When you start thinking about your San Francisco City Hall wedding, it can feel like a lot to plan. The truth is, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming or difficult! The beauty of this kind of wedding is that there is a step-by-step process to follow.
As an experienced SF City Hall wedding photographer, I’m happy to take you through everything you need to know and let you in on my tips and tricks for getting the best out of your wedding at the beautiful and iconic San Francisco City Hall.
Date of last update: March 2, 2023
Is a San Francisco City Hall wedding for you?
A City Hall wedding is one in which efficiency is prioritized over personalization. It’s known for being a quick and easy route. There are a lot fewer moving parts than a regular wedding. City Hall weddings can also be much cheaper. You have fewer guests and the venue rental cost is a fraction of a typical wedding.
From there, you can decide whether you want to add on a full reception or simple meal with loved ones, or keep it really simple and just enjoy the rest of your day just the two of you.
The kinds of people who are drawn to City Hall weddings tend to be those with a more practical bent, and those who dislike being the center of attention. The planning process is typically much simpler and can take as little as a few weeks for a civil ceremony.
One thing to be aware of is that this is a busy building. There are all kinds of events taking place here – press conferences, city meetings, gala events being set up, protests and of course, dozens of brides and grooms are in the building taking photos at any given time.
From the photos you might get the impression that most of these couples pictured have the whole place to themselves, but that isn’t the case unless you get here at 8am!
There is plenty of patience (and Photoshop!) involved with giving the illusion of it being free of people. In the past 5 years it’s gained so much popularity and I see it getting more and more crowded each time I’m there!
If you’re more excited about your marriage than the wedding – and the idea of spending years to craft the ‘perfect day’, then a ceremony here might be perfect for you!
When should you start planning your San Francisco City Hall wedding?
This differs based on whether you’re having a private, 1-hour ceremony or a simple civil ceremony. For the former, they can be booked up to 2 years out (and for busy dates, it’s worth booking ASAP). For civil ceremonies, 3 months is all you need to pull it all together.
I’ve created a handy zoomed-out timeline infographic showing when you should do each of the typical wedding planning activities associated with a City Hall wedding.
6 months out (or before!)
- Book your private ceremony area
- Order your wedding dress allowing time for alterations
- Make a shortlist of photographers and other vendors. Wedding photographers book up to 18 months out so the sooner the better after you’re confirmed with City Hall.
90 days out
- Book your civil ceremony
- Make license appointment
- Book your photographer
- Craft a day-of timeline with your photographer
- Alteration to wedding dress
- Book hair & makeup artist
- Book officiant, musicians if private ceremony
- Book restaurant for reception
2 months out
- Flesh out your plans
- Consider logistics and travel
- Book any transportation
2 weeks out
- Finalize plans with photographer
- Provide family groupings list to photographer
- Detailed review of final timeline
- Decide on portrait locations
Day of / day before
- Pick up florals
- Get hair and makeup done
- Aim to arrive at least 30 minutes early to account for any delays
- Check in for civil ceremony 15 minutes prior
What different types of ceremonies are available?
There are three main types of bookings you can choose from for your San Francisco City Hall wedding experience. Here they are along with the up-to-date pricing:
|Type of Ceremony||Maximum number of guests||Availability||Price (excluding license cost)|
|Civil||6||Monday – Friday 9am – 3.30pm||$98|
|Private||100 ( 40 or 60 seated depending on area)||Monday to Friday 9am – 3pm||$1,000 + chair rental|
|Full buyout||100||Saturday mornings||$5,000 + chair rental + other charges|
There’s also an evening wedding option but we don’t see a lot of demand for those.
Let’s dive a little deeper into each type of ceremony!
A civil ceremony is the simplest, most cost-effective way to go. The majority of couples choose a civil ceremony. This is likely the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a City Hall wedding.
