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  • Writer's pictureNicole Lawrence

What is the Difference Between Symbolic and Legal Destination Wedding Ceremonies?

Updated: Mar 11, 2023

One of the first questions many couples ask about marrying abroad is whether they will be legally married when they tie the knot in their chosen country. It’s important to understand the options you have so that you can make the best decision for yourself.

I’m writing this article to help you understand the difference between a legal and a symbolic wedding ceremony for your destination wedding in another country.

Destination Weddings Are More Popular Than Ever

Over the past couple of years, destination weddings have experienced a popularity surge trend that reaches those who would otherwise not have considered it.

If you plan to marry in a different country, you will probably be faced with deciding between a legal and symbolic wedding. You 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 will give you the details on a legal (civil) destination wedding ceremony and a symbolic destination wedding ceremony so you can decide which is best for you.


Documents You May Need

As you would experience in your State, documents, proof of identity, and licensing fees will be required. 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 the 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 will be done onsite.


Some countries will require witnesses (unrelated 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 residence. Others may require 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 advise my clients to do what is best for them based on the country they decide to marry.

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.”


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 is to avoid the legal requirements to get married in another country 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 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:

1. Less expensive

2. Not as much paperwork

3. No residency requirements

4. No translation of documents

5. Ceremony can be officiated by a family member or friend

Ultimately, each couple should do what it feels is right for them. Unless you absolutely need to have a legal ceremony for your destination wedding, such as in some Catholic weddings, there is no wrong answer here. The most important thing to remember about your destination wedding ceremony is to do what will make you and your soon-to-be spouse most happy. A destination wedding is supposed to celebrate your love, so make it as hassle-free & wonderful as possible.

If you are 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 strategy planning 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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