If you’re planning to get married at San Francisco City Hall, congratulations, and welcome! You may be well underway with City Hall wedding planning already. Or perhaps you’re gathering ideas for your future wedding or elopement. Whatever the case, I hope my guide to getting married at San Francisco City Hall is helpful!
San Francisco City Hall is a beautiful choice and it’s also a practical and economical one. As someone that went down the City Hall wedding route myself, I know exactly the questions you have.
It can be tricky to know where to start with planning your SF City Hall wedding. In this guide I walk you through some options and take you through the process step by step.
Great planning is the key to a successful wedding experience whatever the type of wedding ceremony you have in mind. That’s why I want to equip marriers with the knowledge of what to expect. This live planning resource is always up to date. So, let’s dive in!
Welcome to my guide to getting married at San Francisco City Hall in 2020 – by Zoe Larkin Photography
I’m an experienced San Francisco City Hall wedding photographer who has helped dozens of couples get married at our City Hall. Watch a video of me awkwardly talking to the camera on this page.
I cover everything from the types of ceremonies that are available, a timeline of what you’ll be dealing with from 3 months out through day-of, plus info on vendors and logistics. Coming at it from the photography perspective, I also provide tons of info about best practices for great photos, too.
A huge thank you to my couples who have helped me understand every aspect about wedding ceremonies in this iconic monument. Together we’ve figured out so much about the entire process and learned a ton along the way. Couldn’t have done it without every one of them!
If there’s anything I missed or questions you have, please let me know in the comments. The last revision date of this City Hall wedding guide is March 2020.
Types of weekday wedding ceremony available at San Francisco City Hall
When you are planning a wedding at San Francisco City Hall, the first thing you’ll need to decide on is what kind of ceremony you’ll have. There are a few different options, with varying levels of customization and cost. Basically, the civil ceremonies are the simplest way to go, and any private ceremonies afford you the luxuries of more time, control, privacy and personalization.
Regular Civil Ceremony
95% of couples that marry at City Hall will book a ‘Civil/ Commitment Ceremony‘. That means a short ceremony officiated by a volunteer judge, also known as a Deputy Marriage Commissioner.
Appointments may be made within 90 days in advance. Ceremony reservations are available every half hour between 9:00 a.m. through 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Civil Ceremony (Confidential)
Within the category of ‘civil ceremony’ there is also a ‘confidential’ civil ceremony. It’s very similar, with just this tiny difference.
‘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. Although this isn’t common, it may be required for couples who have security concerns.
Where this ceremony is held (both regular civil ceremonies and confidential)
There are two options for regular civil ceremonies: the rotunda and the private ceremony room.
The rotunda is the little round area at the top of the grand staircase. When the Christmas tree is in the middle of the rotunda during December, ceremonies take place on the steps leading to the rotunda.
The private room is located close to room 168, the County Clerk’s Office. In fact, you’ll walk past it on your way to check in.
Of the two options, the rotunda is preferable in architectural terms. Guests will stand as there are no seats available.
Though the private room doesn’t share the same grand architecture as the rotunda, it does have a few benefits. For one thing, it’s completely private. The light is pretty good, plus there are cushioned benches which might work better for some guests. The acoustics are more conducive to your guests being able to hear everything, too!
Tip: Want to get married in the rotunda but have more than 6 guests? Simply decide in advance which guests will sit out of the ceremony, and have them rejoin afterward. Or you can risk them just standing nearby – most judges will not make a fuss.
Maximum number of guests allowed for civil ceremony
The maximum number of guests permitted for a civil ceremony at San Francisco City Hall is 6. In May 2019, City Hall began officially enforcing the maximum 6-guest rule until further notice. The number includes your photographer, videographer and any children in your party.
However, if you have more than 6 guests, the private ceremony room will be the best option.
That said, even with all the rules that City Hall has in place, you can always ask your judge if they would permit you to marry in the rotunda, if you have your heart set on it. After all, the worst they can do is say no.
As for the maximum number of guests in the private room? Though City Hall they will officially tell you 6, up to 15 is usually fine. However, it is always at the judge’s discretion – and they’ll ask.
How much does the civil wedding ceremony cost?
