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Planning a Wedding When You’re an Expat Abroad (Or, That Time I Cried over Ketchup)

Planning an Expat wedding abroad

Organising one of the biggest days of my life was expected to come with a little stress, but anyone who knows me knows I do love to plan, so I was also fairly excited about it. So I’m not quite sure how that turned into an amount of stress that had me sobbing on the sofa about where to put the ketchup!

That is not what I had in mind after this unexpected moment in June last year…

Engaged at Tower Bridge London EnglandJust after we got engaged by Tower Bridge, London

There’s planning a destination wedding , where you invite as many people as can make it to come with you and celebrate your wedding abroad, then there’s planning a wedding where you invite some international guests and make plans to accommodate them as much as possible. And then, there’s planning a wedding in a country that you’re not from, with less than a year’s notice, when you’re living in another country for half of the planning time…

Welcome to my past 10 months.

Travel has been the most important thing in my life for the past 7 years at least, and the thing that I’m constantly planning for. I’m not one of those girls who’s been thinking of my dream wedding since I knew what a wedding was, so the world of wedding planning was all new to me. There are lots of decisions to be made, as expected, but as an international couple from opposite sides of the planet (literally) there were some huge things like visas and what country we would get married in.

At the end of the day the most important thing for EB and I is that we want to be together, and we want to be married. It really could happen any way, which is part of the problem because it means we’re in control of how that happens! There are so many ways to get married now, and so many options for all couples, but for us there seemed to be a few more.

Deciding where we would get married

Planning a wedding as an expat means a lot of location options. There’s where you currently live, your significant other’s home (not necessarily the same place), your home, or some other neutral location.

We could have got married in Scotland, England, New Zealand, Spain or some other completely different place!

However, I may not have had wedding plans in mind before we got engaged, but I did know a thing or two about the visa path we would need to take to live in the same country again. So that we wouldn’t have to spend more time in a long distance relationship after we got married, the best option for us was to have the ceremony in the United Kingdom. I am yet to write about the hell that was the UK Fiancé application process, but basically we knew that we would be doing the legal stuff pretty early on.

Deciding on the kind of wedding ceremony we would have

So we knew we would need to get legally married here in the UK, but that doesn’t mean we needed to have the celebration (PARTY!) here.

We considered a registry office in the UK and some sort of party later. Except I knew that plan would fail from the beginning because there was no way I could be convinced to spend money on it when the time came. There would always be something more worthy to spend money on *cough*travel*cough*. Even if we chose that option, would we have a celebration in the UK, after the wedding, or just the ceremony here and then the party in New Zealand? Or both, so no one missed out? But some people might want to come over from New Zealand to the ceremony anyway, even if we had a party there, so then would there be any point of having two things? And what is the cost of that by the way? At this point I might have started to realise at this point that wedding planning was not going to be all fun…

In the end we decided to opt for a ceremony followed by a celebration in the UK, with a plan to visit New Zealand for our honeymoon at some point, where we would be able to catch up with family and friends who couldn’t make it over. Then we figured if we were having a celebration here, and some people were travelling all the way around the world to be there we should put on a decent party!

Turns out if you label a “decent party” a “wedding” then everything costs 5 times as much. I wish I was exaggerating. I had my first little wedding breakdown when we chose our venue. Let’s just say I was very, very naive about how much weddings cost.

The traveller in me curls up in the foetal position and dies a little at the thought of how much travel we could do instead of having a wedding celebration. But we decided this is our one chance to ever do this, we have people who are paying a lot to come and spend this day with us, and we want it to be the best reflection of us and most fun for them that it can be.

But who was actually going to come to this wedding in Scotland between and Englishman and a Kiwi?

With me having living abroad for so long I have friends spread all over the world, plus my parents are travelling in Europe right now, we realised I would have more friends and family that could attend a wedding in the UK than EB would if we had a wedding in New Zealand. Another reason to have it over here!

