going to stick to the truly practical stuff without the fluff! Ain’t no-one got time for fluff unless it’s out of a jar and marshmallowy.
90 days before your wedding
99% of couples will be booking what’s called a civil ceremony. That means a short ceremony officiated by a volunteer judge which normally takes place in the rotunda, which is the little round area at the top of the grand staircase.
Within the category of civil ceremony there is also a ‘confidential’ civil ceremony. ‘Confidential’ stipulates that both parties of marriage must be living together, no witness is required at all, and the marriage record is only available to the parties on the marriage license. A ‘confidential’ ceremony is not a common route.
For the regular civil ceremony, you need one witness and can have two if you like. For efficiency I would suggest just one. Photographers are normally happy to act as witness.
For both of these types of ceremonies, you can have 6 people and it’s standing room only. In May 2019 the rules changed and now the 6-people-or-fewer rule is strictly enforced until further notice.
For ceremonies with more than 6 people present, your wedding will take place in the private room located close to room 168.
There are three couples scheduled for each half-hour slot. The ceremony is about 4 minutes.
Private rentals are when you’ve hired out an area of City Hall for a set period of time just for your wedding.
The biggest benefit of these is that you can have more guests, so it might resemble a traditional wedding. You also have seats, an aisle, a wedding party, your own officiant, programs, decorations, musicians etc. You get to determine everything about the ceremony and can exchange your own vows.
The areas available for private ceremonies are Mayor’s Balcony, 4th Floor North Gallery (which has the best light) and 4th Floor South Gallery. Mayor’s Balcony seats 40, and the 4th Floor Galleries seat 60, both with standing room available to take the guest count up to 100.
The crème de la crème of City Hall weddings is renting out the entire building. If you do this, there is a 2-hour package on Saturday mornings, which is suitable for up to 200 guests and represents the best value for a City Hall buyout at $5,000.
Weddings of this type typically take place on the staircase itself so you can set up the ground floor with drinks and nibbles. City Hall has its own list of preferred catering & bartending and there are rules about liquor licensing, so be sure to ask them directly, they will be very happy to work with you more so than for than the 5-min ceremonies when info can be hard to come by!
1 – 2 months before your wedding
Once you’ve booked your ceremony, book a time to pick up your marriage license. You can do this Monday – Friday, 8:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Like your ceremony, this also requires an appointment.
If possible, pick up your marriage license before the wedding day, to save time and any potential stress if you run late. Good news: they can be picked up anywhere in CA. They expire 90 days after the date of issue.
If you are picking it up from City Hall the same day as your ceremony (if you’re eloping for example), please allow at least an hour to get it before checking in for your ceremony. You cannot check in without the license so be absolutely sure you have it on your wedding day along with your ID.
This kind of timescale is great for pinning down your wedding photographer and any other wedding vendors & items such as a wedding dress or tux, hand bouquet and boutonniere, shoes, and any special jewelry. But you don’t need to look a certain way to get married at City Hall. Wear whatever you like!
2 – 4 weeks before your wedding
This is when you are getting the final details of the day smoothed out, ensuring you have your license and planning other aspects of the day such as a restaurant reservation or where you want to go for pictures, dress alterations, hair and make up, and other fun things with friends & family.
Working with a photographer that can help you with planning is a really big plus and will maximize your coverage without it feeling rushed. Your photographer will assist you with everything from planning the formal guest groupings, to figuring out how long each part of the day will take, to where to go afterwards for creative couples’ portraits if you have 3 hours or more of coverage.
The portrait locations are within San Francisco and I have a guide to every type of location with examples that I’d be happy to share. It might be that you want to honor the most meaningful for you, or maybe just go somewhere beautiful which your photographer can advise you on.
The day of your wedding
Get there early! Hair and make-up often overrun, so make sure you allow more time than you think, plus traffic/ parking/ getting into the airport-style security.
You can check in for your civil ceremony officially 10 minutes before, but I recommend aiming to do so 20 minutes before so you’re the first in line and have a moment to catch your breath. I typically begin photography coverage 15-30 minutes before your appointment time.
When we talk about ‘checking in’, this is a simple process of presenting yourself to the main desk straight ahead in room 168 (County Clerk’s office) on the north side of City Hall. You’ll need your marriage license and ID. You’ll both need to be present for this.
After this initial check-in, you’ll get a numbered ticket like at the DMV and you’ll wait to be called into the office a second time, though this time you’ll be meeting with the judge that’ll marry you, at the desk on the left. It is a quick process that involves filling out and signing the form. Your witness will need to accompany you this second time only.
Please bear in mind your appointment time isn’t your actual ceremony start time. Due to how the judges have to split their time between checking folks in & actually officiating weddings, plus frequent late running, expect your ceremony to start about 30-45 minutes after the time stated on your paperwork.
