If you're planning your wedding but the prospect of a traditional 100+ person event doesn't excite you, a great alternative is to elope in NYC! Having an intimate wedding in a city like New York opens up a range of great options, from having an outdoor ceremony in Central Park to renting out a restaurant to host a private event for your closest family and friends.
As a New York City wedding photographer, I've had the pleasure to photograph over 150 couples who chose to elope in NYC. I've helped all of them navigate the different options that are available and how the process works, so I decided to assemble what I've learned here to provide a straight forward, all-encompassing guide on how to get married in NYC.
Why You Should Elope in NYC
Let's get a few things straight right off the bat:
- You'll be getting married in an amazing city (duh).
- After obtaining your marriage license, the wait period is only 24 hours, which means you can accomplish this over a long weekend.
- Which also means you can make the city your honeymoon destination — two birds, one stone!
- Elopements used to be synonymous with secret, but now couples elope for all reasons and often have friends and family in attendance.
- You can plan something simple or elaborate, it's totally up to you!
Step One: Obtain a Marriage License
First and foremost, you'll need to obtain the proper paperwork in order to elope in NYC — a marriage license. You can apply for the $35 license (payable by credit card or money order) from the Office of the New York City Clerk located at 141 Worth Street in Manhattan, or one of the other locations in another borough. You can save a little time by starting the paperwork online at the City Clerk Online website, but either way you and your prospective spouse must finish the process in person. More detailed information, including ID requirements, can be found on the Office of the New York City Clerk website.
After waiting a full 24 hours from receiving your license, you can perform the wedding ceremony. The next thing you need to decide is if you'd like to get married at the marriage bureau (a.k.a. City Hall), or somewhere else such as Central Park or a restaurant or other private venue.
UPDATE: I am now actively discouraging couples from getting married at the Marriage Bureau. It really pains me to take this position, but I can no longer ignore the fact that getting married at City Hall is simply not a great experience anymore. What used to be a fun wait with lots of other happy couples has become a race to the exit door, void of the joy that used to swallow the place whole. There are a few changes that directly affect how your day will go:
- There is now a full security checkpoint at the door. Depending on the time of day and what size groups are going through, this can add 5-30 minutes onto the process. Which also means that once you're inside, you won't want to go outside for anything (coffee, water, a few photos while we wait, etc) or else you'll have to go through the whole line again.
- Clerk staff will insist you should only have one witness, when you can have up to two. You'll have to stand your ground on wanting both to sign. I wouldn't want to have to choose between the two moms, or two dads, or two best friends that I was excited to have sign my marriage license.
The City Clerk's Office used to be an anomaly because it did not feel like a government office when you went through. Unfortunately now it is like going to the DMV that used to occupy the building, with more stress and off-putting behavior than is worth tolerating on what is supposed to be the happiest day of your lives.
Going forward, I feel the best advice I can give to any couple is to hire a private officiant for your ceremony.
Step Two, Option A: Elope at City Hall Getting married in NYC is amazingly simple and the wedding itself can be held just about anywhere, but there's one venue that is most popular — City Hall. The combination of friendly government employees running an efficient marriage bureau (I know, sounds like an oxymoron) and the people-watching of the other couples always makes for a memorable wedding day. It's important to note that you cannot customize your ceremony at all; everyone gets the same quick, standard vows and are in and out in about two minutes. City Hall handles LOTS of weddings every day and simply cannot allow couples to recite custom vows or have guests reading passages. If you're really set on customizing your ceremony, skip ahead to the section on how to get married outside City Hall.
What's the general process for getting married at City Hall? After you've obtained your marriage license and waited the full 24 hours, you can return to the marriage bureau to have the ceremony performed, which costs $25 and takes place in either the East or West Chapel within the building at 141 Worth Street. There are no reservations available; you simply walk in, take a number, and wait until you are called.
When should we arrive to minimize the wait time? Because there are no reservations for getting married at City Hall, timing plays an important factor into the logistics for your elopement. The marriage bureau is open from 8:30a-3:45p Monday to Friday, except for major holidays. Wait times are notoriously hard to predict and can range from in-and-out in 30 minutes to 2 hours on the busiest days, but generally speaking the best time to go is as early in the morning as possible. You should definitely try to avoid the lunchtime rush from 12-2p; Fridays during the summer can also get fairly packed. The bureau closes at 3:45p, but this actually just means you have to be in the door and past the front desk by that time. As long as you've received a number to wait in line, they will get to you.
UPDATE: Since the beginning of 2015, the process at City Hall has gotten much speedier. Average wait times are now around 45 minutes. The longest wait time I experienced in all of 2015 was 75 minutes on the Friday before Labor Day Weekend, and that was the only outlier from the average.
Do we have to bring a witness? Only one witness is required, but you can have up to two. If you are bringing guests, one or two of them can function as your witnesses. If you won't have any guests, you have two options. Ask your photographer (Hey there!) or grab another bride or groom going through City Hall to act as your witness. Your witness(es) must be over 18 and have valid photo identification.
How many guests can we bring? I'm not aware of any strict guest limit imposed by the bureau, but the waiting area can get crowded on busy days and the chapels are not large rooms. I've had a group of 20 people go through with no problems; if you're expecting closer to 30 guests I would suggest holding the ceremony somewhere besides City Hall (see below).
