All the Things You Need to Know About Eloping (Before You Do It)


It might be easier, but there are still plans to make

by Stephanie Kaloi, Content Manager
eloping couple standing against a red wall

Nine years, my husband and I decided we were eloping. We woke up one morning and he asked if I wanted to head down to the courthouse and get married. We had been engaged for a month, together for just four, and were feeling overwhelmed. We weren’t overwhelmed by our quick decision to get married, but by the reaction to our wedding plans—our day of choice was shot down (it was on a Wednesday, six months in the future), our diet of choice was nixed (we’re vegetarians), and it felt like anything we said would immediately be vetoed by people who had nothing to do with the wedding planning process.

We were young and in love, so when he me to go all in on eloping, I did, I did. We got married later that day with our moms present and never looked back. It was perfect for us.

Of course, this was early 2007—before the big wedding blog boom happened—and I had no idea how to do… anything. For example, it never occurred to me that we might want photos from our wedding day (which is funny, since I started a wedding photography business a year and a half later), but now I wish we’d had some sort of APW-like guide to help us figure out what we needed to consider. Sure, we might not have followed all of it, but it would have been nice to have.

In that spirit, here’s your guide: painstakingly crafted after hours of research on eloping. In other words, don’t say I never gave you anything.

FIVE WAYS ELOPING HAPPENS

It seems like when a lot of people imagine eloping, they imagine running down to city hall, finding the judge, and getting married in five minutes or less after filling out a bit of paperwork. And sure, that’s definitely one way to do it—but that’s not the only way (it’s also not even necessarily that easy, since a lot of cities require waiting periods and scheduled appointments for courthouse weddings):

bride and groom eloping at city hall

Photo by Harper Point via Cherie and Matt’s Colorado City Hall Wedding

1. THE SURPRISE! WE ELOPED KIND: Yes, this can be the two of you, alone, at city hall, but it doesn’t have to be. My husband and I planned to elope on our own, but ended up calling our moms on our way to the courthouse at the last minute. This was a great choice for us, but it’s not for everyone.

We talked about going to the courthouse a few days before we actually did, but didn’t make concrete plans for a date. I remember being totally confused on the protocol. Would we exchange rings? Could I wear a wedding dress? Would it feel like a real wedding? The answers, for me, revealed themselves in the time leading up to the day we actually went. Obviously yes, we would exchange rings. Yes, a city hall or courthouse elopement is still a real wedding—it’s your wedding, after all. In the same way that a birth is still a real birth no matter how it happens, your wedding is your wedding. When it came to the dress, I actually just ended up in a dressing room of a big-box store, trying on various black dresses until I found one I liked. I love the dress I chose, though in retrospect I totally wish I’d had the gall to go a little more bridal—maybe not white and poofy, but something that felt more wedding-y. But hey: that’s just me.

couple eloping in a ceremony in front of mt hood

Photo by Mhari Scott via A Wedding for Two

2. THE TWO OF YOU + AN OFFICIANT KIND: If you and your partner want to truly elope (just the two of you) but aren’t interested in the city hall/courthouse route… why not pick a cool location and go for it? Think next to the ocean, standing on a cliff, or somewhere in the middle of a city that you love. You’ll need an officiant to legally seal the deal, but that’s just about it. A lot of wedding venues offer elopement packages—in fact, the wedding above happened at such a place.

bride in a red dress eloping in the middle of a field

Photo by Our Love is Loud via A Self-Solemnized Elopement in Colorado

3. THE KIND YOU DO YOURSELF: Colorado and Pennsylvania are currently the only two states in the US where a couple can self-solemnize their marriage, and you can also do it in DC (but those marriages are recognized in all fifty states). Curious about how it works? Here’s a mini guide to self-solemnizing your marriage:

  • Pick up your paperwork, but don’t sign it. If you go to Denver’s City Hall and fill out your marriage license, surprise: you’re married! To self-solemnize it, you take your paperwork to your chosen spot, say your vows (if you have any), and sign. Hi! Now you’re married. (Don’t forget to mail everything in!)
  • Don’t have an officiant. One of the more prickly rules of self-solemnizing is that no one can actually wed the two of you. You can have witnesses, but not an officiant.
  • If you do want an official officiant involved, consider a self-uniting marriage instead. It’s more or less the same thing, but with more people attached.

