A private city hall ceremony is always a wonderful idea, but the price tag can make it unfeasible for some. Is there a middle ground between the private rental of an area and the typical 5-minute rotunda civil ceremony?
A recent couple made me aware of an option to get married privately at San Francisco City Hall without officially booking an area.
Read their story below – they married on the last day of Pride Month 2018 and City Hall had some unexpected unique touches.
The method I’m about to go into is little guerrilla-style, but it is technically permitted! I’ll do my best to explain it in depth this article.
You have a friend/ family member marrying you and can take your pick of places to have your ceremony.
I don’t really know what to call it but it’s basically a blend of the regular 5-minute ceremonies and the area rentals, without actually renting the area directly with City Hall.
What are the most common ceremony types?
Usually for 95% of couples marrying at San Francisco City Hall they will choose the regular ceremony which takes place in the rotunda or the private room.
The ceremony lasts just 4 minutes and the costs associated are very minimal (under $200 at the current time). There is no personalization possible in the vows or much else.
The deciding factor regarding where the ceremony takes place (rotunda or private room) is guest count. 6 guests* or fewer: Rotunda. More than 6 guests**? Private room.
A deputy marriage commissioner will marry you at City Hall. These folks can be easily spotted in their all-black judge’s garb.
They are retired City judges and they perform ceremonies on a voluntary basis. You cannot pick which judge you’d like or have any say. It will simply be whomever is on duty that day. I have rarely seen the same judge more than a couple of times, so it seems they have a large roster of judges.
They all have their different quirks and ways of performing ceremonies but they essentially follow a script. Some take a strict approach to matters such as your guest count and others are more relaxed and may even allow you to marry somewhere other than the rotunda or private room!
Private city hall ceremony with area rental
Booking a dedicated area incurs a $1,000 fee and you can choose from a few areas including the Mayor’s Balcony or one of the 4th Floor Galleries. These can be booked up to a year in advance, as opposed to only 90 days for regular ceremonies.
You’ll have the option to have chairs set up how you like and a velvet rope keeping out the general public.
When you go down this route you will not have a City-appointed judge included. It will be assumed you’d like a more personal ceremony so you’ll be booking your own professional officiant (if you’d like recommendations, please reach out!)
Alternatively you may have a friend/ family member ordained to perform the marriage ceremony. This is a simple, inexpensive process and can be done easily online.
However, this other option which I will explain in this article, presents another choice which combines elements of both.
Benefits & features of this type of City Hall ceremony
- Choose your own spot in City Hall
- No checking in at room 168
- You won’t need a regular ceremony appointment
- There isn’t a strict start time
- Deputized friend performing the ceremony
- Personal vows
- Submit paperwork to room 162 immediately after ceremony
- Prepare to be flexible
- Uncertain maximum guest count but advise to keep it fewer than 6
- Uncertain maximum length of time for ceremony
Your chosen officiant will become ‘Deputy Marriage Commissioner For A Day’
The City calls it ‘deputy marriage commissioner for a day’ and has a web page about it here. There are only specific hours and days the deputizing can be done and the couple must have their marriage license first. It does take some time so plan accordingly.
Make sure your officiant pal is aware of what they’ll need to commit to. There is work they’ll need to undertake before the wedding day probably without you present.
It costs currently $149 and is naturally likely to rise over time. The couple must have a San Francisco County-issued marriage license if going down this route, which is a separate cost.
For regular ceremonies you can pick up a license anywhere in CA. However, this is not the case if you are being married by a Deputy Marriage Commissioner for the Day. Then, it can only be issued by San Francisco City Hall.
They agree to adhere to certain strict rules that they’ll be made aware of when they visit the office. They must appear in person in room 168 of San Francisco City Hall’s County Clerk’s Office. There are no appointments possible for this.
Your chosen officiant will need to be sworn in (take an oath) in advance of the wedding. The deputization must take place anytime between when the license is issued and the wedding itself.
You could, in theory, get your license, the deputization and then marry on the same day, but it may get a little stressful if you run into any hiccups!
The deputization is for just one ceremony for one couple at just one location at a specific time.
Where these private/ public ceremonies take place is up to you
An amazing feature of these kinds of private City Hall ceremonies is that you can in theory get married wherever you like within City Hall, being a public building.
