proof of onward travel: requiring the traveller to show that they have fixed travel plans to leave the country which they are hoping to enter.
The thing about travelling long-term and without fixed plans is that it sometimes rubs up against rules and regulations which, though making sense for vast swathes of the population, are completely contrary to a long-term travel ethos.
For anyone heading to Central America with no fixed route or return date, this is going to be a big issue for you.
We first encountered the 'proof of onward travel' dilemma when entering Costa Rica. We had read in various places that border security may require proof that we were leaving the country in the next 90 days (the length of our tourist visa). Luckily, we actually had somewhere specific by a certain day to be for the first time on this trip (Emily's family were visiting us for Christmas in Panama), so we had booked bus tickets with Ticabus from the capital of San Jose to Panama City.
We printed these tickets off before arriving at the border, and everything went perfectly.
However, we both completely forgot that Panama also required proof of onward travel before allowing you to enter the country. We arrived in the border at about 11 p.m. at night and sleepily made our way to the desk. The squat man behind the glass took a look at our passports, asked a few details and then requested our flight tickets:
"We don't have one".
"Then you can't enter the country. Please return to Costa Rica".
I protested to him for about five minutes in my most passionate and pleading Spanish. He grew tired (probably from my massacring of his native tongue) and he moved me aside to his colleague. I explained that we were travelling for two years, we only took buses and that we had no flights booked because we didn't require them. She put her finger to her lips, gave me a knowing smile, and stamped our passports. "Just remember for next time."
We breathed a huge sigh of relief and thanked her; we got lucky.
We promised not to make the same mistake again (our complicated Christmas/New Year route with Emily's family meant a return to Costa Rica and Panama's borders in the next few weeks). But we needed a solution.
how to create proof of onward travel
With a bit of time and creative license, I was able to create a very convincing flight reservation/itinerary which we could use as proof of onward travel at every land border that required it in Latin America (mainly, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia).
Here are the steps which you can follow - expect for it to take one to two hours if you, like me, are a stickler for details and authenticity.
#1 find an old flight itinerary
Scrawl through your e-mails to find a PDF attachment of an old flight confirmation or itinerary. With some airlines, you access this via their 'manage your booking' site.
Save this to your desktop as a PDF file.
#2 open the file via an appropriate 'office' programme
We don't have Microsoft Office or other paid-for programmes. Instead, I use Libre Office which is a great source of software which gives you text documents, spreadsheets etc for free. Other programmes may work for this stage, but we can't comment on that with any actual experience.
Once you've downloaded it, open up Libre Office and go to File > Open > Select the Flight Itinerary PDF.
This should open up the flight itinerary in a fully editable text document.
#3 find the right 'onward flight' on-line
Go to a flight search site website, like Skyscanner or Google Flights, or direct to an airline's website and search for a relevant flight. For example, if you're entering Panama, it might make sense to search for a flight leaving from Panama City to Colombia, which would make sense to any border guard as the next stage on your route. Or you may want to find a flight leaving from the neighbouring country to Europe or the US within the timescales of your visa.
Once you've found an appropriate flight, with dates relevant to visa exit requirements, click through to the final stage before actually buying the ticket.
#4 copy flight details into your text document
On the website, you should now have a full itinerary with dates, prices, departure/arrival times, relevant terminals and flight number.
Copy this carefully into the relevant sections on your old boarding pass text document, paying particular attention to dates and times.
#5 tidy up the text document
Sometimes opening up an editable PDF can result in some odd formatting, such as extra spaces between words and lines of text. It's easy enough to fix these, but it will take some time and attention to detail. We'd highly advise spending some time on this portion of the exercise.
Use the original PDF boarding pass as a comparison; you want them to look as similar as possible.
#6 save document as a PDF
Save this document as a PDF with the appropriate title, such as 'Panama-Colombia Flight Itinerary'.
This format works best for printing out, but also for e-mailing it to yourself and showing it at the border official on your device. I'd advise always have a printed copy as a back-up however (maybe circle a few details on the document to make it more convincing).
It is also sensible to save an extra copy called 'Master Flight Itinerary' which you can return to in future and quickly add new flight details as and when your require them for future border crossings.
And there you have it; now you have proof of onward travel to show at the border. This method has been used by us in four countries now, and has worked each time. Keep on reading below for some alternative methods.
Obviously, the best solution would be to buy a flight or bus ticket to use as proof. However, as you know, this just isn't feasible for a number of us backpackers. If you do know your route and can plan ahead, but will not be taking a flight between countries, then an international bus ticket from Ticabus, which operates in most Central American countries, is likely to be the best solution. Note that these can't be bought on-line.
For the rest of us, we feel the method outlined above creates the most official looking documentation. Some people on-line recommend booking a flight and then cancelling it within 24 hours. That way, you get sent an official itinerary/confirmation, but don't actually have to pay for the flight.
We find this way too risky. The small print of the airline may differ from the website you're booking through and it would be awful to end having to pay full whack for a flight you never actually wanted! Similarly, booking bus tickets which you're never going to actually use is an unnecessary drain on your travel resources.
Another quick and easy alternative is www.returnflights.net. We've never used this, preferring our own method, but for those of you who aren't tech-savy or can't access a computer for a decent amount of time, it's probably a life-saver. You simply input actual flight details (as in stage 3&4 above) and an 'Expedia payment and flight confirmation' will be generated for you. Again, I don't find this document as convincing, but it would probably do the trick at a land border in Latin America.
And now for the very important caveats:
#1 This guide is not intended to help you break the law or stay illegally in a country beyond your visa. It is purely to help long-term travellers work around some of the bureaucracy at borders, enabling them to enter a country and to enjoy it as a tourist. Don't stay beyond your legal limit anywhere and respect the laws of wherever you travel.
#2 We have only used this system at land border crossings in Latin America. This is because they do not check flights on computers and are often pretty laid-back in terms of checking official documentation. We can't comment on its efficacy in other regions and offer no guarantee on its success for your own crossing.
#3 If you have booked a flight into a country which requires proof of onward travel, you may be asked to show this proof prior to boarding your flight to the country. In some cases, travellers have been denied access to their flight or had to buy a very expensive last-minute return ticket if they cannot show this proof. We would never ever use the method listed above at airport border security: they are much more likely to scrutinise and check up on details, Returnflights.net has more information on how to approach this if you insist on taking that risk.
#4 This method is not without risks. You are crossing into a foreign country without the required documentation (no matter how silly the rule is when such countries are hugely dependent on long-term backpackers) - if the document or flight confirmation is scrutinised, you run the risk of reprimand and being denied entry to the country. By using this method, you are choosing to take this risk and cannot hold anyone else, including us, responsible.