You can book your ceremony a maximum of 90 days beforehand. Popular dates including all Fridays year-round tend to book out quickly. For this reason, I highly recommend logging on to the County Clerk’s website at midnight 90 days out so you can snag your desired date and timeslot. The earliest and latest slots of the day are the first to book out.
The ceremony is short – about 3 – 4 minutes, with a check-in process immediately prior that takes anything up to 30 minutes. You will need a witness to accompany you (if you are eloping, your photographer can be your witness).
Officially, a maximum of 6 guests are permitted to attend your San Francisco City Hall Civil Ceremony. This limit includes any children in your group and your photographer. Though it’s not usually strictly enforced, the official rules may be invoked at any time.
The provided officiant or ‘Deputy Marriage Commissioner’ will perform your ceremony. Civil ceremonies usually take place in the area at the top of the Grand Staircase known as the Rotunda. However, your officiant will make the final determination.
These are the official vows you’ll recite. Personalizing your vows is not possible with the Civil Ceremony. However, you can always plan to go to a quiet area of City Hall for a special vow-sharing moment.
You must arrange to check in on the day 10 – 15 minutes before your official ceremony time. Do allow plenty of time because traffic, parking, going through security, freshening up etc all cause delays.
If you would like tips on how to make your Civil Ceremony more special, check out my tips listed below.
👉🏾 Book your appointment with City Hall for your ceremony.
Private area rental (Mayor’s Balcony or 4th Floor North Gallery)
A one-hour private area rental gives you more privacy, the ability to customize your ceremony, and you can have more guests (with optional seating).
There are two different areas to choose from:
- The Mayor’s Balcony
- 4th Floor North Gallery
You can design your ceremony to resemble a more traditional wedding, such as reading your own wedding vows, having acoustic musicians and floral decorations on plinths.
You should provide your own officiant for private ceremonies. This can be a friend or family member which is a very popular choice. Food and drink service is not permitted.
The Mayor’s Balcony seats 40. The 4th Floor North Gallery seats 60. You can have a total of 100 guests in attendance.
To book your private area rental, you’ll need to give a minimum of three weeks’ notice. If you prefer booking well in advance, you can do so up to a maximum of 24 months. For sought-after dates we recommend booking as far in advance as possible.
Usually, you’ll need to sign a contract and put down a deposit of $750 by money order or cashier’s check. You’ll then submit the contract to room 495. The final payment must be made within 5 days of the reservation date.
For up-to-date pricing and more information, please click the link below to the official SF City Hall events website.
👉🏾 San Francisco City Hall Events Page – One-Hour Weddings
Is it worth renting a private area, and if so, which?
It is 100% worth it if you have more than 10-15 guests, would like to exchange personal vows, have your own officiant, or would like a little more privacy or sense of occasion (whatever your guest count). In short, it’s an elevated experience.
You also get to control when proceedings start, and say your own vows. You can add a musician and florals on plinths, both of which elevate the event tremendously. Though the price tag is higher than a civil ceremony, a private rental is pretty unbeatable for a San Francisco wedding.
As to which area, my vote goes to the 4th Floor North Gallery (shown above). It’s simply stunning, with oodles of natural light which equals the best photos. The Mayor’s Balcony is undoubtedly beautiful with more of a central location overlooking the staircase but it is noisier and much darker.
Full buyout (whole building)
You can even have the whole of San Francisco City Hall to yourself. There are 2 two-hour rental options on Saturdays, usually starting at either 9am or 12pm.
You’ll exchange your vows on the platform of the majestic Grand Staircase. Guests will be seated on the 1st Floor.
As a nice additional touch, you could also host a champagne reception as part of your rental, for an additional fee.
A guest count of up to 200 is included in the price. However, you can exceed this number for a fee-per-guest.
👉🏾 San Francisco City Hall Events Page – Two Hour Weddings
How to obtain your marriage license
To get married at City Hall, first you’ll need your marriage license. This can be obtained from any county in California and is valid for 90 days from the date of issue.
