Digital nomadery and shenanigans...

The Digital Nomad's Guide to Onward Travel

Like many travelers, I didn’t realize that airlines can and will refuse to board passengers who might be denied entry to their destination.

The country you’re trying to enter also wants to ensure that you leave. Many countries do this by making sure you have confirmed (and paid) travel arrangements to exit the country. This is called proof of onward travel.

Proof of onward travel generally means “confirmed and paid travel arrangements with a final destination outside of this country.”

In some cases, you can add “and without the possibility of the traveler being returned to this country for some reason.”

If an airline delivers you to a country, and you’re denied entry because you don’t have proof of onward travel, that airline may be forced to return you to the flight’s origin, at their expense.

In some cases, you’ll already have valid travel arrangements that you intend to keep, and those will be accepted as proof of onward travel. However, as a digital nomad, I often don’t know which country I’m going to next, so I need a way to show proof of onward travel without actually committing myself to a destination.

This article explores the theory and methods behind showing proof of onward travel in a flexible, nomad-friendly way.

Fully-refundable tickets!

Those very same airlines who require proof of onward travel are also more than happy to sell it to you, in the form of fully-refundable tickets.

Read that again. Fully. Refundable. Tickets.

You can buy these tickets for any itinerary, get a confirmation and guaranteed seats, and then later get your purchase price refunded in full with no questions asked.

Always be heading home.

When I buy fully-redundable tickets to show proof of onward travel, I make sure that the destination is my home country. I think this is a very important point that is often overlooked.

Consider this scenario:

You’re a citizen of the Alphatina.

You arrive in Betastan, and present proof of onward travel to Gammaralia.

The Betastani border control officer denies you entry, because…

If you leave Betastan and are denied entry to Gammaralia (because you don’t have proof of onward travel from there), you could end up back in Betastan. Rather than take a chance, Betastan might simply deny you entry and avoid having to possibly deal with any shenanigans.

Here’s a better plan:

You’re a citizen of Alphatina.

You arrive in Betastan, and present your proof of onward travel back to Alphatina.

The Betastani border control officer welcomes you!

While in Betastan, you get a refund for your Alphatina ticket, and purchase a new one-way ticket to Gammaralia, and a new fully-refundable ticket from Gammaralia back to Alphatina.

You arrive in Gammaralia, and present your proof of onward travel back to Alphatina.

The Gammaralese border control officer welcomes you!

Rinse, repeat…

Having proof of onward travel to your home country means that you will never be denied entry, because you’ve always got a ticket home.

Downsides of fully-refundable tickets

  • They are very, very, expensive ($3,000+ for a fully-refundable one-way ticket from SE Asia to LAX).
  • You must proactively apply for the refund.
  • Refunds take time to process, and…
  • Depending on that timing, you may have to pay your credit card bill before the refund posts. Airlines won’t refund credit card interest charges.

I’ve had several very good experiences buying and refunding tickets on United. I’ve also used Delta, but have had two somewhat hairy refund experiences that had to be completed over the phone.

In one case, I even purchased fully-refundable tickets as proof of onward travel at the ticket counter, to avoid being denied boarding and missing my flight (see above FB status.)

Real tickets are real!

Despite the fact that you’re going to refund them later, the tickets you’re buying are real, and you’ll need a valid credit card and the correct passenger information to complete the purchase process. Last but not least, don’t forget to either print off the confirmation page and e-tickets, or save them as PDF files to your mobile device so you have them handy!

Exit cards?

Many countries require you to fill out an exit card (often a tear-off card attached to the landing card). Fill these out with your onward travel information, but don’t worry, because as long as you aren’t overstaying your visa, it only matters that you’re leaving.

But.. but…

This article tries to outline the most comprehensive way to deal with the challenge of onward travel. Everyone has their own experiences and anecdotes, and I’ve found that most countries and airlines actually don’t ask for proof of onward travel. However, when they do, it might be too late to sort it out! There are many other, less-expensive (but less reliable) ways to prove onward travel as well, so don’t be afraid to do your own destination-specific research!

If you have questions, feel free to post them in the comments section and I’ll do my best to help out!