If you want to be legally married abroad, your legal paperwork preparation is very important and it can be one of the trickiest things to arrange. It’s also one of the most stressful things about planning a wedding abroad.
If you are working with a wedding planner, even an on the day planner, you should have some help and guidance with your legal paperwork. However, ultimately the responsibility for arranging your paperwork correctly is yours.
Here are some tips to help you prepare for your legal paperwork – this information is for a legal civil (non-religious) wedding.
- Start by contacting the town hall or embassy where you wish to marry and request a list of necessary documents for a legal civil wedding in your destination. This can either be ridiculously easy (for example, in Las Vegas all you need is a passport) or complex (like in Italy where there are many documents to provide and forms to complete).
- Some town halls (like here in the UK) are incredibly difficult to work with and others very accommodating; it’s dependent on staff attitudes and local politics. If after weeks or months you’ve received no help or little response, you may need to employ a local representative to liaise on your behalf. In the worst case scenario, forget the legal wedding and have a blessing instead.
- Language barriers can be a problem as not all town halls abroad have English speaking representatives and some are not familiar with the process for foreign weddings. Be prepared to hire a translator to liaise for you if necessary.
- Email is usually the preferred method of contact, so search online for the town hall/registrar where you wish to get married and contact them as early as possible in the planning process.
- If your paperwork is non-straightforward (for example, due to previous marriages, change of name documents or if you are of mixed nationalities), seek an agent or wedding planner to help with your paperwork.
- Once you have your list of necessary paperwork, and you’ve made contact with the local register office, it’s important to take time to read the details carefully. Most paperwork is time sensitive, ranging from three to twelve months, and paperwork prepared too early will be invalid. Find out how long your paperwork is valid for and work back to create a start date in your diary.
- Check what documents are needed and list them. Make sure you have the original or certified copies of said documents.
Here is a list of documents that will apply to most destinations:
The longer version is usually required. You can check if yours is the long version by seeing if your parents’ details are included or there’s at least a space for their details. If there are no parents’ details on the birth certificate, you have the shorter version. You can request a full version of your birth certificate from your local register office or online at www.gro.gov.uk for a small fee. It’s worth ordering two copies as you may need to send one abroad and it may not be returned.
You’ll need a valid passport with your name exactly as it appears on your birth certificate. If there are any differences, you will either need a new passport or change of name document to link the two names. Passports only usually need to be valid at the time of the wedding, but you may need at least six months to satisfy travel requirements. Check with your tour operator or airline.
Change of name document
Necessary if there is any difference in your name as it appears on your original birth certificate to your current name and you don’t have any paperwork to explain the name difference (such as a previous marriage or adoption). Change of name deeds can be issued at any time; they don’t need to be backdated. You can get them via a solicitor or online, one suggested website that offers this service is www.deedpoll.org.uk.
In the UK, this is generally now in the form of a new birth certificate. Usually, the birth certificate will say on it that it was reissued after the original birth certificate on confirmation of the adoption.
For any late spouses.
For any previous marriages – some destinations want to see every divorce decree in the case of multiple marriages, but usually just your most recent decree absolute is OK. If you no longer have it, you can get a copy for a fee from the court that issued the original final decree.
If you are a naturalised UK citizen, you will need this paper as proof of citizenship, especially if you have no birth certificate.
The following are descriptions of other documents you may need depending on the location of your wedding:
Certificate of no impediment
This is a document issued by your local council that proves that you are free to get married. You can apply for this at your local register office (in the area where you pay your council tax). You need to apply in person and the certificate is issued twenty-nine days later. The issue date is the date you will work from to ensure it is valid – NOT the application date.
If you have problems making an appointment due to work commitments, or due to lack of availability at your register office, check for other register offices in your area that may offer more convenient appointments.
Single status declaration or affidavit
A document that proves you are free to be married. You can usually find a template online (for example, at tlcuk.biz/en/support/statutory-declarations/statutory-declaration-template) with the information you need to include or ask the embassy or town hall where you are getting married. The declaration normally contains several statements about your identity and that you are single and able to marry – you then take it to a solicitor to stamp and sign. This does not mean the solicitor is verifying that the information is correct; they are simply witnessing your signature. The onus is on you to ensure the information is correct.
Town hall documents
You may need to complete one or more documents for your town hall or embassy. It’s important you fill out and check these meticulously – one incorrect form could prevent a legal wedding. Some of these forms will need signing and witnessing, so ensure you do this with enough time to take the documents abroad with you.
Some destinations will insist that you send the original documents ahead of you. If you do this, only use a reputable courier. I wouldn’t recommend general post as this is untraceable once it’s left the UK and can be unreliable. I doubt you will have time to get new documents if the first batch go missing, so for the sake of a few pounds, use a courier.
If you are marrying in a foreign country where English is not the national language, you will normally need to have your documents translated into the local language (not always, as in Malta or Cyprus). Before you seek a translator, make sure there are no special requirements. For example, in Greece you have to use a registered translator or your documents will not be accepted.
Notary public or a solicitor
A solicitor practises law in the UK and can witness/sign most documents.
A notary public is a solicitor with international recognition and in some destinations like Australia you have to use a notary public to complete paperwork, not a solicitor.
There is a big difference in cost – a solicitor will usually be much cheaper! So make sure you know which you need; the difference can easily be a few hundred pounds per couple.
Religious weddings are usually trickier to arrange, depending on the religion and destination.