The judge will send you upstairs to the rotunda and have you wait until they’re done with their previous ceremonies. You have to stay close by as you’ll be waiting to be called, but it’s possible to squeeze in a few pictures.
If you have any choice in the matter, do ask about other spots which are sometimes available at the judge’s discretion, if you like! The rotunda is iconic but other pretty spots are the Mayor’s Balcony and the 4th Floor North gallery. I wouldn’t recommend the private room which lacks the iconic City Hall character – it’s a plain, white-walled room. However, we can go wherever we want for pictures after the ceremony.
During your ceremony
The judge will call you up, this is it! When prompted by the judge, you’ll switch positions from facing the judge to now facing each other. The best position for the judge (which needs to be said before you start the ceremony!) is for them to be facing the back of City Hall like in the picture above. We want to capture the grandness of the open area behind you without them blocking the view or obscuring you, the couple from where I’m standing. Remember – their back to the staircase.
Remember to turn and face one another and don’t be too eager to look at the judge – the pictures will be better if you are looking at each other and keep your hair tucked back so your face is visible in the pics.
Don’t forget to kiss at the end, as the officiant doesn’t always give the traditional prompt!
Immediately after your ceremony
After the hugs of congratulations, this is a good time to do formal, posed group pictures of any guests. After that, your photographer will guide you around the building for the best spots to take photos of the two of you. Your input is also valuable if you have some spots in mind.
Usually then you’ll run around San Francisco with your photographer to get kickass photos of you newlyweds. The key to this part is planning. The time can feel quite limited because typically couples will have 3 hours of coverage, and 1 hour of this will be before/during your ceremony, and about 30 – 45 minutes after that will be family and couples’ photos inside City Hall.
That doesn’t leave too long for couples’ portraits in other locations in San Francisco, so it’s important to know exactly where we’re going and how we’re getting there without getting sidetracked.
I do recommend making time to get at least some photos outdoors, even if it’s just in the immediate vicinity of City Hall. Nothing beats the flattering and magical quality of natural light, whatever the weather.
Are there best and worst times of the day, week or year to get married at SF City Hall?
You can choose your ceremony time on the half hour between 9am – 3:30 pm, Monday – Friday.
There is no really good or bad time, but it helps to know a little about the general trends so you can make the best decision for you. Also, bear in mind that City Hall is a public building and there are frequently protests, press conferences, maintenance work, busloads of tourists, school visits, gala event set-up and motion picture filming.
Fridays are the busiest day by far. Friday afternoon is the busiest time of the week and it does take a little longer to navigate around and wait our turn to get key shots. If you’re keen on a Friday, make sure you book with City Hall as soon as your date is available online – 90 days prior. Fridays are also more likely to be booked out the earliest by your vendors!
In general, mornings are quieter, and the light tends to be better, with more natural light vs. yellow artificial light. The best days photography-wise are Tuesdays and Wednesdays as they’re emptier.
Then again, if you book the last appointment of the day, City Hall will have emptied out and there may be a little more time to linger afterwards.
Do I need to be a citizen to marry there?
One of the wonderful things about getting married at City Hall is that you don’t need to be a resident of California or a citizen of the United States, making it an ideal spot for destination elopements. You will need to apply for a marriage license before the wedding, and you’ll need government-issued photo ID for this from the country you hail from.
Just make sure any non-English language documents are translated beforehand by an American Translators Association-certified translator.
You just need to be at least eighteen years and unmarried.
How much does it cost to get married?
Current prices as of March 2019 and subject to change (always check using the link below for the most up to date prices)
Marriage license: $104 (top tip – the pricing is set by the county. We have heard of couples who paid $80 as that’s their county’s rate, but is valid anywhere in the state)
Civil ceremony: $86. Payment is by cash, money order, or debit card in. Visa/Mastercard online only.
Mayor’s Balcony or 4th Floor: $1,000.
Whole Hall buyout: Starts at $5,000 for Saturday morning.
For very large weddings, there are many rental options going up to $30,000 for 3,000 guests for the rotunda & both light courts. Full info on rental buyouts is here.
Tables & chairs for private ceremonies: Rental fee applies; inquire directly for specifics.
What should I look for in a photographer?
There are a lot of us out there, but the most important advice I can give you is to find someone you vibe with, whose work you adore and with whom you share a creative vision. An established photographer works in a fixed style and has consistency to their images, so make sure you really, really like that style! Everyone’s is different 😉
Ask questions, and make sure you see a bunch of full client galleries. Gauge their personality from their social channels, look through their website. Read reviews from past clients. Look at value as well as price. Meet them or chat on the phone. You’ll know when you’ve found the one!
Where can I find out more info?