Time to Revisit the Onward Ticket Requirement

Immigration window airport

In the past when readers have asked about the official requirement to have an onward ticket when landing in a new country, I’ve blown it off and scoffed. In 22 years of travel, I’ve been asked for proof of this exactly one time, and that was in England. That was 1995 if I remember right.

We’re living in paranoid times though, times when a lot of refugees are on the move and immigration fears are at a peak. I’m getting more and more messages from people about running into border problems. Places where passports were formerly rubber stamped without a thought are suddenly becoming hassle zones, such as the Costa Rica borders with Panama and Nicaragua. The European Shengen zone may soon be no more if you listen to some pundits and the free movement we westerners have taken for granted may not be so free.

I do think this is temporary and isolated. After all, most countries want the money tourists bring in (even those cheapo backpackers) and want to make it easy for us to stick around for a while. What they don’t want, however, is people who are going to stick around past their visa period and try to work illegally.

So now many border guards and airport customs agents are being asked to show proof that new arrivals are moving on afterwards. This isn’t new for many people: when coming back from Istanbul last week I listened to Turks being grilled about whether they had ever been to Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq and they all had to show a return ticket out or a college acceptance letter. Some spent five minutes answering questions—and that was just at the boarding gate!

The difference now is that we’re all suspect in some places. The rules are being applied across the board, even in locations where a lot of travelers are going overland. So if you’re planning on just winging it, you could be in for a nasty surprise.

Border crossing

The border between Bolivia and Chile.

My usual advice still applies first: find out what’s really happening on the ground. Real local news online, visit the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree message board or Facebook groups for that country. Read expat blogs for the area.

Or just take one of the following steps to be safe:

1) Get a real ticket out.

Obviously the easiest way to show that you’re leaving eventually is to have a round-trip plane ticket or a ticket to the next stop. If that’s done, no sweat.

2) Rent a real ticket out.

There’s a company called Onward Flights that will basically rent you an onward ticket for $10. Think of it as insurance and it’s a great bargain. I haven’t worked with them, but some in my Cheap Living Abroad Committed group have vouched for them.

3) Get an onward bus or train ticket in advance.

You don’t have to be on a plane to leave the country. Most bus and train companies with reserved seats sell tickets online now, so you can purchase an advance ticket to depart. Worst case scenario is that you have to forfeit the ticket, but usually you can just transfer the date with no penalties at their office or the bus station.

4) Carry proof of wealth and don’t look like a bum.

The main thing an immigration officer wants to know is, “Can this person support himself/herself already?” In other words, do you have plenty of money to travel here and then leave? Probably half the reason I haven’t been asked for an onward ticket is I’m not wearing tattered clothing, sporting neck tattoos, and showing silver studs in 10 places on my face. Some backpackers think they’re too cool to look respectable on airport days. These are also the first people who complain about being hassled by immigration. Not a coincidence.

If an immigration officer asked me for financial info, I could pull out four credit cards and show bank statements on my phone. If you’re traveling long term, I suggest having these bank statements printed out since you may not have data access and may not even be able to use your phone. Don’t forget, retirement funds and real estate holdings count too if they’re documented.

Have you had to show proof of an onward ticket recently? Leave it in the comments below.

  1. J burne

    I was recently required by Thai Air to posses an onward ticket out of Myanmar before they would allow me to board their flight into that country. The supervisor was inflexible on this requirement; my clean cut appearance and financial position were irrelevant, as was my later homeward ticket from Bangkok. Fortunately I was able to buy such a ticket at a reasonable price on the spot at a nearby Air Asia counter, although I did later have to pay a modest change fee to adjust the date.

    This was despite travel forums (Thorn Tree included) saying the Myanmar requirement was “never enforced”. Lesson learned: have a plan, just in case.

    Note that the airline is often the first line of enforcement, as they are required, at their own expense, to fly back out anyone who is rejected entry at the arrival airport for not having complied with visa requirements (such as outward transport).

  2. Susanna Perkins

    This was a couple years ago, but I was refused a boarding pass on a flight from Orlando, FL to Panama City, Panama because I didn’t have a return ticket. I was living in Panama at the time. My solution was to purchase a fully refundable return ticket, which I then cancelled after I arrived home. Another friend, who had legal Panama residency, had a similar experience. The airline didn’t care that she had a legal right to stay in Panama, their only criterion was that she was traveling with a US passport, and therefore must have an onward flight. Bus and train tickets were of no interest…

  3. Andrew T

    I get grilled every time I travel into/through the UK. I can’t remember if I had to produce physical proof but I had to at least thoroughly describe my plans for leaving the UK.

