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Living in the UK

Marriage in the UK

Are you looking forward to celebrating your marriage in the UK? Congratulations! But before you can enjoy your special day, you must take care of the practical issues. Our Relocation Guide explains what to keep in mind: from general requirements, over same-sex partnerships, to spouse visas, and more.

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At a glance:

  • If you are a British citizen, getting married in the UK is fairly straightforward — but there are still legal requirements that you must fulfill.
  • While same-sex marriage is now legal in England, Scotland and Wales, in Northern Ireland it is still banned. Civil partnerships are allowed across the whole of the United Kingdom.
  • You must keep visa restrictions in mind at all times — when does a fiancé visa become a spouse visa? Do you need a family visa?

Different traditions concerning marriage in the UK have become popular around the world. For example, brides in various countries now wear “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” on their wedding day.

Marriage in the UK, however, is less of a quaint custom than a legal act that requires some essential preparations. But don’t worry: You still have the opportunity to lend your personal touch to your marriage in the UK, be it with traditional wedding customs or personal innovations.

The Basics: What You Need to Know

As far as the bureaucratic aspect of marriage in the UK is concerned, there are several things to take into account.

Firstly, celebrating your marriage in the UK is dependent on your nationality. If you are a foreigner with immigrant status (aka “subject to immigration control”), you have to jump an extra hurdle or two, e.g. for a UK visa. As a British citizen or a national of an EEA country, you simply have to check if you fulfill all legal requirements for a valid marriage in the UK, decide between a religious ceremony and a secular wedding, and give official notice in advance.

There are minor regional differences for marriage in the UK, with regulations varying between England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. We will try to point out such regional peculiarities below.

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Same-Sex Marriage in the UK: A Split Nation

If you are in a same-sex relationship and would like to get hitched in the United Kingdom, same-sex marriage used to be impossible. For this reason, the Civil Partnership Act of 2004 was passed. It applies to the entire UK, allowing gay and lesbian couples to enter into a civil partnership. In most aspects, though not in all, a civil partnership is similar to a secular heterosexual marriage in the UK.

A law to allow same-sex marriage across England and Wales was put into effect in March 2014, and Scotland quickly followed suit, legalizing same-sex marriage in December 2014. Since the law was changed in 2014, over 15,000 marriages have taken place. In Northern Ireland, however, same-sex marriage remains illegal, despite numerous legal challenges. Civil partnerships are valid across the whole of the UK, though.

In the Eyes of the Law

If you have British citizenship or are a citizen from a country within the European Economic Area (including Switzerland) who is currently residing in the UK, preparing your wedding is not that difficult. Just take the following steps prior to your civil partnership ceremony or marriage in the UK.

Please make sure that all the legal requirements for a binding marriage in the UK (or a civil partnership) apply to you:

  • You and your partner should be 18 years of age or older.
  • Persons aged 16 to 18 need written permission from their parents or their guardian before they can enter into a civil partnership / marriage in the UK. However, this written permission is unnecessary for a marriage ceremony performed in Scotland.
  • You and your partner may not be related by consanguinity, affinity, or adoption. This means, among other things, that a person is unable to get married to / become a civil partner of a sibling, a parent, a former partner’s child, or an adopted parent.
  • If you and/or your partner were previously married or in a civil partnership, you need to have proof that all such former relationships were legally ended by death, divorce, dissolution, or annulment.
  • Both you and your partner understand the consequences, rights and responsibilities of a marriage / civil partnership and willingly consent to it.

Keeping Them Informed: Giving Notice

Provided that all legal requirements are satisfied, you have to give notice of your impending marriage in the UK at the local register office.

  • You need to give notice of your marriage in the UK at least 28 days prior to the ceremony.
  • In England and Wales, you have to go to the register office and give notice in person, whereas you can send in an official form by mail in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In that case, both partners must fill in a separate form.
  • In England and Wales, you also must have lived in the neighborhood for at least a full seven days before going to the nearest register office. This is not necessary in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
  • When giving notice for your marriage in the UK, you must bring the following documents: proof of identity and nationality, proof of residence, a birth certificate, and (if applicable) some document proving that you are legally free to (re-)marry or (re-)enter into a civil partnership.
  • The fee for giving notice is £22 to £35 per person, depending on the part of the UK where the register office is located.

Despite the relatively short notice period of 28 days, you should take care to give notice well ahead of the actual wedding date. In this way, you have got enough leeway in case of unexpected difficulties. You will thus be able to get the permission for your civil partnership or marriage in the UK (the “marriage license”) in time.

At the Register Office

Once you have given notice of your wedding plans, you should contact the register office or any other officially licensed venue where you want to have the ceremony. For the wedding, you need two witnesses aged 16 or older.

While the ceremony for a secular marriage in UK or a civil partnership must not include any religious content, you can talk to the official performing the ceremony beforehand. They will help you and your partner to include personal speeches, individual wedding vows, or other elements unique to your wedding day.

The secular ceremony for marriage in UK also requires paying a fee. It may amount to as little as 46 GBP or as much as 180 GBP, according to the respective region and the day of the week. Sunday weddings in Northern Ireland are apparently the most expensive. For your marriage / civil partnership certificate, you then have to pay another small fee. Now your marriage in the UK will be legal and binding.

Close to Home: Religious Marriage Ceremonies

A religious ceremony is mostly possible only for heterosexual couples in the UK. If you want to be married by a member of the Anglican clergy in the Church of England or the Church of Wales, it may not be necessary to involve the local register office. The vicarage usually takes care that your marriage is legally valid and officially recognized. However, if you want to make sure, you can follow up on the process by getting in touch with the register office after your wedding.