For all Bay Area counties, an appointment is necessary to get your marriage license.
Slots are more limited for ceremonies than licenses, so it’s recommended to book the ceremony first, then the license appointment, making sure it’s within 90 days.
It’s recommended to make your marriage license appointment for a different date before your wedding day. It can run late there is already enough happening on the wedding day without also having to deal with another appointment.
License costs vary across counties, with San Francisco being the highest in California. So if you live in California, it’s easiest to pick this up from your local county.
Sample timeline for your City Hall wedding day
I have a separate article here about how to compile your timeline for your day (or your photographer should help you do this as they are the experts in this).
Here’s just a short version of what I would recommend for 2 hours of photography time.
- Meet your photographer for romantic portraits at City Hall (45 minutes).
- Check in at room 168 and follow the Deputy Marirage Commissioner’s instructions (Up to 30 minutes).
- Wedding Ceremony (~ 3 minutes)
- Formal posed group photos (20 minutes for up to 6 groupings)
- City Hall exit photo through the iconic front door (5 minutes or if there is extra time, a few photos outside)
For a private ceremony, it would be similar except there is no check-in. Instead, you would have more time given over for romantic portraits, the ceremony and for the group photos if you have more people.
What are some recommended portrait locations?
There are so many! I personally love the Palace of Fine Arts as it is formal and pairs well with the grandeur and classical architecture of City Hall. Crissy Field is another favorite as it shows off the Golden Gate Bridge as well as combining nature spots, a city view, cute huts, beautiful palm trees and even a beach. The San Francisco Botanical Garden (or other spots around the Goldean Gate Park) are super popular.
Alternatively you can choose a location that’s more of a hike such as Corona Heights or Bernal Heights. Or how about a neighborhood like the Mission District, Marina District, Dogpatch, Nob Hill or Pacific Heights?
Finally, nothing beats places that are meaningful to you such a memorable date or even your home or hotel for less formal, staged photos.
If you’re looking for something closer to City Hall to cut down on travel time, I have compiled a list of wedding photo locations that are within 3 miles of City Hall for added convenience.
What else can we add on to make our day complete?
There are so many options and ideas to add on to the basics! Here are a few ideas:
- Getting ready photos at your hotel
- An external portrait location prior to the ceremony (or you can do this afterward) as discussed above
- A reception event at a nearby local restaurant
- Chill at your home or hotel, go on a hike, to a sports game, anything you want!
Here’s a list of my favorite restaurants to have your reception at post-City Hall.
You can even choose to split up your photography coverage when you book with us. This allows for there to be a big gap between, for instance, your morning ceremony events finishing up and the start of your dinner reception. Read more below to see if you qualify and to see how it works!
What’s the best time to get married at San Francisco City Hall?
The best time is as early in the day as possible. The building is only relatively empty when the doors open at 8am. Sometimes it remains pretty empty for the first half-hour.
City Hall fills up as the day goes on, and then starts to empty out again after 3.30 when the final ceremonies are taking place. If you’re not a morning person or want to go straight to dinner, the last ceremony slot is worth considering. During the winter months, the quality of light is considerably darker by this time.
Tuesdays and Wednesdays tend to be the quietest days of the week. Fridays are by far the busiest and this is year-round. On Thursdays, the weekend rush starts to pick up. Mondays can also be a little busy as couples want to tie their wedding in with the weekend.
Surprisingly, December is one of the busiest months at City Hall. Other crazy hectic months every year are the last 2 weeks of March, April, May, June, September, October and the last 2 weeks of November.
What do we need to bring with us?
You need to bring your marriage license and your government-issued ID. I would not recommend picking up your license on the wedding day itself. On your ID, make sure your entire name including any middle names, are spelled out in full. Some states mark the middle name with the initial. If that’s the case, bring a passport or birth certificate too.
