Breaking: Thailand Actually Enforcing Onward Ticket Requirement! Forty Below In Hades!
Hell is freezing over.
Pigs are flying.
Thailand is enforcing the onward ticket requirement.
The End Days must be nigh.
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Thai law contains an "onward ticket requirement," a rule which states that travelers entering Thailand without a pre-issued visa must have in their possession an airline or other ticket which they will use to leave the country within 30 days. Without the onward ticket (sometimes called a return ticket), travelers can be denied entry into Thailand.
Thailand has not enforced the onward ticket requirement in years. For as long as I have been traveling, citizens of the United States and many other industrialized nations could walk unquestioned through any immigration checkpoint, at land crossings or airports. (The Thai government does not enforce all laws on the books; each administration determines which laws will be enforced.)
Due to its non-enforcement, the onward ticket requirement became a running joke. People who posted nervous questions about the rule to travel bulletin boards outed themselves as first-timers. One night, some expats and I in Chiang Mai tried to guess how suspicious someone would have to look to be denied entry into Thailand. We came up with a bug-eyed 19-year-old guy with the surname Bin Laden flying in from Islamabad on Pakistan International Airlines with a pristine Egyptian passport and without any hand luggage other than a Koran. That guy might get stopped by Thai Immigration. (Yes, I know that Egyptian nationals do not qualify for the Kingdom's Tourist Visa Exemption program. It was a joke.)
Joke's on us now. Thailand has started to enforce the onward ticket requirement.
Since at least early April, immigration inspectors have begun to request and review onward tickets before issuing an entry stamp. No public announcement was made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as far as I have been able to discern. This being Thailand, the change in policy was not implemented uniformly. Rather, according to anecdotal reports, enforcement began at the land crossings regularly used for "visa runs" by long-term expats who, lacking formal residency permits, leave the country every 30 days in order to receive a new 30-day tourist entrance stamp when they come back in.
Long-term travelers dislike onward ticket requirements, because the rules hamper spontaneity and often force people to buy tickets which they don't use when plans change. Actually, "dislike" understates the matter; long-term travelers hate, despise and abhor onward ticket requirements, and that's on a good day.
There are two principal ways around the requirement. The most obvious is to apply for a formal visa at the embassy or consulate of the country you plan to visit. Sometimes the visa application requires the submission of an onward ticket, but often it does not. Once the formal visa is glued into your passport, the need to present an onward ticket at Immigration should be obviated.
A second, and increasingly common method, of satisfying the onward ticket requirement is to purchase the cheapest possible one-way international ticket for presentation to Immigration. Some air fares on the Asian low cost carriers are so inexpensive that people buy the ticket and throw it out after passing through Passport Control. For example, some travelers comply with Indonesia's (unenforced) onward ticket requirement by purchasing a Lion Air Ticket from Medan, Indonesia, to Padang, Malaysia, which can cost less than $40.
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I learned about Thailand's new policy while standing in the Immigration line at Bangkok airport Sunday night. I had just rebuffed a Kazakh woman from cutting in front of me when I noticed that every Immigration kiosk had a piece of pink paper taped to the wall above the officers' heads which required each traveler to produce a passport, a completed Arrival Card, a boarding pass and "an onward/return ticket."
"What madness is this?" I thought. If you had asked me to list the bureaucratic snafus which could have slowed my way through Thai immigration, lack of an onward ticket would not have made the top five. Since I didn't have a return ticket, the Immigration officer could in theory order me to take the next plane out of the country.
The officer, about 28, looked at my travel documents. "Onward ticket please," he said. I explained that I did not have one, because Immigration had never asked for one on the many previous occasions that I had entered the country. I explained that my visits to Thailand were usually short and that, the one time I stayed for several months, I obtained a proper visa, which was duly extended by the Royal Thai Police.
The officer said something in Thai to a more senior female officer sitting at one of the other kiosks. She asked a question. "America," the officer said, holding up my blue passport for her to see. "OK," she said.
The officer stamped my passport and gave me the customary 30 days. "Thank God for Thailand," I thought, not for the first time. The practical, accommodating Thais waived a legal requirement in an appropriate situation. In China, I'd have been shown the door.
"Next time, you need return ticket," the officer said.
"Thank you," I said. Now I know.