Marriage License vs Marriage Certificate: What’s the Difference?

If you’re confused about the differences between a marriage certificate and a marriage license, don't panic!

When you get married, there’s a lot of paperwork to complete so that you are legally joined in the eyes of the law. Two of these crucial marriage records are your certificate of marriage and marriage license.

These have quite a few similarities, but they’re ultimately very different in nature. Let’s look at each of them in more detail.

What Is a Marriage License?

Marriage licenses, also known as marriage contracts, are public records issued by the county clerk in your state.

The main distinction between these and marriage certificates is that these are given to couples before they get married. They are also only given to individuals who are eligible to legally marry.

You will be considered eligible to marry if you and your fiancée:

  • Are over 18 years old. Or over 16 with parental consent in some states
  • Not married already
  • Can show you have the mental capacity to enter into a contract
  • Are not related to one another

The marriage license itself also usually expires within a certain period of time. It is normally valid for between 30 days to 1 year depending on the state, giving you a set period of time to get married officially.

If the license expires before you are able to get married properly, you can easily reapply for a new one without any issues.

What is a Marriage Certificate?

A marriage certificate is a vital record that can be used to prove that you are legally married to your partner. This is something that you and your fiancée must sign and complete with the help of the officiant during the wedding ceremony.

The officiant of your wedding will usually file the official certificate in your local county registry office in the days following your marriage. You and your new spouse will then be issued with a certified copy each once this has been registered correctly.

The marriage certificate copy that is issued to you is quite similar to a certified birth certificate in this way, as both are vital records that document a significant life event.

How to Get a Marriage License or Marriage Certificate

There are different procedures you’ll need to follow to get either a marriage license or a marriage certificate.

Both these documents need to be registered in the county that you get married in so that the wedding will be officially recognized. Remember, you must obtain the marriage license before you get married, while the marriage certificate is the document that proves you're married.

Getting a Marriage License

To get a marriage license, you and your fiancée will both need to attend a local county clerk’s office in person. This is because you’ll have to swear an oath that the information provided during the application is correct and true.

The application will require you to:

  • Prove your respective identities
  • Show that you are legally eligible to get married
  • Pay an administration fee

After your application is complete, you may need to wait 1-5 days before the license is issued. Whether there’s a waiting time and how long it lasts depends on the state you are getting married in.

How to Obtain a Marriage Certificate

A marriage certificate is first created during the wedding ceremony itself. This is the formal contract binding you and your spouse in marriage and is later issued as a certified copy once it’s been filed and registered in your local county.

In most states, you will need to have the following parties present when signing the certificate:

  • You and your fiancée
  • The officiant of the wedding
  • 1-2 witnesses depending on the state

Each of these individuals will sign the wedding certificate to make the marriage official legally. After the ceremony, this original document can be filed with your local county clerk office and a certified copy issued to you and your new spouse.

What if I lose my marriage certificate?

If you lose your certificate, or it gets damaged, you can apply for a new copy from your local state.

The process for obtaining the new document ultimately depends on the state you got married in. However, this most usually involves requesting it in person at your local records office, or applying for a new certificate online.

If I Get Divorced Will I Need My Original Marriage Certificate?

You will at the very least need a copy of your marriage certificate if you decide to get divorced. If you lose the original copy you’ll need a certified copy of the document before filing the main paperwork for your separation.

What Do I Need to Do If I Get Married Abroad?

Whether it’s for elopement or to have your dream wedding in the Caribbean, you might be in a situation where you decide to get married abroad. There are a few things to consider if you choose to do this.

In the case of a legal marriage abroad, the USA recognizes an official marriage that has taken place in another country. Therefore, if you get legally married overseas, you’ll receive your marriage certificate from the country where you got married.

However, many couples also choose to legally marry in their home state before having an unofficial ceremony with friends and family elsewhere in the country or around the world. That way, your marriage will still be recorded locally, but you’ll get to have the ceremony of your dreams.

What Happens if I Marry a Foreign Citizen When Abroad?

Things, however, get a bit more complicated when you marry a non-US citizen overseas for naturalization purposes.

If this occurs, you’ll need to make sure you follow the US Citizenship and Immigration Service’s guidelines on marriage validity to ensure your marriage is properly recognized so that your spouse can join you to live in the United States.

Marriage is a major life event, but is also a significant legal commitment. By knowing the difference between the certificate and the license you’ll need to have to be married, the process of tying the knot can prove to be a lot easier to navigate.