When people ask how long a wedding ceremony lasts they’re usually asking about the overall wedding timeline—which encompasses a lot more than the ceremony itself. To plan your wedding correctly you need to think of every step of the day, from the moment you start to get ready to the moment you and your partner drive off (in a car all painted up with the words ‘Just Married,’ of course)!
Here are the major steps you’ll find most wedding parties taking on most wedding days. While you may choose to shorten or lengthen any given step, you should at least be taking each one of them into account.
Getting Ready: 2 to 3 Hours
Both members of the couple, and every member of the wedding party, will need time to get ready. If you all have nail, make-up, and hair appointments you’ll need to block off time to get to the appointments, as well as time to get through the appointments.
You’ll also need to block off time to get dressed, and to handle any disasters like popped buttons or stuck zippers. Having an emergency wedding kit handy will really help here.
Leaving a lot of time to get ready can make for a more relaxed, happier wedding day. This time will set the mood and if everyone feels rushed and stressed out then you might well set a tone that creates problems later. If you can, you might even leave yourself a buffer of an additional half hour, just to make sure that nobody feels overwhelmed.
Portraits: 1 to 2 Hours
Each member of the couple generally gets a solo portrait done prior to the wedding ceremony. In addition, each member of the couple generally gets a photo shoot in with their wedding party, as well as with their maid/matron of honor or best person.
If you’ve chosen to take “first look” photographs then you’ll want to slot that photo shoot into this time.
Travel Time to Ceremony Venue
It is absolutely vital for you to accurately chart your travel time when creating your wedding timeline! If you’re going from a hair and make-up appointment to a changing room at your venue then you might already be there, of course, but there’s no getting around the fact that at some point, you and your wedding party are going to need to slip into a vehicle and get where you need to go.
Pull up the Google Map, note the normal travel time, and add thirty minutes to account for any unexpected weather or traffic that might pop up on your wedding day.
The Ceremony: 20 minutes to 2 Hours
Ceremony length can vary wildly depending on the venue, the officiant, and the type of ceremony you’re having. Some long religious ceremonies with a lot of traditions built into them can last for hours. Meanwhile, a courthouse wedding may be over and done in 20 minutes or less.
You should talk with your officiant about what to expect when you are planning your ceremony and reception times. Theoretically any professional officiant has run enough weddings to know how long your ceremony should take.
Receiving Line: 30 Minutes
Receiving lines are not necessarily required, but they are an easy way to thank every guest for coming to the wedding. You set one up to meet and greet each guest after they leave the ceremony venue.
The receiving line may also be held as soon as the couple reaches the reception venue.
Wedding hosts typically stand in the line. That tends to include the couple’s parents and the couples themselves.
At a small wedding, it’s okay to just have the couple visit every table sometime during the reception.
Family Photos & Cocktail Hour: 1 Hour
Once the ceremony is over guests will immediately start traveling to the reception venue. Your venue should be ready with cocktails and perhaps mild appetizers and snacks, depending on the hour.
Most of the guests will enjoy these refreshments while the couple takes family photographs, which can take about one hour. This may either happen at the ceremony venue or the reception venue.
Travel Time to Reception Venue
Again, you’re going to want to factor travel time into your schedule! You should do this long before the wedding day of course. It should factor in to when the reception time is scheduled to start.
Grand Entrance & First Dance: 15 Minutes
The reception kicks off formally when the couple makes their entrance and is announced as a married couple. The wedding partner enters, and then the couple enjoys their first dance.
Dance Floor Opens: 30 Minutes to 1 Hour
At this point the DJ or the live band generally invites the guests to hit the dance floor. This is a great time for guests to relax and enjoy themselves!
Dinner is Served: 1 to 2 Hours
Dinner can take awhile, especially if you’ve planned a buffet line or multiple courses. There are also a number of traditions that take place over the dinner hour such as the welcome toast and the wedding party speeches.
Dinner is also traditionally the time when certain reception games get played, such as the wedding shoe game.
Dinner generally comes to a close after the DJ announces the parent dances. Each member of the couple dances with the parent of their choice.
Cake Cutting Ceremony: 30 Minutes
You don’t just cut the cake and serve it. The symbolism of the first cut is all about taking your first steps together as a married couple.
Typically the couple makes the cut and then the catering staff serves the guests.
Don’t forget to consult with your baker or caterer before making the cut! Sinking your knife into the wrong spot can result in a cake that topples or collapses.
Party Continues: 1 to 4 Hours
There’s no real limit on how long a reception can continue after the cake is cut. If the party is rocking there’s no need to bring it to a close as soon as the last bite of cake gets eaten.
You’ll be guided by the venue rules, of course. In addition, nothing says you have to stay until the last guest leaves. Indeed, the couple is the first to leave, not the last. All you really have to plan is how long you’re going to want to stay at the party after the cake cutting ceremony.
Wedding Exit: 15 Minutes
Announce the exit by starting with the bouquet and garter toss. Give your guests sparklers to wave or rice to throw, then slip into your getaway car and head out happy!