Even so, asking people to give up holidays and money to come from all over is still a big deal, and there will always be people who can’t make it. We didn’t have a choice on date so we went with it and just had to hope people might make it. I am happy to be able to say that while people we would dearly love to be there can’t make it, we do have guests coming from about 9 different countries!

Help with planning a wedding when you’re an expat

I’m lucky enough to have some wonderful friends close by and around the world, but this another one of those times I’ve realised that everyone I love will never be all in the same place together. We’re having one of those DIY sort of weddings (Pinterest I blame you) which means more planning and logistics. Because I never like to make things easy on myself of course! While we’re surrounded by a wealth of technology that means I can send ideas and pictures to people all over, it’s not been quite the same as having people right here to talk wedding. I feel incredibly lucky that my Mum was able to be here to go dress shopping with me, and to come to my first fitting.

Two people that can’t be here that I really really wish could be are my Grandma and my Nana. I wish I could have shared this whole process with these two women that have been a huge part of my life, who were married to their partners until both of them were no longer with us.

In the end though, travelling and living abroad has meant I’ve been lucky enough to find the man I love and want to spend my life with. And as stressful as this wedding planning can be at times, we’re in it together and all I have to do is think of our life together and it brings a huge smile to my face and butterflies in my stomach.

So…. why the crying over ketchup?

Honestly, I can’t even remember exactly how it came about, and I was laughing as much as I was crying because I knew it was ridiculous. Especially since EB was trying so hard to comfort me and NOT laugh (and failing). But it wasn’t about the ketchup as such, and whether there actually is room for it on the tables (I still haven’t figured this one out), it was about the whole stress of planning a wedding in a way I had never imagined.

There are ups and downs in expat life, and planning a wedding while living abroad seems to have compounded them even more. I should have known wedding planning would be stressful, after all that’s what everyone says!

I’ve missed New Zealand more in the last 10 months than I ever have before, and I’m more aware of how travel has changed the course of my life. But at the end of the day, the fact that we have people coming from all over the world to celebrate us starting our life as a married couple warms my heart. I feel grateful and blessed to be at this point, despite the ketchup.

Four weeks until the planning is DONE!!! Oh and we’re married of course.

Have you got married, planned, or been to a wedding abroad? I’d love to hear your story! 

Sonja x

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Wedding planning When You Live Abroad Wedding planning When You Live Abroad

48 thoughts on “Planning a Wedding When You’re an Expat Abroad (Or, That Time I Cried over Ketchup)

  1. Kristine says:

    I love wedding planning stories! Thanks for sharing 🙂 I’m an expat myself, and I know my future wedding will be quite the job to plan…like you said, his country, your country, other country. Could be anywhere (we’re not even engaged yet btw) 🙂

    • Migrating Miss says:

      Thanks! It was a bit difficult to put in to words and I hope it didn’t come across as all negative! The experience has been stressful but it’ll be worth it in the end 🙂 🙂

  2. Eulanda says:

    Ohhhhh I can so relate! I’m American, and my husband is British-Nigerian. We met in the UK, and he proposed two years after we started dating. However, we had the visa drama to sort. We were quite set on getting married in the U.S. a year after the proposal, but we had an array of challenges. My two-year student visa was ending, which meant I’d need to go back to the US unless I got on a different type of visa. Our immigration lawyer told us that the fiance visa was possible, but would be a challenging route. So we decided to opt for having the registry ceremony in the UK with just a few friends in attendance, and then having a proper wedding in the US five months later. It was a major headache and expense, but it was completely worth it in the end. Thanks for sharing your story, and for helping me to remember my own!

    • Migrating Miss says:

      Thanks for sharing your story! The visa issues are such a nightmare when you just want to be with the person you love! I’m going to write more about my story with that eventually, when it’s not so raw haha. I’m glad it all worked out for you in the end!