bride and groom eloping with balloons in a pop up wedding

Photo by Pop! Wed Co

4. the almost-elopement you invite your family to: This is what you call it when you pick a location and date ahead of time, and invite your family and friends to see you get married. This can happen at city hall or a courthouse, out in your granddad’s field, or wherever else you want it to. Tiny wedding in front of the Eiffel Tower? Go for it! Under a domed building in DC while your family looks on? You’ve got it.

couple eloping in las vegas

Photo by Gaby J Photography via A Color-Wonderful Las Vegas Elopement

5. Las Vegas because… las vegas: Fun fact coming atcha—my husband proposed to me in Las Vegas. We were there for his twenty-first birthday (which was three months after we had our first date, by the way) and had spent the weekend with his Tutu and aunties. Something about the way we all got along, and you know, my general wonderful self, clicked—and all of a sudden he was asking me to marry him and I was saying yes before like, going downstairs for dinner. We briefly contemplated just getting married in Vegas (because Elvis!) but demurred—that’s not something real people really do, right?

WRONG. It turns out Vegas elopements are kind of amazing, and you should have one. Between the Elvis elopement abovethis Las Vegas vow renewal, and this drive-through Vegas wedding, I’m working on plans for our tenth anniversary. You watch.

the pragmatic side to eloping

man and woman eloping at san francisco city hall

Photo by Vivian Chen

Now that you’ve decided how you’re eloping (Vegas, right? Say Vegas), you need to make sure you know what you need to pull it off. It turns out there’s a little more to this game than showing up and doing it. Luckily our own Editor-in-Chief Meg Keene (literally) wrote the book on it, so here are the details:

a mini-checklist for eloping

Every state and country has its own marriage license laws, so you’ll want to find out what yours are. Generally, if your elopement will involve a license, you need to know three things:

  1. What is the wait time between getting your license and the wedding?
  2. Do you need an appointment at city hall?
  3. What are the witness requirements, and who can serve as your witness?

Rings, Vows, and more: what do you need to keep in mind when eloping?

If you’re not a big planner, one of the fun sides to eloping is that there is so much you don’t have to think about—I mean, one of the reasons we eloped is that the idea of trying to figure out how to feed a bunch of people with various diets and considerations was overwhelming. Of course, this doesn’t mean you necessarily want to opt out of everything:

  1. Rings: Do you want them? Do you not? If you do, make sure you order them in plenty of time (and don’t leave them at home).
  2. Vows: You don’t have to have your own vows (we just followed the judge’s lead), but you can. Decide ahead of time if self-written vows are going to be part of your elopement. Civil ceremonies are usually pretty short, but you can generally bring your own vows if you have them.
  3. Travel Plans: If you’re eloping somewhere that isn’t local, make sure you make arrangements ahead of time. Treat yourself!
  4. Clothing: Sure, you don’t have to go big or necessarily bridal/groom-ish, but you can if you want to. Figure out what you want to wear (and don’t let eloping be an excuse not to get the dress you actually want).
  5. Photography: I one hundred percent recommend hiring a photographer the day you’re eloping. You’ll find that a lot of photographers offer hourly rates, and I speak from experience when I say that the one thing you might really miss having down the road are photos from the day you got married. I have one grainy, windup camera photo… and I wish I had a handful of high-quality, awesome photos.
  6. Flowers: Do you want to carry a bouquet or wear a boutonniere? There’s no reason you can’t. If you don’t want to hire a florist, grab some pretty flowers from a local market or grocery store the morning of.
  7. Hair and Makeup: There’s no reason you can’t have your look professionally done—and there’s no reason that a little mascara and lip balm won’t be perfect. You do you.
  8. Celebrate: If you want to have a party after, go for it! If dinner and drinks together sounds more your speed, do that.
  9. Announcements: Sure, you’re not sending out save the dates, but you might want to send out wedding announcements after the fact (or hey, you might not).