With some religions, you both have to be practising members of the faith, be baptised or be willing to convert. Other religions are more relaxed and only one of you needs to be baptised.
Different destinations recognise different religious weddings so it’s important to check you can have the required ceremony at your destination, especially if you want this to be a legal wedding.
If you cannot arrange a legal wedding, you can consider a religious blessing instead, or a civil wedding to fulfil the legal requirement followed by a religious blessing.
Religious weddings can take place inside a consecrated building or outdoors, again it’s dependent on the destination and local laws.
It’s important to make contact with the religious body (both at home and in your wedding destination) and the town hall early in the planning process, to see what paperwork is necessary – you may need to prepare both religious and civil paperwork for the wedding to be legal. You may also need to get authorisation from your place of worship and even the place you wish to get married. There have been instances where a couple have had to write a letter to a church explaining why they wish to get married there – and please note it can’t be for reasons such as It’s pretty and will look good on my photos.
With some religious weddings, you will need to arrange an interview with your place of worship at home and when you arrive at your destination, so you typically need to arrive earlier in your destination for religious weddings.
Depending on your religion, you may also need to complete a marriage preparation course. These can take six months so make sure you contact your place of worship at home before you book a wedding date to ensure you can complete the requirements in time.
The paperwork for a religious wedding is often arranged via your place of worship at home and then sent abroad to a central administration office and eventually to the church or religious organisation abroad where you’ll get married. This process can take some time and is almost impossible to rush, so make sure you leave plenty of time to process your paperwork, keeping in mind that you will also have paperwork timelines to adhere to.
It’s not easy arranging religious paperwork, so you’ll need to be both patient and on your toes at the same time
After the wedding
A wedding that takes place abroad is legal as long as you fulfil the legal requirements of that country. You don’t need to get married at home beforehand or register the wedding when you get back home. Depending on where you get married, you may need to have your marriage certificate translated into English, and if you are a UK citizen living abroad, you may also need an apostille stamp to have the marriage certificate recognised before you can use it as proof of marriage.
If you are worried about losing a copy of your marriage certificate, request extra copies before the wedding. It can be expensive and time consuming trying to get replacement copies if you lose one.
I would normally recommend changing your name in this order:
- Documents pertaining to any legal items (mortgage, banking, or wages, tax office)
- Any wills will need rewriting as they become null when you get married
- Work, school
- Any name changes for children – I suggest doing these legally as the children will need these when they are older
If you’re intention is to have a double barrelled surname, check with your destination and ask them if you need to do anything different before the wedding with your paperwork. The alternative is to arrange a change of name deed when you get back home, which can be easier. Not all destinations recognise double barrelled names and will expect you to take your husband’s name.
Some brides don’t change their name at all, but to satisfy the local courts you may need to still sign in your married name and then simply don’t change your name when you get back. Be prepared to be flexible. It’s important to remember when you get married abroad that you are working with the country’s local laws and they can be different to ours.
In 2015, the UK government made changes to prevent sham marriages. One of these was to make it harder for a UK citizen living abroad to marry in a third country. For example, if you are a UK citizen living in Australia and want to marry in Greece, you now have to apply in person for your certificate of no impediment at the embassy in Athens at least six months before the wedding. Of course, this has financial and time implications. If this applies to you, you’ll need to look at costs and timings and might have to be prepared to have a blessing and not a legal wedding. This is what many of our couples have done to allay further stress, costs and administration.
If you as a couple have non-standard paperwork, I highly recommend employing a local expert or wedding planner to help you with the paperwork if you want a legal wedding.
If you decide to have a blessing instead, don’t be dismayed. Lots of people do this and unless you tell them, your guests will never know. Blessings can be carried out exactly the same as a legal wedding with a certificate to sign and you can then secretly get married at home.
The benefit being you can be cheeky and have two anniversaries!
A word on wedding blessings
If you decide to have a blessing, either out of choice or due to legal complications, don’t worry. A blessing can be an incredibly touching and personal ceremony, especially if you find the right celebrant.
Annie who writes and performs wedding blessings in Italy.
A good celebrant knows how to create and enhance a unique ceremony, just for you. I usually Skype with my couples in the first instance to explain how we will conduct the ceremony, including how we can introduce aspects that reflect them as a couple and how to involve the guests. As most couples would like their guests to believe the symbolic ceremony is real, without being dishonest, I can write a ceremony in such a way that it has more gravitas.
A couple of months before the wedding I send them a questionnaire. I ask them to take time out of the planning, sit with a glass of wine and answer the questions about how their relationship developed. At a point in the planning when couples are often feeling submerged by all the wedding details, it’s a great way for them to step back, crystallise their thoughts and remember the reason they are getting married in the first place.
- Contact the town hall where you are marrying as soon as you have your wedding date confirmed to request a list of required documentation for a legal wedding
- Be prepared to hire a translator or liaison if communication is proving difficult
- For non-straightforward legal paperwork, hire help
- Note in your diary any dates you need to be prepare documents by.
- List any documents relevant to you both
Here is a general list of documents you might need:
- Birth certificate
- Change of name documentation
- Adoption certificate
- Death certificate
- Divorce decree
- Naturalisation papers
- Contact your place of worship at home to discuss the wedding and start any necessary preparation courses.
- Contact the religious venue of choice in your destination and ask them for a list of required paperwork
- Ask them if any civil paperwork is necessary. This may be the case if the religious wedding is not recognised fully in your destination.Photo Credit Story Studios