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.