These expert-approved schedules (and bonus words of wisdom from the pros) will help you organize your celebration, no matter when it starts.
Photography: Clary Pfeiffer Photography
While there's no "right" way to schedule your wedding day—in fact, tons of different factors go into creating one—it's useful to know what your event might look like depending on when it starts. That's why we reached out to top wedding planners and asked them to provide sample wedding-day timelines (i.e. basic outlines including major day-of events) based on seven of the most popular ceremony start times. Use these free samples to help you decide when you should begin—and end—your celebration.
But first, remember: These samples aren't full breakdowns. To build a seamless, complete timeline for your big day, you'll likely need the help of a wedding coordinator or planner. "They've seen it all and can tailor your timeline to fit your needs and desires," explains Gretchen Culver of Rocket Science Events. "Additionally, they can adjust the timeline as needed based on their ability to read the crowd." You should also "run your timeline by your vendors—especially any venue and catering crew, plus your photo and video team," adds Elizabeth McKellar of The Nouveau Romantics. "They know the way things go and are able to give you practical input." This all goes double if you're planning to incorporate "non-traditional" elements (extra activities, etc.) into your big day.
One last note: The following timelines all assume the ceremony and reception take place at the same venue. If yours won't, you'll need to consider the distance between each location, plus how guests will get to and from. Those—and other factors, like traffic estimates—will affect how much extra time you need to allocate.
Photography: Elizabeth Messina
Consider basing a morning wedding's schedule off of this timeline from Bash Please. Because you're celebrating in the a.m., the team recommends serving brunch-inspired cocktails during cocktail hour and lunch fare at your reception.
9:00 a.m. – Portraits
10:00 a.m. – Ceremony
10:30 a.m. – Cocktail hour
11:30 a.m. – Reception
3:00 p.m. – Couple's exit
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Wedding Day Timeline: 12 p.m. Ceremony
Here's what Culver whipped up for a 12 p.m. ceremony start time. Because noon is early for a wedding, she recommends brunch- or lunch-inspired food, too. She also went with a shorter reception length, because mid-day events don't usually involve dancing.
12:00 p.m. – Ceremony
1:00 p.m. – Cocktail hour and portraits
2:30 p.m. – Reception
4:00 p.m. – Couple's exit
Photography: Stefano Santucci4 of 14
Wedding Day Timeline: 2 p.m. Ceremony
The later you start your ceremony, the more time you have to schedule things before it. Here, Anne Book recommends a whole two hours for wedding portraits, giving you and your guests of honor extra leeway.
12:00 p.m. – Portraits
2:00 p.m. – Ceremony
2:30 p.m. – Cocktail hour
3:30 p.m. – Reception
7:30 p.m. – Couple's exit
Photography: Sara Richardson Photography5 of 14
Wedding Day Timeline: 3 p.m. Ceremony
Jacin Fitzgerald provided this sample and shared that there's some nuance to her photo time suggestion. If you're skipping the first look or want to wait for better light for your couple portraits (mid-day can be unforgiving), you can take your other photos starting at 1:00 p.m. and schedule couple portraits for right after the ceremony. Alternatively, all your formal photos can happen post-ceremony.
12:00 p.m. – Portraits
3:00 p.m. – Ceremony
3:40 p.m. – Cocktail hour
5:00 p.m. – Reception
9:00 or 10:00 p.m. – Couple's exit
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Photography: Josh and Dana Fernandez6 of 14
Wedding Day Timeline: 4 p.m. Ceremony
According to Shannon Leahy, the planner behind this sample timeline, don't think of 10:00 p.m. as the end of your event. Instead, it's when everybody should head to the after-party. After all, you'll still have a good portion of the night left! Like other planners, she also notes that cocktail hour is a great time for additional portraits.
2:00 p.m. – Portraits
4:00 p.m. – Ceremony
4:30 p.m. – Cocktail hour
5:30 p.m. – Reception
10:00 p.m. – Couple's exit
Photography: Joel Serrato
This template, from McKellar, is flexible. Don't want pre-ceremony photos? Take them during the cocktail hour, instead. And if the end of cocktail hour coincides with sunset (which it very well might with a 5:00 p.m. ceremony start), be sure to take some couple portraits then either way. She also says you can call it a night at 10:00 p.m. if you please.
3:30 p.m. – Portraits
5:00 p.m. – Ceremony
5:30 p.m. – Cocktail hour
6:30 p.m. – Reception
10:30 p.m. – Couple's exit
Photography: Bryan from For the Love of It8 of 14
Wedding Day Timeline: 6 p.m. Ceremony
Kristin Burgess of By Emily B. agrees that it's alright if things run a little short. For example, a 6:30 p.m. cocktail hour is perfectly fine, as is ending things at 11:30 p.m.
4:15 p.m. – Portraits
6:00 p.m. – Ceremony
6:40 p.m. – Cocktail hour
8:00 p.m. – Reception
12:00 a.m. – Couple's exit
The experts suggest between two and six hours for getting ready depending on the specifics, like how many wedding party members are involved and how many hairstylists and makeup artists are on hand. Remember, this includes beauty services, getting dressed, taking photos, and other big-day preparations. Again, talk to your team of professionals to come up with the right schedule.
Photography: Corbin Gurkin10 of 14
In general, the planners recommend between a half hour and an hour for first look and couple portraits, plus a half hour to an hour for wedding party and other formal group (like family) portraits. Burgess also suggests adding 30 extra minutes afterwards "to relax pre-ceremony."
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The pros allocate no more than ten minutes for each speech, plus five for each special dance. Meal time usually takes around an hour, with additional time set aside for dessert. The rest of the reception goes toward partying (dancing, mingling, and so forth), which often lasts a couple hours, give or take. Of course, these are just averages. There's also no must-follow order when it comes to reception events. Different weddings might have the toasts, dances, cake-cutting, and so forth at different moments. "It's all about optimal flow," says Culver.
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Bonus Advice: Allow for Wiggle Room
When in doubt about how long something might take, the planners advise adding in buffer time—typically between five and 15 minutes. "It's always easier to end up with extra time than to go over what you've planned for," explains McKellar. A common practice is to assume the ceremony will start ten-ish minutes after what's listed on the invitation, for example. "Also, be realistic with your guests," McKellar adds. So, if your family's "notoriously late," work with that knowledge! In the end, no one wants to "feel rushed," reminds Leahy.
Photography: Mariel Hannah Photography13 of 14
"Make time for yourselves," shares Bash Please. This could be your first look, or it could be something else. Book loves the idea of a "room reveal," where you and your future husband or wife check out the reception space privately. "It's a joyful memory where you can take in all of your planning and special details before the room is filled with your guests," she says.
Photography: Erich McVey14 of 14
Bonus Advice: Think Outside the Box
Don't be afraid to brainstorm out of order. "Think about what's most important to you and go backwards from there," Fitzgerald recommends. "Worried about guests sitting in 90-degree heat in the peak afternoon hours? Want to take advantage of softer early-evening lighting conditions?" Consult your team and plan according to any specific concerns and wishes. This goes for both how you choose your start and end times and when you schedule everything in between.