$90 as of the time this article was last revised. Payment is by Visa or Mastercard online. International credit cards are accepted. Remember, this is the ceremony cost only. There are more fees you’ll have to pay. More information about the license cost is in the relevant section below.
How long does the civil wedding ceremony last at City Hall?
The ceremony lasts about 4 minutes. However, it may be less if you choose not to exchange rings. You’ll see information out there about the ceremony lasting 10 minutes but this is a misunderstanding. There are 3 couples every half hour, yes, but that doesn’t mean your ceremony takes 10 minutes! It’s super short!
Different judges approach ceremonies differently. Some will take a few moments to get to know you and may even dish out some words of wisdom and congratulation. Others are more to-the-point and keep the interaction brief.
There are three or four couples scheduled for each half-hour slot, so the actual ceremony time will be somewhat later than your booked appointment time. Usually about 25 – 35 minutes later.
Please note: Vow renewals are not performed at San Francisco City Hall. However, you could always do your own thing there, as it is a public building with free access to everyone.
Private Area Rental during regular opening hours
Private rentals are when you rent out a designated area for your wedding to take place. Your area is cordoned off with velvet rope, but the building is open as usual. Food and drink service is not permitted.
You have three options as regards areas to choose:
- The Mayor’s Balcony
- 4th Floor North Gallery
- 4th Floor South Gallery
The benefit of these ceremonies is that you can have more guests. You can design your ceremony to resemble a more conventional wedding – without the private venue price tag. You can have a choice of chairs (for an extra fee), an aisle to walk down, your wedding party standing by your side, your own officiant, programs, limited decorations and acoustic musicians.
One client gave me the following information about booking their 1-hour rental,
“In order to secure our reservation, we were required to sign a contract and put a deposit of 75% (money order or cashier’s check). We submitted the 13-page contract to room 495 and they would send the copy of the contract via email. Then we would pay the remaining 25% within 5 days of the reservation date.”
Cost of private area rental cost
The price tag for a private, 1-hour area rental at San Francisco City Hall is currently $1,000.
Duration of booking for private ceremony
You have your space for 1 hour. Remember, you’ll need to fit all the pre-and post-ceremony events into this time. 20 -30 mins is about standard for a regular wedding ceremony.
You need to allow time for all the guests to arrive and get situated. You’ll probably want to use the area you’ve rented to do family formal pictures immediately afterward.
After the private rental, you’ll need to fill out the paperwork and submit at the Assessor / Recorder’s office in room 190 (instead of room 168, County Clerk’s Office) if your license was from San Francisco. For the private area rental, you don’t need to check in at the County Clerk’s office first.
Maximum number of guests permitted for private wedding ceremony
Mayor’s Balcony seats 40, and the 4th Floor Galleries seat 60. They both have standing room to take the maximum guest count up to 100.
Guerilla wedding ceremony at San Francisco City Hall
There is one more option that presents itself. It’s a guerilla-style ceremony, anywhere you like. I’ve written in more detail about it the post below.
The total cost would be your marriage license plus the cost of getting a friend deputized as Deputy Marriage Commissioner For A Day. That cost is currently $149 as of the last revision. As the City does not control the content of marriage ceremonies performed by DMCFODs, your ceremony can be whatever you want!
As for guest count, my advice is to keep it small and seek guidance from City Hall or from your photographer. Read more from City Hall’s info on exactly this: Deputy Marriage Commissioner for a Day – From the Office of the County Clerk
Weekend weddings at San Francisco City Hall
A weekend wedding is known as a full buyout. If you like the idea of having the whole building to yourself in the beautiful morning light, you can choose the 2-hour package that’s available on Saturday mornings/ early afternoons. It represents good value and you can then head on to another venue for your wedding reception.
City Hall has its own list of approved catering & bartending vendors together with rules about liquor licensing. Their list of ‘qualified vendors’ is here on their Events site. You’ll exchange your vows on the platform of the Grand Staircase. Guests will be seated on the 1st Floor (ground level). You can find out more about how to book your full buyout wedding, and what to expect, on this in-depth article linked below.
