HOW TO ELOPE IN NYC
The guide on how to get married at City Hall and in the wilds of New York
One of my favorite things to do is photograph an elopement in New York City. I am fortunate enough to get to photograph couples from all over the world who choose me to document it all for them.
The idea of the elopement has become more popular over the past few years and more couple’s are choosing to forgo the big wedding traditions and running off to City Hall to say I do, either on their own in secret or with a few of their nearest and dearest.
There is something so charming about it all and I am in love with it. There is a lot of freedom and creativity for all, with no real timelines to stick to, you have all of New York City to roam and celebrate in.
The whole idea of eloping in New York City is a bit of a mystery so here is a little guide of how it’s done.
COVID UPDATE / JANUARY 2021
Unfortunately the Clerks Office is still closed indefinitely due to the pandemic. On the Clerks Office website, they state “Until it is safe to permit the gathering of large numbers of people in enclosed spaces, we will continue to provide marriage licenses virtually.” This applies for the marriage ceremonies too. My guess as to when they will reopen will be is once majority of NYC has received the vaccine? Hopefully by late summer 2021 as it looks like normal NYC folk will be able to start getting the vaccine in May.
All marriage licences are now issued online using the Cupid Portal where you’ll submit the paperwork and book in a virtual meeting. You need to be physically in the state of New York at that time of that virtual meeting so this proves problematic to overseas couples wanting to travel to NYC to elope – “Both of you must be physically present together and located in New York State for your appointment with the clerk”.
Once you have your virtual meeting booked, you have the option to reschedule if a sooner date becomes available (people are constantly cancelling so you can keep pressing refresh to see new availability). There is often a 4 month wait for the virtual meeting. The Clerks Office releases new dates about one month out every Thursday at 9am – so if you are smart, you can log in at exactly 9am at pick out a new date. Their Clerks Office twitter feed is the best place to get updated information (and they announce what dates they are releasing) – https://twitter.com/NYCClerk and I found they are quick to answer direct messages on twitter too.
What to Expect
Pass through security, obtain a number & wait
Arrive to the NYC Marriage Bureau
At the front counter, show your marriage license, ID of the marrying couple & of the witness. The attendant gives you a number & we wait for the number to be called. This can take anywhere from 1 minute to 45 minutes (or possibly longer). Normally it's around 30 minutes.
141 Worth Street, New York, NY 10013 - between the hours of 8:30am to 3:45pm, Monday to Friday.
Your number is called for the second time
Your number is called (for the first time)
Once called to counter 5, you hand the person the marriage license and we enter the oval waiting room for your names to be called into the ceremony room.
Your number is called and you go up to teller, pay the $25 fee and all sign the marriage license. We then sit back down and wait again until your number is called to counter 5 - normally 5-20 minute wait for this.
Called into the ceremony room
The officiant marrying you will call you into one of the ceremony rooms. They will ask if you are exchanging rings. I've seen some couples exchange their own (very short) personalized vows but if sharing your own vows is important to you, I would suggest getting married outside instead. Generally it's just the "I do" part is all you say.
Approximately 60 seconds later you are married! The officiant will give you the official marriage certificate. They will normally give you a minute or two to hug it out and take a few pictures inside the ceremony room. Once you have the marriage certificate in hand, you are all set to leave and we will exit out the back door of the building. This is where many of my favorite moments of the days happen and the quintessential City Hall scene, celebrating with confetti on the steps.
What day of the week & time of day is best?
Friday's are by far the busiest day of the week and normally have double the wait time. You will have no idea how long the process will take on any given day as it's very much like attending the DMV - you get a number and wait. How long you wait, really depends on how many other people are also there on any given day. But Friday's are by far the busiest day of the week as many people want to make a long weekend out of getting married. If getting married at City Hall on a Friday - the whole process will be around 2 hours - give or take. Mid week is generally the quickest, I've often found about 45 minutes from walking in the front door and exiting out the back door as the average.
Is mornings or afternoons better?
I find mornings to be busier than afternoons. At 8:30am, you'll generally find a line along the street. In the afternoon, I have never seen a line. The shortest amount of time I have seen at the Clerks Office, from walking in the front door to walking back out again, is about 25 minutes and the longest being about 2.5 hours (only because it was a good luck day in the Chinese calendar).
