Proof of onward travel causes endless confusion amongst travellers, so it’s good to know what your options are and to do a little bit of research into your next country beforehand. Sometimes airport staff get it wrong as well – I’ve once had to argue my way onto a flight from South Korea to Vietnam, which doesn’t require proof of onward travel.
Proof of onward travel seems to be requested more often in South East Asia (probably due to the high volume of expats doing monthly visa runs). I've also been questioned when flying into the UK as well.
What is Proof of Onward Travel?
In short, proof of onward travel is evidence that you will be leaving your destination country. This is usually a return flight ticket or another flight ticket to your home (or next) country. A land border crossing in the form of a bus or train ticket is usually accepted as well, but I’ve heard quite a few stories of airport staff specifically asking for a flight ticket.
Proof of onward travel is required by some countries for all sorts of reasons, but in general, it’s to make sure that:
- You have enough money to leave the country.
- You intend to leave the country before your visa expires.
- You don’t intend to stay in the country (illegally).
If you think about it, using proof of onward travel to determine one of the above scenarios doesn’t seem like a particularly bright idea, but for now, it’s best to treat it as just one of those old, bureaucratic rules that haven’t yet been updated.
What Counts as Proof of Onward Travel?
A flight ticket out of the country you're visiting is the best proof of onward travel. Technically, bus or train tickets should be accepted as well, but a flight ticket is your safest bet as this is what border control is used to. If you're not sure, you should try and find an official source (e.g. the government website of the country you're visiting) or play it safe with one of the options below.
The cheapest and most surefire way is to rent a ticket.
What Countries Require Proof of Onward Travel?
Countries that definitely require proof of onward travel include Peru, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States, Philippines, Indonesia, Brazil, Costa Rica and Panama.
My personal experience of being asked for proof of onward travel was flying into Thailand. I was also asked for proof when flying to Vietnam, but I did my research and found that proof of onward travel was not needed. I showed my evidence to the check-in desk at Bangkok Airport, and they finally let me through.
I tried digging around some more to find a more comprehensive list, but couldn't find one - not to mention, it probably changes from time to time. Renting a ticket alleviates this uncertainty altogether, but if you want to check your destination's government resources - more power to you!
How to Get Proof of Onward Travel
My first experience with a request for proof of onward travel was when I flew with a one-way ticket from Sydney to Thailand several years ago. I intended to catch an overnight bus into Cambodia before my one-month visa expired, but I wasn’t sure when – so I didn’t have a ticket yet.
Thailand requires an onward ticket, and I didn’t want to pay for one. So, like any self-respecting digital native of the 21st century, I went to the internet to find answers. And as always, the internet delivered: with hundreds of pages of conflicting advice from self-proclaimed “experts”, hare-brained theories and generally inconsistent anecdotes.
Not exactly the clarity I wanted. Thanks, internet.
So, what are your options?
1. Risk It and Smile
While it’s possible that you won’t be asked for proof of onward travel at the airport, it’s a good idea to be prepared on the off-chance that it might happen. Life is full of unexpected surprises: tour taxi to airport could be late, there could be traffic… and you might get denied entry when boarding your flight.
This leaves you with no choice but to book an onward flight (or follow one of the options below), and if you’re short on time, you might end up missing your flight altogether. The alternatives are so simple that there really is no point in risking it.
Verdict: high risk, not recommended.
2. Create a Fake Ticket Confirmation
If you’re a Photoshop whiz, you can try editing an old email confirmation from another airline or travel agent. Just make sure that the flight number and departure times of the flight you’ll be “boarding” actually exists!
Alternatively, you can start the booking process with some airlines and take a screenshot of the check-out screen. Some creative cropping will result in a document you can keep on your phone to show at the gate.
I’ve met a lot of people that advocate this approach, but personally, I’m not a fan. While it’s highly unlikely that they’ll actually check the details at the gate, this method leaves you vulnerable to accusations of knowingly forging official documents. And let’s be honest: that’s exactly what you’ve done. You’ll have almost no options to defend yourself and completely at the mercy of the airport official.
Verdict: high risk, not recommended.
3. Buy a Flexible Date Ticket
Another legitimate way of skirting around the onward travel rules is to buy a ticket where you can change the flight dates. The issue is that flexible date tickets are often significantly more expensive, especially if you compare it against local airlines that offer flights that are inflexible but are also half the price (or less).
4. Buy a Cheap Throwaway Ticket
While expensive, this the most legitimate way to beat the system. In fact, this is what most process-abiding airline staff will tell you if they find you don’t have an onward ticket.
In a nutshell, this method requires you to buy the cheapest ticket possible to a nearby country, while still being within your visa period. I’ve also heard of people getting by with a cheap bus or train ticket between countries, although it seems like there have been mixed results with this approach. Still, this strategy is expensive – not to mention wasteful.
Verdict: unnecessary, expensive and wasteful.
5. Hold a Flight Ticket for 24 Hours
All US airlines (and some online travel agencies) are also required to offer a 24 hour “hold” period. With this method, you can reserve a ticket at a certain price for 24 hours. You’ll be issued with a confirmation email, which you can show to the airport staff if asked.
This was my personal preference for a while as it’s completely free, however I’ve heard stories of some people having their flight reservations questioned at the airport. It’s hard to say whether they got unlucky or the airports have become wise to the act, but this method is still a relatively low risk way of bypassing proof of onward travel. If all else fails, combine it with method #6 or #7 if you’re challenged at the airport.
Verdict: low risk, but not foolproof.
6. Buy a Refundable Flight Ticket
In the United States, all airline companies are required by federal law to provide a complete refund on all bookings within a 24 hour period. This means that you can book any flight at random, use it to get into your destination country as “proof of onward travel”, then get all your money back.
Just make sure you process the refund before the 24 hour refund period expires!
The best way to do this is to pay by credit card to avoid dipping into your savings, or even better, to use your frequent flyer miles. All US airline companies should honour the 24 hour refund period, however there has been some chatter about American Airlines phasing out this option. To make sure you’re not going to stuck with a $1000 flight across the world, make sure you do your research: read the fine print before booking and make sure you have enough time to cancel before your 24 hours are up.
Verdict: low risk, but could be expensive if you don't cancel in time.
7. Rent an Onward Ticket
There are a number of services that allow you to rent a ticket for a small fee. At first, these services were using the “hold a flight ticket for 24 hours” method which made them rather unnecessary, but they have since become more sophisticated. When you present your flight number and details at the airport desk, you will now actually show up on airport systems – making this a legitimate way of having peace of mind.
As far as these services go, the self-titled Onward Ticket website is a good place to get yourself an onward ticket. At the time of writing, renting a ticket costs $12.
Verdict: highly recommended.
Proof of onward travel is an inconvenience that travellers will have to face at one point or another, so it’s good to be informed and have a plan before you end up stuck without being able to board your flight.
The simplest way to avoid any headaches is to simply buy an onward ticket, but if you’re game, either holding a 24 hour reservation or refunding a flight ticket within 24 hours is also an option. Just be prepared in case an over-zealous airport official keeps asking questions.
If asked why you’re holding (and not buying) the ticket, you can simply say you’re waiting to see how price changes, or that you simply forgot. Make up an excuse. If they won’t get off your case, simply book the ticket on the spot. Just be sure that you can process the refund in time!
Whichever method you decide to use, don’t forget to smile and be friendly to all airport staff. Simply being nice can get you free seat upgrades, less questions, and even in one case, an exemption when I tried to bring 12kg of carry-on luggage onto an airline with a 7kg maximum.
If you have other strategies or experiences, I’d love to hear from you!