In the United Kingdom, opposite sex couples can marry in a civil or religious ceremony.
Same sex couples can marry in a civil ceremony, but can only get married in a religious ceremony if the religious organisation has agreed to marry same sex couples. Same sex couples cannot marry in the Church of England or the Church in Wales.
Same sex couples who marry abroad under foreign law are recognised as being married in England and Wales.
You can find out more about marriage for same sex couples on the Stonewall website.
All couples may marry if they are both 16 years or over and free to marry, that is, if they are single, widowed or divorced, or if they were in a civil partnership which has been dissolved.
Who cannot get married
If you are 16 or 17 you cannot marry without parental consent. Both parents with parental responsibility must give parental consent. In some circumstances, other people may give parental consent.
Relatives who may not marry
Some relatives are not allowed to marry. If they do, the marriage will be automatically void even if they do not know they are related. A person cannot marry any of the following relatives:
- a child, including an adopted child
- a parent, including an adoptive parent
- a brother or sister, including a half-brother or half-sister
- a parent's brother or sister, including a half-brother or half-sister
- a grandparent
- a grandchild
- a brother's or sister's, including half-brother's or half-sister's, child.
Adopted children and their genetic parents and genetic grandparents may not marry. If they do, the marriage will be automatically void (see under heading Marriages which are not valid) even if they do not know they are related. Adopted children may not marry their adoptive parents but they are allowed to marry the rest of their adoptive family, including their adoptive brother or sister.
People who are step relations or in-laws may marry only in certain circumstances.
For information about when step relations and in-laws can marry, you should consult an experienced adviser, for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by email, click on nearest CAB.
A transsexual person who has applied for and has been granted a full gender recognition certificate by the Gender Recognition Panel can get a new birth certificate which reflects their acquired gender. In England and Wales, they will then be able to marry someone of the opposite or same gender to their acquired gender. However, if a transsexual person does not have a gender recognition certificate, they are legally considered to be the gender that is on their original birth certificate.
Engagements are mainly for cultural reasons and have limited status. However, they can be used, for example, in immigration law as evidence of intention to marry.
One of the parties can decide to end an engagement as an agreement to marry cannot be legally enforced. If an engagement is broken, a woman can keep the engagement ring unless, at the time she was given it, the man specifically said that it should be returned if the engagement were broken. Any other property belonging to the couple should be divided between them in the same way as property would be divided if the couple divorced. If the couple cannot agree about entitlement to property, either person can apply to a court to decide the issue, provided this is done within three years of the end of the engagement. Legal advice will be needed in these circumstances.
Pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements
A pre-nuptial agreement is a contract entered into before marriage which outlines how a couple wish to divide their money and property if they get divorced. A post-nuptial agreement is similar but entered into after marriage.
Pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements can be legally binding unless considered to be unfair by the court. You should get advice from a solicitor before you make an agreement. You can find a solicitor on the Resolution website.
A marriage can take place in:-
- a Register Office
- premises approved by the local authority such as a hotel
- a church of the Church of England, Church in Wales
- a synagogue or any other private place if both partners are Jewish
- a Meeting House if one or both partners are either members of the Society of Friends (Quakers) or are associated with the Society by attending meetings
- any registered religious building (England and Wales only)
- the home of one of the partners if the partner is housebound or detained, for example, in prison
- a place where one partner is seriously ill and not expected to recover, for example, in hospital
- a licensed naval, military or air force chapel
Same sex couples can only marry in a religious ceremony, if the religious organisation has agreed to carry out same sex weddings, and the premises have been registered for the marriage of same sex couples. Religious organisations or individual ministers do not have to marry same sex couples. Same sex couples cannot marry in The Church of England or the Church in Wales.
Local authority approved premises
Local authorities in England and Wales may approve premises other than Register Offices where civil marriages may take place. Applications for approval must be made by the owner or trustee of the building, not the couple.
The premises must be regularly open to members of the public, so private homes are unlikely to be approved, since they are not normally open to the public. Stately homes, hotels and civic buildings are likely to be thought suitable. Approval will not be given for open air venues, such as moonlit beaches or golf courses. Generally, the premises will need to be permanent built structures, although it may be possible for approval to be given to a permanently moored, publicly open boat. Hot air balloons or aeroplanes will not be approved.