On average, it takes about 45 minutes most afternoons, but I always allocate 90 minutes when creating the timeline of the day just in-case it takes longer. It's impossible to know really how long it's going to take, though I do find midweek and the colder months to be a little quieter.
In order to make use of the late afternoon late in the summertime (when the sun sets between 8 to 9pm), I prefer to enter the marriage bureau at around 3pm so we can make the best use of late afternoon light. That way, by the time we exit, it's the most ideal light to shoot the portraits in. Obviously in winter when the sun sets at 4:30pm, we will want to go in around 1pm or earlier.
If we go in the morning, by the time we exit, it's close to mid day sun - which is not ideal for take wedding portraits - thus why I prefer going as late as possible in the day to ensure to make the best portraits.
Can you be our witness?
Yes - more than happy to be the witness for you. Just let me if you want me to be so I make sure I have my ID with me.
Can we bring confetti for the exit?
Yes - remember to bring some if it appeals to you. Incase you forget, there is a store inside that sells some - but I recommend biodegradable confetti - here is a great guide
Can we bring guests to the ceremony?
You are welcome to bring guests into the ceremony room. While I cant find what the rule is or if there is actually one - i've always thought it to be 25 guests. I have photographed a ceremony at the Clerk's Office with 30 guests, anymore than that, I would suggest getting married outside.
What should we bring with us?
Your ID's & marriage license! If you have a USA drivers license, that is sufficient. But if you are from overseas, you'll need to bring your passport. There is no water fountain or food that can be purchased inside, so I recommend bringing water & a snack. I've seen many couples run to the pretzel cart out front after a long wait inside (bring cash for that). There are restrooms inside.
Alternatively, if you would prefer an outdoor ceremony (or an indoor one) – you can simply hire an officiant (I love these fine folk – officiantnyc.com) and get married in any spot that takes your fancy.
I have photographed along the river, parks, rooftops, homes and in restaurants. This is actually the most time efficient way to get married as the officiant will arrive at the exact time planned, the ceremony takes approximately 5- 10 minutes and you are on your way.
So if a sunset wedding with the city in the background sounds more appealing, go for it. When picking out a spot, some places need a permit or if you have over 20 guests, but a lot do not. I am always happy to help find you the perfect location for a guerrilla / flash wedding ceremony.
Outdoor ceremonies in NYC
FAVORITE PLACES FOR CEREMONIES IN NYC
Central Park - view my post on my fav spots
Madison Square Park
Bryant Park (with the New York Public Library in the background)
Staple Street in Tribeca
Top of the Rock
One of the many community gardens scattered across the city
Balcony or rooftop of your hotel / apartment
Pebble Beach on the DUMBO river edge with Manhattan skyline in the background
Brooklyn Bridge Park (has Manhattan views)
Brooklyn Grange Farm Rooftop
PENTHOUSE SUITE AT SIXTY SOHO
Choosing portrait locations
One to two locations is best, any more than that and we could waste too much time traveling between locations – we do not want to lose 30 minutes in a car during the best light.
When thinking about what locations you would like to be photographed in, I always love shooting people that is in a place that has some sort of meaning to them – I think it adds more depth to the photographs.
But most people eloping in NYC do not live here, so you might not have a special spot that springs to mind…so just let me know the types of places you are drawn to – urban versus nature (feel free to make a little mood board on Pinterest and share it with me) and I can help make suggestions or know the areas to go based on what you like.
I walk all over NYC and have seen many great spots I would love to shoot at, so I have a wealth of knowledge of locations that will work well for the time of day and year season we are shooting in.
West Village / Greenwich – old buildings with tree lined streets, a mix of residential and shopping areas. This area appears a lot in movies and TV shows as it’s beautiful, classic New York with well kept streets and buildings.
Tribeca – just south of the West Village, known for its old industrial buildings and Cobblestone streets. It’s a pretty quiet area and I enjoy taking photographs in this area a lot.
Lower East Side / East Village – a favorite area to shoot in Manhattan as it has a bit of everything, from grungy street scenes to residential streets with stoops and lovely parks.
Chinatown – once away from the main touristy area of Chinatown, there are few quiet streets that have a lot of character and it’s next door to the Clerks Office.
