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Destination Weddings: What is the Difference Between a Legal Wedding & a Symbolic Wedding?

Updated: Jul 7

Planning a destination wedding is more than just deciding where you'll hold the ceremony. You also need to consider whether you'll have a legal or symbolic wedding. Knowing the differences between what a legal and symbolic

wedding ceremony are can make a big impact on your travel plans, and ultimately on your wedding day. Let's explore this subject and see what the differences are!

In the past couple of years, destination weddings have experienced a surge in popularity. So much so that the trend is making its way across to those who would otherwise not have considered it.

If you're planning to get married in a different country, you will probably be faced with the decision between a legal and symbolic wedding and may be wondering, “what the heck is a symbolic wedding?” or, “is a symbolic wedding legal”, or “what’s the difference between a symbolic ceremony and a civil ceremony?”

This article is going to give you the deets on both a legal (civil) destination wedding ceremony and a symbolic destination wedding ceremony so that you can decide which is best for you.

What is Required For a Legal Ceremony Away?

Documents You May Need

Just like you would experience in your state, there will be documents and proof of identity required, along with any licensing fees. Some countries require notarized copies of your passport, divorce decree, or legal name change. Others will require translation of the documents into their language.

Ceremony Officiated in Language of That Country

Additionally, when doing a legal ceremony in a country where English is not their native language, there is no guarantee that your wedding will be officiated in English. In this case, a translator (usually the onsite wedding planner) will translate what the officiant says.

Government Fees

Then there will be government fees involved, and possibly a blood test done on-site.


Some countries will require witnesses (who are not related to you) to arrive with you on the same day.

Residency Requirement

Beyond that, most countries will also require a residency. For example, a requirement may be a 4-day residency and only business days (Monday-Friday) count toward your residency. Others may have a requirement of 48 hours and you can arrive any day of the week.

A Legal Ceremony is Nothing to Worry About

Don’t let this scare you! Some countries are super easy to get legally married in. It all varies, so I generally advise my clients to do what is best for them based on the country they decide to get married in.

Be Flexible

I also suggest being flexible. You may be going into planning a legal destination wedding abroad assuming that you’ll be able to make it legally binding in the destination. Don’t let this pigeonhole you into only a handful of options.

Benefits of a legal/civil marriage:

  • The moment you say “I Do” in front of your friends and family is the real deal.

  • You won’t have to decide which day to celebrate your anniversary.

  • In my book, it’s kind of cool to say you were legally married in “Mexico”

What's a Symbolic Wedding?

Second, let’s discuss the mystery of the symbolic wedding and what you need to know. Essentially, a symbolic wedding looks and sounds just like a civil wedding, it just isn’t legally binding. It is like a commitment ceremony or a renewal of vows.

Avoiding Extra Hoops to Jump Through

The purpose of choosing a symbolic destination wedding would be to avoid the legal requirements to get married in another country. Maybe due to the hassle, or possibly due to the cost.

Can Ensure Everyone Can Celebrate

Sometimes, couples will have certain family members who won’t be able to travel with them, so they choose to get married in the States before heading to their destination so that those family members can be a part of the union.

You Will Need Proof You Are Married

No matter your reason, with a symbolic destination wedding you will want to get married before heading to the destination because the country you are heading to will want a copy of your marriage records. To them, your ceremony is like a vow renewal, and they want to ensure you are legally married before officiating your ceremony. Make sense?

Benefits of a symbolic wedding ceremony:

  • Less expensive

  • Not as much paperwork

  • No residency requirements

  • No translation of documents

  • Ceremony can be officiated by a family member or friend

It's ultimately up to you to weigh the pros and cons of having a legal or symbolic

ceremony for your destination wedding. Maybe it's the only place you've ever wanted to get married so a legal ceremony makes sense, but keep in mind that there are more hoops you will have to jump through to pull it off.

Maybe you want a beautiful gathering of family and friends with limited interruption, which might be better suited for a symbolic ceremony. Remember, you can legally get married at your local courthouse right before flying to the beautiful location you have chosen for your symbolic destination wedding ceremony.

In the end, it's important to remember that your destination wedding day should be about two things only: you and your partner. It doesn't matter how you decide to get married; what matters is that it is done in a way that makes you both comfortable. The ceremony itself can have any format you like — legal or symbolic— so long as it has special meaning for you. After all, a wedding isn't all about the paperwork.

If you are in the midst of planning your destination wedding and feel like you’re stuck and not getting very far, I encourage you to use this link, to schedule a complimentary 60-minute strategy session with me! I would be honored to help your figure out everything you need for an amazing destination wedding! (Legal or Symbolic)

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