It’s time to party! You’ve said ‘I Do’, you’ve thrown the bouquet and you’ve exchanged the wedding rings, but now it’s time for the most important part. The party! But how long are wedding receptions? How much time do you need to allocate to allow your guests to be the perfect amount of tipsy?
Every wedding reception differs. Some couples have over 500 guests, some just want to dance, but no matter your preferences, ensuring your wedding reception flows naturally will have a big impact on how successful your big day is. At least from a guest happiness POV.
Not left enough time for group photos? Prepare yourself for a stressed photographer. Maybe your first dance is just a little too close to the wedding breakfast? Empty dance floor incoming. Leaving too much space in between events? Bored guests here we go! Don’t worry, the Story Amour wedding planning team is here to offer their advice, advice garnered from nearly 15 years creating the perfect wedding reception timeline.
Over the next few paragraphs we will deep dive and answer the question, how long are wedding receptions? Furthermore, we will guide you through tips, tricks, advice and guidance to help you create your perfect reception timeline. From happy guests to the perfect party shenanigans, the ideal wedding reception is just a few steps away.
How long should your wedding reception be?
So let’s start with the question itself, how long should your wedding reception be? Well in truth, it all depends on various different factors including number of guests, style of your big day, what’s important to you etc. We asked over 500 of our past couples and on average, a typical wedding reception lasted between 4 and 5 hours. However, it’s not uncommon to have a shorter 3 hour session, or even a longer 6 hour timeline.
No matter what your variables are, it’s important to allow enough time for each section, allowing a little wriggle room for any unexpected moments and giving you the opportunity to enjoy your wedding day with the people that matter the most to you.
From our team’s POV, we always recommend at least 4 hours, from our experience this is the perfect amount of time to allow you to celebrate stress free.
Remember, your big day may be completely different. It may have religious aspects that need to be followed. You may just want to skip ahead to the dance floor. It’s your wedding day, it’s completely up to you.
Related: How Long is a Catholic Wedding?
What is a wedding reception?
Before we deep dive, we think it’s important to state what exactly is a wedding reception, or at least what we are referring to when we help you decide how long your reception should be.
Cambridge Dictionary defines a wedding reception as “a party to celebrate the marriage ceremony of two people.” 
Pretty simple really. However, it’s important to distinguish that your wedding reception is separate from your wedding ceremony. Generally speaking it’s everything that comes after those precious wedding vows.
The majority of wedding receptions include drinks/food, dancing, as well as speeches and other forms of entertainment. You’ve probably heard of the famous ones such as the cake cut, first dance and confetti tunnel. That being said, it’s a period for you to enjoy time with your guests and celebrate what the future holds for you as a newlywed couple.
Most couples will opt to hold the reception at an alternative venue, such as a hotel or stand alone wedding venue. However, with the amount of couples getting married at a church falling, you may be getting married at the wedding venue itself.
Below we’ve put together a list of the most common wedding reception events. Deciding which are important for you, will help you to estimate how long your wedding reception will likely be.
Popular Wedding Reception Events
Drinks & Canapes
Commonly known as cocktail hour (however we’ve allowed for an extra 30 mins to get a couple more in), this is a short amount of time for chatting, drinking, mingling, drinking (did I mention that). Guest’s will often come over to you to give their congratulations and provide their well wishes for your future.
We would usually recommend that an alcoholic beverage with a soft option is served alongside a few nibbles or canapes. Just enough to tide your guests over and keep their stomachs happy before the wedding breakfast.
Suggested Time Allowance: 1-1.5 hours
Mr & Mrs Entrance
“It is our pleasure to introduce the new Mr & Mrs/Mr & Mr/Mrs & Mrs…” Yes, you’ve heard it many times before but it’s an important part of your reception. The first time you will be formally announced as a newly married couple. It’s traditionally considered the official start of your wedding reception although we like to include drinks etc as well.
Suggested Time Allowance: 5 minutes
The First Dance
One of the most important parts of your reception. You’ve spent the last 6 months watching black swan/magic mike, routinely visiting your local dance instructors, and wondering whether indoor fireworks are allowed… Now the time has finally come to show off your dance moves. It’s your first dance as a married couple. Don’t get embarrassed. Enjoy it and embrace every moment before your guests join you on the dance floor.
Suggested Time Allowance: 5 minutes
Toasts & Speeches
We all know that wedding toasts are legendary. They will go down as some of the most emotional and funny moments of your wedding day. Personally, they are a must have part of your wedding timeline.
Traditionally, speeches will be given by the father of the bride (or just generally parents of the bride and groom), best man and groom. In addition, you could also add a maid of honor speech or any speech that appeals to you. Remember, the more speeches you have, the more time you will need to allocate.
