Everything you need to know about marriage in East Timor

7 Aug 2023·19 min to read
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East Timor, or Timor-Leste, is a country in southern Asia famous for its beaches and coral reefs. Every year, thousands of marriages are celebrated in the country by both Timorese and foreign nationals. East Timor has a rich history that offers visitors a unique cultural experience. The country is multiethnic, and most Timorese citizens are Christians under the Roman Catholic denomination. There is diversity in the family structure and gender roles in the country. Families are perceived in terms of large extended families where close neighbors, distant relatives, and friends are considered to be family. Families tend to maintain a close relationship, and most of them have a patrilineal family lineage. All marriages performed in East Timor are regulated by the civil code of the country's government. Fit couples together should be regarded as being officially married. Their marriage must be legally registered at the registry. 

This is a requirement that most of the Timorese population has never heard of, which has resulted in a large number of unregistered de facto marriages in the country. There are three different ways to get officially married in East Timor. Couples may either get married in a civil, Catholic, religious, or customary marriage. The customary marriage is referred to as a bride-price-based monogamic marriage. Under religious marriages, only those performed in the Catholic Church are legally recognized. In East Timor, men and women have equal rights upon marriage; however, in the case of divorce, this changes. Men and women are not afforded the same set of rights after divorce. 

There is usually a waiting period after divorce, and that for men and women is different. Women are supposed to wait for a period of 300 days after divorce before they can marry again; men, however, wait for only 180 days before entering a new marriage. The only exception is if the woman gives a judicial declaration stating that she has not gotten pregnant or given birth in the 180-day period. The rest of the article will touch on the marriage traditions in West Timor as well as the laws and rights governing their act in the country. Let’s get started.

Civil marriages 

In East Timor, civil marriages are recognized and protected by law. This type of marriage includes a due process that must be followed by all marriage applicants before they can be recognized as a married couple in the country. Civil marriages are performed by state-authorized marriage officers, and they take place in the civil registry. There are conditions that must be met by both spouses before they are allowed to perform a civil marriage in the country. A person who is already married in East Timor or any other foreign country is not allowed to contract a new marriage in the country. 

All previous marriages must be legally dissolved before entering a new marriage, and the spouses to whom this applies must be able to show valid evidence that they were single at the time of marriage. In addition to this document, foreign spouses will be required to submit a certificate of freedom to marry. This document serves the purpose of showing that a foreign spouse has the authority to contract a marriage in East Timor and is not facing any legal hindrances or prohibitions from their home country. The document may be obtained at the civil registry of a spouse’s home country or at the embassy or consulate of their country in East Timor. Both spouses must be at least 18 years old to get married in the country. However, with the consent of their parents or legal guardian, marriage applicants as young as 16 years old may be allowed to get married. 

The marriage officer usually carries out background checks to ensure the documents that support this claim, such as birth certificates and other identification documents, are accurate. Any falsification of information during the marriage registration may result in the postponement or cancellation of such a marriage. Both partners are required to provide a valid proof of identity and residence. According to the Civil Code of East Timor, at least one of the spouses getting married must be a resident of the country. This is typically proven by providing a valid national ID card or passport and a proof of address, such as a utility bill or rental agreement. Both partners getting married must also be physically present in East Timor at the time of the marriage. 

If one of the spouses is not a resident of East Timor, they may be required to provide additional documentation, such as a notarized affidavit of legal capacity to marry. After all the required marriage documents are submitted, a marriage license will be provided to the couple. This marriage license usually has a period of validity, and the marriage ceremony must be performed within this period. Upon the conclusion of the ceremony, a marriage certificate will be issued to the couple. The documents that must be submitted by both partners are stated below.

Documents Required 

  • A valid means of identification, such as a national ID card or a valid passport
  • Government-issued birth certificates
  • Both partners must provide witnesses who are 18 years old or older.
  • Proof of residency in East Timor
  • Divorce or death certificate. Previously married spouses must provide either of these documents to show they legally terminated their former marriage.
  • A certificate of freedom to marry must be provided by foreign spouses.

Religious and customary marriages

Marriages in East Timor are performed according to the principles of the couple's religion and customs. The majority of people living in East Timor are Christians. This religion is dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, which makes up 98 percent of the total population, followed by the Protestant Church with a percentage of about 1 percent. The rest of the population is made up of Muslims and non-religious people. In many cases, religious and customary rites are performed together in East Timor, and a lot of couples perform two wedding ceremonies. 

The first one usually takes place in the church, while the second traditional ceremony is performed in the bride's family’s house or any other fixed location. Traditionally, the family of the groom chooses a family representative to meet with the bride's family and make a request for her hand in marriage. Traditional marriages in East Timor often include several months of preparation.

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Marriage traditions in East Timor

Bride Price

Traditionally, the groom and his family are required to pay a bride price to the bride's family. The bride price may be in the form of money, livestock, or landed properties. This tradition is performed as a way of showing respect for the bride and her family and to acknowledge the value of the marriage.

Traditional headdresses

Many traditional regions and communities in East Timor have specific traditional headdresses that are worn during weddings, such as the "hera" for women and the "sarong" for men. These attires are often adorned with traditional jewelry, such as earrings and necklaces.

Wedding reception 

The wedding reception in East Timor is usually attended by hundreds of people. In some clans, the two families getting married send separate wedding invitations. After the church ceremony is concluded, the newlyweds and their guests move to a different location for the wedding reception, which usually includes a lot of eating, drinking, and dancing.

