The worst thing about living in Thailand is definitely the immigration laws and visa policies. They’re complex and constantly being changed, and it’s hard to know which rules are obsolete, and which ones are actually being enforced. Some are technically legal, but they’re seen more as guidelines, and enforced at an immigration officer’s discretion. To be on the safe side, it’s always smart to comply with each and every policy, but sometimes that can mean completely changing your travel plans, or incurring unnecessary costs. One of the most frustrating rules is “proof of onward travel”, so for anyone confused about what this is and if they need to abide by it, I’ll share my own experiences.
What is “Proof of Onward Travel”?
Under Thai law, visitors are required to show proof of onward travel out of the kingdom. This means that when you enter Thailand, you have to have proof that you’ll be leaving the country at the end of your visa (whether you’re traveling on a 30 day exemption, a 60 day tourist visa, etc.). “Proof” can mean any ticket or confirmed itinerary by plane, bus, boat, train, etc. that takes you outside of Thailand’s borders. The government welcomes tourists who come for vacation and sightseeing, but they want to make sure that those tourists are not over-staying their visas and putting a strain on their system and resources. Basically, they want to make sure that visitors have the means to get back home, so they don’t become a burden. There is no support system here for foreigners who lose their money or find themselves destitute, and they don’t want you on the streets.
This policy means that before you board your flight to Thailand, you may be asked to show a ticket leaving the country. It doesn’t matter to where, so long as it’s across the Thai border. For people who regularly travel in and out of Thailand using tourist visas or visa exemptions, this still applies, no matter how many times you’ve re-entered. Each time you enter the country, you could technically be asked to show proof of exit, and your onward travel has to occur before your current visa expires. If you are planning to extend your visa by applying for a 30-day extension at a Thai immigration office once you’re in Thailand, then you can add 30 days on to your onward travel dates and explain this to whoever has asked to see your proof. They should accept it, so long as you explain that you will seek a legal extension, and that you won’t be overstaying your visa.
Flying into Thailand
If you are asked to provide proof of onward travel, it’ll probably be by your airline representatives, either when you’re checking in, or at the gate ready to board your flight to Thailand. You see, the airline doesn’t want to be responsible for you if you are stopped by Thai immigration or if you overstay your visa. If they ask you for a ticket out of Thailand and you aren’t able to provide one, there’s a very good chance you’ll be denied entry on your flight. I’ve read all kinds of stories from other travellers who didn’t bother to book onward travel and were then scrambling at the last second to book a cheap Air Asia flight to Laos on slow WiFi with only minutes before their plane took off. Some made it, some didn’t.
If you are stopped by immigration at any point, though most likely in customs, you can be asked to show your proof of onward travel, but it’s unlikely. Unless you have major red flags and are under suspicion, you shouldn’t expect to be asked.
Appling for a Thai visa
Proof of onward travel is also technically a requirement when applying for a Thai visa. You’ll be applying outside of Thailand, at a Thai foreign embassy, and the immigration officer processing your visa is well within their legal right to ask you for proof. This is where it gets tricky, because though Thai law lists onward travel as a mandatory requirement for visa application, some foreign embassies don’t ask for it. Penang and Vientiane are popular visa run destinations for this very reason – they are relaxed about application requirements. Other embassies – in Kuala Lumpur and Ho Chi Minh City, for example, are more strict about adhering to Thai immigration laws. If you don’t want to buy onward travel, then I suggest applying for a Thai visa at an embassy where you can get away with not having it.
My experience and advice
We arrived in Thailand on a one-way ticket, but we also had a flight out of Thailand at the end of out 30 day visa exemption. I found a cheap flight to Siem Reap, and we wanted to see Angkor Wat, so we not only had the second step of our travel itinerary, but we also had a 100% guaranteed no-hassle experience ahead of us if anyone did ask us for proof of a ticket out of Thailand. No one did. When we were flying back to Thailand from Vietnam, we also decided to book the onward flight and chose Kuala Lumpur because it was a cheap option. I was paranoid, so I took the precaution, but nobody asked us for our travel plans. I regretted booking the flight to KL, because we were stuck with it even though our plans had changed. We ended up going for 2 days so as not to waste the money, but it wasn’t an ideal situation.
We’ve flown in and out of Thailand on several visa runs now, and no one has ever asked us to show proof of onward travel. Initially I was all about doing things by the book, and I booked flights out just to be safe, but I’ve stopped doing that, because it’s a major pain in the ass. If you don’t want to be tied down to travel plans a month or two down the road, then my suggestion is this. Don’t book a flight out of Thailand unless you want to or need to.
Instead, if you’re flying to Thailand (or in and out for a visa run), simply show up at the airport at least an hour or two early, and check in right away. If the check-in staff at the airline counter don’t ask for your onward travel plans, you’ve made it past round 1. If they do, then you can easily use your phone or laptop to purchase a cheap flight or train ticket on the spot. Get to the boarding gate on time, and try to be one of the first to board. Here’s where you’ll most likely be asked for proof of travel, so if you’re asked by the flight crew and you have nothing to show them, you’ll have several minutes to step aside and find a ticket online while the plane boards. Trust me, you do not want to be doing this at the very last minute, while the gate is just seconds from closing – airport Wifi is not the most reliable! It should suffice to show the airline staff a screenshot of your confirmation page or itinerary, so just show them your computer or phone screen.
There are websites out there that will book fake tickets under your name for a small fee, but I personally wouldn’t go this route. Some friends I met said they paid $20-$30 for this service, and they received a fake confirmation of payment page for an airline (they also said they never had to use this, as they weren’t asked for proof of onward travel). I figure that if you’re going to pay for this service, you may as well just pay for a real flight, which you can then use if you choose to. Cheap AirAsia and Nok flights (the local Thai airline) can cost as low as $30, so I recommend waiting to see if you’re asked, and then buying a cheap flight on the spot. You can try to change the dates on your onward travel, so that you have more flexibility in your travel plans, or you can simply forfeit the ticket if it doesn’t match your desired itinerary. Just chalk up the loss to the costs of traveling in Thailand!
Still have questions?
A great resource for all inquiries related to visas and immigration rules is www.thaivisa.com, an expat-run site that features forums dedicated to immigration issues and the latest changes in policy. These friendly folks have been in Thailand for years and they know their stuff – don’t be afraid to venture into the forums to ask any specific questions you may have.