No, they won’t ask you for an onward ticket out of the country every time you cross a border. I spent most of my twenties traveling without an onward ticket and never had a problem. Of course, my twenties were a decade ago and the rules do seem to have changed (or maybe I was just lucky). Now they will ask you for an onward flight on occasion – particularly if you have the ‘wrong’ kind passport. For me, I’ve been asked to prove I’ve got a ticket out far more often since I started traveling with my Central American girlfriend.
And when they do ask you and you don’t have one because you haven’t yet decided where you’ll go next, that can be a real problem. For example, when checking into a flight to Costa Rica they wouldn’t let me get on the plane without an onward ticket. As there was only an hour left before boarding, I had to run around like a maniac trying to get something that would satisfy them. In the end I managed, but not before getting seriously stressed out (and paying a bomb). And that’s not what I enjoy doing just before getting on a plane.
For that reason – and because getting an onward ticket of some kind before I travel is easy as pie – I now always make sure I have something.
Where will they ask for proof of onward travel?
There are two places where they can ask you for an onward ticket. The place you probably imagine running into trouble is at passport control. And they do occasionally ask there. I’ve been asked once in about 100 flights. That was when I was entering Europe with my girlfriend.
The likelier place they’ll ask you for an onward ticket is when you’re checking in at the airline. That’s because most countries now insist that the airline has to give you a flight back out of the country if you get refused entry because you don’t have an onward ticket. As they don’t want to bear that extra cost, they now frequently ask for proof of onward travel.
So what do you actually need?
The onward ticket doesn’t have to be a return ticket
Some people believe that an onward ticket has to be back to the country that they came from. That’s not true. You just need a ticket out of the country. So if you pick a neighboring country, that’s generally fine.
In some countries, you can also use a bus or train ticket to prove you’re going to get out on time again. This isn’t the case everywhere, however. So make sure you check if that’s the route you want to go. Yes, it’s ridiculous if they don’t accept those kinds of tickets – but that the unfortunate nature of bureaucracy.
So how can you get them? You’ve got four options:
1. You can rent one
There are several services that will let you buy a ticket for only a few dollars. The most famous one is probably flyonwards.com. A warning! I’ve heard several people complain recently that they don’t actually provide people with tickets any more, while still taking people’s money.
Obviously, that would be a disaster so you might want to try another option. Fortunately, there are a few other companies, like Onwards flights and best onward ticket. I haven’t heard that much about them though (if anybody has any experience, please do let me know).
2. You can buy a really cheap one to the next country
As you don’t need to buy a ticket to a faraway place, you can also buy a really cheap ticket to the next country over – particularly if those are cheap. Do note, this strategy works a lot better in areas of the world where there are a lot of flights and flight companies – like in Asia or Europe. For the competition will make it far more likely you can find a cheap flight out.
For example, my girlfriend and I got her a ticket out of Europe for only 8 dollars. That was a ticket from Madrid to Morocco. Obviously, it was at a horrible time and she wasn’t allowed to take any luggage. But as we were never going to use the ticket anyway, that didn’t matter.
If you’re looking for a cheap ticket, use something like Skyscanner. You’ll want to find an airline hub (a place airlines use to connect flights in their spokes and hub system) and then see what options out of that hub there are (by selecting ‘everywhere’ in your destination option). Then you just buy a ticket out!
Do note, if you’re buying a ticket out of Europe make sure you buy a ticket to a country outside the Shengen zone. Otherwise, it still won’t qualify as a ticket out.
#3. You can use the US cancellation policy #
Most US ticket providers offer you a 24-hour cancellation policy (though there are some caveats). This means that if you cancel before 24 hours have passed, you’ll get a refund. This is both possible through expedia.com and on most airlines through Travelocity, for example.
This means that you can often buy a ticket through the US branch, fly in, and then cancel once you’ve landed. I’ve even heard that it’s business hours, which means if you book over the weekend, those hours don’t count! (Note that I have not verified this myself – so double check that).
Be aware, this law isn’t on the books everywhere. So check! Also, if you get sent to their site in a different country the rules might suddenly change. So, for example, if you use the German version of Expedia you won’t have this right. And as they always try to send you to the local version of the site, that means you might have to change where you’re accessing the site.
Generally, that’s something you can do either in the top menu bar on the more user-friendly websites or all the way at the bottom of the page for the less user-friendly ones.
4. You can make a false ticket
Then there is the option to make a false ticket. This is the free option. Note, this does mean you don’t actually have a legal ticket. This can have all sorts of repercussions if you get caught – some serious ones. For that reason and because I don’t want to encourage criminal activity I’m not encouraging you to take this route. I’m just including it for the sake of completeness.
Also note, if you do go down this route make sure you do so at the less tech-savvy border crossings.
Some other things that you really want to pay attention to:
- Don’t create a ticket with the same airline that you’re flying with. Remember, it’s the airlines who are the most likely to check your onward tickets. And they can check their own manifest and see if you’ve really booked a flight. Obviously, as it’s not a real ticket, they won’t find you there. That’s bad. So make sure that you use another flight company where they’ll have more trouble checking if you’re actually registered.
- Use an actual existing fight. Use something like Skyscanner to find a real flight with real flight numbers and real flight times. After all, even if they can’t check if you’re booked on a flight they can check if it actually exists. And it doesn’t take a genius to realize that if your flight is fake your ticket is as well.
- Make sure it’s far enough in the future. In some countries, they’ll give you a shorter visa if your ticket says you’re going to leave sooner. A friend of mine only got a month in India once when he was planning to stay a year because his ticket was for three weeks from his date of arrival. He was royally pissed off. Don’t let that happen to you.
- Print it out! You never know what kind of things they’ll be able to figure out if you open it on your phone or your laptop. For example, Photoshop creates its own kind of pdf extension that an on-the-ball person might be able to figure out is not the real deal. For that reason, print out your ticket as that means all that kind of extra information gets stripped away.
How do you make them?
I’ve found a website called returnflights.net which lets you produce your own tickets absolutely free. Nice, right? So you can certainly give that a try to see if you think the result is believable enough. I haven’t used it myself, though.
Another strategy is to create a flight itinerary with an actual existing ticketing company. You can do this quite easily over at Expedia.com where they have a ‘save this itinerary’ button underneath the booking button and the ‘cancel for free within 24 hour’ information. If you click that (and register if this is your first time) then you’ll come to a screen that looks entirely unlike a ticket.
That’s because you need to take another step. On the top right corner, you’ll see an option that says ‘print’. What you see now looks far more ticket like, doesn’t it? If you save this as a PDF and then open it in a program like Photoshop, it’s easy to get rid of the ‘not booked’ information. Similarly, you can copy and paste the bits from a previous flight you’ve booked with this company into the ‘travel information’ section and it will look like the real deal.
See if you can fool your family with them!
A thing for the real idiots out there: A ticket like this will not get you a seat on a plane! If you’re not in their system they won’t let you on – no matter how convincing your ticket looks. Yes, it sounds like something I shouldn’t need to say, yet people have actually asked that question.
So there you have it
Four different routes to creating the onwards ticket. Some of them safer, others cheaper. Some of them legal, others less so. All of them will provide you with a piece of paper that you can show to state that you’re getting out of the country without needing to commit yourself to a specific day that you will actually do so. Then you can just buy an onward ticket when you actually know what you’re going to do.
If I’ve missed any strategies you can use to create an onward ticket when you don’t actually have one, please let me know. I would love to make this list more expansive and useful. In the meantime, I hope this information helps!
And of course, good luck and safe travels.