  4. Jason Pelker

    Twice in the last month, I’ve had use an airline terminal to print out imaginary tickets from http://www.returnflights.net/

    Boy, I felt silly trying to do this in Thailand…especially when they were trying to bump me to an earlier flight that left in 30 minutes.

    If you need a real ticket, though, FlyOnward rents tickets for 24 hours. Best to purchase and print this before you hit the airport (Again, I’ve learned this the hard way).

  5. Brock (Edges Of Earth)

    Good tead. Haven’t officially hit the road yet, but will soon. Not so sure I will just ‘wing it’. My guess is that I will purchase a return ticket and pay a fee to change the date.

  6. Jay

    An onward requirement is becoming much more common. China requires it to get the visa, but not to enter. New Zealand asked me for the ticket on entering. My friend had to show a return ticket entering Panama, I didn’t. The Philippines requires it before you can board the plane. It’s entered into the computer. On arriving, I was asked when I’d leave, and from where. The departure date was written on the entry stamp. This was two days ago (Feb 12/16). I went years without needing an onward ticket. Entry into countries is getting stricter. At least in the near future, expect this trend to continue.

  7. Dev

    Another great post. Thanks for writing

  8. John

    It seems to me that a business should step into this gap. There are many times an onward ticket is not-sensible. The countries are worried about people staying and/or become drains on the economy, A business could step in to aid travelers and vouch for people’s financial well being. A long time ago I believe American Express offices were actually used a great deal by travelers. It could start with companies like American Express.

    They could provide a financial guarantee. Countries mostly would be thrilled to encourage visitors who are wealthy.

    • Tim Leffel

      Well, in the meantime, that FlyOnward business has stepped in with a solution.

  9. Dean

    This happened to me in Colombia for a visit to Ecuador by ‘Viva Colombia’ a low cost airline. I simply walked over to Aviaca and purchased a one-way first class ticket to return and cancelled it when I arrived. Cost: zero…. First class tickets can be cancelled for a full refund.

  10. lance

    I have used onwardflights.com for an onward flight and it worked fine.

  11. Crystal

    Here is one report from the ground. I recently used FlyOnward to help with the land border crossing from Peru into Bolivia as a U.S. Citizen. The ticket out of Bolivia was the first thing the border crossing agent asked for. The ticket seemed to work, he took it and stapled it to my visa packet. Hurt my budget a bit to have to pay the $160 Visa fee, and the $10 rental fee, but I’m in Bolivia now!

  12. Chuck Smith

    FlyOnward saved my bacon this morning. I had researched to see if proof of onward travel was required by Colombia, and didn’t find that it did, so I just bought a one-way ticket. This morning I arrived at the Avianca counter at LAX to pick up my boarding passes and was asked about onward travel. This was at about 7:50am (for a 9:15 flight) and the agent told me the flight would close at 8:15! I frantically got onto the (thankfully free) airport WiFi with my computer and bought a ticket. I had to wait a few nerve-wracking minutes for the actual ticket information to come back to me, but it did and I made it with about 4 minutes to spare! (And I’m sitting in Bogota as I write this.) Thanks Tim!

    • Tim Leffel

      Good to hear, but annoying. I had a gate agent demand an onward ticket for Mexico recently, oddly enough, but when I told her you get 6 months on a tourist visa so there was no need to purchase so far in advance she called over a supervisor and then said, “Never mind.” So many people go overland from all these countries that it seems ridiculous, but it’s good there’s a backup like this. I have heard of many people buying a bus ticket in advance if they are going overland and that works.

  13. doo-dud

    Is anyone traveling on a non-US passport and having the same issues? Something inside me suspects that other countries are hassling US citizens more than before because the US is becoming the biggest PITA on the planet towards their citizens. Is this just global tit-for-tat?

    • Tim Leffel

      No, that’s not it. It’s the result of stepped up anti-immigration moves meant to keep out foreigners with no money. It’s hard to be selective though in the written rules so some officials enforce the requirement across the board. In most cases though if you can show you have ample means (bank statements, credit cards, etc.) they’ll waive you through. When it happens at the airline level though, there’s less wiggle room and unfortunately the airline people often don’t know what the rules really are. If you have an onward ticket of any kind, you’ll be okay.

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