As well as being half of The Dignums’ photography duo, I also work part-time as a registrar. It’s a fascinating job, and I love it. I get to meet and help people at all stages of the wedding planning process, right from the first enquiries after getting engaged, to being part of the wedding ceremonies themselves.
Couples often say to me: “we haven’t done this before!” and can be unsure of what they need to do, and when. So I thought I’d devote a post on our blog to providing some information that might be helpful if you find yourself in the “newly engaged and slightly confused” category!
Before we get down to it, a quick disclaimer! This advice is provided in the hope that it’ll be useful, but it’s still down to you to check with your local registrars, legal officials, foreign officials, religious officiants, venue proprietors, and anyone else that you need to, regarding the legality of your wedding - I can’t take any responsibility myself. The precise nature of what you need to do may differ based on your location and circumstances. This advice is my own, and not that of the General Register Office or any of the Local Registration Services.
I’m going to stick to one of the commonest scenarios: couples marring in an Approved Premises in England or Wales. Approved Premises are venues that have a licence for legal marriages to take place there, where the ceremony will be performed by registrars, and you’ll receive your marriage certificate during or shortly after your ceremony. The process may be different if you’re planning to marry in a religious building, Scotland, or abroad, so if this is the case make sure you’ve done your homework and taken any advice you need to. Currently, ceremonies that take place in other non-approved premises, or outdoors, don’t have a legal standing, and are purely celebratory in nature. Quite often in these cases, the couples have “signed on the dotted line” and become legally married at a Register Office beforehand. More about that in a bit.
The early stages: choosing an Approved venue, and booking the registrars!
Hooray! You’ve got engaged (congratulations!), and are dipping your toes into the weird and wonderful waters of wedding planning for the first time. It’s easy to be overwhelmed, but you’ll be fine! Make lists, have a wedding planning notebook or folder, do one thing at a time, and don’t be averse to asking for help and advice! Maybe you haven’t done this before, but there’s a good chance you’re friends with someone who has.
One of the first things you’ll do is choose and book your venue. The advantage of going for one of the Approved Premises is that they will do a lot of the work for you, with packages that provide everything including the ceremony space, food and drink for you and your guests, and maybe even accommodation. You’ll also be legally married on that day, by the registrars. Of course, you’ll pay good money for all of this convenience.
There are also Approved Premises where just the ceremony is held, which tend to be more affordable. These include the Register Offices themselves, which usually have a special room for ceremonies. After they’re married there, couples will often go on to somewhere they’ve arranged for celebrations afterwards, which doesn’t have to be on the Approved list. It could even be their own back gardens!
The websites for Register Offices usually have a list of all the licensed premises in their area, so that can be a useful place to start. Then the scouting begins, either in person or online. Unless you’re millionaires, budget is likely to be a big deciding factor. It’s worth bearing in mind that a venue’s price may vary with time of year, or the day of week of the booking, with Saturdays being the most popular. There are sometimes deals to be had: venues may offer a discount for their remaining unbooked dates in the coming months. So if you don’t mind doing your organising quickly, this can be a way to save money.
Soon enough, you’ll find a venue you’ve fallen in love with, and contacted the staff there to pick a date. At this point you will also need to contact the Register Office in the same district as your venue, to make sure they have registrars available to marry you on that date. Most venues won’t do this for you - it’s your responsibility. There may be a bit of back and forth depending on availability, and this is the point at which you’ll choose the time of day for your actual ceremony. You’ll need to check whether your venue prefers the ceremony to take place at a particular time, and that the registrars are available for that time, too.
From a photography point of view, the time of day for your ceremony can be important, particularly in the winter. If you book a 4:00pm ceremony in December, remember it’s going to be dark! This will of course affect the sort of pictures of your day that you end up with.
When you’ve settled on a date and time that everyone can do, you need to get venue and registrars booked! There’ll be a deposit to pay to secure your venue, and possibly a booking fee for the registrars, too.