Apart from if it obstructs a wedding that is already taken place or is scheduled to, it seems as if the entire public area of the building is fair game. So, that rules out the rotunda of course which is where the regular ceremonies will be taking place.
I’ve only photographed one of these kinds of wedding ceremonies before and the couple decided to try for the 4th Floor North Gallery.
There were a few people milling around up there as of course, this isn’t a private, paid-for space in which it’s roped off. However, it was the couple’s top choice which worked beautifully for pictures, though a City-appointed judge with another wedding group was at one point trying to intervene.
Such is the nature of City Hall!
It really depends on the luck of the draw whether you manage to secure your preferred spot on the day. The only way to guarantee it is to book and pay the $1,000 fee.
My previous client happened to have a friend that was familiar with this route. I have it on good authority from him that as long as you’re not in the way of city business and following other rules (crowd size, noise, etc.) you have free reign of areas.
You’ll enjoy much less waiting time at your San Francisco City Hall wedding
Another huge benefit of these so-called unofficial ‘private city hall ceremonies’ is that there’s less waiting time.
For regular ceremonies it’s common to have to check in 15 minutes before the time on your paperwork. Then it’s usually another 20-30 minutes after that of waiting around close to the rotunda, maybe more on a Friday.
That totals 45 minutes of waiting time on average, which is a lot when you might only have booked 2 hours of photography and want to get a wide variety of shots.
With the type of private City Hall ceremony performed by a friend/ family member there is no check-in process at room 168 because you’re not in need of a City-appointed judge.
You simply turn up and pick a spot!
No line, no waiting time.
The private ceremony itself
From that link about Deputy Marriage Commissioner For A Day: “The City does not [otherwise] control the content of marriage ceremonies they perform”.
However I have heard it said that religious wording is not allowed during the ceremony.
You are not in such a time crunch because there’s nobody else waiting for your officiant’s services or your spot!
The couple I photographed kept things to about 10 minutes but from what I understand you could in theory have a longer ceremony and personal vows.
Due to the way things are at City Hall, don’t be surprised if you get moved along though! You will be operating somewhat guerilla-style and have to be OK with that to go down this route 😉
After the ceremony
You need to carve out some time to visit the Assessor’s Office in room 190, not to be confused with room 168, the County Clerk’s Office.
This area is not overrun with other marriers, so it’s a very simple process when you’re there.
You simply take a seat and fill out the paperwork, then take a number and wait to be called. Soon you’ll be presenting yourself at the clerk’s desk and finishing the process. The finished certificate is mailed to you some days or weeks later.
This part of the process is actually identical to when you have rented a private area of City Hall.
Who will this ‘private public ceremony’ without renting a space, suit?
This is a good middle ground for those who want something more than the 5-minute scripted rotunda ceremony, but perhaps don’t want the pomp and expense of the private area rental.
It would suit couples who are pretty casual in their approach and can be flexible with last-minute changes. There is a reasonable possibility that you won’t get the area that you may have in mind.
It’s even a possibility that you’ll get moved along halfway through if there happens to be something going on, like almost happened at Jake & Omar’s ceremony.
This type of ceremony would be a great fit for you if the day you had your heart set on is in fact fully booked. If City Hall’s booking calendar is totally full on your special date, you can still go down this route. Just leave plenty of lead time.
You need to allow time for the process of getting your friend ordained as ‘Deputy Marriage Commissioner for a Day’, and yes, there will be hoops to jump through.
There is still paperwork to perform on the day itself, sure. However, it’s weighted on the back end of the ceremony rather than the front. By this point though, you’re probably feeling chill, relieved and stoked that YOU JUST TIED THE KNOT!
Wanna learn even more? Reach out and find out more here: City Hall wedding photographer Info
I would be happy to answer any other questions that prospective clients may have on the topic, though as a disclaimer the source of my information is not City Hall itself, I’m not affiliated with them in any way.
The only way I’m able to provide this information is because of my awesome past clients, like Jake and Omar. They have graciously filled me in on the process of getting married at San Francisco City Hall from their perspective.
*Please note: your photographer and/ or videographer counts towards your guest count. So do kids! See more info here.
**There is no official set maximum number of guests for the Private Room. Officially, it is not permitted to bring more than 6 guests except when you have booked and paid for a dedicated hour-long area rental. I called them on 9/6/19 to check about this and they confirmed that 6 is the limit. (So really, 5 as I assume you’ll have a photographer!)