On December 31st 2015, Chelsea and I held a small legal wedding ceremony while I had visited her in her hometown in Washington state. As long time followers of our blog might already know, it was never our original intention to marry in America. In fact, for nearly a year, we have been planning our dream wedding at The Alverton, in the UK. So why did we decide to marry earlier than anticipated in the US?
The first, and most important thing to note, is that this wedding is not replacing our UK wedding. We have been referring to this legal ceremony as our visa wedding which in international long distance relationships is a lot more common than not. Particularly when applying for a UK settlement visa, a visa ceremony prior to application can be a significant benefit. The reason for this is that between the two partner visa options (Fiancé & Spouse), those applying for a spouse visa (i.e. couples that are already married) are viewed significantly more favourably than those that are not. This is because marriage is much stronger proof of the relationship than evidence that the couple plan to marry.
Another reason that helped us come to this decision is the financial implications of applying directly for a Spouse visa, compared to applying for a Fiancé visa and later transferring to a Spouse visa. The cost of applying for a Fiancé visa is £649. However, by the end of the 6 months, if the couple wish to remain together in the UK, they must transfer to the Spouse visa – which costs an extra £649, plus a £600 IHS fee. The total for this route comes to £1898. Couples that opt to have a visa wedding, such as we did, have the option to apply directly for the Spouse visa directly & much quicker – bringing the total of this route to £1249.
Visa Weddings & ‘Real’ Weddings
In addition to making the visa application process easier & more financially viable – there were a few other considerations we took into account when deciding to have a visa wedding. One of these was the impact it would have on our ‘real’ wedding – the one we have been planning in August.
Ultimately, we concluded that being together transcended the way we wanted to do it. We love each other and will do whatever it takes to be together in person. Sacrificing the wedding of our dreams happening as we originally intended was one of the things we would do to improve our chances of being together & starting to build a life together after being separated by distance for so long.
Of course, it is important to remember that this does not mean we won’t be having our dream wedding in August. We still refer to it as our ‘real’ wedding because that is how it feels to us. In December 2015, we held our small legal ceremony, and in August 2016 we will be holding our ‘real’ wedding. This is the one we want to have the emotional impact. It is after this one that we will feel married. Keeping the visa wedding small, intimate and short is one of the ways we created this separation.
For us (and others in similar situations) a visa wedding is cheap. We asked a family friend to perform the ceremony in a public park. The only costs for us were the wedding license and our clothes for the day – which again, were not formal wedding dresses & suits to help create the separation between this and our big day in August. Because visa weddings can be so cheap, they help save money in the long run. We spent a total of less than £60 on the visa ceremony, but saved ourselves a £649 Fiancé visa application. This is money we can put towards our real wedding in August, to help it feel even more special.
But just because the visa ceremony was cheap, and we have been creating separation between it and our ‘real’ wedding in August – this doesn’t mean that it is any less genuine. We are still married in the eyes of the law. And the day was still special to us. It is, after all, the day we became husband and wife! There was no big celebration like we will have in August, but the intimacy of the ceremony created a different, unique and personal atmosphere that we will remember forever.
Before holding our own visa wedding, we looked around online to see how common this actually was. What we found was surprising. Multiple wedding ceremonies are an astoundingly normal aspect of a lot of international long distance relationships. There were three commonly cited reasons for this. The first was similar to ours. To obtain the required visa, the couple must already be married – but maintaining an international long distance relationship is expensive. So, to save money, couples often hold a small ceremony immediately, and then a larger wedding day after they have obtained their visa and are able to sufficiently save.
The second reason is where two different cultures are involved. It is not uncommon in international relationships, for couples to come from different cultures, traditions or religions. While the couple make their own path through this, the decision is often taken to hold two separate weddings – one rooted in each culture to honor each individually.
The third reason is much more practical. In extreme long distance relationships, the cost of travel for come can be too high. While some couples choose to wed in the middle, there are still plenty of situations where even meeting in the middle leads to high travel costs. So instead, the best way forward is to hold multiple wedding ceremonies – one in each country (or city), so that each family is equally as able to celebrate with the happy couple.
In the end, the decision is down to you and what you feel is right. Multiple weddings are an option. They are an option that are frequently used by long distance couples to overcome challenges – whether those are visa, culture or distance related (or even all three). And remember, if you do choose to have multiple weddings – it means more anniversaries too. Each will be special in their own way. You can choose to select one to celebrate, or take advantage of all three. Plus if you forget one… you don’t have to wait a whole year until the next!
