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Top 10 Tips for San Francisco

City Hall Weddings

About a week ago I was at the San Francisco City Hall waiting for a couple driving from Santa Cruz whose wedding I was covering. I called them when I got there and they informed me they were going to be twenty minutes late, traffic was horrible. I said ok, this gives us just enough time to check-in before their ceremony.

I go to Room 168 and approach the clerk, informing him of the situation of couple X. I walk to the cafe, bought myself a cup of coffee and a cookie and started to get my gear ready. Twenty minutes pass. My bride calls me a couple of minutes before their scheduled ceremony telling me they're still stuck in traffic. At this point I wasn't sure whether the commissioner was going to wait for them though I doubted it.

We arranged to still meet and make the most of the remaining time from the hour they reserved with me to take their photos even if their ceremony doesn't push through. So I waited. Long story short, they did not make it due to an accident on Highway 1.

Of all the weddings I've done, this was the first no show for me. More than feeling bad about time wasted waiting, I felt worse for them. This was supposed to be their day and they missed it.

I thought of Tristan and Elaine, also from Santa Cruz, who got married at the City Hall just last month. They left and drove way early in the morning to make it to their ceremony which was scheduled just before noon, leaving them enough time to avoid unexpected accidents and prepare without rushing.

One reason (among many) why people take the route of a simple civil ceremony is they want to avoid the stress of a big wedding. If you think about it, it all boils down to just the two of you. I got married at the San Francisco City Hall myself. Initially, we were expecting it to be just me and John though we ended up with something better, just a handful of family and my best friend. Some drove for hours from another city, some flew in from out of state and one even from out of the country (my dad) at the last minute. These were the people dearest to me, those who would travel across miles in short notice and with no hesitation to be with us during our special day.

We all took BART to and from the city, went home and barbequed and passed around beer and Patron. We stayed up until the next morning, recharged ourselves with a few hours of sleep and decided we all wanted to go to Tahoe (probably fueled by the drunken conversations the night before) so we packed up and drove. It was thehappiest day (or weekend) of my life. That's really all its about.

Back to that day last week, I thought of other near misses and awkward situations I've encountered in civil weddings particularly at this venue. Here are ten tips for brides (and grooms) for a smooth and stress free experience at the San Francisco City Hall. Print them out and check them off if you have to. Compared to a big wedding's checklist, this is a piece of cake.

1. Book early. Thanks to the internet, this couldn't be more convenient. Go to SFGov's website and in just a few minutes, you can reserve a time and pay for both or either of your license and ceremony appointments. You may be surprised how many people get married here. Up to 33 couples can be married in a day, 3 every half hour. More than a few of them are engaged couples from other states who fly all the way to the bay to get married here and spend their honeymoon in this beautiful city. So book early. Appointments may be made as early as 90 days in advance.

Fees effective July 1st 2011:

Civil ceremony - $73 + $5 convenience fee

Marriage license - $97 + $5 convenience fee


- After submitting payment for a reservation, no reservation changes may be made (i.e., rescheduling).

- You cannot reschedule an existing appointment.

- Appointments may be made up to 90 days in advance.

2. Arrive early. So you have successfully reserved an appointment. Thanks to your internet savvy and credit card, you're on to the next step which is showing up. Wherever you're coming from, as seen in the example above, make sure you have more than enough time before your scheduled appointment. It's way better to be early than late and miss it and go through the hassle of rescheduling another appointment. You've gone through all the preparations only to miss it? C'mon. What else is there that is more important than this hour, on this one day that is officially the starting point of your married life?

3. Check-in 10 to 15 minutes before your scheduled ceremony appointment. Ok, so you made it on time at the City Hall with time to spare. Maybe you want to fix your hair in the restroom, take photos with your family in lobby, call your best friend who's on her way and give directions, have a cup of coffee. Do all that, just make sure you're at Room 168 10 to 15 minutes before your scheduled appointment. This is where you check-in. The commissioner of the day checks in 3 couples (max) every half hour. If you miss him, there is no guarantee that you will be rescheduled or accommodated later on in the day. Remember, they wed 3 couples every 30 minutes and they're usually fully booked.

4. Bring a valid ID (bride and groom) and your valid marriage license. I remind couples over the phone, when I send my email confirmation and at the City Hall that they should both have a valid ID and their marriage license. I had a bride who realized she left her bag and didn't have an ID when I asked again just before we were supposed to check in. It was hard to describe the look on her fiance's face as he returned his driver's license into his wallet. Luckily, her grandma who was just then hurrying into the building grabbed her (the bride's) purse when she noticed it was left at home, not really sure if her granddaughter needed anything in it. Thank God for nanas.

5. Bring at least one witness. If you have a public license (which is more common and you'll learn more about on the SF website), you have to bring at least one witness (maximum of two). There is no need for the witness to present identification, as long as he/she is of age, understands what's going on and a resident of the United States, you're good. I've served as a witness to a few weddings, so this isn't such a biggie, unless you specifically want a particular person to do the job (which is basically to just stand there and pay attention during the 5-10 minute ceremony), you have me as back-up. There is no need for a witness for a confidential license.

6. Pick a spot to get married. At the City Hall, you have several picks as to where you want your ceremony to take place -- the rotunda, the bottom landing, the private room, etc. The commissioner will ask you this question when you check in as this is the place where you will meet him/her. If you have a photographer, you might want to ask for suggestions, especially if they've done weddings here before, since they know the best spot and what would come out nicely on your photos. I, and many others, prefer the rotunda right on top of the huge staircase. It's the spot we picked on our wedding day. It's quiet, intimate and the view is perfect.

7. Make sure you have your rings. This is pretty self explanatory. If it helps, have somebody else (your mom, sister, best friend, future mom-in-law) who is less stressed and responsible enough (no kids please!) to hold it for you until the ceremony.

8. Make sure your dress and shoes are comfortable. After you get over the magnificence of this building as you approach it, you enter the doors and the first thing you'll see is the giant staircase in the lobby. This building is impressive. It is ginormous (forgive my 8 year old vocabulary) and gorgeous and does not look like any other City Hall I've seen. It's like a castle, not like I've been in one but this is how I imagine it would be. There are elevators, sure. But there are lotttssss of beautiful rooms, hallways, corners and stairways perfect for photos. Whether you're wearing a full out bridal gown or a sheath dress, just make sure you can walk comfortably in it. You can rock your Jimmy Choo stilettos specifically purchased for this occasion, just make sure you have your reliable Tory Burch flats as back up in case your toes can't handle the walk. More often than not, when we're done inside the building, we move our pictorial outdoors, which is equally amazing.

9. Keep guests at a minimum. The SF website would tell you that only 6 guests may attend the ceremony and this includes children, the photographer and videographer. I don't blame you if you have a huge family and everyone wants to attend your wedding. Just politely tell them that they may stay on the side and not closely surround the actual ceremony. A huge crowd takes away from the solemnity of the service. Or better yet, tell them they can kick start the party and have some fun as they wait for you, the newlyweds, to arrive.

10. Relax. It's all good. Everything's perfect. Take a deep breath, hold your partner's hand and savor the feeling of being surrounded by people you love. All is well. Not a single thing to worry about. Your boyfriend/girlfriend will be your husband/wife in a few minutes. Life couldn't be sweeter.

For more information about San Francisco City Hall Civil Weddings, visit the website and SFGov.

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