  3. Kelly says:

    We did the whole registry office thing last August and are having our party in July. I always wanted a big wedding but have been shocked about how unmotivated I am to plan since we are ALREADY married. And it’s a pain, being an American married to a Brit planning a U.K. wedding!! I think the hardest thing though has been not having my mom and closest friends here for all the little things – choosing decorations, dress fittings, hairstyling trials, etc.

    • Migrating Miss says:

      I agree it’s so hard not having people there and I don’t think that we realise it until the time comes! Having your partner is lovely of course but not the same as with friends and family. I feel very lucky my Mum was able to come to a couple of things with me! I got way more done the week she was here haha. I think I would be the same with organising something after we’re married, but I think you’ll be happy to do it in the end, especially if you wanted a big wedding 🙂

  4. Alina says:

    I got married abroad two years ago 🙂 And it was a bit of a similar dilemma, as I did not want to organize a wedding for 150 guests in my own country with the money with which I could travel anywhere, so in the end of was a destination wedding in Seychelles. We had 12 people coming along and we also took a photographer with us. Some people paid for their travel on their own, others we helped out a bit, but in the end I don’t regret a single cent spent! In the end the cost was comparable to a grand wedding at home, but I enjoyed it so, so much! Just thinking of traditional weddings at home makes me shiver 🙂

    • Migrating Miss says:

      Aw that sounds lovely! I would love to go there sometime anyway and I bet it was beautiful. We’re not going too traditional, although sticking to a few things here and there. I don’t think I’ll regret the money on the day or after. I just try to avoid looking at the total cost haha.

  5. Ketki says:

    Looks like you had a really tough time. But well, all’s well that ends well. Congratulations and wishing a super married life ahead ?

  6. Sally says:

    Hi Sonja! Planning a wedding is so hard- and then to do it abroad, whew! I got married in a little Greek village in the mountains at the local town hall – the first foreign marriage they’d ever done- and then we had a fancy wedding at the Anglican church in town- but that part was planned by older friends who knew what they were doing- I think they just wanted a fancy party lol, as I would have been happy with the town hall. Keeping it simple is best- 😉

    • Migrating Miss says:

      Wow that sounds like an amazing place to get married! And lovely to have people willing to organise something for you too. We’re trying to be fairly simple, although I think sometimes simple is deceiving haha.

  7. Gabby says:

    I’ve always wondered how this would be…I’m living in NL with my Dutch boyfriend (I’m from California) and my friends always ask what we’ll do if we get married. Good job planning it, so true, when you’re lucky to know people all over the world, they’ll never all be in the same place at once but that’s the cost of having an awesome global network!

    • Migrating Miss says:

      Thanks! As hard as it can be having everyone spread around the world I wouldn’t have it any other way as well! I never thought about it too much before, but what I realised is that even if you have things are liable to completely change!! 😀

  8. Iva says:

    Weddings are always sweet! Congratulations 🙂 Husband and I are an international couple, and we got married (and now live) here in the US. My family were not able to make it though, so we thought about having a wedding back in the Philippines a year after and also to celebrate our first year anniversary. Needless to say, the second wedding did not happen but we ended up throwing a party instead. Still, arranging logistics was tiring too, and not knowing what to expect til it happens is not for the faint of heart.

  9. Kyntra Strickland says:

    What a crazy story! Planning a wedding in a different city from our family seemed to be an ordeal; I can’t imagine planning a wedding internationally! I hated how much our wedding costed ($7,000 usd). That’s how much our 9 weeks of travel this year is going to be! However being able to officially and legally begin my life with my husband and celebrate it with our families was was so worth it! So sorry you cried over ketchup, but I’m glad you shared with us (:

    • Migrating Miss says:

      Haha thanks! I was laughing at the same time about how ridiculous the whole thing was. I’m not a fan of how much our wedding is costing either, but with all the people coming to be there I think it will definitely be worth it. 🙂

  10. Alaine says:

    Sounds like a stressful experience! I’ve worked in the wedding industry and love the whole production and details of planning but I vowed that I wouldn’t go through that kind of large event or I’d just pay a wedding planner to do it for me. (So worth it!) But… so exciting that you’re doing it and even though it’s stressful, your friends and family will be happy to see you both. Don’t worry about roadblocks especially if it’s a minute detail. Your guests will have a good time and you both should too!