real-life eloping iNSPIRATION

As someone who eloped, I can honestly say that eloping was the best decision for us at the time (and probably forever). You don’t have to take my word for it—I’m just one person who has eloped! Luckily, tons of APW couples have also eloped… and they’ve made eloping look incredible:

Bride in a green dress and a groom laughing after eloping

A Monday Elopement Under a Waterfall in Bare Feet and a Turquoise Dress

two women in white wedding dreses eloping in seattle

Eloping on a Tuesday Night

couple eloping in Brazil

An Elopement in Rio de Janeiro

couple eloping in the neon museum in Las Vegas

A Color-Wonderful Las Vegas Elopement for Under $5K (Elvis Included)

bride and groom in house with their dog

An Almost-Elopement in Atlanta

couple eloping in new york city

An Elopement in Grand Central Terminal

self solemnized wedding in colorado

A Self-Solemnized Elopement in Colorado

 did you elope? how did it work for you? if you’re engaged, would you consider eloping?

Stephanie Kaloi

Stephanie is a photographer, writer, and Ravenclaw living in California with her husband, their seven year old metalhead son, and a crew of beasts. She is super into reading, road trips, and adopting animals on a whim. Forewarning: all correspondence will probably include a lot of punctuation and smiley faces.

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  • Anon

    FYI Unless it’s changed since I got married (self-united) in PA last year you NEED to have two witnesses to make a self-uniting license official. We checked what the requirements are and basically they need to legally hear each partner say “I take you as my husband/wife.” I don’t think there’s legally a way of doing it with less than 4 total people present or you could do that actual statement in front of 2 witnesses at some other point if you’d like to be totally alone for other vows and such.

    • saminrva

      Yup, I was coming here to say this too. We did a self-uniting ceremony in PA this past May and you definitely need 2 witnesses to sign the official license. (The witnesses actually get recorded on the marriage license and in the official record too, which was pretty fun for our moms!)

  • emilyg25

    In Pennsylvania, if you get a self-uniting marriage license, you need two witnesses to sign it. So you’ll have to elope with at least two other people. But self-united marriage is awesome!

    • Sarah

      Was going to add this too! We had a Quaker ceremony in PA and moved back to NC and got a few double takes at the social security, DMV, etc offices. However no one gave me any trouble and were mostly interested in it.

  • louise danger

    oh man you’ve put the elopement/teeny destination wedding bug in my ear. the thought of standing in front of even our small crowd for what my plans currently look like is making me kind of

    itchy

    like, i think our plans are pretty rad but there’s something so appealing about just picking up and going in a different direction [together]. mrrp

  • lamarsh

    I’m fairly positive you can also self-solemnize in DC.

    • Liz

      You can. I did!

    • stephanie

      Adding that! I could have sworn I had it in here, because I remember reading it. Thanks!

  • laddibugg

    So, with the self solemnizing/uniting thing, you can have other people involved in your wedding, just no one can say ‘you guys are married’?

    • Sarah

      Well I suppose someone could do that (like what state officer is going to be monitoring your wedding?) but you don’t HAVE to.

    • saminrva

      I think you can do it many ways and you can definitely have other people involved. We had the 8 people in our wedding party each do a part of the ceremony like an officiant would have, but no one pronounced us married or told us when we were allowed to kiss. You’d have to be paying pretty close attention to notice that it wasn’t a fairly traditional non-secular ceremony.

    • In Colorado at least, you could still have someone kindof leading the wedding as part of the ceremony, but legally, you’re declaring yourselves married (and you would sign the marriage certificate, rather than the officiant). So s/he would never say the “by the power invested in me” part…because you’re marrying yourselves. Here are the guidelines: “The couple must both sign below where the clergy or judicial officer would otherwise sign, and then sign again as “Party One” and “Party Two.” Neither witnesses nor officiant are required for a valid self solemnization.”

      • laddibugg

        Gotta look up the rules in PA since that’s a quick drive for us ;-). We’ve been kind of stressing out about finding an officiant. None would be a great choice.

