A Complete Wedding Day Timeline, Six Ways

Expert tips to keep your wedding on track

Wedding timelines can be intimidating to write for the first time. Even if you’ve attended a lot of weddings, you probably haven’t paid much attention to how long each individual aspect lasted (barring the rare occasion that you end up in direct sunlight at an hour-long outdoor ceremony on a 90 degree day, which nobody forgets). Getting started can be the toughest part, so we put together templates for a few different types of weddings to ease you into the process.

For my fellow type-A personalities out there: keep in mind that your timeline is just a guideline! Your wedding will not fall to pieces if it runs a little bit ahead or behind. In fact, most weddings stray by at least fifteen to twenty minutes (if not more) from the timeline at different points during the day or night, and then make up for that time later. We might extend cocktail hour because people are having fun (or if the kitchen is running late). We might move up the first dance because everyone finished eating early. Your guests will neither notice nor care. Starting and ending the wedding on time are key—hitting everything in the middle in the approximate right order is important, but you usually have to adjust a little to fit the particular set of people in attendance. With all of that said, the day of the wedding you should definitely put someone else in charge of following the timeline. You want to have so much fun at your wedding that you have no idea what time it is.

One last note before we get into examples: we did not write these timelines with any particular faith or tradition in mind. Catholic ceremonies with full Mass tend to last about an hour, many Jewish weddings include traditions like a ketubah signing or yihud that should be accounted for, and the list goes on. Be sure to make adjustments to suit you and your partner’s needs and desires.

WEDDING DAY TIMELINE WITH A 4 P.M. START TIME

Because the 4 p.m. ceremony time, 10 p.m. reception end (with both ceremony and reception in the same venue), with secular ceremony and photos beforehand is a pretty common format, let’s start with that.

10:00 a.m.—Hair and makeup / Getting ready
12:00–2:00 p.m.—Most vendors arrive for setup
2:00 p.m.—Wedding party and family photos start
3:30 p.m.—Doors open / Room ready for guests / Pre-ceremony music starts
4:00 p.m.—Invite time
4:15 p.m.—Ceremony starts
4:35 p.m.—Ceremony ends
4:40 p.m.—Cocktail hour starts
5:45 p.m.—Move guests into dinner
6:00 p.m.—Buffet opens / Dinner served
6:20 p.m.—All guests have food
6:30 p.m.—Toasts
7:30 p.m.—First dance
7:35 p.m.—General dancing music starts
8:00 p.m.—Second set of pre-sunset portraits
8:26 p.m.—Sunset
8:30 p.m.—Dessert
9:45 p.m.—Last call
9:55 p.m.—Music off
10:00 p.m.—Guests depart
11:00 p.m.—Breakdown done / All staff departs

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MORNING WEDDING TIMELINE

Morning weddings are lovely, and until recently were actually pretty much the norm. Also—who doesn’t love brunch food? Or an excuse to drink champagne before noon? Here’s a sample morning wedding timeline:

7:00 a.m.—Hair and makeup / Getting ready
8:30 a.m.—Vendors arrive / Setup starts
9:00 a.m.—First look and couple’s portraits
9:30 a.m.—Family pictures
9:30 a.m.—Doors open / Room ready for guests / Pre-ceremony music starts
10:00 a.m.—Invite time
10:15 a.m.—Ceremony starts
10:45 a.m.—Ceremony concludes
10:45 a.m.—Cocktail “hour” starts / Additional family photos
11:30 a.m.—Brunch starts
12:15 p.m.—Toasts
1:00 p.m.—First dance
1:30 p.m.—Cake cutting / Dessert
2:45 p.m.—Couple departs
3:00 p.m.—Guests depart
3:00 p.m.—Breakdown commences
4:00 p.m.—All vendors out

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EARLY AFTERNOON WEDDING TIMELINE

Afternoon weddings are a happy medium, and they can work especially well for all-outdoor events. Not only do you not have to get up super early, but afternoon weddings still leave enough time for just the two of you to go out for dinner. (Seriously, if your reception is a meal other than dinner, and you’re not planning on hanging out with your guests later, please build room in your budget to take yourselves out to a lovely meal somewhere.) This is also a very kid-friendly timeline, which may be important to you if there are lots of small people in your life:

9:00 a.m.—Hair and makeup / Getting ready
9:30 a.m.—Vendors arrive / Setup starts
10:30 a.m.—Getting ready photos start
11:00 a.m.—First look and couple’s portraits
11:45 a.m.—Family pictures
12:30 p.m.—Doors open / Room ready for guests / Pre-ceremony music starts
1:00 p.m.—Invite time
1:15 p.m.—Ceremony starts
1:35 p.m.—Ceremony concludes
1:40 p.m.—Cocktail “hour” starts / Additional family photos
2:30 p.m.—Lunch starts
3:00 p.m.—Toasts
3:30 p.m.—First dance
5:00 p.m.—Cake cutting / Dessert
6:15 p.m.—Couple departs
6:30 p.m.—Guests depart
6:30 p.m.—Breakdown commences
7:30 p.m.—All vendors out

LATER EVENING WEDDING TIMELINE

I love a good evening party myself, so if you want people to party until midnight, then a later-in-the-evening wedding is a good bet. It should be noted that the evening wedding tends not to be particularly kid-friendly, so if you have a large number of little ones you’d like to include in your festivities, then an evening wedding may not be the best option for you (few kids are going to make it to a dinner that’s past their bedtime without a meltdown…). Of course the biggest win from an evening wedding, as far as I’m concerned, is that you can start your wedding day off by sleeping in! Highly recommended for night owls. Here’s how it might look:

1:00 p.m.—Hair and makeup / Getting ready
4:30 p.m.—Vendors arrive for setup
4:30 p.m.—Pre-ceremony photos
5:30 p.m.—Couple arrives
6:00 p.m.—Doors open / Room ready for guests / Pre-ceremony music starts
6:30 p.m.—Invite time
6:45 p.m.—Ceremony starts
7:00 p.m.—Ceremony ends / Guests move to cocktail hour
8:00 p.m.—Guests move to dinner
9:30 p.m.—Cake cutting / Dessert served / Toasts
9:45 p.m.—Dancing
11:45 p.m.—End time / Guests out
12:45 a.m.—Breakdown done / Vendors depart

COCKTAIL PARTY STYLE RECEPTION TIMELINE

The key is continuous rounds of food, with some heavier things around “dinner” time, and a menu that consists of food that can be eaten standing up (so, no knives, but forks are fine!) and served on smaller plates (because, big plates are awkward when you have to hold them standing up). For a cocktail style reception you don’t need tables or seating for everyone, although you should have some scattered throughout, particularly if you’re going to have older guests. A cocktail style reception might look something like the following:

3:00 p.m.—Vendors arrive for setup
4:30 p.m.—Doors open / Room ready for guests / Pre-ceremony music starts
5:00 p.m.—Invite time
5:15 p.m.—Ceremony starts
5:30 p.m.—Ceremony ends
5:30 p.m.—First round of food comes out / Bar opens
5:30 p.m.—Music starts inside
6:30 p.m.—Pre-sunset portraits
6:45 p.m.—“Dinner” rounds of food come out
7:07 p.m.—Sunset
7:15 p.m.—Toasts
7:30 p.m.—First dance
8:00 p.m.—Couple’s “Thank You” toast followed by cake cutting
9:00 p.m.—Couple and guests depart
10:00 p.m.—Breakdown done / Vendors out

SEPARATE CEREMONY AND RECEPTION TIMES

Sometimes having a time gap between the ceremony and reception is inevitable—the religious venue won’t schedule ceremonies after a certain time of day, or you simply can’t schedule back-to-back ceremonies and receptions at your two venues due to availability. While not always ideal, gaps aren’t that uncommon, or even that difficult to deal with. The first thing to think about (as with most parts of your wedding) is guest comfort. Do most of your guests live within a short driving distance? Or are they staying in nearby hotels? Are there things to do (coffee shops, museums, shopping) around one or both of your sites? Make sure your guests don’t have to spend a “gap” sitting in their cars in the parking lot, or awkwardly hanging out in the lobby of your reception venue waiting for it to start.

In general, if you have to have a gap, the ideal amount of time is about two to three hours, assuming that both venues and the hotels are within a half hour of each other. This actually gives people enough time to say, go and hang out and get some coffee, or go back to their hotel room to change or take a short nap, or check out some local galleries and stores. The one hour gap is the, I have to say it, worst. It’s not enough time to actually do anything, but too much time to… not do anything. So, if your reason for a gap is that you want to do photos after the ceremony but not miss cocktail hour, the solution is to do a one and a half to two hour cocktail hour. Because asking guests to stand around with nothing to do and nothing to eat or drink is just not very hospitable.