Navigating Family Drama
We were fortunate when planning our visa wedding. We did not encounter any family drama, or those that told us not to do it However, we know that it can be a real risk. One of the reasons a lot of people are hesitant about the idea of holding a visa wedding is how their family might react to it. It is an understandable concern. However, it is not your family that is in a long distance relationship – it is you.
Maintaining an international LDR does not have the same rules as a traditional relationship. You can’t see each other when you want, you need to spend a lot of money on travel to do so. You might be in different timezones or hemispheres. You might only have a few hours of each day to talk. And most of all – you don’t have any physical contact for the majority of your relationship.
In long distance weddings it is no different. Because of the added complications of the visa & distance, the rules are not the same. But holding a visa wedding is not seen as an elopement. It is a necessary step to being together. You are not hiding from your family – you are only doing what you have to. Sometimes you only have one chance to get married & advance your visa application. When that chance arises, you need to take it – because it might be months or years before the next. Sometimes that means sacrifices have to be made. People you wish could be there might not be able to. It is an unfortunate truth about LDR marriages – but one that cannot be avoided.
If you are concerned about how your family might react to the news of a visa wedding, one of the steps you can take is explaining how and why you came to the decision. For those not in a long distance relationship, it can be hard to understand the need to marry legally before your big day. It is obvious to us living it, but not necessarily those that are not.
One of the best ways to explain your decision is to put together a short video – announcing your marriage, but also answering any questions family members might have. We, ourselves, compiled a 10 minute video that breaks down the visa process for our friends & family and distributed it to wedding guests. The message is: this doesn’t replace our August wedding, it is a necessary step in our relationship. We break down how & why we chose a visa ceremony, and put to rest any fears that the wedding in any way diminished our big day in August.
Our Visa Wedding
So what exactly happened on December 31st 2016? This is the (brief) story of our visa wedding. The day started similar to those before it. I was visiting Chelsea in America – we woke up together in her apartment. We left almost immediately to take care of the last minute arrangements. We stopped by a store to buy a small bouquet of flowers, as well as pick up a small breakfast. Upon our return to the apartment, Chelsea packed a small bag. At 11am, her uncle arrived – who would be preparing for the wedding with me. At the same time, Chelsea left to prepare with her Aunt.
Almost 2 hours later, just before 1pm, Chelsea’s Uncle Doug & I set off in his car. He gave me a short pep talk in his car, as we drove to Zuanich Point Park – a waterfront public park which we had selected for our ceremony. We unloaded 8 chairs from the car and walked them over to the end of the path where we would be holding our ceremony. As we headed back to the car, our officiant (a family friend) arrived. We greeted him and handed him bottle of whiskey… the only payment he would accept!
As we begun to set up the final touches (party poppers & gold streamers for a New Year’s Eve theme) – our guests began to arrive. There were 8 guests in total. Family that we knew could not make it to the UK wedding, plus Chelsea’s maid of honor. When we recieved word that Chelsea had arrived, we all took our places & her Uncle Doug left to walk her down the aisle.
She arrived, and she was beautiful. I can barely remember much of the words that were spoken during the ceremony – my heart was pounding so loudly in my chest. I remember reading my vows. I remember Chelsea reading hers (she cried)! I remember exchanging the rings, after almost dropping them, and the kiss. That was it! Only 15 minutes after she had arrived, we were married.
It was a surreal feeling as we stood by the waterfront, taking pictures with family. We were actually married. The whole ceremony had been a blur. I remember feeling the weight of the ring on my finger… it was going to be an adjustment getting used to that. But I was happy. The weather was perfect (surprisingly for an outdoor mid-December wedding). I had just married the love of my life. Nothing could bring me down.
After taking photos, we all took to our cars and drove our separate ways. We would be meeting at 4pm at a local restaurant, Mambo Italiano, for a meal to celebrate. In the meantime, Chelsea & I headed to a local cupcake parlour with her maid of honor Amber and her partner Ian. On the way, we drove past an ivy heart on the side of a building. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up. So, of course, we used it as a backdrop to a few extra wedding day photos.
At dinner, we were joined by our wedding guests. We ate well, and enjoyed good company. It was a great end to the day. After the meal, Chelsea’s Aunt Jayna produced a wedding cake she had baked for us earlier. Chelsea and I attempted to cut it, though our cutting skills might not have been perfect. We distributed a slice to everyone, ate until we were full and thanked everyone for joining us. It had been a long, exhilarating day. It had been small, intimate and for us – perfect.
Are you planning on having a visa wedding? Are you unsure about whether or not you should have one? We hope this post sharing our experience helped you decide! If you want to ask us a question about our day, or advice for yours – leave us a comment below, or make a post in our visa forum.