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I got married at city hall and so can you!
(Scroll to the bottom of this post for pictures)
As an intimate wedding and elopement photographer, I've seen quite a few different ways that a wedding day can unfold.
While I had this experience, when my husband and I started planning our wedding, we still didn't quite know where to start when planning. All we knew was what we were told to do by the wedding industry:
Invite all of our family and friends (not some, ALL), have a giant party in a large wedding venue, wear a white dress/nice suit, get a cake, have a great DJ, decorations everywhere, probably a slide show, etc...
The budget discussion was easy for us, but everything else was really hard! We just weren't excited to talk about "our special day". This type of wedding just wasn't for us. My husband is the first person to tell you that he likes options. He gets overwhelmed making decisions, so forget about having to choose exactly what we wanted the party experience to be a year and a half before it was to happen! As for me, I'm an introvert (who fakes extroversion very well!) and I'm uncomfortable when the attention is on me (which is also why I love being an elopement and intimate wedding photographer!). At friend's parties, I like to be what I call the "party butler"- I'll do the dishes, get you a refill, tidy up as the night goes on, etc. I like to be helpful and have a purpose! And I also really like focusing on other people rather than having people focus on me. And somehow I don't think I'd be able to avoid attention in a giant wedding dress, nor could I be refilling drinks and tidying up because there would probably be venue staff to do that.
Another consideration was who we would invite. I moved from Vermont to Albany, NY to be with my husband, but my family and friends are located all over the world. I could choose to have my wedding guests spend a whole lot of money to come see me get married or be surrounded by my husband's family and friends only who are all local. Don't get me wrong, I love my husband's family and friends and am grateful that they welcomed me as one of their own, but there is something about having people who know you be there when you make one of the most important promises of your life.
So we decided to get hitched at city hall! And it was the best decision we made! Full transparency, a few months later we invited my husband's family on a vacation and held a symbolic ceremony at my family's home in Austria so that we could celebrate the joining of our two families in one of our favorite places in the world. I'll write about that in another blog post.
Applying for your marriage license in New York and scheduling your wedding date
Just because you are getting married at city hall, doesn't mean it is a sudden decision (although I'm all for surprise elopements too!). We chose to get married at the Albany City Hall about 4 months before the actual date. We had just bought our first house and were finishing house projects, had a vacation scheduled, travel for work, and our hopeful witnesses were teachers, therefore we needed to wait until the school year ended. All of these factors complicated our "when".
The first step we took in the city hall elopement journey was to call Albany City Hall and ask how this process worked. We learned that the Albany City Hall performs marriages first thing in the morning at 9AM Monday through Friday before the rest of the day's court cases commence. Only one wedding occurs per day. Due to my work-travel schedule, we were pretty limited on when we could get married. There was a specific Tuesday in June that I would be home, so that had to be the date! Luckily, no other weddings were scheduled for that day, so it was ours!
Update for 2023: The rules for getting married at Albany City Hall seem to change seasonally and availability is dependent on staffing. While in 2021, I photographed 6 different city hall elopements, all in different locations, in different locations within and around the building, and at different times. At the start of 2022, that flexibility still existed. However, later on in 2022, marriages were limited to certain days of the week.
All that said, the great news is that you can now also choose to get married outside either in the park in front of City Hall or by the fountain garden behind City Hall, in addition to certain indoor locations. From what I observed, weddings were happening either at 10AM or 2PM depending on the day.
Second (or first if you do not need a specific date), you must apply for your marriage license in person at City Hall. Licenses are valid for 60 days, so I marked the "we can apply now!" date in my calendar. Making the appointment to get our marriage license was painless. We just called up once we had our documents in order, made an appointment for our lunch break, and had a mid-day date to get our license!
Regarding the required documents, I needed to get a copy of my Maryland birth certificate. Again, the process was pretty painless. I ordered it online, paid my $23 for the certificate and shipping, and it arrived a few weeks later.
In order to obtain a marriage license, you must have original documents with a raised seal. You will need your birth certificate and a photo ID with a birth date on it, such as a driver's license or a non-drivers/work ID). If you cannot obtain your birth certificate, you may use a baptismal certificate or naturalization papers. All previous marriage info is needed as well (Divorce, Annulment, and/or Death Certificates. The marriage license costs $40. (Update for 2022: They now accept credit card payments whereas it was cash only when I got married in 2019). If you have not scheduled your wedding date yet, you can now go to the office next door and schedule your wedding date in person, or just call back at a later time to get on the calendar.
Next, take that marriage license home and put it in a safe place until you need it!
*New York State requires a 24 hour waiting period before getting married after obtaining your marriage license.
Asking your witnesses
Now, this was fun! We each chose one of our best friend's to serve as our witnesses and were so honored when they said yes! There are all sorts of fun ways that you can ask your witnesses whether they can attend your wedding, but we went for the straightforward approach. (Remember that our witnesses were teachers) "Hi, so, the school year will be over on ____. Since you don't have to go to work, any chance you want to get up early, sign some papers, see us get married, and go get breakfast afterwards?"
I'll admit, it was a bit tricky telling my husband's family not to come. In the end though, they understood our reasons. They were also excited about the aforementioned vacation and celebration in Austria when the both of our immediate families could celebrate.
What To Wear To Your City Hall Elopement
Wear what you want! It's that simple! There's no right or wrong way to get married. Some people I photograph wear elaborate wedding dresses, and other wear something more simple in a color that brings them joy. For me, I wore a blue dress that I share with my sister in law. My shoes were a pair I wore as a bridesmaid in 2012, and my blazer, again, was I don't know how many years old. You know, all the things that you love but you never have an occasion to wear! My earrings were from my childhood friend and the headpiece I bought off of Amazon. So, I guess I inadvertently had my something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue! I got my flowers at Trader Joe's the day before hand, made my bouquet and kept it in the fridge overnight to keep it fresh for the morning.
