How to Navigate the Proof of Onward Travel as a Digital Nomad

How to Navigate the Proof of Onward Travel as a Digital Nomad

You’ve just packed up your life in the United States, Europe, or South America, moved your job completely online, and purchased your first one-way ticket to Bangkok. You’ve heard stories of amazing digital nomad communities in Chiang Mai, Bali, and Hoi An – and you hope you can visit all three on your six-month trip to Southeast Asia.

You know that you can only stay in Thailand for 30 days but a friend told you that you can extend it at a Thai immigration office if you pay a small fee. Perfect, you think. I can decide where to stay and plan the next leg of my journey when it feels right. And then, it happens. You finally land in Asia after your 10-hour flight, you wait in the long line at immigration in Bangkok, walk up to the immigration office, and BAM – she asks the unexpected question. Can I see proof of onward travel?

The Onward Travel Dilemma

Your heart starts pounding, your palms start sweating, and you frantically unzip every compartment of your backpack as the officer waits, but you already know the truth. You have no ticket out of Thailand. You decide to start your digital nomad journey with honesty and proclaim: “I have no onward ticket, but I plan to leave within 30 days.” 

The Thai immigration officer doesn’t change her expression. She simply looks at you and declares: “I’m sorry. I can’t let you in without proof of your leaving date. Please step aside over there.” Five minutes later, you find yourself in a room with 10 other confused travelers stuck in an immigration holding room, waiting for your turn to explain your case. And there is no WiFi without getting a code from some machine out in the arrival area. 

These were supposed to be your first moments of digital nomad Bangkok bliss and now it’s quickly become a Bangkok breakdown. You picture one of two ways out – a nearly unaffordable plane ticket straight back home or some time spent in a Bangkok jail cell. 

Time out. The longer you travel as a digital nomad, the more likely you are going to run into one of travel’s biggest headaches: proof of onward travel. If you are lucky, if you are asked for proof of onward travel at all, it will happen at the check-in counter and not at immigration. The trouble is—if you don’t need to check in any bags, you may not be questioned by anyone until the immigration counter at your final destination. Each country and each airline seem to be different when it comes it checking for proof of onward travel, which is why it can seem so out of the blue when it happens.

Strategies to Navigate the Proof of Onward Travel Requirement

Strategies to Navigate the Proof of Onward Travel Requirement

Fortunately, there are ways around this travel headache if you know your options for implementing Plan B. 

  1. If you are stopped at check in, your first option is to find a bench and get out your credit card. It’s time to “rent” an onward ticket on a website that gives you a booking number and flight details for a fee. It is a one-time payment and usually works every time to get you through immigration, as you will now actually show up on airport systems. Use a service like Onward Ticket for $16 and rent your ticket. Sorted. 
  2. If you can find a flight out of the country you are trying to enter using an American online, you can book a flight directly from the airline’s website (such as United Airlines, Delta, or American Airlines) and refund it completely within 24 hours. Please note here that you should also buy a flight that leaves at least 10 days later (to be safe).  
  3. Buy a flight on a low budget airline leaving from the country you are trying to enter to a country nearby. This is where some research in advance can come in handy. For example, knowing that AirAsia is the largest budget airline in southeast Asia and is based in Kuala Lumpur means that there are likely cheap flights out of Bangkok into Kuala Lumpur on AirAsia and you will probably pay $30 or less for a one-way flight. You obviously won’t need luggage on this imaginary flight, which will keep costs even lower. Just make sure to purchase this flight in the 30-day window of time that you would be allowed to stay in Thailand on arrival. For Europe, cheap low-cost flights can be purchased from Wizz Air, based in Budapest, Easy Jet, and Ryan Air based in Dublin. For the US, simply use the trick mentioned in #2.
  4. Don’t feel like booking a flight? You could also book a bus out of the country depending on the location.
  5. Final pro-tip: On a flight to Shanghai from Tokyo, I was once asked at the check-in counter to show proof of my accommodation in Shanghai. This happened once and only once in my travels, but I quickly jumped onto, booked a bed in a 10-bed hostel in Shanghai, made sure that it was fully refundable up until a certain date, and then immediately canceled it after arriving in Shanghai. I was staying with a friend from Japan in Shanghai, but getting in touch with her right then and there and trying to prove I was staying with her would be difficult so I found the hostel booking to be a more straightforward option. It worked like a charm.

Final Tips for Smooth Travels

It’s always tricky to deal with the unexpected during your travels, but being aware of issues that may come up will help you adapt better on the fly and become more resilient for the next time this happens to you. Above all, remain calm, think about your Plan B, and you can adjust your travels again once you are safely in the country. The proof of onward travel rule may make us feel forced to throw spontaneity out the window, but if we know our options when faced with questions at a check-in or immigration counter, we can move on to our next destination successfully with minimal cost and stress. Happy travels! 

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