If you want to get married in local authority approved premises you should obtain a list of premises from the local town hall. In England and Wales, you can search for approved premises on the GOV.UK website at www.gov.uk.
You can get married by a civil ceremony or a religious ceremony.
In both cases, the following legal requirements must be met:-
- the marriage must be conducted by a person or in the presence of a person authorised to register marriages in the district
- the marriage must be entered in the marriage register and signed by both parties, two witnesses, the person who conducted the ceremony and, if that person is not authorised to register marriages, the person who is registering the marriage.
Civil marriage ceremonies
You and your partner must give notice of marriage in your local Register Office, whether or not you wish to marry in that district. If you and your partner live in different places, you’ll both have to go to your own local Register Office to give notice. The Superintendent Registrar then issues authority for the marriage and you can marry in any Register Office or local authority approved premises in any district.
In England and Wales, 28 days notice must be given to the Register Office before the marriage can take place. You have to get married within 12 months of giving notice. Both partners must be resident for seven days in England or Wales before notice is given. A notice must state where the marriage is to take place. There is a fee for giving notice.
If one of the partners has been issued with a gender recognition certificate and was previously the civil partner of the person who they wish to marry, there is no requirement for the 28 day notice period. In this case, notice of the marriage and the marriage itself can happen on the same day.
In the period between the notice of intention to marry and the ceremony, anyone with strong grounds for objecting to the marriage can do so. Making a false statement is a criminal offence.
Documents you'll need to give notice
You and your partner will be asked for certain information when giving notice of your intention to marry. If you or your partner are not citizens of a European Economic Area country, you'll also have to submit evidence of your immigration status when you give notice to marry.
Giving false information is a criminal offence. The information which may be required is:-
- evidence of name and address
- evidence of date of birth
- if one partner has been married before or in a civil partnership, documentary evidence that the marriage or civil partnership has ended, for example, a death certificate or decree absolute. Uncertified photocopies are not accepted. A certified copy of a decree absolute may be obtained from the court which decided the divorce. This can take about a week
- evidence of nationality.
A variety of documents can be used as evidence of the information required, but a passport or travel document is usually sufficient. You can also use your birth certificate if you were born before 1 January 1983. You should contact the register office where you're getting married for more specific advice on what they will accept.
You can check which type of documents you need to bring with you on GOV.UK.
If you or your partner are from outside the UK
People from overseas may be asked to show their passports. There is no legal requirement to show a passport before getting married and instead, they can produce a birth certificate (accompanied by a certified translation if necessary), an affidavit or other personal identity document.
You’ll need a visa if you’re travelling to the UK to marry an EEA or British citizen, or someone with settled status in the UK. The type of visa you need depends on where you and your partner are from and how long you want to stay in the UK.
If you’re an EEA national you don’t need a visa. The rules might change after Brexit, you can check if you need a visa on GOV.UK.
If you’re a non-EEA national and you don’t want to live in the UK, you can apply for a marriage visitor visa. This will let you come to the UK for up to six months to get married.
If you’re a non-EEA national and you’re planning to live in the UK, you’ll need either:
a fiancé or proposed civil partner visa - if you’re marrying a British citizen or someone with settled status in the UK
a family permit - if you’re marrying an EEA national
People who wish to marry in the UK in a Register office in England and Wales must give notice at a Register Office. If you are subject to immigration control, you can only give notice at a Designated Register Office in England and Wales. Everyone wishing to marry in a Register Office must provide proof of their nationality.
You won't be subject to immigration control if any of the following apply:
- you're a British citizen (or someone with right of abode in the UK) or
- you're an EEA national or
- you don't have any conditions attached to your stay in the UK because you are for example, a diplomat, or a member of visiting armed forces
- you have indefinite leave to remain or settled status in the UK
You can find more information on coming to the UK to marry on GOV.UK.