Suggested Time Allowance: 10-15 minutes per speech
The Cake Cut
Time to cut the cake with an oversized knife only ever seen during this moment of your life. Yes, weird right!
Anyway, pretty simple again. This will include you cutting the cake as a couple. Most couples will also treat this as a photo opportunity so make sure your photographer knows when you plan to cut.
Suggested Time Allowance: 5 minutes
The Wedding Breakfast
Called the wedding breakfast as it’s the first meal you have as a married couple. Traditionally this would be a sit down meal, usually consisting of 3 courses followed by coffee. As with the speeches, the more courses you have, the longer it will take to finish the meal.
Many couples opt for an alternative meal experience, maybe a hog roast or local food truck. You may need to discuss with your wedding planner how long they would expect to allocate for alternative options.
Suggested Time Allowance: 1 hour (based on a 3 course meal)
Most couples will opt for an evening buffet for all those additional evening guests arriving with empty bellies. Think hog roast meets finger food.
Suggested Time Allowance: Ongoing through the evening
The Bouquet Toss
Everybody loves a good bouquet toss! A beautiful and highly fun tradition where all the single ladies (and men) gather themselves together in preparation for the newly married bride, to toss the bouquet over her head without looking. Tradition has it that whoever catches the bouquet, is next in line to be married. I can tell you it’s not true. I’ve fought my way to the front of many a bouquet throw only to be sat here still unmarried. Pfft.
Suggested Time Allowance: 10 minutes
Here We Go!
The last exit of the happy couple, occasionally accompanied with jangling tins trailing behind your exit vehicle. We’ve all seen those just married signs!
Lots of options here, sparklers, fireworks, a simple MC announcement. No matter what, this is a significant part of the day and unlikely one you can skip. No matter how informal you make it.
Suggested Time Allowance: 10-15 minutes (depending on specifics)
You can always customize what events you include in your reception depending on your exact situation, however these tend to be a good place to start. Pick and choose as you please.
Alternative Wedding Reception Timeline Examples
While many couples opt for the 4-5 hour wedding reception, there are exceptions. While there is no definitive length for alternatives, commonly requested timeline examples are 3 hours or 6 hours. A little bit shorter and a little bit longer than the common 4-5 hours.
3 Hour Wedding Reception
Is a 3 hour reception long enough?
Generally speaking, there are no rules to stick to when it comes to reception length. A 3 hour reception is of course shorter, meaning you may have to pick and choose the events you choose to implement in your reception.
A shorter 3 hour reception will still allow enough time for guests to mingle, enjoy food, listen to a few toasts and of course, dance the night away. However, you may have to skip a few favorites such as sparklers or the bouquet toss. It’s all about what is most important to you.
Read on for a few tips we have put together to help you plan your own wedding reception timeline and allow you to understand how long your wedding reception may be. We also recommend hiring a wedding planner to allow you create a well organized wedding reception, maximizing what you can get out of your shorter timeline.
Just a side note, if you are planning on having a huge wedding with hundreds of guests, it will take longer to move between different sections of the day. Logistics are key.
Related: How Many Wedding Guests Should You Invite?
Typical 3 Hour Timeline
Below you will find a typical three hour timeline if the wedding reception was starting at 3pm.
3-3.30pm Nibbles & Bubbly – Shorter than normal but just enough time for a canape or two alongside a cheeky glass of bubbly.
3.30-3.50 pm Welcome the newlyweds – just enough time to move your guests into position and be announced as a newly married couple.
3.50-4.30pm Time To Eat – More likely a little more casual than a three course meal, but plenty of time to chow down and eat some lovely food. Happy bellies = Happy guests!
4.30-4.50pm Bad Joke Alert – A few short toasts from the key people should provide a little laughter to help wash down all that lovely food.
4.50-4.55pm Cake Cut – Time to cut the cake and pose for a few snaps.
4.55-5pm The First Dance – A quick twirl around the dance floor to Ed Sheeran before the real dancing begins!
5-5.45pm Let’s Dance – Party time including all those cheesy wedding songs that you secretly love. Plus, you could even add in a few extras like throwing the bouquet on the dance floor. Not the worst idea.
5.45pm Departures – Time to sail away into the sunset and live your best lives together!
6 Hour Reception
So you’ve read about the three hour and 4-5 hour reception; but what if you want that little bit extra? How about 6 hours, perfect for cramming in every possible event to help create your magical wedding. Well good news, many couples are opting to supercharge the wedding reception and there is a growing number of couples going for a 6+ hour wedding reception. That being said, it’s important to strike a good balance between events, the last thing anyone wants is bored wedding guests.