If the language of your ID is not English, you will need to bring a certified translation. You may also choose to exchange wedding rings but they are not necessary in order to get married.
What should we not bring with us?
I would avoid bringing too much stuff in general. Be careful not to bring any prohibited items inadvertently as you’ll be entering through airport-style security.
As it’s a public place, you will have to keep anything you bring in your hand at all times, or pass it off to a family member. Also, your photographer may offer to put your personal effects in their bag to avoid them being in the pictures, but they are already wearing extremely heavy camera gear and a bulky case.
What should we wear for our San Francisco City Hall
I personally favor something elegant but modern – jumpsuits, vests, fascinators, bustiers, bow ties, smoking jackets, tweed, fur, velvet or lace. A classic wedding dress or suit is of course, timeless and remains the most popular choice, but there is no need to be constrained by tradition.
When choosing an outfit, be aware that San Francisco City Hall is very overheated year-round. The heating is usually on full blast and then the sun streams in and ups the temperature even more! Lots of layers aren’t required unless they’re part of your look (layers like ruffles and a range of textures photograph really well, but you won’t need a warm jacket that you’ll just remove instantly and then have to carry around!)
Another outfit tip is to make sure your chosen ensemble fits you well.
The only fashion style to avoid is anything too casual. A dressed-up, statement look that represents you as a couple is the way to go. Don’t be afraid to experiment with edgier styles! You won’t have the judgement of hundreds of people, so this is your opportunity to shine and feel like your best self.
Tips for getting married in San Francisco City Hall
The process of getting married here can be seen as just a tad impersonal as it’s essentially a conveyor belt of weddings happening in close succession. Therefore, it’s important to consider what you would like to make time for and how to personalize an impersonal experience.
I have a full guide linked here on how you can add special touches to your experience. This includes items like how to bring your dog, how to make a memorable exit, the importance of a bouquet and incorporating special items and meaningful moments.
So definitely check that one out if you’re stumped for ideas or still considering whether a San Francisco City Hall ceremony is for you! Here are a few other tips that come to mind:
Pick the right day and timeslot that works for you
It’s recommended to avoid Fridays if possible as they are busy and can be very loud. If you do book Friday, try and make it early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid crowds.
However, they are popular though before they are convenient and desirable, so if you have your heart set on a Friday ceremony, go for it! It helps to be prepared so you are not shocked when you walk into a loud, bustling space.
Carve out some time when it’s just the two of you
Though the ceremony is seen as the centerpiece of the experience, there is much more to consider. While it’s a beautiful space, it is invariably crowded. I’ve worked with many brides who are shocked that it’s crowded and filled with other couples celebrating! This can be very surprising because in the photos, we make it look like you had it to yourself, which isn’t the case in reality.
If hectic energy is likely to be draining to you, I recommend adding on a location. This could be as simple as Memorial Court, located right behind City Hall, or you could opt for one of the iconic San Francisco photo landmarks. These include the Palace of Fine Arts, Crissy Field with Golden Gate Bridge view, the San Francisco Botanical Gardens, Golden Gate Park, or even just a stroll around your favorite neighborhood.
At your location, you could choose to recite personalized vows to one another away from the hustle and bustle, just the two of you.
San Francisco is a fantastic, vibrant city, so why not enjoy it rather than rushing through!
Stay at a hotel in San Francisco
Not only does this allow you to wake up feeling fresh and relaxed rather than frantic, but you can also get some awesome photos there (if you choose to, that is!). Plus you get to relax there when all the craziness of the day is done.
The bridges can be extremely congested in the mornings and indeed throughout the day. Dealing with freeway traffic is probably not something you want to be doing on this most magical day!
I have a list here of my recommended SF hotels that I hope you’ll consider booking if you live outside of San Francisco itself. With how tight our timeline is, it can have a really detrimental effect if you’re late and flustered, sadly – and you would be missing out on photography time you’ve paid for.
Don’t rush your day! Seriously!
