What is Proof of Onward Travel and What Are Your Options?

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.

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.

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.

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).

Verdict: expensive.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Verdict: recommended.

Final Thoughts

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! 

15 Comments

15 thoughts on “What is Proof of Onward Travel and What Are Your Options?”

  1. One more life hack how to create a real ticket for 24h for free:
    1. Go to aeroflot.com and book a flight ticket
    2. On the payment screen change language to RU.
    3. Choose payment method by cash
    4. They will give you booking number PNR for 24h. But without flight itinerary
    5. Go to Photoshop for create itinerary
    Good Luck

    Reply
    • Hey Weekends, this sounds pretty similar to the 2nd method listed here. All in all, I’d still recommend the 7th method to most people. It’s just safer and it seems like airport officials are getting savvier. I personally wouldn’t want to be caught with a Photoshopped ticket!

      Reply
    • My bf and I just used fake flight tickets while traveling to Bali.
      It’s a dummy ticket that looks exactly like the confirmation you get from Expedia.

      good luck with your travels!

      Reply
  2. I like the idea of renting a ticket.. I personally just bough the cheapest out of Thai to vietnam which I’ll be happy to go to.. do you know if they will ask for onward proof?

    Reply
    • Hey Firo, if you’ve bought a legitimate ticket you simply have to fill in the arrival card with your next destination. Thailand’s border security has a reputation of asking for proof of onward travel, but you might not get asked at all. On the occasions that I’ve flown into Thailand, it was a 50/50 change on whether I was questioned or not.

      Alternatively, you can rent a legitimate ticket with a provider such as Onward Ticket. This allows you to change your mind later on – for example, if you don’t want to head to Vietnam any more.

      Reply
  3. So did the hold ticket work for you every time? How do I find the hold ticket, which page should I find it at? And any idea if trying to get a 60 days visa in my country from consulate is that also ok to use the hold ticket, any experience?

    Reply
    • I’ve used the hold ticket method quite a lot of times and I haven’t had any issues. You simply need to book with an American airline (any of them will do). That said, the last time I did this was a few years ago, so now I’d suggest renting a ticket instead – just to be safe.

      As for your visa situation, I can’t really say without knowing what visa you’re trying to get. Depending on where you’re going, some visa applications require that you provide an exit ticket (that is, a “confirmation” is not enough), but again, this really comes down to your personal situation and where you’re going. Hope this helps!

      Reply
  4. We’re traveling from the US to Singapore, Sabah Malaysia, Brunei, The Philippines then back to the US. The only tickets we have purchased are from the US to Singapore and from The Philippines back to the US. If we show our return ticket from the Philippines back to the US, will that be adequate for boarding flights to the other countries?

    Reply
    • Hey Boyd, I’d say that this should be fine if you can show the full itinerary and the connecting flights.

      The main thing that each country cares about is when you’re going to leave, not where. Officially, Singapore and the Philippines both require proof of onward travel to enter the country (although there’s a chance they just won’t check). I suspect Malaysia will also ask, but I’m not 100% sure as this was one of the rare times I had an exit flight booked before I landed in the country.

      Best of luck and safe travels!

      Reply
  5. Great article ! Onward tickets keep your booking with PNR confirmed for 14 days. Which is perfect for visa application as well. (i’m not paid to say that :p )

    Reply
    • Hey Lucie, thanks for sharing! I didn’t know about it working for visa applications too, but perhaps that would be useful someone else reading this 🙂

      Reply
  6. I rent onward tickets. Service could not be better! Immediate responses, personal attention, authentic ticket and they cancel it automatically. I highly recommend and will use them again.

    Reply
  7. Number 3 may not work in Thailand. If they ask you for proof, they won’t accept an open ticket, as even their consulate’s page mentions this.
    For Thailand, the easiest way seems to be a smile, a ‘hello’ in Thai, or, if you want to stay on the safe side: a throw-away ticket for 20 bucks from AirAsia.

    Reply
    • Hey Roman, I think you’ve misunderstood #3. Purchasing a flexible exit ticket with the option of changing the departure date is 100% abiding by Thailand’s rules. If you’re going to buy a throwaway ticket, you may as well rent an onward ticket and save yourself a few dollars. Being nice to the person at the desk is always a good idea though 🙂

      Reply

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