As you might have guessed, getting married in a foreign country is not the world's easiest feat. You can't just pop down to your local marriage license bureau, buy a license, hop on a plane, and tie the knot on some tropical beach. Why not? Let's take a brief look at why the foreign marriage scene is so nuts.You can trace the origin of foreign marriage license gymnastics to the year 1789. That's the year the Founding Fathers drafted the U.S. Constitution and, in some fit of insanity, reserved the whole business of marriage and divorce to the states. That's why there is no Federal Department of Marriage.
What the heck does this have to do with anything, you might ask? Ah, it has a lot to do with getting married in a foreign country—this constitutional quirk means no federal officials can perform marriages—federal officials such as embassy officers, ambassadors, and various other friendly U.S. government employees you might see in a foreign country. As a result, if you want to get married in a foreign country, you have to follow the local rules and regulations. And if you think the individual states in this country have funky marriage license rules, you haven't seen anything yet.
Take Italy, for example. How about tying the knot in a lovely villa in Milan? Sounds romantic, yes? Well, first you need your birth certificates. And not just any ordinary copy of your birth certificate—you need one that is certified and exemplified. We haven't the foggiest idea what exemplification is, we just know that only the secretary of state (of the state in which you were born, naturally) can work this magic trick.
Next, the secretary of state needs to affix an "apostil" to the document (don't ask—we've never seen an apostil, but it sounds vaguely religious.) After you've got your birth certificates certified, exemplified, and apostilized, you need to get them translated into Italian. Then, go to your nearest Italian consulate with four (not three, but four!) witnesses, and finally, get your marriage license.
Ha! Just kidding—you don't get a marriage license. You just get a certificate that you take to the American consulate in Milan. Then, you trade in this certificate for another one and take this piece of paper to two different city offices in Milan. Then you get a marriage license. So you're all ready for your civil wedding in Milan. How about a romantic sunset ceremony? Wrong. Civil ceremonies in Milan must be performed between 10 am and 11 am. No kidding. (If you'd like to hear more about what can go wrong with an Italian wedding, check out David Shaw's article, "The Wedding March" in the March 1990 issue of Conde Nast Traveller Magazine.)
Beyond bureaucracies from hell, there is another roadblock to marriages in many countries: residency requirements. Some countries require you to be in the country for several days (or weeks) prior the wedding. France, for example, has a whopping forty-day residency requirement. And many Caribbean islands that were former French colonies have similar rules. In this section, we will give you some general information on how easy or how difficult it is to tie the knot in certain foreign destinations.
How do you find out the rules and requirements for different countries? Here are some possibilities:
The Federal Government
As you might guess, the federal government handles questions about marriage in foreign countries about as efficiently as it moves the mail. We discovered that there are five sections within the U.S. State Department Office of Citizen's Consular that are supposed to help you with this information. Each section has information on a different part of the world:
East Asia and Pacific: 202-647-3675 Europe and Canada: 202-647-3445 Central America, South America, and the Caribbean: 202-647-3712 Near Eastern/South Asia: 202-647-3926 Africa: 202-647-4994
We called each of the above numbers and the response of the bureaucrats on the phone varied widely. A couple never returned our messages. One was very helpful, even faxing us detailed information on getting married in Mexico.
Unfortunately, the information is so general that it's not very useful. For example, we got information on getting married in Mexico City—not exactly a top tourist destination. Think this is the same as Cancun? Nope— Mexico has thirty two federal districts (roughly the equivalent of states), each with their own arcane rules.
This is not to say that the information is totally useless—we learned, for example, that the only legal marriages in predominantly Catholic Mexico are (you guessed it) civil ones! Hence, this information is helpful, but more as a starting point.
Many countries have consulates and/or tourist bureaus in major U.S. cities. According to travel industry insiders we interviewed, however, the information from these sources is helpful but not wholly reliable. In the last section of this book, we list some consulates and tourist bureaus for popular destinations.
Professional Planners and Tour Companies
Perhaps the best person to ask about getting married in a particular country is someone who's already planned a wedding there. Both professional planners (reviewed in Chapter 6) and tour companies that specialize in booking wedding and honeymoon packages in certain countries are good sources. Of course, you have to pay for this advice; a professional planner may charge a fee that runs into the hundreds of dollars. Tour companies will give you marriage license information, if you book a package with them.
Obviously, the more experience a planner has with a location, the better. For example, if either the bride and groom has been previously divorced, you'll want to ask the planner if they've ever handled a similar wedding. You may have to get divorce decrees specially certified, for example.