We do see some couples trying to fit as much as possible into as small a timeframe as possible to ‘save money’ on their wedding photography. While this might sounds like a good idea on paper, it’s likely to lead to disappointment and/ or stress.
Weddings of ANY size are chock full of emotion and little moments you don’t want to rush. There’s also plenty that happens that might be off-script, that we can’t predict or control for.
And to save a couple of hundred dollars, it would be a false economy. If you’re on a tight budget, it would be better just to keep things simple and cut some events out. This is your one day to savor and enjoy – and the photos are forever.
Choosing a San Francisco City Hall photographer
One of the biggest decisions you’ll have to make is which photographer to choose. There are no doovers and little that can be done if you end up disappointed with your experience or finished photos.
There are many photographers around, but few who specialize in City Hall weddings. Even fewer that make images that are authentic, modern yet timeless, fresh, and full of life. That’s why we believe we are the best choice for your SF City Hall wedding.
I provide unlimited planning help, I’m responsive and communicative, and on the day I’ll be a calm and reassuring presence. The same goes for my expert team of associate photographers.
Book an experienced San Francisco City Hall wedding photographer that you can rely on! Because these kinds of ceremonies are so specialized and are unlike any other kind of wedding, so insider knowledge is key.
Tips from past clients
Hiring Zoe was the best investment of our wedding. She shot both the City Hall ceremony and our reception. She did not miss a single beat and captured all the candid moments with perfection.
Weeks before the wedding day, she took time to understand our love stories so we’d feel comfortable being the best selves around her. She studied our sequence of events of the day and discuss in detail to plan for the spots with best lighting conditions.
She’s super experienced and has a wiki of recommendations for every type of wedding vendor. We just reached our 1st year anniversary and her photos are the best way to memorize our wedding day. You would not regret hiring her!
We first met Zoe in person for our engagement shoot in the SF Botanical garden. Prior to our meeting, I was sure to read & watch the guides Zoe expertly produced on what to expect from an engagement shoot, what to wear, and how to pose, which she quickly recapped before we got started.
I was nervous about how things would go, as my husband and I aren’t great about taking or posing for pictures, but Zoe’s gentle yet expert approach put us at ease, and we got SO MANY great shots. Zoe even took some of us on a bus as a way to recreate where my husband and I met!
For our actual 9am Friday wedding on the Fourth Floor of SF City Hall, Zoe came with us early to take shots around the venue prior to our actual ceremony. As an expert and veteran of the venue, Zoe was able to direct us efficiently according to lighting and crowding, as other couples were in the venue for pictures as well.
Zoe also encouraged my husband and me to tell each other jokes as we had on our engagement shoot as a way for me to loosen up, as my nerves matched the enormity of the occasion.
The finished photos are STUNNING. Many people at the ceremony & friends on Instagram have complimented Zoe’s astute use of light in addition to how well she captured our dynamic as a couple. I cannot recommend her enough!
To say her smile took away our stress and her attitude and knowledge made our day perfect would be the understatement of the century. There are not words to describe what Zoe meant to our day, and now our memories. We are truly forever indebted to her.
The biggest observation my wife and I had was how nervous we thought we SHOULD have been (we have never done a photoshoot) but yet were put completely at ease. Zoe’s kindness and demeanor made us so comfortable allowing her to dictate our every pose, not to mention her AMAZING knowledge of the City Hall spaces, lighting, crowd movement, and architecture. And mind you, this is all BEFORE the ceremony began!
Once the ceremony began, Zoe turned into our ceremony director, which we didn’t know was going to happen. I’m no actor, but this is what working with a great movie director must be like – her ability to lead and engage our guests, her placement of herself in the perfect places, and her completely clear communication style (again, all while the ceremony is going on) was absolutely amazing.
Again, we’re not actors, but I suddenly realized that, despite our stresses in the morning getting ready and running into City Hall 30 minutes late, we felt safe.
