The Lifehacker's guide on how to "rent" a San Francisco City Hall's pricey ($1000) Mayors Balcony or the 4th Floor without paying a dime and get away with it.
Disclaimer: this is still 100% legal and possible by all means and requires almost no effort - just the knowledge. But do it on your own risk.
For those who are in the first stages of planning a San Francisco City Hall wedding, I highly recommend reading this official guide first as it contains the information that may be required in order to fully understand how this "Lifehack" works in comparison to the "Standard way" of getting married at San Francisco City Hall.
If you already familiar with the standard way of getting married at City Hall, you must be aware that San Francisco City Hall will assign a deputy marriage commissioner from the County Clerk's office to perform your Ceremony. Typically Ceremonies are held in the Rotunda but County Clerk office may "punish" the couples with their "private room" ceremony if the couple brings more than 6 guests (which includes a photographer by the way). Why I say punish? Well this room looks so bad especially compared to the rest of the building and when there more then 10 people, it might feel like a detention area rather then a chapel. We do know the way to avoid this situation though (also legally - another life-hack) but we also know how to take photos that mask its "beauty".
So, as much as anyone would think that they are guaranteed to have a beautiful Rotunda Ceremony, truth to be told, it is not really the case. Not only the Rotunda may not be offered to couples with larger groups, it can be blocked due to concerts, live performances or special event setup. I should note that many wedding officiants are trying to help in these situations and if the County Clerk's office does not object, they will take you to the 4th floor or the Mayor's Balcony for free. But again, this is up to them to decide your fate. Still, the chances you will get Rotunda are quite high. I'd estimate 90% of our couples get either Rotunda or get "upgraded" to 4th floor or Mayor's balcony even with more than 6 guests.
Here is an interesting part: the City Hall is public building and anyone can have a wedding there WITHOUT hiring the County Clerk officiant. It's just happened that their office located at the same building so naturally it's easy for them to perform the marriage ceremonies. This means that not only you can bring your own wedding officiant or your friend who can be deputized as an "officiant for the day" but you can use ANY available public space without paying the $1000+. We've personally did it at least 20 times with 100% success rate. There is literally no-one to stop you. Even County Clerk's office officiants will politely wait until the end of the Ceremony with their "proper" couples.
Needless to say that any space you decide to choose for your Ceremony will be still available to others. From our experience though, tourists generally try to avoid walking in front of the photographer during the Ceremony so the experience is similar to what you will be having when going the standard Rotunda route. As I said previously, City Hall is a public space and even with the official City Hall deputy marriage commissioner performing your ceremony, people can still walk right by you in the Rotunda as area is not roped off. We photographers, often using gestures or body language (or hisses), to stop these Rotunda intruders.
Here is something you should also consider: with the "standard ceremony" you will be waiting in the check-in line and as a result will be somewhat dependent on other couples. If the couple who was supposed to come at 9:30AM arrives at 10AM and your wedding also at 10AM, expect to get delayed as a result. City Hall's officiants are volunteers (work for free because they love it). Some of them are always on time while others are not so much. Yes, quite often things are not running smoothly at City Hall which generally results in "you being stuck" in the County Clerk's office and so your group.
Okay, now you should have some understanding of what to expect with a standard wedding. Let's move on.
First and foremost, there are three well known spots clients CAN reserve, the both sides of the 4th floor, namely the North or South and the Mayor's Balcony. There is another place you can potentially reserve but that is irrelevant here. Now, because these spots are in demand, they do get officially booked and will not be accessible to anyone else.
How to get these VIP spots given the fact that they might be officially reserved by someone else?
The majority of couples who decide to reserve these private event spots, book them in the afternoon due to the simple fact that they have an evening restaurant reception. This means renting a space from 2 to 3PM or from 3 to 4PM makes a lot of sense for them as after all the group photos and the the bridal session, they can take off to their destination. But this also means that by coming to City Hall in the AM, you will dramatically increase the chance of getting the "expensive" spot for free. But there are even more ways to improve your chances.
Friday is a good (bad) example: Fridays are the busiest days at City Hall and often the "rental spots" are booked both in the AM and PM. So by avoiding Friday alone, your chances of having a free 4th floor Ceremony increase. You get the point: some days better than others. To put it simply: aim for Tuesday or Wednesday morning, avoid fancy numbers or "lucky" days on Asian calendars as these days tend to be busy. Should I mention Valentine's Day or Chinese New Year?
What if you must get married on a very specific date?
Yes, what if you MUST get married on a busy summer Friday due to family arrangements, flight tickets, honeymoon planning or weekend getaway. Well, its still manageable. For starters, we've seen all three spots (4th floor South and North as well as Mayor's balcony) being reserved, three times at the most. And we've covered well over a 1000 weddings at City Hall so to speak. We've came up with the term "San Francisco City Hall Wedding Photographer" back in 2006 when the google search for this keyword would result in articles showing photos of Merlyn Monroe and a Wikipedia page about City Hall. Point is - we've been around and have the data.
Here is the best part. City Hall ceremonies can be scheduled from 9AM till 3:30PM - everyone knows it. But what most people don't know that City Hall's actual open hours are 8AM - 8PM. This means that theoretically you can get married at 7:55PM and it will be legal - way after the last "standard bride" leaves the building. We actually had one wedding at City Hall at 7PM on the 4th floor and literally had the building for ourselves
So, yes, you can practically own the City Hall just like the couples who rent it on Saturdays. Now you know everything besides some technical details and photography aspects.
This article should not discourage you to go the official route. 99.9% of our clients did just that. The other 0.01% were obsessed with our photography style and City Hall's architecture and wanted the building to be empty. But if you one of the couples who doesn't want to enter the uncharted territory, rest assured, we know how to handle every situation at City Hall. Even an emergency or fire drills, we've seen it all.
If you are interested to learn about the photography options for City Hall, please visit this City Hall photography options page. Or take us to another county for your elopement. Here is our Iceland collection. Enjoy your planning!