Runaway brides

Hop on a plane, but don’t forget the paperwork

Getting married in Scotland was a “really wonderful, relaxing experience,” says Buffy Martin Tarbox.

Getting married in Scotland was a “really wonderful, relaxing experience,” says Buffy Martin Tarbox.

Close your eyes and picture yourself and your betrothed exchanging your wedding vows on a Brazilian white sand beach, the gentle sounds of the turquoise waves the only music you hear.

It all seems exquisitely romantic until you arrive in Brazil for your wedding with all your required documents in hand and discover that in Brazil there’s a 30-day waiting period for all marriage licenses to be approved.

Getting married in a foreign country enables you to steep yourself in the history and culture of a faraway land; set off on an adventure together to begin your life as husband and wife; package your honeymoon and wedding together into a convenient package; and even to save—yes, save!—money on your wedding.

But if getting hitched in another country appeals to you, you’d better learn the ropes first.

Lesson #1: Give up control

For Buffy Martin Tarbox and her husband, Orpheos, the decision to wed abroad was an easy one. “From the moment we got engaged, we knew we wanted a small, intimate wedding, and we both loved to travel and love Europe.”

By descent, he’s Italian and she’s Scottish; the two points of focus were Italy and Scotland from the get-go. To avoid a language barrier, they focused on the UK and Scotland.

Because all their planning would have to take place from the U.S., the first thing Tarbox had to do was relinquish some control. They found a good wedding planner online, and from that moment, all the details were handled through that one point of contact.

“We communicated with the planner on all the things we wanted,” she says. “We got an all-inclusive package, so she found our location [Edinburgh Castle in Edinburgh], hired the florist, arranged a steam press for my dress, hired a photographer and we trusted her judgment. We did everything online; we didn’t even talk by phone. But we didn’t have to worry about anything.”

When Marti Benjamin and her husband decided to marry in Paris in April 1989, they relied heavily on their friend Valerie, who resided in Paris, to handle their logistics. The couple never once traveled to France in the planning stages. Like the Tarboxes, the Benjamins planned to come to Paris cold, just in time to marry.

“Valerie embraced the project with great enthusiasm,” Benjamin says. “She arranged the best man, and she was the maid of honor.” Five Parisian friends of Valerie’s, whom the Benjamins had never met, were their only guests. “We were fortunate, though—one was a photographer, and she showed up with cameras in hand, so we had some photographs!”

Officiating her friends’ wedding in El Salvador was a “really cloudy“ process, says Lorna Shepard.

When Benjamin’s own daughter, Karri, married Carlos last year in a hotel in his family’s hometown of Oaxaca, Mexico, a measure of control was also relinquished. “My daughter handled all arrangements using the Internet and Skype,” Benjamin says, explaining that the Karri had hired a wedding coordinator who worked directly with the venue’s bilingual events manager.

“My advice is just to remain flexible,” says Benjamin.

Lesson #2: Every country has different rules

According to the U.S. Department of State, “In general, marriages which are legally performed and valid abroad are also legally valid in the United States.” But there are exceptions to this rule, so you need to do plenty of homework on any country you’re considering as a wedding destination.

Fortunately for the Tarboxes, weddings in the UK are recognized in the States. Unfortunately, it’s time-consuming. Couples must apply for a special $600 visa, and give notice to the UK register at least 16 days prior to the wedding. They had to wait six to eight weeks to receive their required, specially stamped passports by mail. And they had to post their banns, which are formal public announcements of their pending nuptials, for a period of time prior to the wedding (to enable anyone who knows of lawful impediments to come forward).

“You can’t elope,” Tarbox says. “That kind of spontaneity just isn’t possible.”

When Lorna Shepard was asked to officiate at a friend’s wedding in El Salvador, however, it was more complex than that.

“First, I had to go to the American embassy in San Francisco, with Krista and Ron [the engaged couple], to apply to be credentialed as a wedding official,” Shepard says. “El Salvador’s a Catholic country. There’s no separation of church and state, and they’d both been married before, so there were some problems with them having been previously married and divorced.”

They would need to provide documentation of their divorces, and they’d need to interview with an El Salvadoran priest at the embassy to clear up the matter of their religious affiliations.

“Then I found out it was my responsibility to find the governor of the province, who’s kind of like a mayor, and hopefully one that speaks English, and get him to the ceremony, and I got the impression there had to be some form of payment,” Shepard recalls. “I tried to find out from the embassy whether they needed a U.S. marriage license, but no one could answer that. I called city hall in San Francisco, and they were baffled. The process was really cloudy.”

The long and short of it was, though Shepard was entirely willing to jump through these hoops for her friends, it was likely a lot of trouble for a wedding that could likely not even be legally recognized here at home.

In the end, the couple opted quietly for a private, city hall wedding here in the States, then went to El Salvador for their commitment ceremony, which Shepard officiated.

Buffy and Orpheos Tarbox were joined by their parents at their Scottish wedding.

Marti Benjamin ran into the same issue with her French wedding. In France, engaged couples must establish residency for at least a month for their marriages to be legal. As much as she would have wanted to, moving to France for a month wasn’t an option. Instead, the two married in a civil ceremony in the U.S. first, and had their church wedding in Paris at the American Cathedral.

“I don’t think every ceremony is this complicated,” says Shepard. “But the reality is, your ceremony is symbolic. And I don’t think it’s any less of a marriage that they did the legal ceremony two days before leaving the country.”

Lesson #3: Arrive early

In the end, the Tarboxes’ wedding went off without a hitch. The couple arrived in Edinburgh three days before their wedding, to allow time to get over their jet lag, and the planner greeted them with an itinerary. All taxis and appointments were arranged for them, so the two were able to enjoy their time together without running around. And they actually had time to see the local sights with their parents (the only attendees) prior to the wedding.

“It was a really wonderful, relaxing experience,” says Tarbox.

For Marti Benjamin and her husband, their early arrival in Oaxaca, six days before her daughter’s wedding, meant ensuring its validity. Mexican law required that someone other than a biological relative attest to Karri’s identity, and Karri’s stepfather was able to do that in enough time to legitimize the ceremony.

“Having feet on the ground to confirm details ends up being important,” says Benjamin.

Lesson #4: Scale back on size and complexity

All told, Tarbox estimates that they spent about $6,000-$7,000 on the wedding, including travel fares. They honeymooned in London, which added, she estimates, about another $1,500. “You could safely say it was under $10,000,” she says.

For this, she was willing to forego such rituals and traditions as the bouquet toss—she simply handed hers to a hotel employee—the first dance, and even attendants.

“Just make sure people know it’s your decision and stick to your guns,” Tarbox says. “Decide what you want as a couple and don’t allow other people to influence you.”

Considering a wedding abroad? Here are some resources to get started on your research:

U.S. Department of State information about Marriage of U.S. Citizens Abroad:

U.S. Government information (including contacts for embassies and consulates), “Marriage Abroad for American Citizens”: