Proof of onward travel is a frustrating but not uncommon thing that you might get asked for when you’re travelling into a new country. This usually occurs when checking in at the airport, however I’ve also heard some stories of a few people who have been asked for proof of onward travel while crossing land borders.
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) and for some reason, London as well.
This 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 had to argue my way onto a flight from South Korea to Vietnam, which doesn’t require proof of onward travel.
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.
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.
Your Options: Proof of Onward Travel
So, what are your options?
There’s a few ways to get around this problem, mostly ranging from different degrees of “stupid” to “risky” to “expensive”. Personally, I’d recommend a combination of the last two methods I’ve mentioned below – it’s what I always do when a proof of onward travel is required in the country I’m visiting.
1Risk 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: not recommended.
2Create 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: not recommended.
3Rent an onward ticket
There are a number of services that allow you to “rent” a ticket for a small fee, but this totally unnecessary as they’re basically making money off the same process that you can do yourself with method #7. Why pay for something that you can do yourself in a couple of minutes?
Verdict: totally unnecessary.
4Buy 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.
5Buy 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).
6Buy 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 – and read the fine print before booking.
Verdict: recommended (combined with #7).
7Hold a flight ticket for 24 hours
In addition to the 24 hour refund policy, all US airlines are also required to offer a “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 is my personal preference, as it’s completely free, is the least risky, and has worked 100% of the time for me. If you find yourself getting asked a lot of questions at the gate, you can combine it with method #6 – but the chance of getting challenged is extremely unlikely.
Verdict: recommended (combined with #6).
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.
Generally, I’d suggest using a combination of the final two methods (#6 and #7). Use the “hold” ticket confirmation to get your way through check-in, but be prepared to buy a refundable ticket if 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!
Still, I prefer the “hold” method as having to refund a ticket can be a bit stressful:
- Possibility: I might not have the chance to process a refund in time (delayed flights, patchy wifi, no SIM cards).
- Possibility: the credit card refund might processed in a different billing cycle, which means I’ll be a thousand dollars (or more) out of pocket for a month.
To this day, I’ve never heard of anyone who’s been challenged using a “hold” ticket, so this is the method I continue to use until something better comes up – or even better, airports stop checking.
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!