Since you’re here, you’ve probably heard of an onward ticket and wondered when you need one and how to get one. Well, as I write this, I’m sitting on a plane to Bangkok from Hong Kong. The next flight I have booked is from Bangkok to Tokyo in two weeks. But I’m not going to Tokyo in two weeks. In two weeks, I won’t be in Bangkok, I’ll be in Chiang Mai. And when I leave Thailand, it won’t be by air, it will be by land, through the Thailand/Laos border.
So why do we have this ticket booked? Well…
Visa Basics and Onward Travel
Thailand sometimes requires proof of onward travel. No matter where you travel, whether you obtain a visa in advance or on arrival, or stay visa-free in a country on a tourist visa, you’ll be limited in the amount of time you can stay. Sometimes it is 15 days, sometimes 30, sometimes 90, or anywhere in between, more, or less.
When you arrive at a country and pass through immigration or passport control, they’re expecting you to leave within your allotted time. And sometimes (in some countries, always) they ask for proof. And that’s why you need an “onward ticket.”
An onward ticket is a ticket that “proves” that you aren’t planning to overstay your visa. Typically, requests for onward tickets come from one of two sources. The airline at your departure airport may ask for it before they print you a ticket or let you board. If not, immigration authorities may ask for it after you land.
Do you need an onward ticket?
When in doubt, yes, you need an onward ticket. There are many low-risk ways to get an onward ticket (we discuss these next), so you should have one to ensure a smooth trip. If you’re really uneasy, we suggest a Google search for “[country] onward ticket proof” or “[airport] onward ticket proof.” We’ve been asked for proof of onward travel at only about 25% of destinations, for what it’s worth.
For most travelers, an onward ticket is simple enough to produce. You’re visiting Bangkok from Chicago, so you book a roundtrip flight from Chicago to Bangkok. In that case, your onward ticket is your return ticket. But what if you’re leaving your destination by bus? Or you just don’t know where you’re heading next until the last second when you book a flight? Then you won’t have an onward ticket when you arrive, and if they ask for one, you’re out of luck! So, you need to create an onward ticket. There are a few ways to create an onward ticket.
Option 1: Buy an onward ticket with a 24-hour cancellation policy
This is our preferred method. You buy a ticket that has a 24-hour hassle-free cancellation policy. We prefer United Airlines for these tickets because we’ve been through their cancellation process before and found it straightforward. But plenty of sites, like Expedia, offer 24-hour cancellation on SOME tickets. The biggest risk of this option is that you’ll forget to cancel or something will get in your way (maybe a browser error or a technical error on the airline’s side).
Option 2: Buy a refundable or changeable onward ticket
Plenty of airlines offer refundable fares that you can cancel at any time up until departure. Others offer fares that allow you to change the date of the flight but not get a refund. The risk of this option is, again, that you’ll forget to cancel. You have a longer window than if you are planning to use the 24-hour cancellation option, but you’ll also have to put a lot more money on the line to secure these fares.
Option 3: Buy a cheap “throwaway ticket”
In some countries, you can fight onward tickets for less than $50. These aren’t refundable in any way. This option is best used in South America, Asia, and some European countries, but we really think it should be a last resort. You’re basically throwing away money. But at least it will be less than if you forget to refund your tickets in option 1 or 2.
Option 4: Hold an onward ticket
For US-based airlines, if you can’t cancel a ticket within 24 hours you can typically “hold” it for 24 hours without purchasing it. Some bloggers advocate this method because it is no-risk on the financial end. It is slightly more of a risk on the passport control end, though, as you obviously have not purchased the ticket.
Option 5: Tell a more direct lie with Photoshop
The last option, which we don’t advocate at all, is simply to use Photoshop (or another program) to make up a ticket. This is no-risk on the financial end, but HUGE risk on the immigration end. It’s unlikely for most of us that we’ll ever be seriously questioned by immigration authorities, but it can happen, and a photoshopped ticket is not a good way to start that conversation.
Of course, all five methods involve a bit of a lie, but travel plans change, and everyone from immigration to airlines knows this. If Thai immigration told me I had to leave on the flight I showed them at my time of arrival, then certainly I would. Since they won’t, my plans are probably going to change and I’m probably going to be leaving Thailand by bus.
A Final Wrinkle – Return Tickets
In most cases, proof of onward travel is all immigration (or the airline) is looking for. In rare cases, though, they’ll want more, they’ll want proof that you’re actually planning on returning home. This only happened to us once, flying from Orlando to Medellin. At check-in, the airline representative asked us to produce proof of onward travel, which we had from Bogota to Lima. She wasn’t satisfied (and maybe this was her error), and we eventually produced a ticket from Santiago, Chile to Chicago. She didn’t ask for the flights in between (though we were clear we could produce all of them if she wanted). We don’t know what to make of this, as it hasn’t been an issue since.
We are pretty fortunate and have never run into any travel-stopping issues regarding Visas or immigration. Have you? Let us know in the comments below.