You’re heading off on the backpacking adventure of a lifetime. You can’t wait to be unshackled from the routine of daily life, your 9 to 5, responsibilities, deadlines and time restrictions. You want to be free, spontaneous, go where the wind takes you… You have a vague idea which countries that you would like to visit, but you don’t want to be tied down to one country and set time limits or itineraries!
However, when booking your flight you discover an annoying little detail that you must have proof of onward travel before you are allowed to board the plane to your chosen destination. What? ‘…but I want to go where the wind takes me!’
So, is it true? Do you really need an onward flight ticket when flying into an international airport in Southeast Asia or South America? Will a bus or a train ticket suffice as proof? And will you be asked for proof of onward travel when crossing land borders throughout your travels?
These are questions that we get asked on a weekly basis here! And while the answer is not simple, I’d like to say – don’t panic! As there are many ways around this annoying red tape. I’m going to remain lighthearted throughout this article to prove to you that you shouldn’t stress!
So – let’s look at the first question in detail:
Do you need an onward flight ticket when flying into Southeast Asia or South America?
The answer to this question is yes.
You are legally required to have an onward flight out of the country in which you plan to travel which leaves on the date, or a date before your visa expires. (So for example when flying into Thailand most nationalities get a free 30-day visa, and so you would need to have a flight out of the country before that visa runs out.) You can check visa information for all the countries in Southeast Asia here and the visa requirements for South American countries here.
However, the answer is not black and white. Put simply, it all depends who you get on the counter at the airport that day, if they’re in a good mood, and if they decide to ask you to show them your onward flight ticket or not!
I have flown into Southeast Asia many times and have experienced having to show an onward flight. Other times, it hasn’t even been mentioned.
Personally, as a general rule, having an onward ticket seems to be more important for international flights, rather than domestic flights. When flying from Europe to Southeast Asia, 90% of the time I have been asked to show an onward flight ticket. Whereas when flying within Southeast Asia, I have been asked to show an onward ticket around 30% of the time.
For example, recently, flying from the UK to Thailand I was asked to show proof that I would fly onward. And then flying from India to Thailand recently, I was not asked. It can depend on which country you are flying to as well.
‘[In the Philippines] I think they’re actually really strict. When I was checking in for my flight in January, countless people in the queue before me were denied check-in until they could purchase a ticket to show they had onward travel. Everyone in the queue was asked.’ – Tamara.
The same is true of South America. Legally you can be asked to provide proof of onward travel when entering any of the countries on the continent although travellers argue as to how much this in enforced. When visiting the Galapagos Islands, you will nearly always be asked to show a return flight.
The truth is – that if you don’t have an onward ticket, you run the risk of not being allowed to board the plane.
Being a frequent flyer and a digital nomad who doesn’t like to plan how long I want to stay in a country before I fly there, I have tried to wing it in the past and have put myself under unnecessary stress as I’ve been forced to buy a flight ticket under time pressure at the airport, in order to be allowed to check in. No amount of ‘but… but… please I’m a free-spirited soul, I’m a broke backpacker… show mercy!’ was going to work.
Is a train or bus ticket enough to prove your onward journey?
I have personally never tried this, although a couple of people in our community have reported success.
Again, I think it would be down to the opinion of the airline staff at the time of check-in. (Some airlines may be stricter than others.) They might judge you on whether or not you look trustworthy enough to have a legitimate (not faked) train or bus ticket. But it might just depend on if their girlfriend/boyfriend dumped them that day and whether or not they had a good night’s sleep. What I’m trying to say is… I wouldn’t risk it if I were you. Legally, proof of onward travel means a flight ticket.
So what are your options?
Don’t worry! There are a few easy solutions to this dilemma. You can:
1. Wing it (no pun intended)
Hop into the airport with your backpack and without a care in the world and hope you don’t get asked. You could turn up a few hours earlier with some data on your phone so that if you do get asked to show proof of onward travel, you can book a cheap plane ticket on your phone. Downsides to this are that if your airline requires you to print your boarding pass, you will have to find somewhere to print it out at the airport. I’ve paid a ridiculous amount of money at an airport in Europe before to have access to a computer and a printer, so wouldn’t do this again.
2. Buy the cheapest onward flight ticket you can find beforehand
This is what we always do. We look on Skyscanner and find the cheapest flight out of the country within the date our visa expires. For Thailand, you will usually find a cheap flight with Air Asia for around $30 USD or less. If you book far enough in advance, you can get seats for about $20 USD to Myanmar, Cambodia or Malaysia.
