Legal vs. Symbolic Wedding Ceremonies: What’s the Difference?

Symbolic Weddings

Travel insights from Taylor Coulson, contributing editor of The Compass

Whether your definition of significant wedding day bliss consists of breathtaking views overlooking the Mediterranean Sea upon Spanish cobblestone or an elegant, hilltop vineyard wedding in Tuscany, immense planning is to be expected. When you begin working with us on a destination wedding, the inevitable question will be asked: “Which is better, legal or symbolic destination weddings?” Truth be told, the choice is dependent on your preferences, budget and timeframe, as well as which country you’re looking to tie the knot in, since requirements vary for legal wedding ceremonies.

Both types of ceremonies will bring your friends and family closer together to celebrate and witness the beautiful union between the newlyweds. Neither type is better than the other, they are just different and both require different considerations when planning. Here’s what you need to know about symbolic and legal destination wedding ceremonies to help you decide which ceremony is best.

Legal or Civil Ceremonies

This type of wedding ceremony requires some serious research. If you're are looking for an authentic and cultural destination wedding experience, conducting that research is worth every moment! Civil or legal marriages are legally binding in the United States in addition to the country you are being married in. Some countries are easier to tie the knot in than others. Jamaica, for example, only requires couples to be in the country for at least 24 hours before a legal wedding ceremony. Some countries, like Mexico, Italy, Spain and Ireland, require additional steps once the couple arrives. Those steps may include providing blood tests, other medical tests, legal documents (like civil letters of freedom with an Apostille), affidavits, birth certificates and more, translated into that country’s native language while taking care of other costly legal expenses.


  • Depending on the country, couples may have to arrive a few days prior to the ceremony to handle legal documents and to meet that country’s marital requirements. This can be looked at as a positive thing since you will have more time to experience the destination!
  • There is only one wedding date to remember.
  • Guests are attending the official wedding ceremony and experiencing the marriage firsthand.
  • Everyone will get an authentic cultural wedding experience.


  • Depending on the country, couples may have to arrive a few days prior to the ceremony to handle legal documents and to meet that country’s marital requirements. On the other hand, this can be a negative thing, as it adds to the cost of the trip and can make travel arrangements a bit more tricky.
  • Paperwork must be completed prior to arriving abroad; typically it will have to be completed months or weeks in advance.
  • A translator may need to be hired to update the legal documents.
  • Receiving official notarized authentication of the marriage certificate can take months to receive, depending on the country.
  • Some countries, like Costa Rica, don’t change last names of either partner.

Symbolic Ceremonies

If you get legally married before having the destination wedding abroad, you’ll have more flexibility and your wedding day will hopefully be as stress-free as possible, since it’s really just a celebration, without any of the legal considerations. Symbolic ceremonies are commonly defined as a “commitment service,” able to express the couple’s personalities, tastes and their unique values within their relationship. It’s not scripted as much as traditional weddings are, as the couple can choose everything the officiant says. Wedding guests don’t even have to know that it isn’t a legal marriage, since it can be made to mirror a civil or legal ceremony.


  • Translation of legal documents isn’t required and legal fees are less of an expense compared to legal ceremonies.
  • It’s the easiest way to incorporate special customizations, like having a friend or family member as the officiant.
  • There are more ceremony venues to choose from since more places allow symbolic ceremonies.
  • Most countries don’t require the couple to arrive until the day before the wedding.


  • Signing the legal documents takes place on a different day than the wedding, making the legal wedding date different from the wedding ceremony date
  • The legal marriage must be completed prior from traveling to the destination.
  • Guests may not like the fact that they’re spending a lot of time and money to attend a wedding that isn’t legal.

Are you ready to start planing your destination wedding? Let us help you create the prefect experience for you and your guests. Visit our Destination Weddings page to get started today!