Remember: if you don’t mind the idea of getting legally married on one day, and having a non-legal celebratory ceremony shortly afterwards, there’s always the option to have a very simple and affordable “statutory” wedding at your Register Office. The celebratory ceremony afterwards could take place anywhere, even a marquee in your own back garden, or a field! You may find that your local registrars offer a Celebrant service to perform this ceremony for you, or you may wish to contact an independent celebrant.
The slightly later early stages: booking your other suppliers, and giving Notice at the Register Office
It’s a nice feeling when you’ve got a venue and registrars booked, but there’s still stuff to do! This is the time when you’ll start to plan for the other elements of your day. Your list may include things like suits/dresses, choosing brides-grooms-maids-men (delete as appropriate), hair and make-up, flowers, music, decorations, food and drink, treats and favours, cake, entertainment, and alpacas. Yes, wedding alpacas are a thing!
Chances are, since you’re on this website, photography is important to you as well.
Wedding suppliers, photographers included, tend to get booked up well in advance, so you don’t want to hang around at this point. But it’s super-important to make sure you choose what’s right for you. Using photography as an example, there’s loads of different styles, personalities, and prices out there. Research what’s on offer, to make sure it fits well with what you’ve got in mind for your wedding. Your photographer is going to be there with you for a large part of your day, so you’ll want to make sure that you and your photographer, as well as the cameras, click!
Wedding fairs are a great way to get inspiration, chat to suppliers, and eat loads of free cake samples (yum), and settle on the priorities for your day, based on your budget. You may also realise, that if you’re that way inclined, there may be some things that you’re able to do yourself. It saves some of your hard-earned cash, and can add a lovely personal touch to your day. Phil and I, for instance, sewed our own bunting, and chose simple bunches of daffodils from the supermarket for our flowers.
Then, no earlier than a year before your wedding date, but ideally fairly promptly after “365 days to go” has happened, you’ll need to do your Notices at the Register Office local to where you live. Giving notice is a legal requirement for all Approved Premises and Register Office ceremonies, and most non-Church of England religious ceremonies. There are a few exceptions, but your local Register Office will be able to advise you if this is the case.
You’ll need to book an appointment, and both go along in person, with documents that prove your identity, nationality, home address, and that you’re free to marry each other. Your Register Office staff will walk you through what you need to bring when you book your appointment, so listen carefully! That Cycling Proficiency Certificate from when you were at school is not going to cut it in this case!
Usually, if you have a valid (in date) UK or EEA passport, plus a valid photocard driving licence that shows your current address, you’ll be home and dry. If you’ve been married before, you’ll need to show proof that that previous marriage has ended - most commonly that means a decree absolute (not the decree nisi), for a divorce. If you’ve ever changed your name, you’ll need to show evidence of that, for instance a change of name deed. You may also be asked to bring your full (A4-sized) birth certificate, and further proof of address: a bank statement less than one month old, or a utility bill less than three months old. Finally, if you don’t have a valid passport, there will be a few more hoops to jump through to establish your nationality. If you were born before 1983, then your full birth certificate will do this for you. However, if you were born on or after 1/1/1983, you’ll need to show your full birth certificate, PLUS your mum’s full birth certificate, as you get your nationality from your mum! The main advice to give here is to pay attention to what the Register Office staff ask you to bring, when you book your appointment.
At the appointment itself, you’ll show your documents, pay your fee (currently £35 each, so a total of £70), and you’ll be asked questions about yourself, and your partner. You may be seen together, or separately. Don’t panic about those questions: it’s just the basics, and there’s no soundproof booth with headphones. At least, there isn’t one at MY Register Office! Some of the details from your notice-giving will then be placed on display at your local Register Office for (usually) 28 days. It’s a legal requirement that in this small way it’s published to the general public that you wish to marry your partner, and would allow a member of the public to raise a legal objection if they wished. This 28 days must elapse before you are allowed to get married, with is another reason not to leave it too late with regard to giving your Notices.
Another thing to quickly mention is that your Notices, once given, are locked to the ceremony venue that you’ve stated. So, if for any reason you change your mind about where you’re getting married, you would have to go through the Notice process (including paying £70, and the 28 day waiting period) again. Notices also have a time limit: they expire one year after they’ve been given. So if you had to delay the date of your wedding, and it went to more than a year from your Notice date, you would also have to go through the process again.
