Partner, mate, significant other, other half (or better) all are words we commonly use to connote a special commitment between two people who have chosen to pursue a life together.
But for those seeking the state’s full and complicit recognition of their relationship, only marriage will do. For better or for worse, it’s a status laden with directives handed down from on high by religious orders, civil authorities, and public policies.
And while marriage is a sacred trust, a “sacrament,” as some churches call it, peculiarities portuguêsas and eccentricities españolas make it a miracle that expat marriages even occur on the Iberia peninsula.
In countries like Spain and Portugal, those wanting to wed have two choices: A Catholic Marriage. Or a civil (secular) one.
Everything else is an afterthought.
To be binding under Portuguese law, if you want to have a “religious” wedding but don’t follow the Catholic faith, you’ll first need to undergo a civil ceremony. Meanwhile, residency restrictions and administrative formalities governing civil ceremonies sway many American expats or foreign nationals to go the route of a religious ceremony in Spain.
To qualify for a civil ceremony, at least one of you must be a Spanish citizen or a legal resident for two years prior to the wedding day. Other options are to get married elsewhere and have your wedding ceremony blessed in Spain … or to cross the border into Gibraltar, where conjugal requirements are less stringent.
Jewish, Islamic, and Protestant wedding ceremonies are legally recognized in Spain; and, unlike Portugal, a civil marriage is not required a priori to one conducted outside the Catholic faith.
The Portugal Civil Registry Code, as does its Spanish counterpart, has specific requirements one must satisfy to be married:
• You must be at least 18-years old—with parental consent, however, you can marry if you’re 16 or 17;
• The bride and groom must not be related;
• You need to request a license from a Civil Registrar Office in Portugal or Spain, and indicate whether the marriage will be performed under civil codes or religious beliefs;
• There’s a waiting period while the announcement of your intention to marry is posted and made available for the public to comment; and
• Portugal wedding ceremonies must be in Portuguese, with at least two witnesses watching (language isn’t an issue in Spain, where only one witness who’s not related is required).
Under U.S. law, diplomats and consular officers are not permitted to perform marriages, nor can they be performed on the premises of U.S. embassies or consulates.
Same-sex marriages have been allowed in Portugal since 2010 and offer equal rights to the couple regarding property, taxes, and inheritance … since 2016, married couples of the same sex can adopt and foster children. (Spain legalized same-sex marriage in 2005, along with its adoption rights.)
While there are no residency requirements to get married in Portugal, one of you must be in the country a minimum of thirty (30) days before notice of your proposed marriage can be given.
The marriage route is long and tedious in both Spain and Portugal, usually taking a minimum of four weeks just to process an application. After you have received approval to get married, the wedding can then be arranged … as long as it takes place within three months.
Documents must be obtained and presented to the Civil Registry where the wedding will occur, as well as taken with you on your wedding day to the place where you will marry. The documents must be original, either endorsed with an Apostille or authenticated by a licensed Notary Public. Official translations undertaken by authorized agencies must accompany all these documents if they’re not in Portuguese or Spanish:
• Certified birth certificates issued within six months;
• Passports (and/or residence permits);
• A “Certificate of No Impediment” (except for British nationals) from the local registry office in your Portuguese town or at an embassy for a civil wedding, or by a parish priest for a Catholic one. This document can’t be issued by the U.S. Embassy, as, “no such document or governmental authority exists to issue it,” explains the U.S. Department of State. “However,” it notes, “you can execute a statement of eligibility to marry at the U.S. Embassy in Lisbon before a consular officer and present it to the Civil Registry office.” Similarly, “No document equivalent to Spain’s Fe de Solteria y Vida (Certificate of Existence and Civil Status) exists in the United States.” According to the State Department, “Spanish authorities will accept a sworn statement from a U.S. citizen, affirming that he/she is single and free to marry, executed before a U.S. Consular Officer”;
• Proof of residency, a Spanish town hall certificate attesting that you’ve lived in the area at least two years. Although that isn’t required to marry in Portugal, you should be able to prove that you’ve been in the country at least 30 days prior to the marriage;
• Final divorce papers, if applicable, apostilled and translated into Portuguese or Spanish within the last six months. If your marriage wasn’t canonically annulled, you cannot be married in the Catholic church in either country;
• If applicable, the death certificate of your prior spouse, translated and apostilled within the last six months.
Want to be married in a Roman Catholic church? You also will need to provide official copies of your baptismal certificate.
Legal marriages contracted abroad generally are valid everywhere. Regardless of your residency status, if you’re a “foreigner” in Portugal or Spain, though, remember to register the marriage with the country’s consulate and with the local Civil Registry where you’re now living.
An “interdenominational” pastor, I have been asked to officiate at weddings in Spain and Portugal.
One was a recommitment ceremony celebrating 30 years of marriage; another was a repeat performance of nuptials conducted days earlier in another country. Technically, both of these marriages already had taken place and, therefore, were recognized in Spain and Portugal.
So, there was no question about my pastoral propriety to pronounce the couples lawfully married.
Not that it mattered: It was pure pomp and circumstance for the “newlyweds,” who wanted a ceremony to share their joy with others who couldn’t be present to participate at the first, faraway wedding.
Standing before God as we witnessed and affirmed the sanctity of their marriages, it made no difference what the government thought or said. We were responding to a higher authority, seeking a blessing to live happily ever after.
Shared here are personal observations, experiences, and happenstance that actually occurred to us as we moved from the USA to begin a new life in Portugal and Spain. Collected and compiled in EXPAT: Leaving the USA for Good, the book is available in hardcover, paperback, and eBook editions from Amazon and most online booksellers.