In South America, flights are significantly more expensive than in Southeast Asia so even the cheapest ticket can still steal a big chunk of your budget. Of course, even if you buy a ticket, nothing says you have to actually use it. (Yes, which makes this whole rule so stupid in the first place! (WARNING RANT COMING) I mean, just because you have an onward ticket it doesn’t mean that you will actually leave the country! Perhaps it’s all just a conspiracy theory concocted by the airlines to sell more plane tickets anyway!)
Verdict: Safest, recommended option.
3. Use an onward flight website
There are many websites where you can ‘rent’ an onward flight ticket, which has a 48-hour window to cancel, just enough time to show your onward proof of travel at the airport and be on your merry way! They will charge you around $7-12 USD for the service and have varying degrees of reliability according to reviews. Some ones that get decent feedback are:
‘Used best onward ticket several times, worked fine.’ – Steven.
However, please check testimonials and do your homework to check that these are legitimate, as companies like this go under all the time, and it’s only a matter of time before airlines get savvy to this travel hack!
Verdict: Paying a bit more dollar will get you an actual ticket and have peace of mind.
4. Book a real plane ticket that you can cancel
Book a real flight just before you head off to the airport on Expedia.com. Make sure it’s one of the flights eligible for 24 hour cancellation. It should state it in red before you confirm and pay. Expedia offer a full refund if you cancel the flight within 24 hours, which allows you enough time to purchase the plane ticket, print it out, show it to the airline staff and then once you’ve cleared immigration, cancel it.
Verdict: Has worked for travellers many times!
5. Fake it
Are you good with photoshop? Make yourself a ticket! Only kidding, we don’t recommend it.
Verdict: Too risky! (Even for us!)
Will you get asked at land borders for proof of onward travel?
If you are travelling around by land, the vast majority of people would recommend that you don’t buy any onward travel tickets. Many backpackers travel in a flexible style and both South America and Southeast Asia is wise to this form of travel. Authorities know that people want to be flexible and be able to get the bus out of the country when they like. After all, isn’t that what backpacking is all about in the first place?
In my personal opinion, I wouldn’t worry about onward travel tickets at land borders. The first time I travelled in Southeast Asia at 23 years old, I didn’t buy any onward tickets, I just went with the flow! So if that’s what you want to do, that’s what I suggest. (It would be different if you were flying into each country, as it is the airlines that are more likely to ask you, although you still might get away with it as I’ve mentioned above.)
Personally, I have never been asked at land border crossings to show proof of onward travel.
Recently, when crossing the border from Mae Sot in Thailand to Myanmar (Burma), we were told on the embassy website that we needed an onward flight out of the country and we were not asked at all by the rather jovial guards. I was also never asked to show this during my long term travels around South America at land borders.
Do I need to have accommodation booked in advance to get visas?
Another question we are frequently asked that is related, is – do you have to book accommodation in advance when applying for a visa?
We were recently in Kuala Lumpur applying for a 60-day Thailand Tourist Visa and read online that in order to get the visa we needed proof of accommodation for the ENTIRE 60 days and an onward flight out of Thailand in a further 60 days.
We had neither and did not want to book anything as we want to be flexible (like all backpackers do) so we just decided to go along to the embassy without any evidence of booking and tell the truth about our travel plans.
We were not asked for onward travel, but we did book a cheap hostel on booking.com for our first few nights in Thailand. We booked a friends’ hostel and then cancelled it as soon as we had printed out the booking receipt. It cost us nothing to reserve on booking.com and the embassy accepted it.
Depending on the immigration requirements of the country you are crossing into, you may be required to put the address of the first place where you will be staying on the official paperwork. This is certainly the case when moving from country to country via land in South America. When I crossed the border from Puno to Copacabana, I had to state where I would be staying on arrival. I was never asked for any proof though, just an address. Even if you don’t want to book your accommodation in advance, it is worth having a hostel in mind, just in case.
If you are travelling overland, my advice would be to leave the country a day or two before your visa expires in that country to allow for any issues that you may have, but don’t book anything in advance.
As every immigration point will be different, just go along and see what they require of you. Then, you can book what is necessary, accommodation, a flight or a cheap onward train/bus ticket, as and, only IF it is necessary.
Disclaimer: This advice comes with a disclaimer. This is only my personal experience and I can’t vouch for what will happen at all of the land border crossings… Things change rapidly and any crossing could become more strict and enforce old or new rules whenever they like. I would recommend that you ask people when you’re over here about their recent border experiences …that should help to give you an idea!
For more information on visas, check out our guide here.
And of course, if you are booking flights, please help us by searching and booking through the widgets on our page here as we’ll get a few dollars commission on the price of your flight. (Don’t worry, you don’t have to pay any extra!) You can also buy a flight through these companies which we’ve found offer the cheapest deals on flights in Southeast Asia and South America: Skyscanner and Momondo (both affiliate links).