Central Park – I love shooting in Central Park. The bottom area of the park can be super touristy but once you head north, it gets a lot more quiet and know a few secret spots that feels like you are not in the middle of the city.
DUMBO, Brooklyn – this is area that appears most often in my elopement photographs. It is only a short car ride from the Clerk’s Office and has a huge variety of locations within the same area. It has the two bridges (the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan bridge), many old buildings that are very quiet compared to Manhattan and it’s on the East River, so it’s the perfect spot to get the Manhattan skyline.
Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn – it’s an upmarket neighborhood which beautiful old brownstones. It has a completely different vibe that north Brooklyn (Williamsburg & Bushwick), so if you want residential streets without the industrial wasteland feel, this is the place to go.
Bushwick, Brooklyn – it’s a grungy / industrial area with some great street art. It does not have any classical architecture but more of an industrial wasteland vibe..which is fun to shoot in if you want something different.
Greenpoint / Williamsburg, Brooklyn – my neighborhood so I know it extremely well and all it’s backstreets. It has a mix of industrial and residential, along the river, so it can be a great place to shoot for a variety of backgrounds. There is a ferry that runs from Greenpoint / Williamsburg to DUMBO and the Financial district (where the Clerks Office is), so always an option to jump on the ferry to get between two locations.
Planning for the wedding portraits
The portrait shoot part of the coverage goes for approximately an hour or two (depending on what you book) and the most ideal time to start shooting the portraits is approximately 2 hours before sunset (to make most of the golden hour and late afternoon light).
Timing for an outdoor ceremony
If you are marrying outside, I recommend making use of golden hour and plan for your ceremony around this. The main thing to decide is if you want to do the portraits before or after the ceremony – the main decision to make here is if you like the idea of exchanging vows at sunset when the afternoon light is at it’s prettiest.
If you like this idea and happy to do all the portraits before ceremony, we will start the portrait shoot about 2.5 hours before sunset time – meaning we will plan for the ceremony to be about 15-30 before the actual sunset time for that day.
If you would like to do the portrait shoot after the ceremony, plan to have the ceremony start about 2.5 hours before sunset. But I am always happy to discuss this more in-depth and make a plan based on your exact details of the day.
A rough timeline for an outdoor ceremony would look like with ceremony at sunset:
4:30pm – Meet for start of portrait shoot
6:00pm – Depart for ceremony location
6:30pm -Arrive to ceremony location
6:45pm – Ceremony starts
7:00pm – Sunset
7:15pm - Last few portraits at twilight
7:30pm - Approx finish time
Timing for a City Hall wedding
If you are getting married at the Clerk’s Office and we do the portrait section afterwards, the portraits will generally go between 4:30pm – 6:30pm so if you are making a dinner reservation for that evening, I would suggest make it for 8pm – just incase we get stuck in traffic, it’s nice to have a little buffer & the option to go back to your hotel / apartment to refresh.
A Clerks Office wedding timeline for the afternoon would look like :
3:00pm – Arrive at 141 Worth Street
4:15pm – Exit the marriage bureau, celebrate on the steps
4:30pm – Travel to portrait location
4:45pm – 1.5 hour portrait shoot (or however long you have booked)
6:15pm – Approx time to finish portraits – but important to have additional free time available incase the Clerks office takes longer then expected
8:00pm – Dinner reservation
Additional planning tips
What to wear
You want to look and feel you’re best so you feel comfortable in front of the camera. Do you need to wear a white dress/suit? Not at all. Some couples elope in very casual clothes, some smart casual or wear whatever color their favorite color is. While a lot of my couples do often wear traditional wedding attire, just know it’s not essential and wear whatever feels right for you.
Shooting in New York always presents a unique set of challenges, with the biggest problem being sore feet. We will be doing a lot of walking throughout the shoot, so please wear shoes you can walk comfortably in for 2 hours. I really recommend finding a comfortable pair of shoes that look good and you can walk in and then base the rest of your outfit around that. If you bring a spare pair of shoes and change them every time we move locations… this can put a halt on a lot of in the moment shots, turning the shoot into more staged production if you have to change your shoes every time we move. But this option is better than not being able to walk in uncomfortable shoes. So if you think you may have trouble getting around in your shoes, do pack a pair of flats.