The concierge at local hotels or resorts
A concierge at a hotel or resort that does a fair number of weddings may be a good resource for marriage license information.
TOP QUESTIONS TO ASK FOR DESTINATION WEDDINGS
Here are ten questions to ask about getting married in another country.
DOES YOUR RESORT HAVE A WEDDING PLANNER OR DEPARTMENT? Will someone be available to help you handle any red tape? What are the fees for this sender?
WHAT ARE THE RESIDENCY REQUIREMENTS? How long must you wait after you arrive before you can tie the knot? And is this actual days or business days?
WHAT DOCUMENTATION IS NECESSARY? Requirements can vary tremendously. You'll need, at the very least, some form of identification, most commonly a birth certificate. But does it need to be an original, a certified copy, or notarized? Must it be translated? Are there any fees for translations? Must the translation be done in a specific way?
ARE THERE ANY REQUIRED MEDICAL TESTS? A blood test? X-rays? A doctor's certification of certain immunizations or health status? Can the certifying doctor be here in the United States?
IS THERE A FILING PERIOD OR PROCESSING TIME? Do the actual documents need to be sent ahead of time?
IS THERE A WAITING PERIOD? This is the period of time between when you get the license until you can marry. Can you get the license through the mail ahead of time?
SHOULD WE ARRIVE EARLY TO HANDLE ANY LAST-MINUTE PAPERWORK? While the resort may handle all the paperwork, some will request that you arrive early. This allows you to do any last-minute license tasks, to plan the wedding, or whatever.
ARE THERE ANY SPECIAL REQUIREMENTS FOR PROOF OF DIVORCE? In some countries, the divorce decree must be translated or certified. Check to see if there are waiting periods after your divorce is finalized before you can remarry. If one of you is a widower, confirm the requirements to prove this—usually you'll need to show a death certificate.
HOW MANY WITNESSES ARE NEEDED, IF ANY? Must the witnesses be citizens of that country? Should they also serve as interpreters?
CIVIL VS. RELIGIOUS CEREMONIES: WHAT IS ALLOWED? Some countries only recognize civil ceremonies. Others are exactly the opposite, requiring a certain religious ceremony.
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THE SECRET CEREMONY OPTION
After all this talk about medical tests and translated birth certificates, you may be wondering "Am I crazy? The killer residency requirement is ridiculous! Should I forget this idea of a destination wedding?"
Of course not. Here's a solution: consider a "secret ceremony." Just before you get on the plane for that tropical getaway, you drop by the justice of the peace. In a very private ceremony, you tie the knot. Then, hop on the plane and have the wedding you've imagined on that white sand beach. If you've invited a small number of friends and family, they'll never know that you're already married and this is just for show.
The "secret ceremony option" is a wonderful way to have your cake and eat it, too. What does it matter that you were technically married hours earlier? You don't have to worry about translations, residency periods, foreign bureaucracies, and other red tape. Only you and your fiance know the truth. The important part is you're getting married. And this is going to be one hell of a vacation.
CAUTION: Use a credit card to for travel deposits or payments.
The travel industry is populated with hundreds of tour operators and "consolidators" who offer tremendous savings on airfares and hotels. Unfortunately, some are scam artists who take in huge amounts of money from travellers, only to go out of business before the trips are ever taken.
How do you know that a tour company (or a travel agent, for that matter) is reputable? The honest truth is it is very hard—scam artists can hide their trail of unhappy customers, or a seemingly reputable travel company can hit tough financial straits and go bankrupt overnight.
The only way to protect yourself is to use a credit card to pay for deposits or trip payments. Charges to your card have special federal consumer protection-—if you don't receive what you paid for or if the services or goods were inferior, you can dispute the charge on your card. The merchant has to prove that it didn't defraud you.
We've seen this work time and time again to protect consumers. When a travel tour company based right here in Boulder, Colorado, cancelled its European trips because of financial problems, the only consumers who got "refunds" were those who charged the deposits to credit cards. They just contacted their credit card companies and had the charges removed from their bill. Those who paid with cash or check lost as much as $3,000 each.
One quirk to this law: credit card issuers require you dispute the charge within sixty or ninety days after the "purchase," according to the fine print on the back of credit card statements. But you have to place deposits down six months in advance, right? How can you be protected?
Remember that a deposit is not actually a purchase. You have not yet received the goods or services (that is, the wedding or honeymoon trip). This loophole has enabled consumers to get credit even if months have elapsed since the deposit was made.
