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Airline Requirements To Hold Return Or Onward Tickets

22 Sep
airlines are tightening up their rules for non-resident visitors.

Airline Requirements To Hold Return Or Onward Tickets

An Extra One-Way Ticket To Nowhere

Last week, a friend traveling to Panama for a visit was forced by her airline, Delta, to buy a return or onward ticket when she presented herself to check in for her flight from Atlanta to Panama City. My friend was traveling to Panama on a one-way ticket. As she has legal residency in Panama, that shouldn’t have been a problem…but it was. The airline told her they didn’t care about her residency status. She’d have to buy a return or onward ticket, or they weren’t going to let her on the plane. She bought a ticket.

Airlines, especially those flying to Latin America, including Delta, United, American, Copa, and Taca (now Avianca), have been cracking down on the return or onward ticket rule. Others, though, are handling the whole thing better than Delta seems to be.

United, for example, for a period last year, wouldn’t let you check in online for a flight to Panama if you entered U.S. passport information and your ticket was for a flight terminating in Panama. When checking in at the kiosks, you had to get an agent to finish the check-in process for you. Now United’s system asks under these circumstances if you’re a legal resident of Panama. If you are, you can continue checking in for your flight.

What’s all the fuss? It’s liability management on the part of the airlines, which are responsible for repatriating any “illegal” immigrants they fly into a country should the country end up deciding to deport them. The rules have been around for years but generally ignored by airlines until recently. While living in Ireland and France over a combined 11-plus years, only once was I ever asked about my residency status. The agent asked for proof, but she didn’t actually know what she was looking for when I showed her the residency permit in my passport. I could tell she didn’t understand what I was showing her, but she didn’t seem to care much one way or the other and continued checking me in for my flight. Those days, I guess, are over.

I don’t know if impetus for the greater vigilance on this front is that Latin American countries have started pressuring airlines to check for return or onward tickets or if it’s that airlines have recognized the potential for a new profit center for them…forcing Americans to buy onward tickets when they are, in fact, returning home to their country of residence. Maybe that’s Delta’s game. Either way, you have a few options for dealing with ignorant agents at airport check-in counters.

A Brief Border Run Guide

Friends have been successful dummying-up a flight itinerary for an onward flight on a different airline. Save that old itinerary from your Copa flight from Panama to Medellin and change the dates.

While that has worked in the past for people I know and probably would work again, it’s not a long-term strategy.

You could show a bus ticket that has you crossing the border out of the country you’re flying into. This can work well in Central America, where you can book buses online for trips from Panama to Costa Rica, from Nicaragua to Costa Rica, from Belize to Mexico, etc.

If, as a last resort, you have to buy a return ticket, then buy one that is full-fare refundable. That way you can simply cancel the flight and get a refund once you land in your country of residency. This isn’t a first choice for most people as the cost of a one-way full-fare ticket is expensive, but as long as it’s refundable, the charge should appear on your credit card for only a few days.

For those of us with legal residency in our final destination, these rules are simply a nuisance. However, with the airlines paying more attention to residency and return and onward tickets, those living the border-run life are finding it tougher going.

Lief Simon


“Lief, it’s amazing and extremely sad that so many have the attitude of your critics who challenge the ethics of those who believe that the U.S. government should not be gifted with our earned money. How much do they pay in taxes? Perhaps they are worried that their sole source of income—a government check—will diminish.

Your response was insightful and on point. I have lived in Mexico for over five years and do not miss the U.S. government intruding daily into my life and abusing its power on so many levels. Do so few remember that the original European immigrants to the United States sought freedom from abusive government?”



“Lief, I want to share this quote with you from Judge Learned Hand, Helvering v. Gregory, 69 F.2d 809, 810-11 (2d Cir. 1934):

“‘Any one may so arrange his affairs that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which will best pay the Treasury; there is not even a patriotic duty to increase one’s taxes.'”



“Hey, Lief, the old saying still stands, ‘The brainwashed never wonder.’ This is a clear case of one of the sheeple, whose brain has been compromised by eating too many GMOs, listening and watching too much propaganda and failing to detox from the indoctrination, and conditioned perspectives we were all subjected to in public schools…

“Keep up the good work!”