Proof of Onward Travel Required

Passport Stamp, Paris

We knew we were taking a small risk by showing up at a border crossing without proof of onward travel. We never really thought it would be a big deal, though. It’s not like we were trying to enter Soviet-era Russia on our U.S. passports. We were just trying to board a train to London from Paris.

“Can I see your tickets home, please?” It was among the first of many questions we were asked by the British border agent standing between us and our train.

We didn’t have tickets “home” (wherever that is) or anywhere else for that matter. We were planning on spending the next five months in the U.K. We only just started thinking about where we’ll go afterward. We’re nowhere even close to booking tickets to wherever that might be.

But that isn’t something we can tell a border agent. Their job is to make sure that people entering their country are going to leave at some point. Folks like us showing up with indefinite plans for the future raise immediate red flags.

It doesn’t help our case that we intend to stay in the U.K. until at least November. Questions about how we’ll fund ourselves for the next five months started a second line of inquiry. Do we intend to work illegally? Will we sponge off the public dole? Do we deal drugs?

I don’t think she asked us any of that specifically, but those concerns formed the subtext of the entire encounter.

In the end she stamped our passports and welcomed us to England. We never really worried about being denied entry. But the whole ordeal started us thinking about the wisdom of arriving in a foreign country without having onward travel already booked.

We love the flexibility of being able to come and go as we please. We don’t really want to be forced into locking ourselves into a schedule or committing to a specific amount of time in a place we’ve never been. And we’d really, really like not to have to plan so far ahead. But that may not be entirely possible.

Unfortunately, many places require international travelers to have already booked tickets back out of the country before they’ll issue a tourist visa. As far as I can tell there are only about four options for dealing with this “proof of onward travel” requirement. None of which are ideal.

Play the odds and hope for the best

This is pretty much what we’ve done thus far. Most of the time you won’t be asked to provide proof of onward travel so just don’t sweat it.

The risk, of course, is that if you draw the short straw and are asked to produce a ticket you don’t have, it just might ruin your day. How bad a day depends on who’s asking.

Oftentimes this question comes up before you even board the plane. Because airlines bear the cost of repatriating passengers who are denied entry by immigration, many require proof of onward travel before they’ll issue a boarding pass.

But if you’re going to run into this problem, this is when you want it to arise. At least in this case you’re at an airport where you have the option of rectifying things on the spot by purchasing a ticket out of your destination country. You’ll pay dearly for a last-minute plane ticket, but at least you’ll get on your flight.

More problematic is being denied entry by immigration once you’ve arrived at your destination. In that case you’ll likely be detained and put on the next flight back to where you came from.

Buy a refundable ticket

This strategy is pretty self explanatory. You buy a refundable ticket to use as your proof of onward travel and then cancel the ticket after you’ve arrived.

With this option you run the risk that your full purchase price won’t be refunded, or that you’ll get dinged with fees. And then there is the hassle factor of needing to chase after refunds.

Forge a travel confirmation

This is the solution advocated most often on travel message boards and by various bloggers. The suggestion is that you can download an old travel confirmation, edit it to include new dates and destinations, and then use your forged travel document to satisfy questions about your travel plans.

This is the kind of thing that probably seems brilliant to twenty-year-old backpackers but likely seems increasingly less wise with each passing birthday. At 43 I can say with certainty we won’t be trying to pass off forged travel documents in an attempt to circumvent immigration rules, regardless of how asinine those rules happen to be.

I’m not even certain that this strategy still works. Some people have recently reported being denied boarding passes after the ticket agent failed to pull up a confirmation on their terminal.

And then there is the small matter that providing immigration officials with false travel documents is a crime that can land you in prison. There’s probably little risk in handing your fake itinerary to an airline ticket agent, but I wouldn’t try using it with a border control officer.

Just buy a ticket to your next destination

Simply arranging your onward travel is the most straightforward of all options and the one most likely to succeed every single time it’s tried. It is also the one requiring the most advance planning and is by far the most restricting.

We hate the idea of having to decide ahead of time how long we’ll stay somewhere and where exactly we’ll leave from. But we hate the idea of being denied entry into our next destination even more.

Going forward we’ll probably use a combination of the first and the fourth options. In places notorious for requiring proof of onward travel like Thailand and – ahem, Great Britain, we’ll probably bite the bullet and book a flight to our next destination. Everywhere else we’ll probably play the odds and just give ourselves some extra time at the airport in case we need to hurry up and purchase a last-minute ticket – refundable of course.

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38 Comments on “Proof of Onward Travel Required”

  1. Chris Herridge June 16, 2014 at 9:03 am #

    If you’re going to be in the UK until November, do try and make it to the Cheltenham Literary Festival in October. It’s a great event, so I understand from family, and Cheltenham ( my home town) is a beautiful Regency town with a lot of history. It’s also a good base for forays into the wonderful Cotswold villages.

