Do You Need Proof of Onward Travel?

(Last Updated On: April 18, 2017)

You arrive at the airport, armed with bags, passport and your one-way ticket, ready for a big adventure exploring your next new destination. And then, as you are checking into your flight, you are asked the dreaded question. “Do you have proof of onward travel?” Most round the world travelers and digital nomads have faced this question at one time or another, and if you aren’t prepared for it, it can ruin your trip before it even gets started.

Why do you need proof of onward travel?

People are denied entry into countries all the time. Visa problems, not meeting certain financial requirements, or previous criminal activity are just a few of the reasons. So is a suspicion that a traveler is planning to move permanently to the new place without the necessary approvals. When a person is denied entry at immigration, it becomes the airline’s responsibility to return their passenger to their previous destination. For this reason, while the rules regarding entry are set up by a country’s government, in most cases the airlines are the ones that are checking and policing the policy.

If you travel on a round trip ticket, as most people do, that ticket is essentially your proof that you are planning on leaving the country you are visiting.  A one way ticket, however, will often prompt the airline worker to ask for your proof of onward travel before you even get on the plane. And if you don’t have it, they can refuse to let you board the flight.

So, what are your options for proof of onward travel if you have a one-way ticket into another country?

Buy a cheap throwaway ticket

Low-cost airlines can offer fares so low that can be worth it to purchase a ticket that you don’t plan on ever using. Budget airlines are notorious for charging you for every add-on: You have luggage? That’ll be extra. You want a seat assignment? Extra! But if you’re only using the ticket for proof of onward travel you don’t need any of these extras and you can score a deal.

Search engines such as kayak explore and adioso.com make it easy to search for the cheapest ticket from a particular destination, using the “anywhere” function and flexible dates to give you an idea of what a throwaway ticket would cost.

Pros: It’s exactly what the airline or immigration person is looking for

Cons: It’s still going to cost you – and depending on where and when you’re traveling, it may not be cheap

Mock up a fake ticket

First of all, we are NOT recommending that anyone attempt to defraud an airline or immigration service. That said, our research has shown that a lot of travelers use variations of this method. Some people we talked to use an old ticket, and change the dates and departure using photoshop. Others have faked an email from a travel agent, mocking up an itinerary. Travel blogger Wandering Earl even provides a how-to article on mocking up a ticket on his blog.

In preparation for this article, we reached out to a number of travel communities to see if anyone had actually been caught with a fake ticket, and couldn’t find a single person who had. So, the risk seems low, but I’m not sure this option is worth it. Also, keep in mind that particularly suspicious airline personnel can look up your reservation number and flight on their own system while you wait.

Pros: Perfect for do-it-yourselfers, and won’t cost you anything

Cons: Technically, you are lying to airport personnel or an immigration officer. If you get caught – fines, deportation, prison time?

Use a service

According to their website, for $9.99, FlyOnward actually purchases a ticket in your name and emails you the confirmation. They have an extensive FAQ and guarantee, including terms of service and a refund policy. With this service, you can actually log onto the airline website and view the reservation, at least while it is active. The ticket is automatically canceled within the 24 or 48 window that you’ve agreed to.

We’ve used a similar service called Best Onward Ticket, which provided a confirmed itinerary and ticket number with a major airline, and provided great customer service, including following up to ensure their were no issues with the ticket they provided us. And, they’re even cheaper at $7.99.   

Another service provider, called Smart Traveller, offers the same service for only $4.95, but their site doesn’t specifically outline that they have booked an actual ticket with an airline.

Pros: No need to go through the hassle of canceling a ticket.

Cons: There’s still a cost involved.

Plan ahead and buy a real ticket

Of course, this is what most airlines and governments expect – full-time travelers or digital nomads aren’t the norm, and they expect vacationers and business travelers to always book a round trip or onward ticket. If you’re planning a couple of months in advance, you can already know your next destination and book a real ticket, that you’re planning on using. We have our next destination planned about half of the time, and it certainly makes things easier. Just make sure to have a hard copy or a pdf of your ticket on your phone available if asked.

Pros: Real ticket, no worries about not getting a refund

Cons: What? Plan ahead?

Purchase a round trip ticket

Airline pricing is a very strange beast. Rarely is a round trip ticket twice the cost of a one-way ticket. We’ve even seen one way fares that are basically the same as the round trip. So, if you can find a cheap return fare (look for terrible/unpopular flight times or multiple stops on the return and you’ll probably get a deal). It might be worth it to purchase it since you’re not planning on using anyway.

Pros: You won’t even be asked the dreaded question

Cons: You’ll probably pay more than you would for a one-way ticket

Shell out for a fully refundable ticket

A full fair ticket is usually refundable, though you might want to check the fine print on the specific airline you’re doing this with to be sure you don’t get stuck paying some nonrefundable tax or fee. It also might take time to get the money back, so if you’re short on cash it might not be an option.

