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

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

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.

everything you need to know about eloping

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.

the 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?

Featured Sponsored Content

Please read our comment policy before you comment.

The APW Store is Here

APW Wedding e-shop

go find all our favorites from around the internet, and our free planning tools

Shop Now
APW Wedding e-shop

Planning a wedding?

We have all the planning tools you need right now.

Budget spreadsheets, checklists, and more...

Get Your Free Planning Tools