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.

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.

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: not recommended.

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: not recommended.

Rent 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.

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: expensive.

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.

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 – and read the fine print before booking.

Verdict: recommended (combined with #7).

Hold 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).


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.

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!

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  1. One more life hack how to create a real ticket for 24h for free:
    1. Go to http://www.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 or website http://www.keyflight.io for create itinerary
    Good Luck

    • Hey Weekends, this is pretty similar to the 2nd method listed here! All in all, I’d still recommend the 7th method to most people. It has almost same result, since you can get a flight itinerary emailed to you. Another plus is that you can also work your way backwards down the list if your itinerary fails under questioning.

      That being said, I’ve never been asked for an actual flight ticket before, nor have other travellers I’ve met in the past – an itinerary has been more than enough. Just be sure to write the same exit destination on your arrivals card!

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

      good luck with your travels!

      • That definitely works too – it’s the same as the 3rd method I’ve mentioned above. I just personally wouldn’t want to be stuck in the position where I have to explain why I deliberately bought a fake ticket to fool the authorities!

  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?

    • Hey Firo, if you’ve bought a legitimate onward 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 split in terms of whether I was questioned or not.

      Since “renting” a ticket is so easy to do yourself (and for free!) with 24 hour cancellation periods, I personally think these ticket rental services are a waste of money. But at the end of it day, it’s up to you!

  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?

    • Personally, I haven’t had any issues with the hold ticket at all. You simply need to book with an American airline (any of them will do).

      As for your visa situation, this should be fine in theory, but it depends on a lot of factors such as your nationality/passport, the type of visa you’re receiving (e.g. visa on arrival, paid/free visa, visa-free exemption, special visa), and which country you’re flying into (some don’t require proof of onward travel at all).

      Without this information it’s hard to say. All I can say is that the methods I’ve mentioned above have worked for me to get past the standard airport checks for proof of onward travel.

  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?

    • Hi Boyd, the short answer is: no.

      The country you’re flying into won’t care what your overall itinerary is, all they’re interested in is when you’re going to exit their country. 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. I would strongly recommend having a strategy before you fly in – “I didn’t know” isn’t an excuse that goes down well at any international airport.

      Best of luck and safe travels!

    • Hey Lucie, thanks for the heads up! I’m not familiar with that website so I can’t say so much about it. I still stand by the fact that I feel these services are a little unnecessary, but of course, you (or anybody else) are completely free to do whatever they prefer 🙂

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