Please know that NYC is one dirty place and your outfits (particularly a long white dress) is going to get a bit dirty. One of the hardest parts of my day is trying to convince a bride to let her dress touch the ground. But this is a big reason why I enjoy documenting elopements so much I find bride’s eloping are not as concerned about their dress getting dirty as much.
Please know that it is a prerequisite of letting your dress touch the ground in order to create great photographs. You need to be able to walk comfortably in your dress and if you have a train, let it be on the ground in order to create natural and relaxed photographs. It can be hard to make beautiful pictures if the bride is feeling anxious about getting the dress dirty. I think having a great collection of photographs that shows off your dress outweighs letting your dress touch the ground at all – you generally only wear this dress once, so you may as well get your monies worth from it.
Creating a wet weather plan
If the weather forecast shows that its going to be absolute horrible weather on the day of your elopement, we can always reschedule to the next day if both our schedules allow for it. But often you will have hair / make up / florist / restaurant booked that will make that not possible to move date. In that incase, we just need to go for it.
We may want to start an hour early to give us a little extra time between rain showers etc, so if we know it’s going to rain that day, we can make any last minute changes the day before if needed. But if it rains on the day, we can hang out in a bar / coffee shop until the rain stops, ran out and shoot until as long as we can and then repeat. I have found this method has worked well in the past and obviously getting hold of a few big umbrellas is essential. If your wedding date is a risky time of year in terms of rain / snow, I highly recommend booking private transport for the duration of our shoot, that way we can get in & out of the cab and minimize the impact of the weather.
It’s entirely up to you if you would like to have flowers or not – some of my couples have a bouquet and some do not. Just feel what is right for you.You can see my favorite NYC florists on my vendor recommendations.
Hair & Makeup
Plan to have your hair & makeup complete at least an hour before we plan to meet. As hair & makeup often runs late, you do not want to feel any unnecessary stress on the day. My favorite hair & makeup artists are also on my vendor page.
As we are moving from place to place, majority of the time it’s when my favorite photographs are made. I don’t want to pose you, so when we are moving these are moments that are far more genuine and authentic and when real stuff happens. I encourage walking where possible and catching the subway or a taxi – they always create the most iconic NYC pictures. Ubers/Lyft are obviously great also and very convenient.
Going into the shoot relaxed
A problem I run into every now and then is when a couple is running late and the shoot starts off with the couple feeling super stressed. It can make it hard to feel relaxed and loving in the photos, if you have been stressed out moments prior. Plan to have your hair & make up complete well before you plan to leave… and always allow extra time for traffic. I recommend plan to arrive early and head to a local bar if you like to relax with a drink. This means you will be completely ready prior to the shoot time, allowing you both to relax and unwind and be in a great headspace prior to the shoot starting.
Also, please do not start the shoot feeling hungry – your energy levels will plummet in the middle of the shoot and hungry people do not take the best photographs. The most important thing to remember about prepping for the day is that I am photographing you, so be yourself. You will possibly feel a little awkward when the camera first comes out, it’s totally normal. The best way to overcome it is just divert your attention to your partner. Have fun, be silly, laugh, play or have a drink and you’ll relax.
Planning your wedding dinner
Looking to book a private dining room to celebrate with a small group of guests? Some great ones I have photographed in :
Freemans Freeman Alley, New York, NY 10002
The Dutch 131 Sullivan St, New York, NY 10012
Lafayette 380 Lafayette St, New York, NY 10003
Eleven Madison Square 11 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10010
The Wythe Hotel 80 Wythe Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11249
Milk & Roses 1110 Manhattan Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11222
Cafe Colette 79 Berry St, Brooklyn, NY 11249
Frankies 457 Court St, Brooklyn, NY 11231
NYC Welcome Guide
If you are coming to NYC from overseas to get married at City Hall, navigating the city on your first few days here can be a little overwhelming. After living in NYC for the past 8 years, I have compiled a little guide to help people when they first arrive into town. While no means is meant to be a detailed guide on what to see or do, more of the things I wish someone told me when I first arrived. I am originally from Australia so simple things like tipping and navigating the subway were a little challenging at first, so hopefully this can help you out in some small way - NYC Welcome Guide