    Like

    • Brian June 16, 2014 at 10:13 am #

      Thanks for the recommendation. A literary festival is right up our alley so we’ll check it out.

      Like

      • Chris Herridge June 16, 2014 at 10:22 am #

        It’s a very big festival…10 days, I think…and very well-attended. I’ve read that it’s been going since 1949. I would recommended that you book accommodation early if your research makes it appealing to you. You can always cancel later if you need to.

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        • Betty Londergan June 17, 2014 at 8:48 am #

          Cheltenham is gorgeous – and I’ll bet the Literary Festival is NOT to be missed! Then you can promote your book, too!

          Like

  2. digger666 June 16, 2014 at 9:21 am #

    Reblogged this on digger666.

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  3. mytimetotravel June 16, 2014 at 9:43 am #

    Hope there will some posts on France! Have fun in the UK (where I grew up). At least you didn’t need a day-by-day itinerary as you do for some places.

    Surprised to hear that Thailand is notorious for this (although I gather it has been cracking down on “visa runs” by long-stay ex-pats). I’ve been through Thailand a number of times, since it’s such a a transport hub for SEA, by plane and overland, and I don’t remember once being asked for proof of onward travel.

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    • Brian June 16, 2014 at 10:12 am #

      Interesting that you were never asked. Did you always have onward travel booked? I think the only time you really get asked is when you’re traveling on one-way tickets. We never had this issue before either, but then we’ve never traveled on one-way tickets before.

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      • mytimetotravel June 16, 2014 at 3:23 pm #

        My last visit in 2011 I arrived by plane and had an onward flight on the same PNR. While there I went to/from Laos by train, to/from Vietnam by plane (separate ticket), to Malaysia by plane and back by train, I don’t know whether the immigration agents on my re-entries had a record of the onward ticket on their computer screens or not.

        However, the trip before that, in 2004, I arrived initially overland from Cambodia, so no record of any onward ticket. I also visited Laos by train and Myanmar by separate flights before leaving from Thailand.

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        • Brian June 16, 2014 at 4:24 pm #

          From what I understand it is mostly the airlines that act as enforcers for this kind of thing. If the ticket agent doesn’t see a flight out on your itinerary they may not issue you a boarding pass unless you can prove you’ve booked a ticket. Being denied entry by boarder control agents for this reason seems to happen less frequently. That may explain part of your good fortune. Another part may be that enforcement is getting more strict than it once was. And one can never discount good (or bad) luck playing a roll.

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  4. Chuck & Lori June 16, 2014 at 9:46 am #

    While we were prepared to show our Cunard cruise confirmation for December (a Queen Mary 2 transatlantic crossing is most definitely onward travel), we weren’t asked this morning for such proof when we landed in the UK; our agent only asked for rough outlines of our planned travels, which was confusing enough. I’ve thought about this before though, and have always figured I’d dig around for a couple of those £10 one-way fares to … (wherever, whenever) and have them on hand as a backup. And if we decide to actually show up for that flight, all the better!

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    • Brian June 16, 2014 at 10:09 am #

      Hi Guys,
      Glad to hear you arrived safely.

      If I’m not mistaken, you were asked for information about your onward travel on the card you had to fill out for immigration. You probably did it on the plane before landing.

      Like

  5. Wondering Celt June 16, 2014 at 10:33 am #

    Hi Brian and Shannon. WELCOME TO GREAT BRITAIN!!!! Sorry about the immigration thing…..we have huge problems with a massive flux of immigration due to EU rules so you were getting the brunt of that I’m afraid. You will (unfortunately) probably hear about it again and again whilst here.

    Can I second the recommendation of Chris Herridge re: Cheltenham. I was brought up in the Cotswolds and the Festival is growing in stature every year and rivals Hay on Wye these days with BBC radio broadcasts of various author events, etc. Of course I’ve never been……locals only ever REALLY appreciate home when they move away! I’m based in Cardiff, Wales these days and can recommend a short visit to this bustling, multicultural capital – the National Museum and Art Gallery especially rivals Paris for its impressionist collect which is free to view which is a bonus!! The modern Bay area also has some amazing buildings and views to enjoy and a nice cafe culture too.

    But since the photo on your ABOUT page is outside Chatsworth House I’m guessing you’ve been here before so may have already been! Still enjoying novel destinations, great to dip into just before bedtime for inspiration for new reading adventures!

    Have a great stay!

    Like

    • Brian June 16, 2014 at 4:49 pm #

      Thanks for all the great recommendations. We’ve already been enjoying the great free museums here in London. We didn’t know about the ones in Cardiff but we’re suckers for impressionist art. Any collection that can be said to rival those in Paris is worth a trip to see!

