How to Get Married at San Francisco City Hall


Your guide to eloping and having your civil wedding ceremony in one of the prettiest City Hall’s in the country!

The classic rotunda, where most civil ceremonies take place.

The classic rotunda, where most civil ceremonies take place.

Located in the midst of San Francisco’s center, City Hall is the perfect venue for a simple, elegant, budget-friendly wedding or elopement. Not your typical government building, City Hall’s stunning Beaux Arts architecture gives you a special feeling from the moment you walk in.

The day will flow from purchasing your marriage license (or you can do this in advance, which I recommend) through your civil ceremony, to a celebration after. You can make your San Francisco City Hall wedding as intimate with just the two of you, or as inclusive with your favorite family and friends, as you want.

Although it’s a simple process as compared to a larger traditional ceremony, there are still a lot of details to know that are not outlined clearly on the city website. So here are some answers to common questions with insights I’ve learned from photographing weddings for over a decade. And City Hall holds a special place in my heart, as I even had my own civil wedding here!

ABOUT THE DAY

It’s your wedding day! There will be timelines to keep, people to coordinate and places to go but always remember this day is about you and your soon-to-be spouse. Be sure to take time throughout the day to pause and enjoy your union — it’ll make for a more memorable experience and even better photos.

Newly weds in front of San Francisco City Hall.

You’ll need to make two appointments, one for your marriage license, and one for your ceremony. They can be on the same day, but be sure to allow at least an hour between appointments, especially on Fridays, which is the busiest civil ceremony day. Once you have your marriage license, reservations for your ceremony can be made up to 90 days in advance.

Checking in at the County Clerk’s Office.

Checking in at the County Clerk’s Office.

SANITY-SAVER TIP: If you are able to, I’d recommend getting your marriage license ahead of time, on a different day from your ceremony. It helps reduce coordination and shuffling on the day of the ceremony so you can just focus on each other and your marriage.

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What does a typical City Hall wedding look like?

On the day of your civil ceremony appointment, you will first check in at least 10 minutes prior to your ceremony time at the County Clerk’s Office (Room 168). Don’t forget to bring your ID’s! You’ll fill out some paperwork, and they will give you a ticker tape number. Then you’ll head out to the hallway to wait and watch for when that number pops up on the digital sign.

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How long you wait depends on how busy they are that day. But keep an eye on the sign because once your number lights up, you can now head back into the County Clerk’s office to meet your Commissioner!

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Meeting your wedding commissioner.

Meeting your wedding commissioner.

What about for the marriage license? They said only 2 people are allowed in the room.

When you sign your marriage license in the County Clerk's office, you are allowed up to 2 witnesses, plus your photographer. Though you only need one witness, and if you’re eloping, your photographer will be happy to be that witness! The County Clerk’s Office is strict about this as it's a small office. But the rest of your guests can wait outside in the hallway, or by the grand staircase.

CEREMONY LOCATION: Occasionally when it’s not a busy day, the commissioner asks if you have a preference of where you’d like to get married — underneath the Rotunda at the top of the grand staircase, OR the 4th floor balcony. However, not every commissioner offers that choice and anywhere you have the ceremony, will be personal and memorable. One other option the commissioner may offer is a private room to have your ceremony. However this room doesn’t have any natural light and isn’t in the beautiful Beaux Arts architectural style as the rest of City Hall. The Rotunda (below) is the most traditional location for civil ceremonies.

Just married! A civil ceremony under the Rotunda.

Just married! A civil ceremony under the Rotunda.

PHOTO INSIGHT: If your commissioner gives you the choice for your civil ceremony location, it’s good to understand your options. The Rotunda is the traditional location, though a bit darker, and has the potential for tourists hanging about. The 4th floor has really nice natural light, less tourists, but isn't the traditional location.

How long does the ceremony itself take?

Civil ceremonies are booked in 10 minute time slots, and your ceremony will be 4-5 minutes tops...super fast! The commissioner will tell you what to say to each other, and you’ll exchange rings (if you so wish). And then you are married! Your Commissioner will hand you a marriage certificate. Keep in mind this is just for framing and isn’t your real certificate. A certified (real) copy of your marriage certificate will be available in 10 days, and can be purchased through the city government website.

A groom and bride face each other as their commissioner marries them in a civil ceremony at San Francisco City Hall.

ABOUT THE VENUE

How many people can attend a civil wedding at City Hall?

For your civil ceremony, the city website states there is a limit of 6 guests. However keep in mind that civil weddings take place in the public areas of City Hall. So the secret is you really can have more than 6! The commissioner has many weddings that day and a large guest count could slow down their schedule. So as long as all your guests are waiting and ready to go when the commissioner calls you up for the ceremony (usually under the rotunda on top of the grand staircase), then any number is fine. Just keep in mind that ceremonies take place in 10 minute increments, and your Commissioner may have a lot to get through that day! Once your ceremony concludes I recommend having your guests all take the elevator up to the 4th floor for photos.

Family photos on the 4th floor.

Family photos on the 4th floor.

A TRULY PUBLIC SPACE: One of the greatest benefits City Hall is that it’s a beautiful public space — it keeps ceremony costs down, there’s space for all your guest — but, it isn’t without it’s quirks. Since it is a truly public space, a tourist might come up to take a photo or watch your ceremony, and since ceremonies happen during business hours, there are lots of people around, both general public and City employees. Your moment can still be intimate but the hustle and bustle in the building sometimes surprises couples.

WAITING IN THE ATRIUM: If you have a very large group, I'd recommend they wait in the atrium of City Hall, below grand staircase. There's only a few benches in the hallway to sit on, and it can sometimes get crowded with other guests or couples.