A full buyout at San Francisco City Hall on a Saturday starts at $5,000. The package is for 2 hours, inclusive of load-in and load-out. The rental can begin at 9am or 12pm. There may be some leeway with the exact starting time.
A guest count of up to 200 is included in the price. However, you can exceed 200 guests for a fee-per-guest.
Other weekend (and evening) slots
There are many different options and configurations of space to choose from. Some of the rental rates are listed here. While ceremonies normally take place on the Grand Staircase, the areas that you might include in your rental are the
It’s best to speak directly to the City Hall events team for full details. There are many rental options going up to up to $30,000 for packages that include the rotunda & both light courts. If you’re interested in an evening ceremony with time for dinner and dancing, you are looking at a cost of $5,000 – $7,000.
Due to the bespoke nature of these types of ceremonies, be aware that extra charges are levied. This in addition to the actual rental rates. Be sure to contact City Hall’s dedicated events team to get a fuller understanding of what’s required for your wedding. The maximum number of guests goes right up to 3,000.
The two types of appointments you’ll need for your civil ceremony
Yes, you do have to have an appointment. In fact, you must make two separate appointments. One for the license which is valid for up to 90 days from the date of issue. You’ll also need to make an appointment for the ceremony itself. Slots are much more limited for the ceremonies than the licenses, so it’s recommended to book the ceremony first, then the license appointment.
One of the wonderful things about getting married at San Francisco City Hall is that you don’t need to be a US citizen or resident. That makes it an ideal spot for destination elopements. You just need to be at least eighteen years of age and unmarried.
The only exception is Valentine’s Day and during Pride Month, where City Hall does something a little special.
How to book your ceremony appointment at San Francisco City Hall
To book your ceremony appointment, go to:
You’ll have to enter your full name, phone number, email address and your partner’s full name.
From there, you’ll see this screen showing City Hall’s booking calendar.
Though you’ll need to pick up the marriage license before you get married, you won’t need to enter license information into the ceremony booking form.
After you’re done, you’ll get this confirmation screen and will proceed to the payment screen.
When, how and where to get your marriage license
It is whole-heartedly recommended to obtain your marriage license on a separate day before your wedding (anytime up to 90 days before). It’ll make for a much smoother wedding process.
San Francisco City Hall states that your marriage license appointment can be made as little as 30 minutes before your booked ceremony. However, in my experience that isn’t a good idea. With increased volumes of people marrying there, a 1-hour gap is definitely not enough.
The license process usually involves about an hour of waiting around, which has left some couples worried about missing their ceremony slot.
To obtain your marriage license, each applicant must present:
- Unexpired government-issued photo identification in English (Non-English language documents should be translated beforehand by an approved translator)
- Complete public or confidential marriage application form.
- If either/both parties were previously married or a State Registered Domestic Partner (SRDP), a certified copy of divorce, annulment, termination, or death record must be presented at the time of your marriage license reservation if it ended within the past 90 days of your marriage license reservation date.
(Source: County Clerk’s Online Reservations Page)
Reservations for obtaining the marriage license at SF City Hall are available Monday-Friday beginning 8:30 a.m. and every half hour until 3:30 p.m. Since 2018, no photography is permitted during license pick-up. Your photographer will have to wait outside! Another reason to get your license before the photographer rocks up.
Cost of obtaining marriage license from San Francisco City Hall
$110 if you obtain your marriage license from San Francisco City Hall
Top tip: In California, in contrast to all the other US states, the county sets the price of the marriage license.
I’ve heard of couples who paid $80 as that’s their county’s rate. Even though the price is set per county, the marriage license is valid anywhere in the state of California.
Planning guidelines from 90 days out through day-of
6-12 months out
- If you are booking a private area you can actually book up to 24 months in advance. About 6 months or so is usually sufficient. For the 2-hour rentals, allow 18 months if you have a particular date in mind.
- If you’re considering hiring a wedding planner, now is the time to start reaching out to avoid disappointment. Yes, even small weddings can benefit from a planner’s services.