In the U.S., the Dept. of Transportation requires all carriers for flights booked in the USA to be cancelled within 24 hours. Most airlines offer this cancellation as an option, with the exception of American Airlines, which instead allows you to “hold” a reservation for 24 hours without a purchase. Make sure to read the fine print when using this option. It doesn’t apply to tickets not purchased in the USA, and the terms may be different if the actual flight is on a partner airline rather than the airline site you are booking on.

Pros: A real ticket will hold up under heavy scrutiny

Cons: Fully refundable fares are some of the most expensive, and it can take time (in some cases, months) to receive your refund. And often, certain fees will NOT be refundable, so it’s important to read the fine print.

Buy a ticket using points or miles

If you’ve accumulated a lot of airplane miles, you can book award travel. While you need to check the airline’s specific terms of services, canceling a flight booked with miles is usually pretty easily, and you typically get credited back your miles immediately. Any fees associated with the award ticket may not be refunded, though.

Pros: Doesn’t tie up cash, refunds are usually not a problem, refund of points on cancellation are immediate

Cons: You need to have enough points, and award availability from your destination.

Alternative onward transportation (bus/train)

Onward travel doesn’t need to be via plane. Buses, trains, and even ferries are options. Remember, onward travel is just that – proof that you’re leaving your destination country. It doesn’t need to be a return to your original departure point. In most cases, you’ll pay less for a bus ticket out of the country than a plane ticket.

We love Rome2Rio for finding alternative trip options. The Man in Seat Sixty-One is a great resource for one-stop shopping for train and ferry travel worldwide. Buses are a little tougher – it’s best to search for bus companies operating in your destination countries.

Airline personnel may balk at overland onward travel documents. After all, if you are refused entry into the country at the immigration point, it seems unlikely that you would be allowed to leave the airport to hop on a bus or train.

Pros: Legitimate ticket, often at lower cost.

Cons: Airline personnel might not accept a non-flight option. 

Don’t do a thing and risk it

Whether you are asked for proof of onward travel depends on your destination country and airline, and even on the particular airline personnel that’s checking you in. If the country imposes strict penalties on an airline for not checking for onward travel, it’s likely that the airline will ask you for your proof at check in. In our experience, we’ve been asked for proof about one third of our inter-country plane trips. I’ll admit, it’s a little frustrating to go through the bother of arranging onward travel and not be asked for it, but we treat it like an insurance policy – it’s better to have it and not use it, than be caught without it.

There are certain countries absolutely require an onward ticket: Peru, New Zealand, United Kingdom, United States, Philippines, Indonesia and Brazil are a short (and likely incomplete) list of these. Of course, even when traveling to these countries you may not be asked for proof on onward travel.

Pros: Takes no time, money, or effort

Cons: That pit in your stomach while checking in, wondering if they will ask you for proof. And, if they do ask for it, uh oh.

What’s the best option?

That’s really up to you, and your level of comfort with risk. After trying many of these over the years, and looking into the options further for this post, I think some of the services that allow you to “rent” a ticket are our best bet. Ten bucks is a small price to pay to not worry, and to not have to do battle with the airlines trying to get your money refunded.

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22 thoughts on “Do You Need Proof of Onward Travel?”

  1. Great post! And good tips, as many travelers don’t realize this requirement. We actually had this issue in Hawaii when flying to Thailand. We were staying for some time and traveling over land to other countries. The airline didn’t want to let us check in until we had more concrete proof of our plans to leave Thailand. The Delta agent actually advised us to go online with our phones and buy the cheapest AirAsia ticket out of Thailand (it cost us like $25 for a flight to Kuala Lumpur) and they let us go.

    ** And of course, when arriving in Thailand they could have cared less and never asked about an onward ticket!

    With AirAsia, some of their tickets allow you to change the date multiple times…so we actually changed the dates to use it later on anyway — so it wasn’t a total waste.

    We’ve also used special travel agent services who put a real airline ticket on hold for us, and sent us the final itinerary and confirmations. Then once we got through, the ticket was cancelled. Definitely worth it to have the peace of mind.

    Thanks!
    Liz

  2. Oh Thailand with your annoying 30 days visa and alleged “proof of onward travel” requirements… For our China visa (which is a WHOLE other story) we purchased extremely expensive Lufthansa fully refundable tickets (which they refunded after we got the visa with no problems). But if problems with cash flow, we just got into the routine of producing a fake ticket. It’s a paper exercise from their point of view at the end of the day and we realised it was so low risk, this was definitely the way forward.

  3. I personally think that suggesting a fake/ old/ etc ticket is really shady. If caught, you could get in even MORE trouble. There are plenty of cheap flights that you can buy (even if not planning on using) to show for onward travel, or, even better….just follow the rules so that traveling to those locations aren’t ruined for future travelers.

