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How an Elopement Ceremony Works

Updated: Jul 14, 2022

A bride and groom exchange rings on their adventure elopement in Washington

Elopement Ceremony Logistics

As an elopement photographer, a question I get asked all the time, is how does an elopement ceremony even work- is it a legal way to get married? If you're wondering the same thing, you're not alone.

As adventure elopements become a more popular way to get married, the logistics of how everything works still isn't incredibly clear- leaving a lot of questions unanswered. Planning your ceremony and ensuring you actually get legally married is key!

But first, I want to address a common misconception surrounding legalities on your elopement day. You actually don't have to sign any paperwork on your elopement day. Many couples choose to complete the legal paperwork at home either before or after their actual elopement day for ease of mind and simplicity. specially if you're eloping abroad, the paperwork in different states and countries can require vastly different things. If you want to make it simple, sign the paperwork at home before your actual elopement day. This is also known as a "commitment ceremony"

The day you get married is when you say your vows to your partner and commit the rest of your life to them- not when you fill out a bunch of paperwork.

While you can choose to get legally married on the day you say your vows, you definitely don't have to. Many couples actually DO get married in these wild, outdoor spaces. Ultimately the decision lies with you and what you want to do.

If you do want to get legally married on your elopement day- it is absolutely essential that you make sure you have everything to make it legal. Be sure to do your research on local marriage laws of your chosen elopement destination! Requirements vary state by state, and you want to be prepared. A great resource for the United States is This website has everything you need to know about marriage laws in each state, and where to find more resources.

A couple laughing on their adventure wedding day in Washington

Things you'll want to know:

  • Waiting Period & Validity Time- Is there a minimum waiting period from the time you obtain the marriage license before it is valid? This is especially important if you are traveling out of state because it will affect your travel plans. For example, in Washington there is a 3 day waiting period (meaning that you have to wait 3 entire calendar days before the license is valid). Additionally, you will want to know how long your license is valid for so you don't get it too far in advance.

  • Residency Requirements- Make sure that it isn't required that you are a resident of the state to get married there!

  • Location Restrictions- It is important to know if your marriage license is valid for the entire state, or only in the county you obtain it in.

  • Witnesses- How many witnesses are necessary to sign your marriage license? What are the age requirements for witnesses? Some states require 2 witnesses to be present, while other states (like Colorado) allow you to "self-solemnize" without any witnesses present.

  • Officiant Requirements- Make sure to research what the requirements for your officiant are. I am ordained and can legally sign as your officiant for most US states (but not all of them!). If you're having your photographer, friend, or relative officiate your ceremony make sure that it is legally allowed in your elopement destination!

  • Any Additional Requirements- Research what paperwork you will need to bring, if any blood tests are necessary, and what fees you will need to pay. Do you have to apply in person or can you mail in an absentee application? If you are coming from out of state and can mail in via absentee application this helps significantly with travel plans if your chosen destination has a waiting period!

A groom is emotional as his bride reads her vows during their elopement in the PNW mountains

A couple laughing on their elopement day in Washington

Alright, so now you know all of the legal requirements, but what does the ceremony actually look like on your elopement day?

Honestly, it can look like whatever you want. First decide if you want to hire an officiant and have a full, in-depth ceremony or if you want to keep things simple? Are you eloping with guests or just the two of you?

If you want a longer ceremony or have several guests, I definitely recommend hiring an officiant for your elopement day (or asking a loved one to do it!). An officiant will lead a full-length ceremony that will last around 30 minutes (varying by officiant and your preference). If you are eloping with guests, you can choose to include them in your ceremony as well.

If you want a shorter, simpler ceremony, you can definitely do that too. I am an ordained officiant (as are many elopement photographers) and am able to legally sign as your officiant (in most states) on your marriage license. However, the ceremonies I perform are very short and simple. There are actually only two things that need to happen to make your marriage legal- the Declaration of Intent and the Marriage Pronouncement.

If you're eloping just the two of you, you may be wondering how do you get witnesses? And why would you want to say your vows in front of people you've never met? (Hint: you don't have to)

When my couples elope with only the two of them, I recommend splitting the "legal ceremony" and your vow reading into two different parts. We can do the legal ceremony when the opportunity for witnesses arise (fellow hikers on the trail, people at your lodging, other vendors, etc.). Most people will be absolutely thrilled to be a part of your wedding day and would love to be your witness!

Fun Fact: In Colorado you can self-solemnize, meaning that you aren't legally required to have any witnesses present! Plus, in Colorado, you can even have your dog "sign" your marriage license with their paw print to be your legal witness (Yes, this is really true!).

The legal ceremony consists of three main things- the declaration of intent (Do you take _____ to be your lawfully wedded _____?), the marriage pronouncement (I now pronounce you...), and the signing of the marriage license by the couple, the witnesses, and the officiant.

Then, later you two can exchange your vows (and any other unique touches you want to include) when at your final elopement destination. I believe that where you say your vows is very personal and deeply meaningful decision. So, at whatever point in your day you feel is the right time to say your vows- you can do it!

You can also include anything in your ceremony that you want, whether that is a unity ceremony, handwritten vows, a ring exchange, reading letters from family members, or any cultural traditions that are significant for you.

Looking for more ideas on what to include in your ceremony or how to write a short ceremony script? Check out How to Make Your Elopement Ceremony Extra Special

Bottom line: your elopement day should be everything you've ever imagined and more. Don't let paperwork get in the way of your dream day.

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Want More Resources?

Learn more about what you can during your elopement and get 80+ fun elopement activity ideas and inspiration!


Meet Your Adventure Elopement Photographer

Hi! My name is Kathleen and I'm an adventure wedding and elopement photographer (and your new friend!). I'm also an avid hiker & backpacker who loves adventure of any kind (most of the time with my dog Ranger!). I'm here to help guide you to having the ultimate wedding day experience, and to document every single moment of it.

I would love to help you plan your elopement and answer any questions you may have! I photograph elopements in Washington, Alaska, Arizona, and Utah and would love to document your special day.

Get in touch with me and let's start planning your dream adventure.

An adventure wedding and elopement photographer on the beach in Washington

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