    • emilyg25

      You can do pretty much whatever you want, but the only people who sign the license are you, your spouse and your witnesses. We had a Quaker wedding, so we truly married ourselves. But we considered having a more typical set up, just with an MC instead of an officiant.

  • Sara

    I love the idea of elopement. My parents did it – they went to Ireland and got married with just a random distant great aunt, the priest and a little boy from the school next door (who according to the stories I’ve heard yelled to his friends “I’m going to see the Yanks get married today!”). Then they came home and had a back yard bbq.

  • Amy March

    “This is what you call it when you pick a location and date ahead of time, and invite your family and friends to see you get married.” This just drives me crazy! This is not eloping, in any way, at all. That’s the same as any other wedding! You want to call it a small wedding, a destination wedding, fine, but it is in no way eloping and I think it confuses things to pretend otherwise, even if we are now calling it an “almost elopement”.

    • AtHomeInWA

      I’m sorry it drives you crazy, but consider this: I can say to my aunties “we eloped with our parents, siblings and closest friends” and they’ll celebrate with us. If I say “we had a wedding and you weren’t invited” they’ll be hurt.

      A wedding is any event where two people sign (or don’t sign!) a marriage license. Even a city hall elopement is a wedding. But calling it something different makes it okay that is isn’t a WEDDING.

      • stephanie

        “I can say to my aunties ‘we eloped with our parents, siblings and closest friends’ and they’ll celebrate with us. If I say ‘we had a wedding and you weren’t invited’ they’ll be hurt.” totally that.

        • Violet

          If you’re going to do something that you know will hurt someone’s feelings, I don’t think trying to change the meaning of words is the answer. As I see it, there are two options I’d choose from:
          1. I’d either invite the aunt to the small wedding (best option if the prospect of upsetting her was truly intolerable to me)
          2. I’d tell my aunt the truth, without sugar-coating, and tolerate the fact that she is upset because of a decision I made (best option if inviting the aunt is truly not on the table for whatever reasons, many of which might be perfectly valid)

          • CMT

            Yeah, but the whole theme of this post is You Do You, and a lot of people feel the way AtHomeInWA does. I don’t understand arguing with other people’s choices.

          • Violet

            Here’s where I’m coming from- You can always do you, but that doesn’t mean people (aunts, etc.) aren’t allowed to feel upset by it. It would actually hurt my feelings worse if someone tried to play with words, rather than just be honest and own their choices, ramifications and all.

          • laddibugg

            Exactly. Stop trying to be cute with words and just say you got married. Be prepared for them to ask why they weren’t invited. ESPECIALLY if you say you had close friends there.

          • the cupboard under the stairs

            Y’all must not be from the PNW. People from the Northwest are all about mincing words to avoid conflict.

          • Violet

            Avoiding conflict is not actually the same thing as not hurting someone’s feelings, though. Doing something that you know will hurt someone’s feelings and then trying to manipulate language to cover it up feels, to me, like am emotional hit-and-run. It’s like breaking up with someone by saying, “It’s not you, it’s me.” Does it make the person being dumped feel any better? Noooooo. Does it assuage the breaker-upper’s guilt? Yes. That’s why people want to do it; because it makes them feel better. But it doesn’t make the recipient of the news feel better.
            (FWIW, none of what I’m saying applies to your wedding. If people can’t understand circumstances like that and be happy for you, that’s on them.)

          • laddibugg

            LOL, nope. I’m from New Jersey. Guess that explains why I feel how I do.

      • Poeticplatypus

        Or you could just say we got married Auntie. Full stop. You can’t stop hurt feelings. That’s the thing that comes with elopements or small weddings, some people will have hurt feelings

        • CMT

          Sure, but a lot of people want to try to NOT hurt the feelings of the ones they love.

          • Poeticplatypus

            You can’t invite everyone to your wedding. Nor can a friend or family member expect to be invited to every wedding. That’s the reality.