If the registrar believes that a person is entering or has entered into a marriage for immigration purposes, the registrar has a duty to report this to the Home Office. The registrar must provide the Home Office with certain information, including the marital status and nationality of the person. The Home Office may wish to carry out investigations to ensure that the proposed marriage is not a 'sham'. It may extend the notice period to 70 days in order to carry out these investigations. If you don't comply with the investigations you may not be allowed to marry. You also risk being prosecuted and, if you are the person subject to immigration control, you will gain no advantage from the marriage and could be removed from the UK.
What happens at the ceremony
The marriage ceremony in the local Register Office or local authority approved premises will take approximately 10-15 minutes. The Superintendent Registrar will make a short statement about marriage; you can ask the registrar beforehand to indicate what form of words will be used. It is not possible to use religious words or hymns in the civil ceremony. However, the ceremony may include readings, songs or music that contain reference to a god as long as they are in an 'essentially non-religious context'.
Each partner is required to repeat a standard set of vows. These may not be changed, but may be added to, as long as the additions are not religious. Rings are not required but can be exchanged if the couple wishes to.
Signing the marriage register
After the ceremony, the marriage register is signed by both partners and the registrar. Two or more witnesses must also sign at the time of the marriage. Witnesses don’t have to be a certain age but you should check with the person marrying you if they have an age limit on who they’ll accept.
Witnesses must understand the language of the ceremony and have the mental capacity to understand what's taking place. Register Office staff are not allowed to act as witnesses.
Before signing the register, you should check the information in the entry is correct. It is possible to get incorrect information in the register on marriage certificates changed if there is proof that the errors were notified at the time of the marriage. When trying to correct information at a later stage, you will have to explain in writing how the incorrect information came to be recorded at the time of the marriage and may need to provide documentary evidence to prove any statements. The process may take a long time.
Paying the registrar fee
A fee must be paid for the ceremony. A certified copy of the entry in the register may be obtained at the time of the marriage for a fee. Additional copies may be obtained for a further fee.
For details of the fees, contact your local Register Office on GOV.UK.
Religious marriage ceremonies
The Church of England and the Church in Wales are allowed to register a marriage at the same time as performing the religious ceremony.
You won't have to give notice of the marriage to the Register Office unless you or your partner are a non-EEA national. If this is the case, you will need to give 28 days notice to the Register Office.
For other religious marriages you'll need to give 28 days notice of the marriage to the Register Office. Ministers and priests of all other religions can be authorised to register marriages and must have a certificate or licence to do so from the local Superintendent Registrar. For Jewish and Quaker marriages, the authorisation is automatic. For all other religions, if the official performing the ceremony is not authorised, either a Registrar must attend the religious ceremony or the partners will need to have separate religious and civil ceremonies.
Marriages in the Church of England and Church in Wales (opposite sex couples only)
Instead of going to the Superintendent Registrar before the ceremony, banns (a notice of the proposed marriage) can be read in the parish church of each of the partners and in the church where it has been agreed the marriage can take place. Banns must be read on three Sundays before the ceremony.
In England, in some cases, the vicar may advise that you need to apply to the Church of England for a licence instead of using the banns procedure. You can find out more about getting married in the Church of England on the Church of England website at www.yourchurchwedding.org.
Religious ceremonies and civil ceremonies
If a couple has been married in a Register Office, the partners can have a religious marriage ceremony afterwards. The partners are likely to be asked for their marriage certificate.
If you want to get married outside England and Wales you will need to follow the procedure of the law in that country.
If one partner lives in Scotland or in Northern Ireland, the marriage can take place in England or Wales but certain procedures must be followed. If one partner lives outside the United Kingdom, the marriage cannot take place until that partner has arrived in England or Wales and fulfilled the necessary residence qualifications.
A legally valid marriage performed in England or Wales is recognised in many other countries. However, confirmation should be sought from the embassy of the country concerned.
A marriage by proxy is one where one or both partners are not physically present at the ceremony. Marriages taking place under United Kingdom law are not valid if they are by proxy. However, United Kingdom law may in some circumstances consider a proxy marriage to be valid if both of the partners are ‘domiciled’ in a country which recognises marriages by proxy. The concept of ‘domicile’ is very complicated. If you need to know about the validity of a marriage by proxy you will need to get specialist legal advice. You can find a solicitor on the Resolution website.
