Is a Marriage Certificate the Same as a Marriage License and What Are the Differences?

Differences between marriage license and certificate

There are over 62 million married people in the U.S., with about two million more getting hitched each year. This statistic remains high despite the actual rate of marriage dropping off dramatically. In 1990, there were nearly 10 marriages per 1,000 people, but in 2019 that fell to under 7 marriages per 1,000.

Each of these legal unions comes with marriage records that are public records, accessible in some form to the general public. If you’re researching your own or another person’s marriage records it’s important to know the difference between marriage licenses and marriage certificates.

What Is a Marriage License?

A marriage license is an application for legal permission to wed, although it sounds more quaint and archaic than it actually is. It’s a legal document that:

  • creates a legal bond, and
  • establishes the individual’s legal standing to marry.

One must provide proof of identity when applying for a marriage license – and must swear that they are not married to anyone else (whether never married or their previous marriage was legally ended). It’s illegal to get married before a previous divorce is finalized, or to be married to more than one person.

The legal bond created by marriage allows future claims to one another’s earnings and possessions in the absence of an overriding agreement to the contrary – often known as a “prenup” or prenuptial agreement. A prenup usually sets aside an individual’s pre-marriage earnings or possessions as separate from common property so that the spouse cannot claim it in the event of a death or divorce.

Does a Marriage License Mean You Are Married? 

No, a marriage license does not mean you are married. It is merely a legal document that grants you permission to marry. The actual marriage occurs when the ceremony is performed, and the marriage license is signed by the officiant and witnesses, then filed with the appropriate government office. Once processed, a marriage certificate is issued, serving as the official proof of marriage.

marriage license

How to File for a Marriage License?

These marriage documentsare controlled by city clerks in the area where you reside. Most require an appointment to fill out the paperwork and will tell you what to bring, such as:

  • an original or certified birth certificate (this can take time to order and receive from officials in the place where you were born, so plan ahead),
  • proof of current residency,
  • a check or credit card to cover the application fee,
  • results of a required blood test – only if you live in Montana,
  • an official divorce decree if one was previously married, 
  • a current piece of official, state-issued identification with photo, such as a passport or driver’s license.

The license application is just the first step. In order to execute the license, the couple getting married needs two witnesses and a legal officiant (someone legally allowed to perform marriages). These legal documents have expiration dates, so the wedding must take place within a certain time frame set by the state, and the executed (signed) license returned to the city clerk’s office.

Where Can You Get a Marriage License?

It’s possible to get a marriage license outside of your home city. If you’d like to be married on a beach in Costa Rica, on a snowy mountain in Nepal, or in the enchanted woods of Romania, you have options:

  1. Get a marriage license in your home city and have the city clerk do the legal ceremony, then fly to the exotic location of your choice and hire someone to perform a ceremony there, or
  2. Research the requirements for a marriage license in the exotic location of your choice and remember to bring all of the necessary documents with you, providing enough time to meet all local requirements such as blood testing or “cooling off” period between issuance of the license and marriage date.

What is a Marriage Certificate?

marriage certificate

The marriage certificate is the legal document that the city clerk returns to you after the marriage license is executed and filed. This certificate is needed for many purposes including:

  • if one or both spouses are changing their names, a copy of the certificate is required;
  • employers often need a copy of the certificate to enroll a spouse in company benefits or health insurance.

Is a Marriage Certificate a Legal Document?

Yes, a marriage certificate is a legal document that serves as official proof of your marriage. It is used to verify marital status for various legal and administrative purposes, such as updating social security records, applying for joint loans, and proving your relationship status for immigration purposes.

How to Get a Copy of a Marriage Certificate? 

A marriage certificate copy should be automatically sent out after a marriage license is filed, but it can take a few weeks. Contact the clerk’s office where the marriage license was issued to get a copy.

Where Do I Get a Certified Copy of My Marriage Certificate?

To get a certified copy of your marriage certificate, visit the office of the county clerk or the city hall where your marriage license was originally issued. You may also be able to request a copy online or by mail, depending on the jurisdiction. A certified copy of the marriage certificate is typically required for official purposes, such as legal name changes or applying for certain benefits.

Is a Marriage License the Same as a Marriage Certificate

Many people confuse a marriage license with a marriage certificate, but they are not the same.

Differences Between Marriage License and Certificate

A marriage license is obtained before the wedding and gives you legal permission to marry. It must be filed with the appropriate authorities to make your marriage official. On the other hand, a marriage certificate is the document you receive after your marriage has been legally recorded. The marriage certificate serves as proof that the marriage has taken place.

Understanding the differences between a marriage license and a marriage certificate is crucial for managing the legal aspects of your marriage. While the marriage license permits you to marry, the marriage certificate serves as proof of the marriage. Make sure to keep both documents safe, as they are essential for various legal and personal purposes.


What Is the Difference Between Marriage Records, License, and Certificate?

Understanding the differences between a marriage license, marriage certificate, and marriage records is crucial for managing the legal aspects of marriage.

  • Marriage License:

A marriage license is obtained before the wedding, granting legal permission to marry. It includes names, ages, and proof of identity and must be signed by the couple, witnesses, and officiant.

  • Marriage Certificate:

A marriage certificate is issued after the marriage license is filed and processed. It serves as official proof of the marriage, necessary for legal and administrative purposes like name changes and enrolling in benefits.

  • Marriage Records:

Marriage records include both the marriage license and marriage certificate, containing detailed information about the marriage. These records are public and accessible through government agencies.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Copy of Your Wedding Certificate?

Depending on the workload of the city clerk’s office, a marriage certificate can take up to a few weeks. If ordering a copy years after the marriage check the clerk’s website for instructions on ordering copies.

How Much Does a Marriage License Cost?

The cost of a marriage license varies by location; in Las Vegas it’s $77, in Manhattan, New York it’s $35, and in Key West, Florida it’s $86.

Who Returns The Marriage License?

The person who officiates at a wedding generally has the responsibility of returning the marriage license to the city clerk after it is signed by witnesses.

Do You Have to Wait to Marry After Receiving the License?

In some states, there is a “cooling off” period between the time the marriage license is issued and the marriage may take place: in Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin it’s five days; a number of other states require a three-day wait, while others do not impose any waiting period.

Are Blood Tests Required Before Marriage?

Blood tests used to be required before marriage due to RH factor compatibility, a genetic issue that sometimes resulted in the severe illness of newborn babies. Medical science has negated the need for the prenuptial test but Montana has retained the requirement while all other states have dropped it. A blood test may be required by other countries if the official marriage takes place outside of the U.S.