      • Violet

        You could, but any auntie who is paying attention will realize that what you’re describing is not an elopement, but a small wedding. It’s like people who preface an offensive statement, with “No offense, but…” It shows an acknowledgement that what is about to be said will hurt feelings, but it attempts to disallow the recipient of the words from feeling those feelings. If you want to have a small wedding, by all means, have a small wedding. As Poeticplatypus astutely points out, people’s feelings get hurt when they get hurt. Trying to change the meaning of words to avoid hurt feelings is almost sure to be an exercise in futility.

      • Amy March

        Yeah this is kinda what irks me about it. It buys into the absurd WIC nonsense that a “wedding” meets some list of criteria beyond “two people getting married”. Going to city hall with you mom’s and bffs and eating street tacos after- that’s a wedding. Calling small more casual weddings any form of elopments, to me, is problematic because it suggests that they are otherwise not okay.

        Also who are these gullible aunties you have?!?

        • Poeticplatypus

          Yes! Can APW please stop calling small weddings elopements. Please?

          • Cellistec

            Some of us who had small weddings call them elopements. Some of us who eloped say we had small weddings. I don’t see why it matters to anyone else what words we use, and I’d be surprised if APW brought down the editorial hammer on those labels. It’s the details that matter, not the categories.

    • Lisa

      I saw that bullet point and immediately wondered when I’d see your comment!

      • Violet

        Haha, me too! I agree with Amy March, but I don’t think I’ll keep commenting on this thread, so as not to derail from Stephanie’s excellent post!

    • Meg Keene

      I mean, I feel you. But I’ve also watched the way the word is used changed over the past 8 years, and somewhere along the way, realized I’d lost that argument.

      • tr

        Truth be told, I feel like it’s gotten to the point that we need a new word to describe truly tiny (i.e. 6 people or less) weddings, because while they aren’t technically elopements, when most people hear “small wedding”, they think 30 people, a wedding dress, and centerpieces. Even though it’s not technically correct, in some ways, 4 people at the courthouse feels more like an elopement than a “small wedding” (based on modern, WIC standards of what constitutes a small wedding).

    • the cupboard under the stairs

      Would you consider it an elopement if it differed from the original plan?

      My fiance and I were about a year out from our big wedding when a job opportunity came up for him in the UK, and if he had gotten the job, we would have had to leave the country in about a month. We knew I had to marry him to legally accompany him, so we told our parents and a couple of close friends to brace for a possible last-minute trip to our city courthouse. I for one would have considered that eloping.

      • Amy March

        I think the element of suddenness makes it more like an elopement for sure. I don’t know that I would call it an elopement personally but I think it’s much closer to the definition for me.

        • the cupboard under the stairs

          Maybe “quickie wedding” is more apt!

  • Alyssa Andrews

    Thank you for this! My fiance and I are going the “almost eloping” route and are headed to Paris next year to be symbolically wed by my aunt, with our immediate family and close friends on the summer solstice (so our reception can be the Fete de la Musique!). This checklist is super helpful and I’m planning on ordering Meg’s book today. We’re currently trying to plan a stateside event for extended family, etc., but even that is stressing me out! However even though it hasn’t happened yet, the almost eloping idea is perfect for us to celebrate our wedding in a way and with people who mean the most to us, with a manageable amount of stress.

    • NolaJael

      Yep. I’m calm, cool and collected about my small September wedding, but anxious and grumpy about the November reception. But I just keep reminding myself that’s why we’re doing it this way. The extended family members were never going to be gracious and fun, so that’s why they weren’t invited to the main event.

  • belle lafollette

    Self-uniting marriage is also legal in Wisconsin.

  • C.

    Love this! Both my sets of grandparents eloped. One pair had a secret civil ceremony in Germany, where they were both studying abroad. The other were teenagers and told their parents they were going to the movies. Instead they went to the courthouse :)

  • Lindsay

    we sort-of-eloped. we spent a week in san francisco with my sister and my husband’s best friend, and got married at city hall with just those two as witnesses. it was awesome! but, for those considering a similar route, i offer two caveats: 1. people WILL be upset. whether you tell them beforehand, or after, or whenever. my mother will never really be ok with our decision. i had a woman i only know casually tell me that i was deliberately hurting my mom by doing this “to her”. yeah, so, be ready for that. and 2. i do wonder “what if we’d done it differently?” and this bothered me for a while, until i realized that i would think the same thing if we’d had a wedding. there’s always a route you didn’t take.

