Wedding Planning Guide

wedding reception timeline

While most wedding receptions include the same flow of festivities, the order of these moments might vary depending on the couple’s preferences. Below are some suggestions for how much time to allow for each event, as well as a general order of things to help you plan the perfect wedding reception timeline.

And while we have outlined a traditional five-hour timeline in this post, you can easily shave some time off the dancing or cake-cutting to reduce it down to a four-hour timeline for wedding reception festivities.

Many couples also ask, “what time do receptions usually start?” In most cases, the answer is between 5 pm and 6 pm, but your specific wedding reception timeline will depend on several factors. If the ceremony is at a different location than the reception, you have to take that into account. If it’s drivable, you may want to allow for an hour between the end of the ceremony and the start of the reception. Also, if your venue has a noise curfew, then you may want to work backward 4 or 5 hours from that time as a guide for when to start.

Use this sample wedding reception timeline, as just that–a resource and guide as you create the order of events of wedding reception activities for your own special day.

Vines of Green, designed by Susan Moyal

Vines of Green”, designed by Susan Moyal



Time: 1 hour

Depending on the logistics of your wedding reception, cocktail hour typically begins immediately following the ceremony (if the ceremony and reception are held at the same venue), or about 30 minutes later (if there’s travel involved). If your layout requires it, use cocktail directional signs to helpfully guide guests to where the drinks are being poured. Cocktail hour is the kickoff to the reception and should last at least an hour. During this time, the bar will be open so guests can queue up for a drink; the catering staff will typically also serve hors d’oeuvres, as well as passing out drinks, to get guests mingling and in a celebratory mood. This is also a great opportunity to sneak out with your photographer for sunset photos.

Image source: Pinterest

Autumn Vows

Cocktail Signs

Chris Griffith

by Chris Griffith

Green Lights

Cocktail Signs

Hooray Creative

by Hooray Creative


Cocktail Signs

Belle Studio

by Belle Studio

On the Slopes

Cocktail Signs

Mere Paper

by Mere Paper



Time: 15 minutes

This seemingly small portion of the order of events for a wedding reception is actually quite important! Following cocktail hour, guests are invited to take their seats for dinner in the main dining room. Have a loved one make an announcement that it’s time for everyone to make their way to the reception venue where merrymaking and the celebration of the happy couple will continue. Make it easy for guests to find the reception venue with direction signs that tie in perfectly with the wedding theme. This time also accounts for guests to find their names on the wedding seating chart.


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Watercolor Wisp

Wedding Schedule Signs

Ariel Rutland

by Ariel Rutland

Floral Burst

Wedding Schedule Signs

Morgan Ramberg

by Morgan Ramberg

My tenderness

Wedding Schedule Signs

Helen Halik

by Helen Halik

Nantucket Romance

Wedding Schedule Signs

Chris Griffith

by Chris Griffith



Time: 10 minutes

Once everyone has found their seats, the newlyweds are formally introduced to wedding guests, often to a lot of cheering and fanfare. Some couples opt to precede their reception grand entrance with an introduction of wedding party members. Most couples like to make a memorable entrance to a fun song that energizes guests. Sometimes a live band performs or a DJ plays some upbeat selections. Here’s a guide to reception entrance songs to help you plan an unforgettable moment.

by Stephanie W. Photography



Time: 5 minutes

Keep the energy high by transitioning straight into your first dance with your bride or groom. You can certainly choose to dance for a full song or ask your band or DJ to fade out about two minutes in. Here is a list of first dance wedding songs specially curated by our experts, if you need ideas! Also, if you think your crowd will be itching to get on the dance floor, you can always schedule a dance set consisting of three to five songs after the first dance to get the party started before dinner.

Image source: Pinterest



Time: 5 minutes

Following your first dance, you and your new spouse might want to take the opportunity—while all eyes are still on you—to thank everyone for attending the celebration. This small informal touch in the order of events for a wedding reception will be appreciated by everyone. A family member, often the parents, typically also offers a wedding reception welcome toast, thanking guests and inviting everyone to enjoy the meal.

Image source: Pinterest



Time: 45 minutes

Typically dinner will last about 45 minutes, depending on the meal-service style you choose for your reception (buffet, family-style, traditional three-course dinner, etc.). To ensure a buffet dinner goes smoothly, use menu signs at the beginning of the buffet line so guests know what is being served and the ingredients of each dish (in case of allergies) and menu cards in front of each serving tray. It allows you to serve a wide range of food for everyone. Family-style dining is efficient as there is no waiting in buffet lines and it allows people to pass dishes around and create a community feel. Lastly, three-course dinners are pre-selected by guests in their RSVP and from a time-saving perspective, the most efficient.

by Aaron Delesie

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Lasting Love

Foil-Pressed Place Cards

Stacey Meacham

by Stacey Meacham


Wedding Programs

Jennifer Postorino

by Jennifer Postorino


Wedding Programs

Kaydi Bishop

by Kaydi Bishop


Foil-Pressed Menus

Robin Ott

by Robin Ott



Time: 10 minutes

In between meal courses, wedding-party members are usually invited to say a few words—namely, the maid-of-honor and best man. This way, you’re spreading out the emotional, much-anticipated moments throughout the meal, which will help keep guests engaged. Encourage toasters to keep their speeches within two to four minutes. Your best man will appreciate a guide on how to write a best man’s speech if he’s nervous!

Image source: Pinterst



Time: 10-15 minutes

If you’re doing father-daughter and mother-son dances, then we recommend doing them after the toasts, and then transition to open dancing. Following the last parent dance, ask your band or DJ to switch to a high-energy song to get guests out of their seats and onto the dance floor.

by Herenorth Photography



Time: 10 minutes After the parent dances have wrapped up, next up in the wedding reception timeline are the bouquet and garter tosses. However, it’s becoming increasingly common to skip these traditions, so if the bouquet and garter tosses aren’t quite your style, don’t feel compelled to include them in your reception schedule.




Time: 2 hours

When you’re putting together your order of events for wedding reception activities, be sure to allow for around two hours of dancing at the end of the night (when guests have finished a drink or two). If you want to incorporate a dance floor game or two, be sure to have this planned in advance and discuss it with the band or DJ. It can be daunting to put together a list of reception music, but have no fear; we have a reception music guide just for you!

Image source: Pinterest



Time: 10 minutes

About one hour before the conclusion of the reception, the catering staff should start preparing tables for dessert and coffee. Since the wedding cake cutting generally signals to guests that it's okay to leave soon thereafter, don't schedule it too early or things could start wrapping up before you're ready. This is also a good time for the couple to say a few words and thank guests for coming, if they have not already done so.

Image source: Pinterest



Time: 5 minutes

Next, it’s back to open dancing until the last song, which should be scheduled five minutes before the conclusion of the reception. The first dance is a romantic dance for the bride and groom, but the last song can be an inclusive, last chance to get groovy with your loved ones before the wedding ends.



Time: 5 minutes

If you’re planning to depart from the reception in high style, many couples schedule a grand exit into the order of events for wedding reception fanfare. Some couples depart amid a sparkler send-off, while others opt for celebratory bells for guests to ring. Grab each other’s hands and make a dash for your waiting getaway car amid the cheers and well wishes.