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.
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.