Here’s a sample of a wedding timeline with a two-hour gap between the ceremony and reception:

9:00 a.m.—Hair and makeup / Getting ready
11:00 a.m.–1:00 p.m.—Vendors arrive for ceremony setup
12:00 p.m.—Wedding party and family photos start
1:30 p.m.—Doors open / Guests begin to arrive / Pre-ceremony music starts
2:00 p.m.—Ceremony invite time
2:15 p.m.—Ceremony starts
3:00 p.m.—Ceremony ends
3:00 p.m.—Vendors start to arrive for reception set up
3:30 p.m.—Guests gone from ceremony site
4:00 p.m.—Ceremony site cleaned up / Vendors depart
4:30 p.m.—Doors open / Guests begin to arrive / Ambient music starts
5:00 p.m.—Reception invite time / Cocktail hour starts
6:30 p.m.—Move guests into dinner
6:45 p.m.—Buffet opens / Dinner served
7:00 p.m.—All guests have food
7:15 p.m.—Toasts
8:00 p.m.—First dance
8:05 p.m.—General dancing music starts
8:05 p.m.—Second set of pre-sunset portraits
8:26 p.m.—Sunset
8:45 p.m.—Dessert
9:45 p.m.—Last call
9:55 p.m.—Music off
10:00 p.m.—Guests depart
11:00 p.m.—Breakdown done / All staff departs

WEDDING DAY TIMELINE: FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

WHAT IS THE INVITE TIME?

The “invite time” is the time on your invitation. The earliest guests will show up is about half an hour before this, so be prepared for that. And then there are the late guests. No matter the size of your guest list, you can put money on the fact that ten of them will be around ten minutes late, even if they’re all staying down the street from the venue. Do yourself a favor and plan on starting the ceremony at least fifteen minutes after your invite time, and get advice from your vendors if you can (especially a caterer). In some regions, guests tend to stroll in as late as twenty five to thirty minutes after invite time. There’s nothing more awkward than a late arrival standing at the back of the aisle because the bridesmaids are walking down.

SHOULD WE HAVE A RECEIVING LINE?

You don’t have to! They aren’t as popular as they used to be, at least in New York. The perk of the receiving line is that it allows for you to greet all (or almost all) of your guests individually, while also letting you actually sit down to eat a meal (since the other popular way to do this is to go around to tables during dinner) and, if you have two photographers at your wedding, is a great way to get photos of you with many of your guests. A good time to do the receiving line is from cocktail hour into dinner—post yourselves at a convenient transition point (e.g. a doorway) when you have about a half hour of cocktail hour to go, and have someone be in charge of gently herding guests through you to dinner—you take about a minute greeting/hugging/fist bumping everyone as they come into the dining room, and then it’s dinner time!

WHEN SHOULD WE SERVE DINNER AT OUR WEDDING?

Timing for dinner depends largely on 1) what type of food service you’re having (the most common options being buffet, family style, and plated) and 2) how large your guest list is. It takes about twenty minutes for one hundred guests to get through a buffet. Plated courses are usually spaced about forty-five minutes apart. And family style also takes about fifteen to twenty minutes for one hundred guests to be served. Plan accordingly—it’s nice to have a minimum of bread on the table to give guests something to snack on while they wait for their turn at the food, although plated salads are also a great way to start out an otherwise buffet meal for the same reason. And of course, always discuss timing with whoever is actually serving your food. They should have the best idea for your particular menu, and they can help you make your timeline as close to accurate as possible.

WHEN DO WEDDING TOASTS HAPPEN?

I really encourage people to do toasts during dinner: you have a captive audience, and people are in a headspace to be attentive, plus you don’t have to carve separate time out of the day for them to happen. I suggest waiting until guests have had a bit of time to eat, if possible, before getting the speeches started. Make sure to tell the catering staff that they should continue to serve, clear, etc., while people are speaking (they’re good at doing this discreetly), and have your photographer take a break either before speeches begin or after they’re complete.

WHEN IS SUNSET ON OUR WEDDING DAY?

Note what time it’s going to happen! It’s as easy as Googling “sunset on [your wedding date] in [city where you’re hosting your wedding].” You’re going to want to think about lighting, especially if your event is happening partially outdoors. If possible, try to avoid having your guests in direct sunlight at high-noon, facing the sun as it sets, or in another uncomfortable situation.

And also…

WHEN SHOULD WE TAKE WEDDING PHOTOS?

Whether or not you opt for an “official” photographed first look, the truth is that a lot of couples these days tend to do formal portraits before the ceremony, because otherwise you’re stuck wrangling people during cocktail hour, which a) means they’re less compliant and b) you miss out on mingling with your guests (but not hors d’oeuvres, because you should definitely ask your caterer to set some aside for you). Also, I always suggest a second set of portraits after the ceremony and right before sunset for two reasons: the light is totally different and gorgeous (they don’t call it golden hour for nothing), and you’re also in a totally different space emotionally—you may have had a glass of champagne, and you’re married—as opposed to about to get married in an hour. You really only need to budget ten to fifteen minutes for these, and you should plan on it being just the two of you and your primary photographer. This mini session also has the added benefit of giving you a short break away from the crowds. Your photographer can also help you figure out the best timing!