Another tip: follow the advice of a travel agent when selecting tour packages. The agents know who is reputable, which company fulfills their promises, and so on. Are travel agents foolproof? No, of course not. They can go out of business, too. And they might not steer you to the best deals (or even be aware of them). Nonetheless, we still find a reputable, experienced travel agent to be a valuable asset in planning your trip.
15 Money Saving Tips on Destination Wedding and Honeymoons
SAVE 50 PERCENT OR MORE BY GOING "OFF SEASON." California's Napa Valley is a bar-gain in spring. Ski resorts slash their rates in the summer and still offer fun festivals, hiking, mountain biking, and more. In the fall, the Caribbean has great deals before Christmas. Winter sees some of the lowest air fares to Europe. A good travel agent can help you find the best off-season bargains.
PICK UP CONDE NAST'S TRAVELLER MAGAZINE. We like this publication's honest and frank critiques of destinations and resorts. Forget the bridal magazines—their breathless chatter gives no real information. Another hot tip: travel guides for students (like the "Let's Go" series) offer great money-saving ideas.
CONSIDER THE "SHOULDER SEASONS" between high and low season. Not all destinations have super-saver bargains during shoulder times. But in the Caribbean, for example, the shoulder rates in late November or in late April are fantastic. One resort we found in the Virgin Islands has a shoulder season that offers big discounts. Go at the end of March (high season) and you'll pay $2330 per couple for seven nights. Wait one week (after April 1) and the price drops to $1630—a whopping savings of$700, which might be enough to pay for one airfare!
EXCHANGE MONEY AT A BANK. See if your local bank can exchange money before you leave, or find a bank at the location where you're heading. Hotel exchange rates could break you.
GET A CONDO OR SUITE WITH A KITCHEN and buy inexpensive breakfasts (like bagels, toast or frozen waffles). The savings over eating breakfast out each day will be significant—then you can go "whole hog" at dinner. Better yet, take full advantage of any complimentary breakfast offered by the hotel or resort.
CONSIDER A NICE THREE-NIGHT PACKAGE if seven nights will break the bank. Some resorts also have four- and five-night packages that are not as widely promoted as the seven-night variety.
PACKAGES THAT INCLUDE AIRFARE AND HOTEL OFFER THE BEST BARGAINS. Super deals include breakfasts, dinner(s), car rentals, and other goodies. Book early to get the best rates.
NEVER ORDER ROOM SERVICE. Surcharges and gratuities make this very expensive. Also, never even look at the minibar—that little refrigerator in your room stocked with $15 cans of peanuts. It may be tempting, but you'll pay the price later. Always check your final bill. We frequently have been charged for items in the minibar that we never touched.
PACK LOTS OF ESSENTIAL TOILETRIES, including shampoos and suntan lotion. Most hotels and resorts charge a premium price for such items.
PACK LITTLE PACKETS OF DETERGENT and hand wash any dirty clothes. We once used a hotel laundry service for two outfits and got a bill for $50.
GET A TRAVEL AGENT. They'll save you more money than you can imagine. We like ones who have actually visited the locations or hotels they've recommended—or have sent clients there recently and got good reports.
AVOID TAXIS AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE. Try to walk or ride the bus, since taxis are darned expensive.
SEE IF THE RATES FOR A ROOM WITH LESS OF A VIEW ARE SIGNIFICANTLY LESS EXPENSIVE. If you're right next to the beach, you don't have to look at it twenty-four hours a day. With the savings from a "garden view" room, you might be able to afford another day or two of vacation.
CHECK YOUR CAR INSURANCE COVERAGE FOR CAR RENTAL COVERAGE IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY. Don't buy expensive extra collision coverage if you don't need it. Some credit cards also offer tins perk if you use them to pay for the rental.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF ANY STUDENT DISCOUNTS. Many airlines and even hotels offer discounted rates to college students. Typically, such fares require you to be under a certain age and/or have a college ID. Discounts on both domestic and international travel can be significant.
WARNING: Marriage license requirements can change at any time.
In the following section, we review various destinations and give you general information on getting married there. While we have thoroughly researched this material, omissions and mistakes may exist.
Therefore, we urge you to consult the services of a professional wedding planner (whether he or she works independently or for a resort or hotel) to obtain, a marriage license in a foreign country. In addition, requirements and rules at home or abroad may change at any time. Before departing, be sure to confirm all documentation, residency periods, and other rules.