A question we get asked a lot when people travel internationally is whether they need a return flight or a flight out of the country that they’re visiting.
There’s not really one answer to this question but in general it’s always better if you do have proof of a return flight or a flight to another country when you arrive.
The reason why the answer is complicated is because you are at the mercy of two or three different agencies when you fly to another country. It’s always better to carry a printout of a return or onward ticket if you have one. If you can’t print it, a soft copy is fine and if anyone insists that it should be printed, ask them to kindly print it for you :)
Do I need a return or onward ticket?
The first people you will interact with are the airlines that you are flying with. They will usually look up visa information based on your nationality in the TIMATIC database provided by the IATA. You can look up information in this database yourself. Just put in your nationality, residence, and the country you’re visiting.
When they look at the visa information in this database usually there is a line that goes like:
What this means is that it’s up to the person who is checking you in to decide whether they want to make sure you have a return/onward ticket or not.
Of course, this can now depend on several factors. What’s the mood of the person who is checking you in, do they have a good sex life, are they racist against your particular type of person, whether their dinner was tasty or not, and/or whether they’re just very strict about rules in general.
Usually at this point it’s good to have a return or onward ticket ready so that you can show it to them and be on your way. Of course, you should already meet all the visa/entry requirements for the country you are flying to. This article is just about dealing with the particular situation relevant to return/onward tickets.
In my experience, 9 times out of 10, it is at this step that I get asked for a return/onward ticket. Airline personnel apparently feel the need to check for this. The reason is that their system says so and secondly they do face heavy fines if you are denied entry at your destination so they are usually quite strict about this and any other documentary requirement.
There are some countries where exit immigration can also ask you for a return/onward ticket. India is one of those countries. In my experience though only Indian citizens are put through this hassle and I believe it is to discourage illegal immigration although I don’t see how it is effective. But be prepared to show Indian immigration your return or onward ticket and answer a few questions if the officer is in the mood for that.
The second barrier you will encounter are immigration officers at your destination. In all the border crossings we have done, I don’t think I have ever been asked to show a return ticket at immigration unless it was part of the visa on arrival documentation requirement. I believe this is because they levy such huge fines on the airlines that the immigration authorities can be pretty sure that you’ve been screened for most requirements before you arrive. They will usually ask how long I’m staying and a verbal answer is sufficient. Still, it would be good to have a return ticket in case I got asked for one.
I have heard that in some countries (Philippines?) immigration officers do ask for your flight out/return ticket and it is standard procedure over there.
So in general if you are flying to another country, have a return/onward ticket to show at the check-in counter and also at immigration.
How do I book a return/onward ticket?
If your travel plans are already pretty set, then you should probably already have your tickets since purchasing in advance guarantees good prices. But, if you are going with the flow and don’t yet have an exit date or destination in mind, this part is a little more tricky.
The general idea is that you can book an onward ticket online a few hours before your incoming flight and then basically cancel it once you arrive/cross immigration. This is because there is a 24 hour cancelation rule that many travel agents honour and you can use this to book return or onward tickets easily. I’ve written in great detail about how to book easy return tickets when traveling. The method I use is basically free. It blocks the amount for the ticket on your credit card but it gets freed up within a few days once you cancel your ticket on arrival, after you have entered your destination country.
Another idea is to book fully refundable tickets and then you can cancel them whenever you want and the money comes back to your credit card. But this blocks a pretty big amount on your card and it can take weeks to get a refund.
The third idea is to use services that help you do this. There are now several agencies that will book a ticket for you and handle the refund process etc and all you have to do is pay them around $10. They will take care of everything and send you a legitimate ticket that you can show at check-in or immigration.
In conclusion, it’s always better when flying internationally to have some way to prove that you are leaving the country. A bus/train ticket also works but these are usually very hard to book online. Flights just happen to be more convenient, even though they cost more. So save yourself some hassle and book a flight out so that you can sail through check-in and immigration with minimal issues. Happy travels!