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What is a marriage?

Legally speaking, a marriage is a formal contract that a couple voluntarily enters into to live together in a relationship for life, to the exclusion of others. It confers certain rights and responsibilities onto the spouses, including:

In England and Wales, opposite-sex and same-sex couples can get married. Alternatively, they can enter into a civil partnership

A marriage automatically comes to an end when a spouse dies. Otherwise, marriages can only formally be ended by divorce or annulment.

Who can get married?

All couples can get married in England and Wales if they are:

Who cannot get married?

Anyone under the age of 18 can't legally get married in England and Wales. Note that, in Scotland, anyone over 16 can get married. However, if someone aged between 16 and 18 who lives in England or Wales comes to Scotland to get married, their marriage will not be legally recognised in England and Wales.

Some relatives aren't allowed to marry and any attempt to marry will make the marriage automatically void. If there is a degree of affinity or they are blood relatives, they will not be allowed to marry. 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 (ie an uncle or aunt)

  • a grandparent

  • a grandchild

  • a brother's or sister's (including half-brother's or half-sister's) child (ie a niece or nephew)

Adopted children may not marry their genetic parents or adoptive parents, but they are allowed to marry the rest of their adoptive family, including adoptive brothers or sisters. 

Those who are step-relations (eg step-parent and step-child) may only marry if each party is at least 21 years old. Further, the younger person must, at no time before turning 18, have lived with the older person, nor may they have been treated as a child of the older person’s family. 

Relatives-in-law may marry if they are at least 21 years old.

What is the position for same-sex couples?

Under the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, same-sex couples can legally marry in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Same-sex couples who marry abroad under foreign law are recognised as being married in the UK.

Same-sex couples can either opt for same-sex marriage or civil partnerships

If a same-sex couple formed a civil partnership before same-sex marriage was legalised in 2014, in the UK, they can convert their civil partnership into a recognised marriage. For more information on this process, read Registering a civil partnership.

Getting married as a transgender person

A transgender person who has applied for and been granted a full Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) by the Gender Recognition Panel can obtain a new birth certificate reflecting their acquired (also referred to as ‘true’) gender. In England and Wales, transgender people can marry someone of a different or the same gender as their true gender. However, if they have not received a GCR, they are legally considered to be the gender they were assigned at birth (ie that which is stated on their original birth certificate).

What is the process for getting married?

Both opposite-sex and same-sex couples can get married in a civil ceremony. While opposite-sex can always get married in a religious ceremony, same-sex couples can only get married in a religious ceremony if the relevant religious organisation has agreed to carry out same-sex weddings and the premises for the marriage is registered to marry same-sex couples.

Civil marriages

The couple wishing to have a civil marriage ceremony must give notice of their marriage to their local register office before it can proceed. You must give at least 28 days' notice and your notice should include details of where you intend to get married. 

Your notice of intention to marry will be publicly displayed, during which time anyone with strong grounds for objecting to the marriage can do so. Proof of name, age, nationality and address will be required to be able to effectively submit notice. In the case of parties who are divorced or widowed, proof of divorce (eg a final order) or a death certificate is needed.

Once the 28 days have passed and there are no objections, the civil marriage ceremony can take place. Civil ceremonies can be held in the local register office or local authority-approved premises (eg a hotel). 

The marriage will be conducted by someone who is legally authorised to register marriages and vows will be exchanged, although they will not contain any religious references. Once completed, both partners will need to sign the marriage schedule or marriage document, which will need to be witnessed by 2 witnesses over the age of 16 who can understand English. 

The signed marriage schedule or document is then sent to your local register office and added to the marriage register. You will then receive your marriage certificate

Religious marriages

Religious marriages can take place in any registered religious building (eg a Church of England church, a Church of Wales church, a synagogue or a licenced navy chapel).

Couples getting married in the Church of England or Church of Wales are allowed to register a marriage at the same time as performing the religious ceremony. Usually, notice to the register office is not needed. Instead, banns (notices of the proposed marriage) are typically read out in the parish church of each of the partners and in the church where it has been agreed the marriage will take place.

For all other religious marriages, you need to give at least 28 days’ notice of the marriage to the register officer. You must have been living in the registration district for the past 7 days. If you and your partner live in different registration districts, you will need to give notice separately.

You must hold your wedding within 12 months of giving notice.

A religious wedding can take place at a church, chapel or other registered building. Vows will be exchanged between the couples and, once completed, the couple will need to sign the marriage schedule or marriage document in the presence of 2 witnesses over the age of 16 who can understand English.

The signed marriage schedule or document is then sent to your local register office and added to the marriage register. You will then receive your marriage certificate.

What is the difference between civil and religious ceremonies?

Religious weddings generally need to take place in churches, chapels or other registered religious buildings and be conducted by the relevant religious officials and in accordance with the specific religious rules and procedures. For example, same-sex couples are not allowed to get married in an Anglican church.

Civil ceremonies can take place in a register office, any venue approved by the local council or certain religious premises. They are normally performed by a registrar. Although a civil ceremony may include music and readings, it must not include anything of a religious nature (such as hymns or readings from a religious text).

What rules apply to foreign nationals?

If either party is from outside the UK they may need to obtain a visa to give notice and get married. This is not the case if you:

  • are a British or Irish citizen

  • have settled or pre-settled status

  • applied for settled status on or before 30 June 2021

  • have indefinite leave to remain

  • are already living in the UK on a visa that lasts longer than 6 months (in this case, you may need to inform the Home Office about your marriage)

For more information on getting married if either spouse is a foreign national, see the government’s guidance on marriages.

What about forced marriage?

Forced marriages are where an individual is pressured (eg physically, emotionally or psychologically) into marrying someone against their will. Examples of the types of pressure that may be exerted on someone include: 

  • threats

  • physical or sexual violence 

  • being made to feel as if you’re bringing shame on your family

Since the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 came into force, all new marriages of anyone under the age of 18 are considered to be forced marriages, even if no pressure was involved.

Examples of forced marriage include:

  • being forcibly taken abroad in order to be married (whether or not the forced marriage takes place)

  • arranging a marriage for someone who lacks mental capacity (whether they’re pressured to or not)

  • arranging a marriage for someone before they turn 18

Under the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, forced marriages are illegal. Forcing someone to marry is a criminal offence in the UK, which can result in up to 7 years in prison.

Anyone who is at risk of being forcibly married or knows of someone who is should contact the Forced Marriage Unit for advice or, in an emergency, the police.

What does the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 mean for marriages?

Following the coming into effect of the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022, on 27 February 2023, the minimum age that somebody must be to be able to get married in England and Wales was raised from 16 to 18. In Scotland, the age remains unchanged. Previously, young people between 16 and 18 could get married in England and Wales if all people with parental responsibility for them consented to the marriage. 

The new age limit of 18 also applies to cultural or religious marriages that aren’t registered.

If someone under 18 gets married, they will not face penalties. Instead, all adults who facilitate the marriage may face a fine and up to 7 years in jail. This includes adults who take children abroad (including to Scotland) to get married.

Any marriages entered into by young people between the ages of 16 and 18 before the law comes into force are not affected by the change.

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