      We’re glad you’re enjoying Shannon’s book. Thanks so much for saying so.

      Like

  6. Joshua June 16, 2014 at 12:50 pm #

    Alas, there is a big problem in the UK of people traveling there and just “disappearing”, as well as some people paranoid about the free movement of people in the EU. Of course there is option 5: buy a really cheap ticked out of the UK to say the Republic of Ireland, but without the intention of taking that flight. It can be as little as £10 one way, which weighed up against how much you value the flexibility is probably worthwhile.

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    • Brian June 16, 2014 at 4:39 pm #

      Buying a cheap ticket you never plan to use is certainly another option. Thanks for adding it to the list. 🙂

      Like

  7. Sandy June 16, 2014 at 2:49 pm #

    Did you think about applying for a General Visa for the UK? It does cost money but maybe an alternative for those who plan longer visitor stays (ie multi-month). Glad you “got in”. Enjoy your travels. Hiccups always happen as long as they don’t include a stay in jail 🙂

    Like

    • Brian June 16, 2014 at 4:34 pm #

      Hi Sandy,
      To tell you the truth, we didn’t really give this issue a ton of thought until the border agent asked us for our return ticket. But now we are thinking about paying for a multiple entry tourist visa for Thailand. I don’t think that will solve our need to book onward travel, though. We’ll still need to convince an immigration official that we’re not planning to overstay the visa we’re applying for. In fact, they specifically require it:

      Documents required (for a Thai Tourist Visa):

      Passport or travel document with a validity not less than 6 months
      Visa application form (filled out)
      One(1) recent 4x6cm. photograph of the applicant
      Round-trip air ticket or e-ticket (paid in full)
      Proof of financial means (20,000 baht per person/40,000 baht per family)

      Like

      • mytimetotravel June 16, 2014 at 4:53 pm #

        I have never bothered to get a visa for Thailand ahead of time. You might ask about this on the Fodors discussion board, there are several posters there who are frequent visitors to Thailand. http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/

        Like

        • Brian June 16, 2014 at 5:01 pm #

          We’re only thinking about it because the normal visa is only good for 30 days. We can apply for an extension once we’re there but I’d rather take care of that ahead of time if I can. Also they changed the rules recently so that you only get a 15 day visa if you arrive by land. It’s not like we can skip over to one of the neighboring countries and just reset the clock.

          We’re a long way from figuring out what we’ll do, so the Fodor’s link will help.

          Like

          • mytimetotravel June 16, 2014 at 6:08 pm #

            ” It’s not like we can skip over to one of the neighboring countries and just reset the clock.”

            That’s certainly what happened on my trips. I used Thailand as a base for visiting other SEA countries, and I just got a new visa each time I re-entered. However, I know that they have been tightening restrictions because long-stay ex-pats have been doing visa runs instead of getting long stay visas, which is why I suggested getting more up-to-date info at Fodors. Or, possibly, tripadvisor.

            Like

            • Brian June 17, 2014 at 2:57 am #

              I’m sure it can still be done. We’re just on a slower schedule then most and a 15 day visa feels rather restricting (I know, the problems we have 🙂 ) Although I just heard rumors that they’ve relaxed the 15 day land visa for members of G7 countries. It’s possible people holding passports from G7 countries may get 30 days but I haven’t confirmed that yet.

              Update: The Thai embassy in London confirms that “Since 20 December 2013,Nationals of (G7) the following countries who enter via a land crossing or enter via an airport will be entitled to a 30 day visa exemption , UK, U.S.A, Canada, Italy, Germany, Japan, France.” So I don’t think we’ll bother with a visa either. 🙂

              http://www.thaiembassyuk.org.uk/?q=node/188

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  8. highland hind June 16, 2014 at 3:03 pm #

    I hope you’re coming to Scotland (best bit of UK and I hope it stays that way after Sept 18)? If so would be great to meet you and point you in some great directions. Happy travelling.

    Like

    • Brian June 16, 2014 at 4:26 pm #

      We’re definitely heading up to Scotland. We’ll probably get up that way in a month or so, although we don’t have anything firmly planned yet.

      Like

  9. writecrites June 16, 2014 at 6:31 pm #

    Brian, I’m so glad you brought this subject up, and it leads me to a related question. Are you going back to mainland Europe after the UK, and, if so, how are you going to handle the Schengen zone problem where you can stay no longer than 3 months in the Schengen zone, then must leave for another 3 months before returning? We’re going to face this problem ourselves, so I was wondering if you had a plan.

