On my Facebook Page, John asked:
Has anyone ever been asked to produce that ‘onward travel’ ticket that shows you will not be staying in the country you are entering?
The short answer: YES!
Proof of Onward Travel Requirements
Many countries’ immigration departments require you to provide proof that you’re leaving their country (in the form of an onward travel ticket) before they’ll let you in. This can be tricky, since sometimes we nomads just don’t know where we are going next (or when), and shelling out a heap of cash for an onward ticket without knowing where you’re going is impractical.
In some cases, you can’t even board the plane to your destination without one.
True Story: I was once not allowed to check-in for a flight from Australia to New Zealand because I didn’t have a valid flight out of NZ. I had to buy a full-fare ticket from NZ to Fiji on the spot (that was the cheapest one available) just to get on the plane.
And once I was in New Zealand, I wasn’t even allowed to cancel the onward ticket without providing proof of a different onward ticket!
In other cases, you can talk your way out of it.
For example, depending on the geography of the country, you can say you’re leaving overland by train/bus/ferry and you’re waiting to book your ticket locally. Whether or not you’ll be allowed in ultimately depends on the immigration agent in front of you and how lenient they choose to be.
Sometimes you can show them some proof of commitment to being somewhere else.
When I had to do some tricky visa paperwork in Thailand, they asked for an onward travel ticket. Because I was going to leave Thailand by train and had no tickets yet, I showed them my flight out of Singapore. That was enough to prove to them I had somewhere else to be and would leave Thailand.
Showing them confirmed accommodation reservations in another country might get you though as well…again depending on the leniency of the immigration agent and the country you’re trying to enter.
And Sometimes, they just don’t ask.
I’ve dazedly left more than a few immigration counters having been ready to show my onward travel ticket but never having been asked for it. Island nations are usually the strictest for requiring onward travel tickets, but again – you just never know when you’re going to need to show it.
Creative “Onward Tickets”
In places like the Caribbean, it’s common for people to fly to one island then hop on a boat from there – be it a sailboat, ferry, or yacht. If you know a boat-owner/captain in the general area where you’re headed, they can write a letter to immigration saying that you’ll be joining them on the boat and stating approximately when the boat will be leaving that country’s waters.
Note: I would never want you to lie to an immigration officer about your onward travel plans (lying is bad), but sometimes our best-laid plans change….maybe you intend to join a boat but end up leaving the country another way. They won’t hold you to your onward travel plans; they just want to see that you have some. Just saying. (CYA: check!)
Note 2018: Since writing this post, a few services have cropped up that allow you to “rent” onward travel tickets. This strategy has become my go-to. For more information, see: Financial Travel Tip #131: “Rentable” Onward Tickets.
If you must buy a ticket…
If you need to provide a ticket but really don’t know where you want to go next (or when), then you’re best off buying a fully-refundable ticket. This will cost you a pretty penny, but you’ll get (most of) your money back when you do decide where you’re going and no longer need the ticket. Make sure you choose a relatively inexpensive onward destination to begin with, and read the fine print about refunds carefully before you buy.
Even if you end up going to the same destination anyway, you can save money by exchanging your full-fare ticket for a cheaper non-refundable ticket.
Also, choose an airline with whom you have the greatest chances of leaving the country with; the fees for changing reservations (including a switch to a non-refundable ticket) are usually cheaper than the fees for getting a refund.
Where to find your destination’s requirements
Ultimately the entry requirements for your destination will depend on the country, and its relation to your citizenship.
The best place to start is your home country’s immigration site, which should allow you to search for your destination’s country information, advisories, and entry & exit requirements.
NOTE: If you read the accompanying travel advisories too carefully, you’ll never leave home. They are incredibly conservative with cautions and advisories, so if you are a remotely experienced traveler, take it all with a grain of salt.