A big part of wedding planning is timing. There are a bunch of traditions and activities that you’ll want to cram into a limited amount of time, so creating a wedding timeline is essential. But in order to get started, you’ll need to know how much time you actually have. So, how long is a wedding reception? Well, it depends—different wedding venues have different packages with different reception lengths, so your best bet is to talk to your wedding planner and reception venue coordinator to determine your event’s exact length. Here, we’ll talk about the average reception length, and break down a full wedding reception timeline so you can start planning your big day, from start to finish.
So, Exactly How Long Is a Wedding Reception?
All told, your entire wedding event will span about six hours—for example, an evening wedding that begins at 5 p.m will end at around 11 p.m. This includes the following major events:
- Your wedding ceremony, which typically lasts about 30 minutes
- Cocktail hour—usually an hour, but can be longer (and remember that your cocktail hour can take place before the ceremony or in between the ceremony and reception, depending on your schedule and preference)
- Your wedding reception (dinner and dancing), which is runs about four hours
Not included in this list are the period where you and your spouse are getting ready (which usually takes place over several hours), pre-wedding photo sessions (like the first look), set up and clean up, and any after-parties. Be sure to factor these activities into your wedding-day timeline, if applicable. And if you feel like your venue hasn’t allotted enough time for everything, you may be able to pay for extra hours.
What Events Are Included In a Wedding Reception?
A four- or five-hour wedding reception may seem like a long period of time—and it is! But remember that you have a lot of special traditions, events, and activities that you’ll want to make sure are included in the schedule, not to mention having plenty of time to mingle with your wedding guests, hit the dance floor and open bar, actually eat some of the delicious food, and take a few moments to just enjoy being newlyweds. That’s why creating a timeline that you’ll share with your wedding vendors and other VIPs, is so essential.
In order to create a wedding timeline, we recommend making a list of all of the activities you’ll need to include in the big day and work with your wedding coordinator to figure out how to work them into the allotted period of time. Here is a sample wedding reception timeline to help you create your own. For this reception-focused timeline, the ceremony took place between 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m., and the ceremony and reception are at the same location.
6 p.m. Cocktail hour begins
Cocktail hour isn’t just a time for guests to enjoy drinks and hors d’oeuvres. The couple may use this time to take photos, especially if they opted to skip a first look and see each other for the first time at the ceremony. Or, if the couple has already taken official portraits, the wedding photographer may grab the newlyweds for a few post-ceremony photos or family portraits.
7 p.m. Guests enter the reception space.
It’s time to party! Guests are invited to enter the reception space and find their seats.
7:15 p.m. Grand entrance and first dance
The wedding party, followed by the newlyweds, are introduced and the couple immediately begins their first dance.
7:20 p.m. Dance Set
After the first dance, guests may be invited to the dance floor for a few songs (or, at Jewish weddings, the hora) before they are encouraged to take their seats for dinner.
7:30 p.m. First course is served.
If the reception includes a seated dinner, the appetizer will be served shortly after the first dance. For a buffet meal, guests will start being called to get their food during this time.
7:50 p.m. Welcome Toasts
Whoever is hosting the wedding will give the first toast as guests are finishing up the first course. Traditionally, this is the father of the bride, but it may be other parents, siblings, or loved ones.
8:00 p.m. Dance Set
After the first toasts, guests are invited to the dance floor.
8:30 p.m. Entrées are served.
Time to eat the main meal.
9:15 p.m. Wedding Party Toasts
Toward the end of the entrée course, wedding party members give their toasts. Typically, the best man and maid of honor give speeches during this time, but any loved ones can be invited to toast the newlyweds.
9:20 p.m. More Dancing!
Now that the toasts are over, the band or DJ will typically play its longest set—often until the party ends.
10:00 p.m. Cake Cutting and Couple’s Thank-You Speech
How sweet it is! There will be a brief break in the dancing so the wedding cake can be brought on the dance floor. The couple will cut the cake, and may give a short speech thanking their guests for attending. The cake will be served shortly afterwards.
10:15 p.m. Bouquet Toss and Garter Toss
If the couple choose to partake in these traditions, they’ll usually occur after the cake cutting.
10:45 p.m. Reception Ends
Whether the newlyweds choose to have grand exit complete with sparklers, quietly slip out, or host an after-party, it’s time for the reception to come to an end.