A polygamous marriage is one where a man can marry more than one wife. A polygamous marriage between partners, one or both of whom are domiciled in England or Wales is not valid. The concept of ‘domicile’ is very complex and does not necessarily mean ‘living in’ a country.
If you need to know about the validity of a polygamous marriage, you should get specialist legal advice. You can find a solicitor on the Resolution website.
Certain marriages are treated as if they never took place. These are called void marriages. They are marriages which do not meet the requirements of United Kingdom law. An example of a void marriage is one where the partners may not marry because they are related.
Some marriages may have met the requirements of United Kingdom law when they took place but may then be annulled. These are called voidable marriages. There are a number of situations where marriages are considered voidable, for example if one partner has been granted a full gender recognition certificate (see under Transsexual people), or if one of the partners did not give valid consent to the marriage because the consent was given under duress. Either partner can seek to annul the marriage but if neither partner does, the marriage will be valid.
If you need to know more about voidable marriages, you will need to get specialist advice. You can find a solicitor on the Resolution website.
If you have been married in a way that is not recognised as valid in the United Kingdom, the marriage can take place again according to United Kingdom law provided that both you and your partner meet the requirements described earlier.
If you marry in the United Kingdom and are already legally married, the marriage will be bigamous and therefore is void. Although it is a criminal offence to marry someone when you are already married, prosecution is not automatic.
As long as the legal requirements described earlier are met, there is nothing to prevent you from marrying again in a civil ceremony in the UK if you are widowed or divorced or if you were in a civil partnership that has been dissolved.
Religions have different rules about whether someone can remarry in a religious ceremony. If you or your partner has been married before, or has been in a civil partnership that is now dissolved, and you want a religious ceremony, you will need to check with an official of the relevant religion.
Even if you are not allowed to marry in a religious ceremony, for example, because you belong to a religion that does not permit marriage of people who are divorced, it may be possible to arrange for your relationship to be blessed in a religious ceremony. This is at the discretion of the religious official concerned.
What is a forced marriage?
A forced marriage is where you are pressurised into the marriage against your will. You may be emotionally blackmailed or physically threatened, usually by your family. For example, your family might make you feel like you’re bringing shame on them by not agreeing to the marriage.
It is not the same as an arranged marriage, where both parties have a choice and agree to the marriage.
It could also be a forced marriage if you don’t have the mental capacity to agree to it - for example, if you have an illness that stops you being able to make decisions. It will still be a forced marriage even if you weren’t pressured into getting married.
In England and Wales, forced marriage is a criminal offence. If someone forces you into marriage, they could go to prison for up to seven years.
The Forced Marriage Unit
If you're afraid that you or someone else may be forced into marriage in the UK or overseas, you should contact the Forced Marriage Unit for advice. In an emergency, you should call the police on 999.
Forced Marriage Unit
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
King Charles Street
London SW1A 2AH
Tel: 020 7008 0151 (Monday to Friday from 9.00am to 5.00pm)
Out of hours tel: 020 7008 1500 (ask for the Global Response Centre)
Forced Marriage Protection Orders
If you are being forced into marriage or are already in a forced marriage, you can apply to the county court for a Forced Marriage Protection Order to protect you.
A Forced Marriage Protection Order can stop families from doing certain things, including:
- forcing you to get married
- taking you abroad for marriage
- taking your passport away
- intimidating or using violence against you
- telling anyone else to do any of these things
It can also require family members to reveal where you are. The police can also apply for a Forced Marriage Protection Order. If someone breaks the order, it is a criminal offence and they could be sent to prison for up to five years in England and Wales.
You should get legal advice as soon as you can. You may get legal aid. You can find a solicitor on the Resolution website.
Further information and support
Karma Nirvana is a charity that supports victims of honour-based abuse and forced marriage. You can call their helpline on 0800 5999 247 or get help on the Karma Nirvana website.
You can find out more about forced marriage on GOV.UK.
In England and Wales, you can get copies of a marriage certificate from the General Register Office. Its contact details are on the GOV.UK website at www.gov.uk.