    Like

    • Brian June 17, 2014 at 3:02 am #

      For Schengen were basically working with a ~90 day in ~90 day out plan. This past spring we were in Spain and France for about 80 days. Now we’ll be in the U.K, which isn’t part of the Schengen area, for about 5 months. We may head back to mainland Europe for a bit in November, but only for a week or two at most. We’ll spend the winter someplace warm and maybe come back to Schengen next year for another ~90 day stretch.

      Beyond that, we may eventually apply somewhere (France!?!) for temporary residency which would let us stay long-term. We haven’t really looked into it at all, but it’s an intriguing idea that is in the back of our minds.

      Like

      • writecrites June 17, 2014 at 4:17 am #

        That’s what we were thinking, too. I’ll be watching with interest. I look forward to all your posts, but are glad you’ll be tackling the French? temp residence visa, so I can learn from your experience. The difficult part, from what I gather, is giving them a residency address, especially if they need one long term. In the meantime, enjoy the UK. It’s a marvelous place.

        Like

  10. Lucia June 16, 2014 at 6:45 pm #

    Oh, the problems with being a full-time traveler! I’m happy you guys got through and I hope you enjoy the UK! 🙂

    Like

    • Brian June 17, 2014 at 3:06 am #

      These are “high class problems” to be sure. But also good to know about for anyone wanting to travel longer-term.

      Like

      • Lucia June 17, 2014 at 10:11 pm #

        Oh I didn´t mean it that way at all! haha I really do think these problems come with being a full-time traveler, but they almost always become a good story afterwards.
        I really enjoyed the post, I’m seriously considering full-time traveling at some point and it´s good to know these things so I can be prepared!

        Like

  11. Betty Londergan June 17, 2014 at 8:52 am #

    Speaking of Thailand vis a vis the exit visa, when my daughter left to work there last October, the visa-granting agency in the US told us to just make a reservation, print the schedule and use that. I was kind of amazed — but as it turned out, she decided to stay, extended her visa in-country, thru the school where she is working, and will probably be there for another full year. Oddly, the working visa seemed more relaxed than the visitors, since I always had to produce for VIetnam and Thailand and Myanmar my real reservation.

    Like

    • Brian June 17, 2014 at 9:04 am #

      Hi Betty,
      We’re so bummed we missed you (by like a day or so) in London.

      Like

  12. Wondering Celt June 17, 2014 at 1:48 pm #

    National Museum of Wales…to tempt you to Cardiff!!
    http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/cardiff/

    Like

  13. hermitsdoor June 18, 2014 at 6:50 am #

    As the world becomes more global, many more doors are closing. This is a result of conflicting ideologies and economics, as you noted in the implied topis to the customs agents questions.

    On the other hand, you are experiencing a level of liberty (to travel) unknown to most of society historically, even 50 years ago. First, except for the upper classes, few could affort to do something other than their surname implied, being a miller, baker, shoemaker…. and, internation conflicts (i.e. most of Europe’s history) limited who could cross a boarder, other than those escaping oppression (e.g. my ancestors sneaking out of Prussia in a hay-wagon). Few people go “everyone once”, thus goverments are not set up to appreciate your life-style.
    Oscar

    Like

    • Brian June 18, 2014 at 7:29 am #

      Yup, we’re well aware that the world isn’t wired for people like us. Nothing we can’t handle, though. 😉

      Like

  14. boredhf June 26, 2014 at 9:16 am #

    Great post! I actually ran into this issue when flying into London a couple weeks ago. I usually always print my return ticket confirmation, but was lazy and decided not to this time. Of course, it was the first time I was ever asked for it. The border guard let me through after a few more questions, but I will always bring it with me now, just to avoid the hold up and interrogation 😛 I have to travel there a lot as I lived there for 5 years (on various visas) and have family and property there still. I lived in London, but loved going on road trips to explore different parts of the country (which are soooo different to London). My favourite places are Oxford, the Cotswolds, Bridgenorth (I’m in love with this town), Brighton and Bath. If you fancy it, canal holidays are a great way to see the countryside and visit old, traditional pubs. My husband and I went on a couple canal boat holidays and had a great time (even in the rain!). Enjoy your time there!

    Like

  15. Karina's Extraordinary Life April 29, 2015 at 4:03 pm #

    Thank you for all the tips. Im currently dealing with (fuming @) this proof of onward travel given that I do not want to schedule myself, nor do I even know what my plans are for next month… Either way, my idea is to go overland. Anyone have any experience using train/bus tickets as proof? (Specifically, I am flying into Hong Kong where I plan to get my Chinese visa in order to overland all the way to Mongolia)

    Like

  16. fes desert trips November 30, 2015 at 6:52 am #

    Hi, I would like to subscribe for this web site to obtain hottest updates, therefore where can i do it please
    help out.

    Like

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