Is a 6 hour reception too long?
Following on from what we said above, in some cases, a 6 hour wedding reception can be considered a little too long. However, in terms of average length, scheduling in events that last six hours is quite common. Especially with all the amazing aspects you can include in your wedding timeline.
Probably the biggest reason for a 6 hour extravaganza is the number of guests. The more guests you have, the longer everything takes. If you’re planning a celebration of 130 guests, the average number of wedding guests in 2020 , 6 hours will allow extra time for mingling without feeling like you are rushing through your big day.
If planning a six hour reception, you can comfortably fit in all the major parts including bouquet toss, sit down dinner as well the cake cut. Moreover, you can also include some of your personal touches, ideas unique to you. These little addons might also allow time for some of the more “experienced” guests to put their feet up and rest before the evening’s festivities.
One thing’s for certain, allowing 6 hours gives you time and room to help create a dreamy timeline. Just make you have enough activities to keep your wedding guests interested. All weddings will have a little lul, it’s how you get the party started again that matters most.
6 Hour Timeline
If looking for a 6 hour timeline, we suggest following something similar to below. This time, starting at 3.30pm.
3.30-4.30pm Cocktail Hour – The full hour for drinks and nibbles. Should allow time for you to get around all of your guests while enjoying the excitement of newly married life.
4.30-4.45pm Confetti – A good idea is to introduce a confetti tunnel as you and your guests make your way to the wedding venue for the sit down meal.
4.45-5.00pm Announcement – Time to get introduced for the first time as a newly married couple. Cue the cheering.
5-6.00pm Wedding Breakfast – Time to feast! With 6 hours there is time to relax, eat those 3 courses plus any little aperitifs you may have planned.
6-6.45pm Speeches & Toasts – 45 minutes to hear all funny stories and little anicdotes from times gone by. Prepare to laugh, cry and everything in between.
6.45-6.55pm Bouquet Toss – We do love a good bouquet toss. A great event that brings guests together. Prepare for funny wedding photos!
6.55-7.30pm Personal Choices & Relax – Maybe you’ve got a few ideas of your own, or just want to allow a little bit of time for your elderly guests to chill out before the rest of the day starts. Allowing a little slot before the cake cut gives you the opportunity to put your own touch on your wedding timeline.
7.30-7.40pm Cake Cut – Just before the first dance is a great time for the cake cut. Usually the cake will be moved to the dance floor meaning you are already in position for the first dance. A lot of the time, guests will gather around to watch you cut the cake meaning they are also ready for the first dance.
7.40-7.45pm First Dance – Not much more to say, time to dance!
7.45-8.30pm Dancing & Music – “I just want to dance the night away”. Whether you are having a live band or have hired a wedding DJ, dance floor moments are a must have moment during your wedding reception.
8.30pm Buffet Opens – The buffet can run parallel to the evening’s other festivities but is an important aspect of the reception. Making sure your evening guests have food is a nice touch.
8.45pm Dancing Continues – More dancing!
9.10-9.20pm Sparklers – Is there anything more romantic than a beautiful sparkler tunnel? No. You could argue it’s one of our number one wedding must-haves. Fun, exciting and perfect for those dreamy wedding photos.
9.20-9.30pm Bride & Groom Exit – Some might say this is the start of the real party. Wink wink.
How do I plan my wedding reception timeline?
If you are wondering how long your wedding reception will be, a good place to start would be in creating your own timeline, assigning a time slot, and calculating the total length. This should give you a rough estimate in reception length. But how do you actually start planning your reception? Below you will find a step-by-step guide for creating the perfect timeline.
- Talk to your wedding planner and venue – The absolute first place to start is by talking to your wedding planner and venue as they may have predetermined rules that you need to follow. Many venues follow strict procedures so it’s always good to make sure they don’t have anything in place that could hinder your plans. Your wedding planner will likely know about any particular guidelines you need to adhere to.
- Decide on when your reception will start and finish – A good place to start is by deciding on a start and finish time. The will usually be determined by your ceremony end time as well as how long you have access to your venue for. Remember to take into consideration distances between the ceremony venue and wedding reception venue.
- Discuss with your vendors – As well as your wedding planner and venue, it’s also important to discuss everything with your vendors. Typically caterers will have a big impact on food time. Your photographers will need time to capture the group photos. Your decor team will need to make sure the reception room looks fantastic. Discussing all this in advance will ensure your wedding reception goes off without a hitch.
- Decide on the most important elements you want to consider – Goes without saying, in order to calculate the length of your reception, you are going to need to decide what you want to include. Once you’ve decided, you will be able to allocate a period of time for each.