CAN WE TAKE OUR PORTRAITS AFTER THE CEREMONY INSTEAD?

It’s totally fine if one or both of you is against taking photos before the ceremony—but how do you get them in after? Extend cocktails! I’d encourage you to schedule the ceremony about thirty minutes earlier than you normally would (so, set it for 3:30 p.m. instead of 4:00 p.m.), or dinner thirty minutes later, thereby giving yourself a ninety-minute cocktail hour that you’ll be able to join in for at least half an hour. Remember if you do this that you’ll need enough drinks and snacks to feed your group for the extended length, so plan ahead (or talk with your caterer) as needed.

Also make sure that everyone who’s going to be in photos knows ahead of time, and goes from the ceremony to the photo site. Get extended family photos out of the way first, immediate family second, wedding party third, and then do your couple portraits last—the key is to release the most people to cocktail hour as quickly as possible. A well-thought-out shot list will be your friend here. Take the time to sit down with your photographer and make it, and try to condense the family portraits as much as possible. (Do you really need individual portraits of you with every single person you’re related to? Probably not.)

WHEN SHOULD WE SERVE DESSERT?

While this rule seems to have gotten lost over the generations, traditionally it’s considered acceptable to leave a wedding once the cake has been cut—at that point you know that nothing else major is going to happen (it’s just partying from there on out) and hey, maybe you have a sitter to get home to, or just want to be in bed to watch Netflix. And while you may not be aware of this rule, if you have any guests over sixty years old, then they do, and they will wait for you to cut the cake (or alternative dessert, like maybe pie). So don’t wait until too late to do it. I mean, no one wants to leave without a piece of cake (or, again, pie).

WHAT IS THE LAST CALL AT A WEDDING?

The universal signal that things are about to wrap up or wind down. I prefer a “last song” announcement from the DJ or band, or nothing at all, but it can be a helpful signal to your guests.

WHO IS IN CHARGE OF WEDDING BREAKDOWN?

If your venue has strict timing rules, or noise restrictions, or you’re paying a staff hourly and they’re going to go into overtime or time-and-a-half at some point, don’t forget about breakdown. It’s generally faster than setup (it’s a lot quicker to toss decorations into a box than it is to take them out and perfectly arrange them), and with a big enough team, it can happen in about an hour, but sometimes close to two hours is a more accurate estimate. Think about all of the things that are going to need to happen once the lights go on and how much time that will take, and plan the end of the night accordingly.

DOES OUR WEDDING HAVE TO HAVE AN END TIME?

Maybe your wedding is at your house, or at a venue you’ve rented for the whole weekend, or some other magical place that will let you stay as late as you want! How do you wrap things up? There are four signals to guests that a party is over: 1) the bar closes, 2) the music stops, 3) the lights come on, 4) people start cleaning up around them. When deployed together only the very, very densest of people would miss the signal that it’s time for them to leave.

But maybe you don’t want people to leave! That’s totally fine. You probably will want your event staff, if you have them, to leave at some point though, unless you’ve budgeted for a lot of overtime pay. At some point the bar can become self-serve, the DJ or band can switch to a Spotify playlist (or maybe was a Spotify playlist from the start), and the kitchen can close or the caterers can leave, but leave behind some trays of leftover dinner food, or big bowls of chips and salsa. (Let’s be real: if you want people to stay and drink until two in the morning, you probably want to provide them with something to snack on.)

SHOULD WE HAVE AN AFTER PARTY?

It depends on a few factors. Is your crew… rowdy? Will it be a lot of guests who not only love to party, but also haven’t seen each other in awhile? Are you having a big mix of family and friends, and thinking family is likely to go to bed early? Does your ceremony start at 6:00 p.m. or later? Signs are pointing to yes. My favorite way to do this, because it’s the easiest, is to pick a nearby bar ahead of time, make a reservation for a table if it’s that kind of place, spread the word, and whoever wants to go can go.

Do you have to host (as in, pay for) the after party drinks? Definitely not. You certainly can, and it would be super nice, but after paying for everyone’s drinks for six hours, you’re off the hook (and I will tell you—if you walk into a bar in a wedding gown there’s definitely no one in the world who’s going to make you pay for you own drinks!). Also—if the majority of your guests are staying in the same hotel, that hotel bar can be a great option for this. It’s hard to say no to the after party when it’s in the same building as your bed.

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