    • Migrating Miss says:

      Thanks so much! I’ve definitely come to realise the value of just paying someone to do something rather than stressing over it ourselves. That’s where the cost seems to go sometimes but it is worth it!

  11. Zaina Brown says:

    Our wedding was in Budapest last year. I had never been there, but it seemed like a beautiful, affordable, and convenient spot. I’m from Finland, was living in the US at the time of the planning (8 months), groom is Swiss, living in Thailand. The planning was a tri-continental emailing process between the two of us and the planner.
    We arrived in Hungary four days before the wedding. It got hectic with all the last minute work, which could only be done on location. Our families met in Budapest for the first time. I cracked under pressure two days before the wedding, after a nightmarish 4-hour hair trial, and hunting for a new veil (mine got left behind) around Budapest, where few people speak English. I remember crying and stuffing chocolate into my mouth simultaneously, while the groom tried to comfort me. Thankfully, the wedding itself was great, and we got a marriage out of it too! 😀

    • Migrating Miss says:

      Wow that sounds like something complicated to organise, but amazing too! I love Budapest. The language barrier would definirely make things harder. I actually read the part about crying and chocolate out to my partner haha, totally me as well! I’m glad everything went great in the end, I feel like it always does!

  12. Delilah says:

    Fun post! My partner and I are expats and going through the wedding planning phase, too. We are from different countries and living in a completely different location, so I totally get the stress and difficulty of it all. At the end of the day, though, the most important thing is being married to your SO. Take it easy in these last few weeks and congrats!

    • Migrating Miss says:

      Same as us! It makes it harder, but I agree the most important thing in the end is the marriage not the wedding, so we have to keep the long term in mind when the details bog us down haha. Thank you, you too!

  13. Laurence says:

    We had a similar journey, from “lets just do something that costs nothing” to, “it’s the only one we’re doing, we should have a bit of a memorable day”. Definitely worth it, although we ended up having two wedding ceremonies 😉

    • Migrating Miss says:

      This is totally what we did! Amazing how memorable day unfortunately also means money ha. I loved reading about your wedding! We’ll probably end up having another BBQ or something in New Zealand, but nothing major which would be nice 🙂

  14. Camila @ AdventitiousViolet says:

    Aw I totally get you. My partner and I have started to talk about weddings and it’s already stressing me out lol. Most of my family is in Chile and Canada but I really want to get married in Scotland since that’s where we met. I know most people won’t be able to come, so I’d like to have some celebration in Canada and Chile too. But I’m the same, the costs is making me cringe. We could travel for like 1 year in Asia for the price of most wedding venues in Scotland! Looking forward to hearing more about you on this matter, I’ll need some inspiration soon haha. Best of luck!xx

    • Migrating Miss says:

      So many decisions to make! What you want is totally possible though, it just depends how! What I’ve found about cost is that you get to the point where you either decide to do it yourself, or just pay someone else to do it to take away the stress. Sometimes the first option just isn’t worth it and paying someone else to do it is! Not with everything, but some!! Thank you xx

  15. Karin says:

    Oh my! I married my foreign husband in my country, but the paperwork in the months prior was intense! I don´t know how we´d manage without our mothers. The wedding itself was very small and all in all costed less than 1000 euros – including my 50€ dress 😉

  16. The Invisible Tourist says:

    Loved this Sonja! Try not to let the little things get to you. At the end of the day, all that matters it that you’re married to the man you love. ❤️ Everything else will come together! I’m an Aussie living in NZ at the moment, wish I could somehow bottle up a piece of your home and send it to you. Good luck with the rest of your planning!