    • Cellistec

      100% agree. I’d also add 3. people WILL be pedantic about whether you call it an elopement, based on the comments above.

      • Lindsay

        lol yes! we didn’t call ours an elopement at first (it wasn’t a surprise, we technically had two “guests”) but when we told people about it, they’d say, “oh, so you eloped!” and we were like “well, yeah, i guess!”

  • Lisa

    Pro tip for those who actually don’t want a large party at all…we told people we were eloping, but planning to have a party to celebrate with family and friends in a couple of months. Once we were married, we found we didn’t really want to throw a gigantic expensive party (we’re both introverts which is why we eloped in the first place) and no one ever really asked about it, so it felt like a win-win.

    In the pre-elopement, I was dealing with lots of hurt feelings and also guilt from family members about “Don’t you think you’ll regret not having a wedding?” I wish I had a crystal ball and could have looked into the future, though, because all that panic and stress over people’s feelings before the elopement, and BAM! The second we were married, it was nothing but joy and sunshine being showered on us from everyone we loved (which was lovely and great). I guess you have to be a real asshole to hold a grudge about someone’s elopement after the fact.

    So I guess my tip is, if you’re planning on telling people that you’re eloping, maybe do it close to the date of the elopement so they have less time to “talk you out of it” and/or guilt trip you? Or just know that only the pettiest of people will really be upset with you post-wedding when you’re obviously happy as hell in your new life together as a married couple.

  • avecnoms

    My countdown app tells me we are just 35 DAYS away from our elopement. I’m revisiting the to-do list that I’d abandoned for a few weeks after it exploded with tons of little pinteresting ideas (personalized vow booklets! “Just Married” banner to take pictures with throughout our trip!). Torn between side-eyeing the prices of all things wedding-related and wanting to get everything and have all the little details to make it special since we’ll only do it once.

    • NotMarried!

      oooh! Now I want a “Just Married” banner to take pictures on during my upcoming trip!!

  • Joy

    Just came to point out that unless you’re just looking for a symbolic not actually legal wedding, ceremony sort of thing, then no, you can’t actually just go off and get married in front of the eiffel tower. As someone who got (legally) married in France, you have to meet a number of requirements (residency etc), and even then you can only get married in the Marie (courthouse) of the town you live in. So if you want to take care of the legal aspect before you jet off and then have pictures/vows there, no problem.

  • Moe

    I just celebrated four years of marriage after eloping in Vegas. I sometimes think of it more as a spontaneous
    marriage. In Nevada you need a license from the courthouse before a ceremony can be performed. While we were getting the license I texted a friend and asked her to find us a chapel where we could get married.

    There was no dress, no advance notice to anyone, the flowers were borrowed silk flowers from the chapel, and we only had rings because we happen to come across them in a souvenir shop. Best $200 we ever spent. https://apracticalwedding.com/2013/08/spur-of-the-moment-vegas-elopement/

  • Rhys

    My husband and I just eloped 4 days ago. I called it The Unwedding (we are planning a larger celebration in September of next year). Maybe it counts as a small wedding (3 guests each), but we count it as an elopement because of the timeline (less than 6 weeks planning) and because our families believe we are just engaged.

  • I had a planned elopement while we were stationed in Texas because we wanted to live together. We had a family wedding celebration later that year.

    My biggest regret wtas not telling our families. There were a number of very hurt feelings on my side. Particularly my sisters.

    The toughest part was booking the officiant. I interviewed & finally hired one who looked good online. He had car trouble & sent a replacement that I was less than enthusiastic about.

    I had a gown, he had a suit, there was a photographer, there were flowers, a rose ceremony, a unity candle & cake & champagne after dinner. That was important to me. Plus, the ladies at the golf course set up our dinner table extra special to my surprise.

    I loved everything about it except not informing our families.