Who will marry us? One of the officiants with the marriage bureau will perform your ceremony. They have a few in rotation, of which the most well-known is James Mitchell (before I knew his name, I just referred to him as “that mustache guy” and everyone knew who I meant). All of the officiants are great to work with!
Any other advice for couples getting married at City Hall? Enjoy yourselves! Your experience at City Hall is what you make of it. Use the wait time to people watch, chat with your guests, or just to reflect on the occasion with your soon-to-be spouse. If you're getting married in the summer, bring in a bottle of water. While there are restrooms inside, there are no water fountains.
Step Two, Option B: Elope in Central Park, or anywhere really!
After you obtain your marriage license, you can get married anywhere in New York. So while City Hall can be great, why limit yourself to a government office? You’ll need to hire an officiant to perform your ceremony, and I'm happy to recommend some of my top choices!
We want to perform the ceremony outside in a public space. Will we need a permit?
New York City is incredibly gracious in terms of where you can perform a wedding ceremony in public. Almost all public spaces (anything which is not private property) are perfectly legal to hold a ceremony in, but a permit might be required in some cases. There’s generally three categories that public spaces fall into, and their permitting rules differ; most will depend on the number of people that will be involved or if you’re looking to reserve a specific area.
New York City Park: Some parks in New York City, such as Central Park, Madison Square Park, and Prospect Park, are property of the city and run by the Department of Parks & Recreation (and are sometimes also managed by a separate group such as a conservancy or alliance). For these parks a permit is only needed if you’ll have more than twenty people or if you’d like to reserve a specific area within the park. These permits cost $25 and need to be submitted in advance. You can see more specific information here.
New York State Park: A few parks in the city are actually run by the state and generally have more strict permitting rules, although they vary park to park. These parks include Gantry Plaza State Park, East River State Park, and Hudson River Park, among others. Most will at least require a photography permit, and some will require an event permit for the ceremony itself. A good starting point to find all of this information is here.
General Public Space: For general public spaces like Times Square, you generally won’t need a special permit unless you have more than twenty people and are planning an extensive ceremony. A quick Google search of the place name and “wedding permit” is a good place to start.
We want to host a reception after our outdoor ceremony. What are our options?
One unique thing about New York City is that when you’re looking to host an event here, there aren’t a lot of dedicated event spaces for smaller parties (I’m talking less than a hundred people). But what might seem like a downside is actually a HUGE upside. The plethora of restaurants and bars in the city has now become your list of potential event spaces! From the romantic eateries in the West Village to the esteemed tables of Michelin Star restaurants (and even to the darkest corners of the local dive bar), your options for hosting a reception might be far more numerous than you realize.
If you’re looking to host something on the formal side of the spectrum, almost all “fancy” restaurants will have at least a section of the restaurant that you can reserve for such affairs, if not the entire restaurant. Some might be more flexible than others in terms of times you can book out private events, but all will have someone in house to speak with to discover your options.
If you’re looking to host something less formal, such as a happy hour reception at your neighborhood skee ball bar where you met, you may have to take over the whole establishment. Discovering your options at these types of places may tap into the same skill set as buying a rug in Marrakesh, but sometimes booking that perfect venue is worth the extra digging.
We want to have our entire wedding (ceremony and reception) at a single venue. How do we find the perfect one for us?
Unless you’re hosting a small affair (less than sixty people) with a quick elopement-style ceremony, you’ll most likely need to start looking at dedicated event venues that can accommodate you. There are warehouses, lofts, hotels, museums, and even a farm to choose from! In fact, there are far too many to name here, but head over to the New York Magazine locations directory for an extremely comprehensive listing of venues throughout the city.
Step Three: Explore New York City for Portraits
I almost didn’t include this section because it seems silly at first. In NYC, there really aren’t any bad places to take portraits. Some might include some logistical concerns, but you can pretty much go anywhere in the city and show off any side of it, and it will look amazing. But therein lies the problem! If everywhere is good, where exactly should we go??
Most people will gravitate towards the big locations — Central Park, Times Square, Brooklyn Bridge, Grand Central, Empire State Building — and for good reason, they scream “We had our wedding in New York City, bitches!”. While it’s great to hit the major landmarks, I encourage you to think differently, trust your photographer, and let a little bit of the real city become a part of your portraits. A good strategy is to pick a neighborhood that has one or two key landmarks you might like to visit, and then to organically explore around those landmarks for things that are interesting.
Step Four: Obtain additional documents, if needed
If you're from out of the country, you'll need to get an additional “long form” document after your ceremony has been performed. This will enable you to register the marriage in your home country. If you're from a non-English speaking country, you'll need to get another form called an apostille. You can read more about the apostille at the Department of State's website.
Bonus Tip: Travel in Style
New York City has numerous ways to get from the ceremony to the reception, or even to get around the city to take portraits. But if you’re looking to do something a little different, NYC has some amazing options for something truly unique.
Yellow cabs are distinctly New York and are so plentiful (most of the time) that they’re an easy win. Uber and Lyft have also become extremely popular with their on-demand services. The subway is also a very NYC option, allowing time to capture portraits on the platforms and in the trains.
My favorite option is something truly classic and is hard to top, short of getting in a helicopter (yeah, that's an option too!) — taking a ride in a Checker cab. There’s a company in NYC that specializes in renting these, plus other vintage cars, and they are awesome to work with. Head over to FilmCars to learn more. Riding around town in a Checker cab, getting waved and cheered at, and taking portraits with it, is a really special addition to any wedding. I highly recommend splurging for one!