Practicing believers of other faiths should talk to the person in charge of marriage ceremonies at their place of worship. Depending on the stance of the relevant religious organization, they might have decided to opt in religious ceremonies for same-sex couples (the Anglican Church has not). However, according to the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act 2013, religious associations are explicitly exempt from having to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony. They can do so, if they want, but the act refers solely to marriage as a secular, civil institution.

If you are planning a religious ceremony, you usually have to live in the same district as the place of worship. You also have to give formal notice at the register office, as described on the previous page.

Legal Rights and Responsibilities: What’s Mine Is Yours

The legal consequences of a valid marriage or civil partnership are more or less identical for heterosexual and same-sex couples. This (mostly) equal treatment extends to a broad range of legal issues, e.g.:

  • property rights
  • inheritance taxes and bereavement benefits
  • employment benefits
  • most UK social security benefits (though there may be financial differences in pension schemes)
  • duty to provide maintenance for your partner and any children of the family
  • ability to apply for parental responsibility for your partner’s child
  • tenancy agreements
  • protection from domestic abuse
  • next-of-kin rights in hospital
  • recognition for immigration purposes

All these areas will be affected once you get married or enter into a civil partnership. Same-sex couples who entered into a civil partnership before 2014 can also have their status changed to “married” in England and Wales.

Same-sex couples, like unmarried couples regardless of sexual orientation, can also file for joint adoption of a child in England, Scotland, and Wales, as long as they meet the other criteria of the adoption process (e.g. British citizenship or the right to reside permanently in the country). In Northern Ireland, the situation is rather different. In June 2013, the Court of Appeal in Belfast ruled that same-sex couples in civil partnerships should be able to adopt children

To learn more about the parenting options of same-sex couples living in the UK, please consult the Lesbian and Gay Foundation UK or Stonewall.org.

The Red Tape: Non-EU Nationals with Immigrant Status

Speaking of immigration purposes: What does “subject to immigration control” mean and how does it impact your right to enter into a marriage/civil partnership in the UK?

If you are “subject to immigration control”, British authorities consider you an immigrant and treat you accordingly. You have to put up with far more red tape before you can get married or enter into a civil partnership in the UK.

As mentioned, you are not “subject to immigration control” if one of the following criteria applies to you:

  • You have British citizenship.
  • You are a national of an EEA member state (including Switzerland).
  • You are a close family member of an EU national already staying in the UK.
  • You have “settled status” in the UK, i.e. official permission to stay in the country indefinitely.
  • You have a “certificate of entitlement” in your passport that gives you the right to live in the UK.

But if you don’t fall into these categories, getting married in the UK means having to face a few additional obstacles. If you do not live in the UK yet, you need a visa first.

Fiancé(e) Visa for Visitors

If you live abroad, merely want to have your marriage / civil partnership ceremony in the UK and then leave the country again, you can apply for a “fiancé(e)/proposed civil partner visitor entry clearance”. In short, this is a special type of visa that allows you to come to Great Britain or Northern Ireland and get married there.

You and your future partner need to be at least 18 years of age. If you also fulfill the following requirements, you can apply for this special visa at the nearest British embassy or consulate.

  • You don’t intend to stay in the UK for more than six months.
  • You can show that you intend to leave after this period.
  • You don’t want work in the UK.
  • You don’t plan to attend school or university.
  • You can finance yourself and have enough money for your return journey.
  • You don’t come to the UK for private medical treatment.
  • The UK is not a transit country for another journey.

However, if you don’t intend to stay in the UK, you should be aware that civil partnerships or marriages for same-sex couples may not be recognized in your home country or your next destination.

Spouse Visa

A different kind of “fiancé(e) / proposed civil partner entry clearance” is commonly known as a “spouse visa”. It allows you to enter the country and stay in the UK after you got married. However, it is harder to obtain than a visitor visa for getting married in the UK.

To qualify for this spouse visa, you need to meet the following criteria:

  • You are at least 18 years old.
  • You have a partner (aged 18 or older) who is a British national or has settlement status in the UK.
  • You have met your partner in person.
  • You are planning to get married within six months
  • You are legally free to marry, re-marry, or enter into a civil partnership.
  • You intend to live together with your partner
  • You have English language skills.
  • You have an income of at least £18,600. This requirement can be covered by your partner’s income, too.

After the ceremony, your “spouse visa” is usually valid for another six months. You then need to apply for permission to remain as a husband, wife, or civil partner. If granted, this permission is valid for two years. You are now officially allowed to take up gainful employment.

At the end of these two years, you can apply for “Indefinite Leave to Remain”, provided you are still married. This procedure will grant you the right to stay in the UK for as long as you want. Until a few years ago, non-EU nationals wishing to get married and live in the UK were required to apply for a Certificate of Approval from the Home Office. However, this measure was abolished in 2011.

But as a foreign national who is “subject to immigration control”, there is still one thing to keep in mind: You and your partner must give notice of your planned marriage together. Moreover, you can only do so in person, and at certain designated register offices, in England and Wales.

Mr. & Mrs.… Changing Your Name

Now that your marriage or civil partnership is official, you may think about changing your name. There are several options for couples in the UK.

  • Both partners keep using their previous family names.
  • One partner decides to take the other’s name.
  • One partner chooses to use his/her previous surname as a middle name.
  • Both partners use a double-barred name, e.g. Smith-Jones or Pond-Williams.

In some of these cases, the name change may require a so-called Deed Poll. This is a legal document binding one or both partners to use their new name exclusively from now on. Please ask the register office, as well as a specialist agency or solicitor, for advice. If you are an expat and want to return to your home country at some point, you should also find out if the planned name change will be valid there.

Updated on: December 11, 2019
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