Same-sex marriages 

In East Timor, both male and female same-sex sexual activities are legal. Homosexuality has been legal since 1975; however, same-sex couples are not allowed to legally get married in the country. There is no recognition of marriage or unions for spouses of the same sex. Same-sex couples are not allowed to head households, and most of the marriage entitlements and benefits, such as adoption, are not enjoyed by same-sex couples in East Timor.

Polygamous marriages 

According to the civil codes of East Timor, polygamous marriages are illegal and not recognized by the government. The laws of the country state that all marriages must be monogamous, and a single man may only get married to one woman at a time. Even though polygamy is prohibited in the country, there are still some rural areas and communities where multiple spouses are entering into marriage together. Such a marriage has no legal standing and may result in legal problems in the country.

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Marriage Laws and Rights, Costs and Duties


Having the capacity to contract marriage is one of the requirements of the law of marriage in East Timor for couples who wish to be married. Both the groom and bride must be legally certified to be able to get married; they must meet the age requirements and be in a stable and sound state of mind. Etc. In East Timor, civil marriage, religious marriage, and traditional marriage all have legal value. They are all recognized as legally binding under the law in East Timor. The law sets the age for marriage at 18 years for both males and females; however, an exception is made for minors aged 16 years. They may be allowed to get married provided they obtain parental consent; in the absence of one, the consent of a legal guardian or a court ruling is admissible. 

This law not only applies to civil marriages; it also applies to religious and traditional marriages. Under the traditional or customary laws of marriage, neither the bride nor the groom is allowed to marry more than one partner at the same time. The marriage must be monogamous between one man and one woman, or vice versa. This law also applies to civil and religious marriages. In accordance with the civil laws of marriage in East Timor, the groom and bride must give consent to marriage; they must give consent to marriage willingly and void of any interference from third parties. Any marriage contracted with the use of force or violence and without the express consent of the couple is considered void. As stated earlier, the couple must be in a stable state of mind to be able to contract marriage; if it is perceived that one of the couple is not mentally stable or is incapacitated to contract marriage, such a marriage would not be allowed to take place. 

Religious marriages in East Timor are often Catholic; therefore, couples have to fulfill the requirements of their local parish before they are joined in matrimony. Neither the bride nor the groom must be closely related; they must not share any form of affinity with one another. Under all the laws of marriage, both the bride and groom must be single at the time of marriage; they must either be unmarried, widowed, or divorced. If anyone in the couple has been widowed or divorced, they are required to submit a certificate of divorce or death to prove that their previous marriage has been dissolved. Couples must publish banns, which must be submitted to the civil registry, informing the public of the upcoming nuptials.


In East Timor, there are rights and benefits that come with the status of being "married." These rights include protection against disinheritance, the right to work and receive equal payment for work, the right to receive assistance and support from the government, and the right to receive spousal support, among many others. Once marriage is contracted, the husband and wife automatically have access to rights that are not available to unmarried couples in the country. It is important to note that marriage does not impose a limitation on the fundamental rights of the couple; they are allowed to exercise their marital rights as well as their fundamental rights. Couples have the right to privacy and family life; they are both granted the right to start a family and raise the children according to the religious and moral inclinations of the family without any external intrusion. 

Spouses have the right to participate in economic and financial activities outside the home; they can open bank accounts, own credit cards, and invest their properties or assets without seeking permission from one another. They have the right to own property and to manage and dispose of it as they wish. They both have the right to decide which marital regime of property would be suitable during the course of the marriage; they also have the right to sign a prenuptial agreement, which protects their individual property in the event of divorce. The husband and wife have the right to participate in political activities such as voting; they also have the right to be voted for. They are allowed to run for office and fill vacant government positions.


Hosting a wedding ceremony in East Timor is very affordable. Couples can rent hotels for as little as $44 per night; however, it depends on the location and reputation of the hotel. The couple can decide to go to more luxurious hotels or resorts. The average cost of a wedding in East Timor is estimated to be around $1,000–3,000, and it can easily increase depending on a number of factors such as the size of the wedding, the guest list, the location of the wedding, etc. and ultimately the financial ability of the couple. Couples who wish to cut costs can have small and intimate weddings with just family and friends.


Under the law in East Timor, the husband and wife have equal duties and responsibilities in marriage. They have a duty to respect one another and receive fair treatment from one another. They must be committed to the marriage and ensure that they are both faithful. They are obligated to cooperate with one another as well as provide mutual support and assistance at times. The husband and wife have a duty to live together in the same matrimonial home chosen by the couple, except in special situations where one of the couples has to live apart. 

They are both obligated to respond to and provide for the needs of the family according to their means. The husband and wife have a duty to equally share the roles and responsibilities in the home, which automatically removes gender norms from society. The husband and wife have a duty to ensure that the children are well taken care of. They are obligated to provide a good, serene, and conducive environment for the growth and development of the children. Couples have a duty to manage and properly utilize all resources in the home.

In Summary 

In East Timor, the exchange of gifts plays an important role in marriages and signifies the migration of lives from one family to another. This is often seen as the beginning of the bride’s relationship with her new husband. Both families are usually actively involved in traditional Timorese weddings.
In rural areas of East Timor, marriages are still arranged between families; however, the bride or groom may be allowed to have a say in who they will be getting married to. Most marriage ceremonies in East Timor take place in the Catholic Church. We hope this article has helped you understand everything you need to know about marriage in East Timor.