If you’re planning to marry in an Approved Premises or Register Office, the registrars in the corresponding district will see pretty much straight away that you’ve done your Notices - the computers are all linked. So while you give your Notices in the district in which you live, it’s the registrars in the district where your legal ceremony is going to take place (if different) that you’ll be dealing with after that. They usually get in touch to confirm they’ve received your Notices, and the date and time of the ceremony. There may be options to personalise your ceremony, and of course there will be a fee, usually payable no later than one month before your big day.
On your wedding day!
Before you know it, your wedding day will be upon you! Its a cliche, but it really does seem to come round quickly. Registrars tend to come in pairs at weddings: there’s the one who will do the talking, and actually conduct your ceremony, and a quieter one, who will do the writing. They will arrive at your venue approximately 40 minutes before the ceremony is due to start. First of all, they see you and your partner, usually separately (so you don’t see each other beforehand). They will double-check all the details you gave when you did your Notices, to make sure everything is correct and up to date. You don’t usually need to bring any paperwork with you on the day, though: the process is just done verbally, unless anything major has changed. I was once registering at a wedding where one of the parties had completely changed their name since they’d given Notice! Fortunately they’d had the foresight to bring along their change of name deed, which was certainly helpful in that case.
During this pre-ceremony interview you’ll also be walked through everything that’s about to happen. The most important thing I say to my couples, though is not to worry about remembering a single word of it! Just go with the flow. It’s actually really simple and obvious what’s going on throughout the ceremony: you’ll be led through all of it, and all the speaking is simple. You’ll either be responding to simple questions, or just repeating the words nice and slowly, a few at a time. It’s easy, I promise!
Afterwards, you and your partner will sign the big green Register, or possibly something called a Schedule, and your two nominated Witnesses will sign too. You have to bring your two witnesses along - the registration staff can’t be witnesses themselves. Witnesses can be anyone, friends, family, even strangers; as long as they are adults who understand what’s going on, and aren’t being distracted by taking pictures or looking after children, for example. It’s normally also a requirement that they’re near the front of the room, so that they can hear the words being said.
Once everyone’s signed, you’ll be handed your Marriage Certificate, as proof of what you’ve gone and done! Or, it may be posted to you shortly afterwards. There may be the chance for some posed “signing of the register” photos. Your registrars will then congratulate you, before slipping away: possibly even to another wedding! On busy summer Saturdays they could have several weddings to attend, so they may well have mentioned to you beforehand the importance of your own ceremony starting on time.
Some future changes
You may be aware that in 2019 the law changed to allow opposite-sex couples to enter into Civil Partnerships. This is a version of the marriage union that confers pretty much all of the same legal status as marriage, but with no obligation to have any sort of ceremony. The Notice process still stands, but after the waiting period the couple just have to sign a piece of paper, called a Schedule, along with their two witnesses, and then they get their Civil Partnership Certificate.
To bring everything into line, this means that eventually couples getting married will also sign a printed Schedule rather than a hand-written big green book of a marriage register. Personally, I’ll be sad to see the registers go - they’ve been around since 1836! But I reckon that what will happen is that most registrars will still carry some sort of big green book, for couples to pose with. We currently don’t know when these changes will happen, but it’ll be along soon enough.
There is also talk of changing marriage law to allow couples to have their legal ceremony anywhere. This means that legal wedding won’t be restricted to Approved Premises any more - this is the way it’s done in Scotland, by the way. It could be an interesting time for the registrars, who may find themselves trekking up the local hills or mountains to perform some picturesque weddings, but I’ll certainly be up for it - within reason! However, don’t hold your breath with this one, as these changes to the law will have to go through Parliament first, which could take a very long time.
So - this is officially the longest written blog post on our site! I hope you’re still awake, and at least some of this information has been interesting and useful. Remember, though, to check with everyone you need to, regarding your own personal circumstances.
Or, just take me out for a pint, and then you can pick my brains further!
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