The Space at Albany City Hall
When you get married at the Albany City Hall, you can choose to get married in the courtroom or in the judge's chambers. We chose the courtroom, because we thought if we were having a courthouse wedding, we wanted to be in the courtroom! That said, if you do get married in the courtroom, know that you are not alone. We had about 10 other people in the room preparing for the day's court cases. But, to be honest, I was so nervous/excited that I did not even notice. Plus, we got an applause afterwards!
Update for 2023: You can choose to get married outside as well! You can choose either the park out front or the fountain garden behind City Hall. When thinking about where you want to get married, also consider traffic and construction noises.
Vows and Personalizing the Ceremony
A question I'm always asked is, "can we personalize the ceremony?". Yes, you can! We chose to just have the standard ceremony script, but the judge did ask us ahead of time if we had personal vows to share. For us, our vows were promises that we wanted to make privately, so we went with the standard I wills and I dos. We also chose to skip the ring exchange.
Celebrating Your Elopement Day
As I mentioned earlier, when we asked our witnesses to be present, we also asked them if they wanted to grab breakfast afterwards. The great thing about getting married mid-week in the morning before the lunch rush begins is that you will probably have your pick of the seating at your chosen breakfast joint! We chose to eat in the garden at the Iron Gate Cafe . The garden patio is just lovely, and despite being in the middle of the city, feels very quiet and private. I love gardening and supporting our local farms, so it was important to us to eat some place that was both family-owned and sourced ingredients locally. I wish I had pictures of our time at breakfast, but you will just have to trust me that the food was delicious and the location was picturesque!
Celebrating Your Elopement Later
Getting married was for us. But unifying our families was really important to us too. I'll write about our symbolic 9 person micro-wedding in a future blog post. For us, doing it twice was what worked. We could have a day that was just about us and our commitment to each other and also have a day that was for celebrating with our families while providing a whole vacation experience, so it wasn't "just" about the wedding.
City Hall Elopement Budget
Our entire courthouse elopement cost us $201. That said, you can spend a lot more or spend less! I'm sure if we had rings, those would have doubled the cost of our elopement, but I chose to just wear my engagement ring and my husband works with his hands and so he didn't want one. Good thing there are no rules when you elope.
Dress: Borrowed from my sister-in-law
Blazer: Already owned
Suit: Already owned
Shoes: Already owned
Earrings: Gift from a friend
Photography: Gift from a friend
Undergarments: Stick on Bra $18
Headpiece: $15 on Amazon
Flowers: $10 from Trader Joe's
Ribbon for flowers: Already owned
Birth Certificate + Mailing: $23
Marriage License: $40
City Hall Elopement Timeline
6AM: Get up, shower, get dressed. We have one shower, and three people needed to shower that morning since my bff had driven in from Michigan to serve as a witness. Side note, I'm so lucky to have a friend who will drive to Michigan to sign some papers and have breakfast!
7:30AM: Leave the house and begin driving to Albany
7:38AM: Realize I forgot the flowers, turn around.
7:47AM: Leave the house for the second time
8:30AM: Arrive in Albany (oops, we meant to get there by 8!)
8:35AM: Park the car and meet my husband's bff/witness and his wife (Again, how lucky are we to have 3 people who will get up early, find childcare, and have breakfast with us?)
8:40AM: Through security and waiting outside of the office where we and our witnesses sign the marriage license.
9AM: We are in the right place, right?
9:05AM: Uh...right? This has to be correct.
9:07AM: Ask someone nearby and yes, this is where we are supposed to be.
9:10AM: Clerk shows up, iced coffee in hand, and rushes us through the signing of the papers. I'm not even mad because we all know iced coffee tastes better when you are running late to work. Not that I would have been mad in the first place. I was just worried that somehow we'd messed up getting married!
9:12AM: Meet the judge and confirm that we want to get married in the court room. Enter the court room and take seats up front.
9:14AM: Judge comes out and says some words that I honestly can't remember because I was so excited! At some point somebody nudges me to get up, so I do! The judge tells my friend that she can walk around wherever she wants to take pictures.
9:15AM: Yadda yadda yadda... ouch, my cheeks hurt from smiling so much...oh, sh*t, we are actually doing this! Ack, my husband is so cute...wait, he's not my husband yet... "I do"... he's my husband!
9:20 something or other: A kiss to seal the deal!
Exit the courtroom and wait for our fancy marriage license. We got shushed probably 3 or 4 times because our excited chatter was echoing into the courtroom. Oops! I think it took about 30 minutes for us to get the marriage license, but honestly, the timeline is awfully fuzzy. We had the choice to have the certificate mailed to us, but we wanted to get it that day so that we could stare at it and know that we really just actually got married.
9:50 ish AM: Leave the courthouse and drive up the street to Iron Gate Cafe for a celebratory breakfast! At this point, I am so hungry and ready for all the food!
11AM: Finish breakfast and hug goodbye!
After we made it home, we changed into our hiking clothes, and headed out for an afternoon adventure. And I'm pretty sure we ate pizza for dinner, but who knows. We eat pizza a lot. All in all, it was a fantastic day!
Do you want to get married at the courthouse? Do you want a photographer who has been there and can guide you through the process - in addition to taking AMAZING pictures?
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Curious about eloping in other areas of New York or need activity ideas for after your elopement? Check out this complete guide for everything you need to know. It covers everything from the legalities to locations to activities for your perfect wedding day.