  4. Due to visa requirements and not being able to confirm tickets when I applied I also would suggest booking a flight with airlines that let you pay physically at their offices within 48h. So you actually buy the ticket, don’t pay it and then it gets cancelled within 48h. In the meantime you get the confirmation email. Thai Airlines does this. This is also key because sometimes you may buy a ticket and be denied the visa afterwards

  5. Interesting article. This has never been an issue for me. I am often asked how long I plan to stay but haven’t been asked for proof of onward travel.

  6. Good points to think about for the future when we might be doing that type of travel. Right now, we almost always buy a roundtrip or multi-leg trip that includes a return ticket, so I haven’t had to worry about it, but there’s obviously a lot to think through before you go.

  7. So far I’ve never had this issue because I’m the kind of traveler that always has a return ticket in hand, too 🙂 But amazing tips for lone term travel!

  8. Great post! It happened to me before flying to Philippines. They asked me for a flight out ticket.They were very strict. I had to buy a cheap one. I didn’t know this information at that time.

  9. Here is a specific example where I needed proof of onward travel, and the problem was solved by printing an inexpensive bus ticket and showing it at check-in to my Delta flight. First, I was frustrated when I made several calls to the airline where I bought a one-way ticket to Cambodia to ask about their requirements for POOT, and found it difficult to find staff with info about this subject. Finally, a reservation supervisor at Delta Airlines informed me that Delta follows the IATA guidelines (which are similar to Timatic guidelines.) I asked the supervisor if a bus ticket would serve as POOT and she said yes.

    Based on this, I printed the entry requirements of my destination country of Cambodia, and checked off all the documents required. This included a bus ticket from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Min city within the 30 day validity of my visa (visa on arrival for Cambodia.) I felt somewhat nervous about whether or not the bus ticket i printed would be accepted at check-in, because of the many different opinions on this topic expressed by airline staff and in these many blog posts. It did not seem that there was a definitive answer. Now I feel that there is a definitive answer. The bus ticket worked as POOT when I checked into my Delta flight. By the way, the bus ticket was purchased online for $13 and the reason I am writing about this is to provide an inexpensive solution for POOT that does NOT involve buying an airline ticket.

    At check-in at the Delta counter, the staff looked at my passport to find my flight. She studied my itinerary for a minute, noticed that it was a one-way ticket, and then asked if I had a “return ticket.” I replied that I had “onward ticket from Cambodia to Vietnam.” She asked to see the ticket, looked it carefully, apparently to verify the date of departure. Then she handed back, apparently satisfied.

    This is a strange thing indeed. I printed the ticket, which I could have simply invented. It was a real reservation in my case, because I feel more confident presenting something that can be verified if challenged. That’s psychological perhaps. After visiting Cambodia many times, I was never asked any questions when obtaining a visa. This particular visit the customs guards were sitting outside taking a break and there was no one at the post. I asked if they wanted to check my bags and they said not to worry about it. So, referring back to Delta staff, they are just protecting their interests. There seems to be agreement that the airline flyin you into a country will be held responsible in some way if you are refused entry. But they cannot know the entry requirements for all countries and screen every passenger accordinly, so they just use this simple guideline of checking POOT.

    I have a feeling that this kind of verification may become more strict in the future, because apparently most of these documents presented as POOT are not genuine. With increasing security issues at check-in things are bound to get tighter.

    • This is exactly the type of confusion that led me to write up the various options. I’m glad the bus option worked for you – I’ve heard of other people who’ve had the bus option questioned. Which makes some sense – if the real reason for POOT is if you are refused entry into the country, it doesn’t seem likely that immigration would put you on a bus. And, I agree that the verifications might get more strict!

  10. I am flying to the UK next week on a one-way ticket, but planning to fly to Romania from there a week after–will this be proof enough of onward travel? Or do they need to see a return ticket to the US, my country of origin/where I’m flying out of?

    I can’t seem to find an answer anywhere!

  11. Planning a trip to Europe in the next year or two with the husband; what I’m informally calling our royal tour of Europe.

    Am curious if this is a requirement for taking a transatlantic re positioning cruise too (USA to Europe) as well. Was planning on taking a return cruise in the fall (Europe – USA / Brazil or Caribb), but it will likely leave out of a different port.

    This is the first I’ve heard of this onward ticket requirement as we’ve always been the ones with a round trip ticket. This tour will be the first time we’re planning on doing long term travel overseas. So anything you can tell me about it will be much appreciated.

    HayaH —

    • Most of the time the onward travel problem comes up with the airlines because they are on the hook to transport you back to where you started from if the country you are trying to enter does not allow you in. But if you have any concerns I’d check with the cruise company before you actually book. I’ll be curious to find out what you hear!

  12. Hi. I can understand why immigration officials might require proof of onward travel but why does the airline require it? You’ve also said that the airlines would be on the hook to transport you back to where you started from if the country you are trying to enter does not allow it. However I am wondering what is the source of authority the airline has to demand proof of onward travel if they are not immigration? Is it stated in the terms of carriage? Just curious. I’d be grateful for a reply!

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