  17. Mark-Anthony says:

    Hey Sonja,
    I completely understand. My wife and I were living in Shanghai and planning our wedding while working abroad. Our venue was in the Philippines and the wedding ended up being beautiful but we know what you mean. Like you mentioned it’s tough being abroad, let alone planning a weeding abroad. Homestretch! Get ‘er done and good luck!

  18. Anna says:

    just happened across your blog (yay Pinterest!) and totally relate to the wedding-planning-abroad situation. I’m American and married a Costa Rican in 2015. It was fairly easy for us to decide to get married there as I was already living with him, my family is a fraction of the size of his with more $$ available, and since I had been globe trotting most of my 20s, no single US location even made sense! What I ended up having to come to terms with was that some of my Pinterest-fueled visions simply weren’t possible due to the realities of marrying in a place with a different culture (and climate! – dahlias and runinculus are a no-go in the Tropics!); I had to learn to say “sure, that looks lovely even if it’s not what I had envisioned” and chalk it up to being in Tiquisia! Hope your day ended up being full of fabulous memories that overshadowed any wrinkles or hiccups!

    • Migrating Miss says:

      Hi Anna! Yay for Pinterest then haha. Wow it sounds like you had a mission planning your wedding too. Everything turned out great in the end for mine, even with the last minute hiccups of almost forgetting to pick up the licence and losing the cake topper haha. It’s really about you two after all I guess, not the Pinterest dream haha. Although I definitely got sucked into that too..

  19. Jennifer says:

    Thank you for this post. I’m an American living in the UK and my British partner and I just got engaged. I’m having so many issues thinking about how to do this and where. Reading about your experience has helped me realise we’re not alone.

    • Migrating Miss says:

      Congratulations!!! I completely understand your pain! One step at a time and in the end all the matters is you’re together :). Easy for me to say on the other end I know! But some of the things I stressed about really didn’t matter in the end. (Like ketchup…)

  20. Sonia says:

    Hi Sonja,
    SO glad I found your blog today! I’m moving to Scotland on a fiancé visa (as soon as my visa comes through) and trying to plan my wedding at the same time, so I totally understand crying over ketchup. I’ve been doing all the planning from the US up until now, so I can’t wait to get to Scotland to even just see my venue in person. I’m looking forward to more updates about your life in Scotland, especially as my experience with the country has been limited to a 2-day trip to Edinburgh.
    Sending good wishes your way!

    • Migrating Miss says:

      Haha it was deifnitely a stressful experience! Hope your planning is going well and you get here soon! I know the waiting feeling is horrible but once you’re here you forget all about it! Good luck! x

  21. Sarah Willats says:

    Hi Sonja,

    I’ve loved reading your blog for the past year or so but just came across this relatable post. I got engaged about 5 months ago to a Northern Irishman (so U.K.) and the wedding is in 5.5 months in his town. We both currently live in Madrid and we can only do so much since we both live in a different country (thankfully the same city now). I can totally relate to your post and the times you felt overwhelmed (and shocked) about the price-me too! I dreamed more about the travel part of our new life together more than fhe wedding itself. And now I wish I had dreamed and pinned a bit more on Pinterest haha.
    Anyway, we are planning two ceremonies since the legal side of things is more complicated because I am American but have residency in Spain. We’re getting legally married in Gibraltar (neutral territory) with some close friends and my pastors in attendance and then we’re having our typical church wedding in his church with the friends and family who can make that. I didn’t realize how much I would miss my mom and my paternal grandma (whom I’m closest to) but I do! But since we can all stay connected through various forms of technology it’s not as bad as it could be.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts back then and helping other people facing this situation now. It’s helped me shift my focus back to the fact that I will get to marry the love of my life and officially start our lives together. And whoever can come help us celebrate, that’s good, but the most important thing at the end of the day is that we’re happy with the outcome and will be married. 😀

    • Sonja - Migrating Miss says:

      You’re so welcome! I’m so glad you’ve figured something out that suits you both and that my post might have helped a little. Being an expat is so tough sometimes, even if we are in a position of privilege. It’s not fun to always feel like someone is missing from your life! I hope you have an amazing wedding day (and get to travel tons after too!). I had my Grandma there with us the whole morning I was getting ready on Skype and it was so lovely. She even dressed up which made me cry!!! You’ll have a great day and while it’ll be a little sad you’ll also be incredibly happy, so congratulations!!!!