The grand staircase and the stunning Beaux Arts architecture of San Francisco City Hall.

The grand staircase and the stunning Beaux Arts architecture of San Francisco City Hall.

Where can my guests park?
There are meters at City Hall plaza for 4 hours. But if they prefer, there is a parking lot, located underground from the Civic Center Plaza, across the street from City Hall. I've never had trouble finding parking there. Since they will need to walk across the Plaza to get to City Hall, I'd allow more buffer time to get into the building.

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How early should my guests arrive?

Advising guests to have found parking at least 30 minutes before your appointment time is the safest bet. This will allow time for them to get into City Hall, go through security, and get oriented before your appointment.  

What’s the best day of the week to have a ceremony?

Ultimately this comes down to personal choice and your schedule, a couple quick insights:

Civil ceremonies take place Monday - Friday from 9:00am - 3:30pm.

FRIDAY tends to be a more popular day for civil ceremonies, and therefore busier. So sometimes after you check in, it might be a bit of a wait before your actual ceremony time. If you don’t mind the hustle and bustle, and would like to kick start your weekend with your wedding ceremony, then Friday is a great day!

MONDAY mornings tend to be less busy with ceremonies starting at the appointment time and likely be less tourists around City Hall. So if you’d like better odds it being quieter at City Hall, then this is the best day. So if you’d love a shot on the grand staircase with no one else around, getting the first ceremony time is your best bet!

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ABOUT THE PHOTOS
Can we put together a selection of photos from your work to show you what type of look we’re trying to capture?
Of course! I am open to any photo ideas you have, and requests.

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Will you be taking photos after the ceremony or in between the license appointment and the end of the ceremony?
Here's a common City Hall wedding photography schedule with a hypothetical ceremony reservation time
11:30am.

The Check-In: If you aren’t getting ready together and would like to have a special moment to see each other before your appointment time, I would be happy to coordinate a First Look!
10:30am

The groom waiting for his bride for a First Look before their ceremony.

The groom waiting for his bride for a First Look before their ceremony.

Or if you aren’t having a First Look, I can meet you both at the County Clerk's office as you are checking in together before 11:30am. I document this process — it's part of the day and part of getting married at City Hall, so I love to capture the full story!

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The Wait: Once you've met your commissioner, we'll all (family & friends too) will head up to be near either the Rotunda or balcony, wherever your ceremony will be taking place.

Unless you're the first wedding of the day, this is where we "wait in the wings" to be next. So even though your ceremony reservation time is 11:30am, the time of your actual ceremony can fluctuate depending on the Commissioner’s schedule that day. So while you wait for the Commissioner to call you over, I will take a lot of candid photos here. There's a lot of excitement and jitters, naturally at this time!
11:30 -12:00pm approximately

Waiting in the wings for the commissioner to call them up for their civil ceremony.

Waiting in the wings for the commissioner to call them up for their civil ceremony.

The Ceremony: The commissioner will invite your guests to surround the two of you, and she or he will begin the service. As I mentioned, 4-5 minutes! When it's done, I usually take a photo of the bride and groom with their Commissioner. Then we’ll head to a different spot in City Hall (often the 4th floor) to take photos because the Commissioner usually needs that location to continue the ceremonies for the day!

This little ringbearer couldn’t wait to see her parents get married!

This little ringbearer couldn’t wait to see her parents get married!

The Families: If you brought guests with you, we can next take family and friend group photos after your ceremony. You can either send me a list beforehand (if it's a large group), or you can appoint a family member to direct the different combinations that you'd like. Once we've concluded with all the family and friend photos, I'll dismiss your guests. If you're having a luncheon after, they can depart to go there.

12:00 - 12:15/30pm

Just the Two of You: Next I take just you and your new spouse around City Hall, both inside and out, to take portraits and celebrate your marriage! City Hall has so many beautiful areas to take photos, both inside and outside around the building. You may also opt to travel to another great photo location in San Francisco if you have a special place in mind.

12:30 - 1pm

There are so many beautiful places inside and around City Hall for photos!

There are so many beautiful places inside and around City Hall for photos!

Across the street at Civic Center Plaza

Across the street at Civic Center Plaza

Sometimes there are food trucks at the Civic Center Plaza if you want to grab a bite or something to drink!

Sometimes there are food trucks at the Civic Center Plaza if you want to grab a bite or something to drink!

Will our guests be included in the photos?
Of course! I document everything because my philosophy is to tell the story of your day, visually. And whoever you choose to join you on your day is important, and therefore a big part of it.

The flower girl with the bride.

The flower girl with the bride.

Will you photograph our luncheon or dinner celebration?
If you plan to head to a nearby restaurant or bar afterwards, I’d love to capture some of the celebration!

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Whether you’re looking for a sweet and simple elopement or an elegant city wedding, the light that flows through the detailed architecture at San Francisco’s historic City Hall makes it a stunning place to get married. And one of my favorite places to photograph.

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If you have any questions not covered here, get in touch below. It’s likely I have some insight and probably more photos to share! You can see a few more City Hall weddings here.

On our wedding day, Sonya’s knowledge of City Hall, including the best places and light for photos, combined with her ability to put us at ease and make us look natural, truly exceeded expectations.
— From City Hall bride Miriam T.
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From my own City Hall wedding, thank you  Catherine Nguyen  for being our City Hall photographer! Also a big thanks to  Melisa Hall  for my hair and make-up.

From my own City Hall wedding, thank you Catherine Nguyen for being our City Hall photographer! Also a big thanks to Melisa Hall for my hair and make-up.