- Post your timeline on social media and wedding websites – Most couples will share their timeline on their social media channels or, more commonly, their wedding website. This gives your guests an opportunity to see what they can expect during the day. They may even ask questions or give advice based on their experiences.
- Update your vendors – While you’ve already spoken to your vendors, once you’ve made your decisions it’s important to keep everyone updated so they can fully prepare for your big day.
- Plan for the day itself – On the wedding day itself, it’s important to tell your guests the order of the day. This way they will never be too far from the action and, as a result, reduce the opportunities for any delays. Waiting for Grandma to start the first dance is always a drag!
- Remain calm – Remember, no matter what happens, remain calm, Mishaps will occur, deadlines will be missed, and guests will go missing. But fear not, a relaxed attitude to whatever happens will ensure you enjoy every moment of your special day.
Tips for the perfect wedding reception length
Now that you have a better idea of how to plan your wedding timeline, let’s go over some tips for choosing the perfect wedding reception length. From allocating the right amount of time for each element, to keeping vendors up to date.
Hire a wedding coordinator
A wedding coordinator is different from a wedding planner. While a wedding planner helps you choose venues, and offers advice in the build up to the day, a wedding coordinator is explicitly for on-the-day antics.
A wedding coordinator will help make sure all the vendors are in the right place at the right time. They will ensure the pre-decided schedule is being followed, at least as closely as it can be. Furthermore, they will also be there to lend a helping hand to yourselves, your guests and even your vendors.
Having this personal assistant will be a great addition to your wedding team. Well worth allocating a percentage of the budget to.
Budget, budget, budget
Whether you like to admit it, budget plays a huge part in deciding the length of your wedding reception. Maybe you can only afford to rent the venue for a certain number of hours. Maybe you can’t quite stretch to hiring a live band. Or maybe you just wanted to prioritize your wedding dress over your bouquet. No matter the reason, having a grasp of your budget will have a big impact on how long your wedding reception is.
Don’t be afraid to make a list of the different aspects you want to include in your wedding reception, and order by magnitude of importance. This way, if time is a little tight, you will know exactly what to remove if needed. Moreover, it will also give you a minimum and maximum length. Allocating a time for those most important parts will allow you to understand exactly how long you need to allow overall.
Create a timeline
Jump back a few steps to our guide on how to create a timeline for your wedding reception. Listing all the different aspects you want to include in your reception will give a very clear indication on the suspected length of your celebrations.
Vendors & Venues
Feels like we are repeating ourselves here but it’s very important to check with your wedding venue and vendors before making any final decisions.
Many vendors will be highly experienced in the services they offer, if you are budgeting just 10 mins for group photos but want 100 group shots, the chances are the photographer will tell you it’s not possible.
Creating an open dialog with all suppliers will ensure you aren’t left with any nasty timeline surprises.
Think about your wedding guests
There are various different considerations you need to account for when planning your timeline. Maybe you have a large number of elderly guests that move just that little bit slower. Maybe you have a collection of guests that are traveling from the other side of the country? They will probably take longer to mingle than others. Everything needs to be considered to ensure everyone, including yourself, is happy, content and enjoying the celebration. Giving the elderly time to rest, and young people plenty to enjoy will keep those smiles big and wide.
Plan lots and be fun
It’s better to go overboard on the planning than to be sat twiddling your thumbs with a room full of bored wedding guests. Adding games and fun elements that keep everyone active is a great way to ensure no-one is bored and everyone is jubilant.
From Giant Jenga, to fun fireworks, there are literally countless ideas that you can implement into your wedding reception.
Be Flexible. Be Cool.
Last but not least, be flexible. Auntie Dorothy isn’t going to complain at the christmas dinner table that the confetti throw was 10 mins late.
People are there to have fun, and so should you. Worrying about keeping to that strict schedule should be the last of your concerns, you have planners, coordinators and venues to deal with all of that.
A stress free couple will lead to a stress free and fun time. A stress free and fun time will give you hundreds of beautiful moments that you can look back on in years to come. Remember, you only do this once (maybe)! Enjoy yourself.
So there you have it, there are no rules! Just kidding!
The length of your wedding reception is up to you. You decide what you want to include and what you want to forget. Whether planning a 3 hour explosion of fun, a 7 hour party into the middle of the night, it’s your wedding day.
While 4-5 hours is the average length of a wedding reception, that doesn’t mean it has to be that long. Work with your wedding team to design a timeline that works for you, your guests and everyone involved in your wedding day.
Remember, if you are happy, they will be happy. Relax and enjoy your party!