90 days out
- Book your ceremony first, then book your marriage license appointment
- Order your wedding dress (if going traditional) as it can take 6 weeks for wedding dresses to arrive
- Alterations of the wedding dress
- Book your photographer first as they should be able to help you map out a timeline and connect you with other vendors
2 months out
- Start planning how the rest of the day might look with regards to a reception venue or private room in a restaurant
- Consider logistics including transportation options, how you’ll get around and make the day flow smoothly
1 month out
- Confirm any other vendors such as floral designer, hair & makeup artist, wedding rings and accessories.
2 weeks out
- Finalize plans with your photographer including:
- Family groupings list for the formal shots
- Final review of the day’s timeline
- Where to go for portraits after the ceremony
- Get there early so you can savor the moment
- Allow more time than you might think for hair and makeup plus traffic
- Check in for your civil ceremony officially 15 before so you’re the first in line to marry.
What happens on your San Francisco City Hall wedding day
Arrival at City Hall & check-in
Enter the building through the Polk side, the front. Otherwise known as Dr. Carlton B Goodlett Drive.
If you have backpacks or a camera bag with you, you’ll need to enter through the Grove loading bay entrance. There you’ll find an airport-style scanner, gate and a friendly security guard.
When you check in, you present yourselves to the main Information desk straight ahead in room 168 (County Clerk’s office) on the north side of City Hall. After this initial check-in, you’ll get a numbered ticket. It’ll start with the letter ‘B’. The first ticket of the day is B101.
Keep an eye on the screen in the corridor for your number. You’ll meet with the judge that’ll marry you. This time go to the desk on the left. The judge will give you instructions for filling out and signing the paperwork. Your witness must accompany you this second time. Deputy Marriage Commissioners split their time between checking 3 couples in and then officiating weddings. You’ll wait for them at the ceremony location, then they’ll call you over.
Tip: Ask the judge whether you can say ‘I do’ in a different spot than the rotunda. Sure, the rotunda is iconic but the prettiest spot is the more private 4th Floor North Gallery. The South Gallery is also great but the light isn’t quite as great.
Appointing a witness for your wedding
For the regular civil ceremony, you need one witness and can have two if you like. The judges at City Hall get nervous about witnesses making a mistake on the license. If there is a mistake or crossing-out, the whole form must be generated again from scratch, so to minimize this, one witness is easiest.
Photographers are honored to act as a witness to your marriage and don’t charge an extra fee for this.
During the wedding ceremony
The judge will call you up by name so make sure you’re within earshot of the ceremony location. The ceremony is very short and simple. You cannot exchange personal vows. I have a separate post linked below on the exact vows you’ll be reciting at your Civil Ceremony at San Francisco City Hall:
The best position for the judge is for them to face the back of City Hall (see above) We want to capture the grandness of the open area with the Mayor’s Balcony, not the back of their head. So, their back should be to the Grand Staircase.
Tip: Turn and face one another and not 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. Don’t forget to kiss at the end to seal the deal!
Posed family formal portraits
After the hugs of congratulations is a good time to do formal, posed family pictures. This normally takes around 20-30 minutes depending how many groupings you’d like. I’d recommend a maximum of 6 groupings.
Couples’ photos of the newlyweds!
After that, your photographer will guide you around the building. Photographers know the best spots to take photos, but you can always suggest particular spots you like. Then you’ll run around your preferred San Francisco portrait location for kickass photos.
I do recommend making time to get at least some photos outdoors, even if it’s just near City Hall. Nothing beats the flattering and magical quality of natural light, whatever the weather. For couples who are concerned with timing, I have compiled a list of my favorite photography locations that are less than 3 miles from San Francisco City Hall.
There is plenty more to say about your timeline for your San Francisco City Hall wedding ceremony. So much so that I created an in-depth article runs through a suggested timeline. Whatever time of day your ceremony is, and whichever photographer you choose, this resource will help you plan! Hit the link below to read more.
Coverage of other events
Whether you would like getting-ready coverage in a nearby hotel or a meal you’re having afterward, it’s recommended to get photos of more than just the time spent in the City Hall building itself. This will make for a fuller and more varied finished gallery. Though City Hall is beautiful, it is limited in terms of what you can capture.
There’s no private area to get ready, no eating, drinking or ‘cheersing’, nothing to decorate or personalize, and you’re sharing with many other marriers. It can feel quite rushed for the City Hall portion. Another location with other events being covered can allow for a more relaxed pace.
