Guest Long Read: The Trials and Tribulations of an American Couple Attempting to Have Their Wedding in Britain

Photo with our parents

With its romantic legends of knights and ladies, misty glens and evocative moors, Great Britain is the perfect place to seal your love through marriage.  That is if you are willing and patient to follow somewhat stringent legal requirements to be married in the United Kingdom.  But I speak from personal experience when I say that going through the exacting process is worth it.

Loving all things British, I had always dreamed of being married in a medieval church in Great Britain.  Even though I had traveled to the UK twice before becoming engaged, I knew being Americans and living across the pond would mean that we would need to do ample research about legal requirements and all those other questions like: which medieval church, who should we hire to do our flowers, how much will this cost, will our marriage be legal in the U.S.?

During our research we were surprised to learn there are many differences between getting married in the United Kingdom and the United States.  In fact, there are even different requirements for getting married in each of the different countries in the UK.

The Basic Legal Requirements in the UK

  • Must be at least 16 years old.
  • If previously married, must produce evidence that the person is currently free to marry (for example, the original or a certified copy of the former spouse’s death certificate or of the divorce decree).
  • Arrange for two witnesses to be present at the marriage and to sign the Marriage Register.
  • Obtain entry clearance or a Marriage Visitor Visa.

As romantic as eloping may seem, it is impossible to do so.  There are many legal steps that must be completed to obtain a license to wed in the UK. You will need a current passport and then will have to apply for a Marriage Visitor Visa.  This visa is for non-UK citizens who wish to get married but do not live in the UK.  It will take about a month to process the visa.  This must be completed before arriving in the UK for your wedding.  For more information visit:

Once approved, the Marriage Visitor Visa is attached to your passport making your passport a beautiful memento of your wedding.

There is also a lot more paperwork that must be filled out and filed in advance of arriving in the UK for your wedding.

As of 2014, same sex couples can legally marry in England, Scotland and Wales in a civil ceremony.  Only if the religious organization has agreed to marry same sex couples, can a religious ceremony be performed.   Currently, Northern Ireland still does not permit gay marriage.

Marriages performed in the UK are legally valid in the United States.  Since the legality of same sex marriage varies state by state, I would suggest contacting your local County Registrar for more information about the legal status of a same sex marriage performed in the UK.

Residency Requirements

England and Wales have residency requirements of at least 22 days before getting married.  There is a seven-day residence requirement and on the eighth day, you file the “Notice of Intent to Marry” with the local Registrar’s Office for the district in which they have been staying.  A further 15-day waiting period must lapse before the marriage may take place.

However, there is no residency requirement for non-UK citizens wishing to get married in Scotland.  So once you have your legal documents and Marriage Visitor Visa, you can be married in Scotland shortly after you arrive.

In our situation, being of Scottish descent, I was already leaning towards getting married in Scotland.  The lack of residency requirement fixed our decision to choose Scotland for the destination of our wedding.

St. Margaret's Chapel

Civil or Religious Ceremony

Another very important decision you will have to make is if you want to have a civil or religious ceremony.

A civil ceremony can take place at a register office or in any premises licensed to hold weddings that is not connected to a place of worship.  Places such as hotels, manor houses, castles, gardens and city halls would fall into this category.  The wedding service is non-religious and often performed by a government official.

Religious ceremonies are performed by an officiant associated with a religious organization and can take place at a church, chapel or other registered religious building. Although some clergy will perform weddings in locations other than religious buildings such as outdoor settings or castles. Depending on the faith, religious ceremonies can be more challenging to arrange.  Some churches have requirements that at least one of you must be a member of the faith or church.

My husband and I both wanted to be married in a religious ceremony and we were concerned that since he is Catholic and I am a Unitarian Universalist that we wouldn’t be able to get married in a church setting by a Minister that would honor both of our faiths.  Fortunately, the wedding coordinator we hired sorted out this problem for us and secured a Church of Scotland Minister who was happy to provide us the religious ceremony we desired.

Get Help

If you decide to get married in the UK, my number one suggestion would be to hire a wedding planner.  Unable to make a trip to Scotland in advance of our wedding, we were driving ourselves crazy researching wedding vendors on-line and made the decision to hire a wedding planner based in Scotland.  It may sound odd, but we never met or spoke to our wedding coordinator in person until the day of our wedding.  Every communication with her was through email.  We had to learn to not micromanage the details of our wedding and trust the professional.  She handled every detail skillfully including our wedding dinner, flowers, finding the right Minister for us, hair stylist, photographer, transportation to the Chapel and even renting a kilt for my husband!  Basically all we had to do was show up and get married!


Attending a wedding abroad may be out of the financial reach of many of your friends and family.  This may present a problem for some couples, or an opportunity to cull the guest list.  In our case, we wanted a small and intimate wedding and made the decision to not invite any friends or family except our parents.  At first I was worried our family members and friends would feel left out, but instead they were very understanding and I suspect some were even relieved to not have to dig deep into their pockets to pay for airfare and hotel expenses to the United Kingdom.

Manifesting My Dream

At Edinburgh Castle

My dream of being married in a medieval church was realized on November 18, 2006 when I joined my husband at the altar of St. Margaret’s Chapel at the top of Edinburgh Castle.  This tiny 12th century chapel was built by King David I of Scotland in honor of his mother Queen Margaret of Scotland who was later canonized as a Saint due to her piousness and charitable acts as Queen.

With just our parents in attendance, our ceremony was heartfelt and personal.  After our ceremony we stepped outside St. Margaret’s Chapel for photos around Edinburgh Castle and were met by a crowd of tourists who thought royalty or someone famous must have been getting married in such a special place.  We tried to tell the tourists at the Castle that we were Americans of no special importance, but some didn’t believe us and insisted on taking photos with us!

Overall our experience getting married in the UK was magical and worth the extra paperwork and time.  We estimate that including our trip to Scotland, we probably spent less on our wedding abroad than we would have if we had gotten hitched in the States.  Even though we saved a little money by not having a large wedding in America, the experience and memories of our special wedding day in Scotland are truly priceless.

For more information on weddings in the UK please visit:

About the Author: Buffy Martin Tarbox is a political and media relations consultant.  She lives in San Francisco with her husband and their two cats.  Buffy and her husband are currently planning their 8th trip to the United Kingdom.

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  1. avatar says

    Many moons ago when Anglotopia wasn’t even a glimmer in our eye, we tried to plan a wedding in the UK. But the residency requirement killed it – we were still college students and there was no way we could afford to be in the UK for that long. Our wedding still ended up being great though and all that mattered was that we tied the knot! So lovely to hear your story and that it all worked out!

      • avatarErika says

        Hi Buffy- I am also getting married in St. Margaret’s Chapel next July! How long did you have to be in Scotland before you were allowed to get married?

        • avatarBuffy Tarbox says

          Hi Erika,

          Sorry for the delayed response! How delightful that you are getting married at St. Margaret’s Chapel! Scotland doesn’t have a requirement that you have to be in the country for a certain amount of time prior to your wedding. In our case, we arrived about three days before our wedding, which was the perfect amount to adjust to the time change.

  2. avatar says

    Just out of curiosity, does anyone know what would be required if a couple (already married) wanted to “renew vows” or something like that, or maybe to just have a nice ceremony in the UK to remember?

  3. avatarDebbie S. Clark says

    St Margaret is my 30th great grandmother so I cried reading that Buffy got married in St Margaret’s Chapel! Awesome

    • avatarBuffy Martin Tarbox says

      Thank you Debbie! St. Margaret was such a special lady and I truly feel honored to have been married at the chapel built in her honor by one of her children.

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