  22. Maddie says:

    I’m actually in a very similar boat! My Fiance and I got engaged last month and have lived in Bangkok for 2 years. Right away, I thought it was a no-brainer to have a wedding here in Thailand because it would be easier to plan due to my proximity and it was cheaper right? False, it actually is not that much cheaper in general and YES, it is a lot to ask friends and fam who majority live in California and Texas to come across the WORLD for out special day. Now, we are in between, do we do a ceremony in the states somewhere and maybe do a large party in Thailand? Like you said, “wedding” makes everything so much more expensive than it should be! So many options but I think my heart is set on giving our guests at least a year heads up so they can plan their 2020 vacation accordingly… eek! Any advice is welcomed =)

    • Sonja - Migrating Miss says:

      It’s so complicated and there’s no right answer! I would say if you have it in Thailand you have to accept some people will be excited and treat it like a vacation and some of them will be outraged that you expect them to travel and won’t come. And some will be in the middle. If you’re ok with not everyone being there (as much as you can be of course!!) then go ahead, it’s your special day and if you want it there then do it! You can definitely have a party and I have seen some people do a full-on reception so that it feels like a wedding still. But of course that’s an extra expense as well! Good luck I really hope you figure something out!

  23. Ainsleigh Ingle says:

    Giiiirl I just had a proper freak out on the sofa! I’m South African, fiancé is from UK and we are currently doing a year of nomad travel around the world which is super amazing! However, just figuring out WHERE to get married is making me a wreck (SA v UK) and understanding that not everyone can make it. He has WAY more family than I do and my folks would come to UK in a heartbeat if we decide to get married there, but what about my friends in SA etc? Aaaah literally so stressed I would rather just get married on the tear stained sofa!

    • Sonja - Migrating Miss says:

      The freakouts during wedding planning abroad are totally understandable and I think to some extent unavoidable!!! Unfortunately whatever you decide, someone will miss out and it really sucks. I hope you figure it out and have an amazing wedding, which I’m sure you will in the end. Best of luck!!! Honestly, it all works out in the end and the most important thing is you have each other and your marriage after :D. As corny as it sounds!!

  24. Simone Fick says:

    I came across your post today, and can definitely relate! Travel has been my life for the past 6 years and where all my money goes, I wouldn’t change it for anything!! We got engaged this week (me being South African, my fiance from UK) complete surprise to me, it’s so wonderful!

    At this point it sounds like our best option is to have a wedding in the UK and have another celebration in SA afterwards. Because of visas it’s likely to have to happen in the next 6 months! Problem is which visa to go for….it’s been a nightmare with visas for the past year! I was wondering if you have any insight as to which one worked best for you guys in the end or you would’ve done from the start? We’ll have to start applying this week if I want to be with him in the UK over the holiday season, after being out of the country for 7 months fighting with visa applications.

    I love your post and looking forward to reading more….planning 2 weddings in different countries in a short timeframe, after spending so much money on visas is a challenge I’m going to have to handle now! Luckily I’m not one for spending thousands on weddings (much rather use it for travel), but it’s still a challenge keeping it down as I’ve read. But I’m sure it’s possible and something I’m looking forward to planning.

    • Sonja - Migrating Miss says:

      I hope you managed to figure everything out!! We did the fiance visa and then changed to further leave to remain as a spouse. Definitely the more expensive way to go as you’re basically paying twice within 6 months but it was the right move for us as it made more sense to actually get married in the UK. Otherwise you could get married outside of the UK but you’d have to be apart while the visa was approved. You could always have a ceremony after that in the UK though. Lots of options and none particularly cost-effective unfortunately!!! But the things we do for love 😀

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