If you’re wondering how to get around San Francisco from place to place, I got you! I have a separate post with my 10 top modes of transportation specifically for City Hall wedding couples.
What to bring with you
The couple must bring:
- Valid, government-issued photo identification. It must show all FULL names (not just initials).
- Valid marriage license.
- One witness (no more than two) if presenting a public marriage license.
- No witness needed if presenting a confidential marriage license.
- Not a requirement at all, but don’t forget to bring your wedding rings, if exchanging!
(Source: County Clerk’s Online Reservations Page)
The best time to get married at San Francisco City Hall
The first ceremony slot of 9 am is a very good choice. You’ll likely be the only ones in the building! In this case, I’d suggest starting for pictures at 8 am so you can have the Grand Staircase to yourselves. By 8.30 am there are quite a few folks around.
If you book the last appointment of the day, that can also be a wise choice. Although the lighting is not as beautiful and natural as the morning, City Hall will have emptied out.
Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the quietest days. Fridays are the busiest days, particularly Friday afternoons. On Thursdays, the weekend rush starts to pick up. Mondays can also be fairly busy as couples want to tie their wedding in with the weekend.
Too many people around can cause delays. You may wait longer for your ceremony to begin, or have to wait your turn for photos in the iconic locations. 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 book out the quickest with your vendors, too.
What you should let your guests know in advance
There are definitely several things that you need to inform your guests about before your City Hall wedding day. Here are a few of them!
- How they are going to get to City Hall
- Where they should meet you
- That it takes time to enter the building and they’ll need to allow for lines
- Don’t bring any banned items! A very thorough list that City Hall produced is here.
- If they have larger bags, they’ll need to enter through the Grove side-entrance not the main entrance on Polk
- Where they will be going exactly when it’s time for couple’s photos.
- Bring a folding seat if they are older or cannot stand for long
How to find the vendors you need for your City Hall wedding
A Google search normally uncovers some great options for your wedding vendors. However, for more personalized recommendations, read on!
Once you’ve found an experienced photographer, they can connect you with other City Hall vendors. They can draw from their wide pool of vendors at every style, budget and level of experience.
What to wear to your San Francisco City Hall wedding
I photograph brides in traditional floor-length fairytale wedding dresses, as well as jumpsuits and overalls. I see dresses in all different shades, from charcoal gray to bright red.
Most grooms opt for a suit that shows their unique style, but you can choose how traditional or contemporary you want to go. There’s no dress code for weddings at San Francisco City Hall. Make sure your outfits are comfortable – and not too casual. Nothing will ruin your day more than wearing an outfit you’re constantly tugging at. Unlike a regular wedding, you won’t be sitting down at all. Comfortable footwear is a must 😉
The right accessories can also elevate your style and personalize the experience. Florals are, for me, an absolute must. Get the best floral designer you can afford! If your budget won’t stretch too far, I recommend mail-order bouquets you assemble yourself. You can also buy silk flowers that photograph beautifully and double up as home decor and a wedding souvenir.
If you’re more of a DIY bride, you might want to DIY your bouquet from scratch! There are plenty of how-to videos on YouTube if you’re feeling crafty.
Be aware of the difference between just a bunch of flowers and a bouquet. I do sometimes see couples with a big bunch of flowers that are not tied with ribbon. Though it can seem very similar, it’s by no means the same.
Some common issues to be aware of
I’ve seen all kinds of stuff take place that has impacted on my couples’ wedding days in different ways. 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
- School visits
- Gala event set-up
- Motion picture filming
- & many others!
The trick is to roll with it! Revel in the joy, the shared experience, and 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.
I’ve never seen a wedding not take place due to issues in the building, but 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!
More City Hall wedding planning FAQs
I have a more comprehensive list of FAQs on my City Hall page at this link. Just scroll down to the ‘San Francisco City Hall – Frequently Asked Questions’ section. Looking for a San Francisco City Hall wedding photographer? Click my face to find out more about my photography services! I hope my guide has helped you plan your San Francisco City Hall wedding.
Questions, comments? Please leave them in the comments below 👇🏾 so other people who want to learn about this topic can benefit too. Thank you!