For everything Zoe was doing, she made the ceremony and the space belong to my fiance and I; the world washed away, and I got to see my fiance shine. And I got to join her. And none of that would have been possible without Zoe, we KNOW this.
Where to next?
It doesn’t stop here – there is plenty more to dive into!
👉🏾 Comprehensive list of FAQs here
👉🏾 All of my City Hall informative blog posts
Pin this graphic below to your San Francisco City Hall Pinterest board!
Questions, comments? Please leave them in the comments below 👇🏾 so other people who want to learn how to get married at San Francisco City Hall can benefit too. Thank you!
Hi! My fiancé and I just booked our wedding date here for next year for the 1 hour ceremony. Do we need to have an appointment to turn the contract in? Or can we just mail the contract with the deposit to have it officially booked?
Hello Jessa, thanks for the question. This isn’t part of the process that I have any insight into as a photographer, I’m afraid. From what I have heard in passing from clients, I think it’s more likely you would mail it in, as couples book weddings there from far and wide. I would advise you call and check with them. Thanks again. Zoe
Hi Zoe, thanks for providing all this great info! My fiancé and I booked getting our marriage license at the end of august at 1:30pm but unfortunately could not get an appointment for the civil ceremonies which are all completely booked out. I saw the section for guerrilla weddings which would be our only option and wanted to ask if an
ordained minister can perform this or if it had to be the deputy minister for the day that you mentioned in your article. Additionally could this take place in any open space at city hall and at any time (adhering to when city hall is open of course). Also wanted to get your pricing since you have experience photographing city hall ceremonies.
Sure, feel free to reach out on https://zoelarkin.com/cityhall for more info!
Hi Zoe! I found this blog extremely helpful. My fiancé and I are planning on scheduling our civil marriage ceremony for 12/4/21. What I’m not 100% clear on is how long in advance we need to schedule our Marriage License appointment. Do we receive the Marriage License the same day as the appointment? Can we schedule the Marriage License appointment the same week as our Civil Ceremony Appointment? Any info you have on this would be hugely appreciated. Thanks!
Hi David, I’m so sorry my reply is coming in so shamefully late – it’s been the craziest wedding season in history, and I haven’t had a chance to breathe since before May! I know it’ll be too late for you, for which I apologize – but hoping this may help others who have the same question.
You can schedule the marriage license anytime up to 90 days before the wedding date. It can be picked up from any county in California.
Scheduling it for the same day as the wedding is not recommended. If it has to be the same day (for example if you’re from out of state and flying in very close to the wedding date) it’s recommended to schedule your appointment for at least 2 hours before your ceremony time.
City Hall will allow you to schedule for 30 minutes out, but this is a recipe for HUGE stress, as appointments frequently run 30 – 60 minutes late, and you need to check in for your Civil Ceremony 15 minutes before the booked time, anyway.
Hope this helps someone out there!
This is the exact information I’ve been looking for!! Thank you for all the details. Would you say the rules of 6 guests will still be relaxed in 2022? I’m itching on 7 guest and crossing my fingers it’ll be possible.
Hi Celia! I’ve an article coming out soon about City Hall news and updates post-pandemic. It’s here: https://zoelarkin.com/sf-city-hall-pandemic-wedding-updates/
City Hall is now strictly enforcing the 6-guest rule with immediate effect.
Thanks for sharing! its a very informative. I appreciate this website.
Thank you so much! Glad it’s been helpful. I look forward to hearing from you soon via my contact page!
Your page is extremely helpful. I just wanted to clarify the guest count. You said 6 guests, but that is in addition to the bride and groom, is that correct? So a total of 8 people with bride, groom, photographer, and guests?
It’s technically 6 people total. This article however goes into more of the nuance of how it actually works and what I’m allowed to say publicly: https://zoelarkin.com/sf-city-hall-pandemic-wedding-updates/
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