How We Almost Didn’t Get To America

Alternative title – beware if you’re travelling to Mexico or Central America after the United States on an ESTA.

After almost a year of travelling we have of course had plenty of ups and downs, but usually the problems aren’t our fault. I am especially cautious when booking anything, I read, re-read and read again before I press the button. I’m probably over cautious.

We’d prepared for our US trip months before, applying for our ESTA’s well ahead of time, and made sure we were approved before we booked out flight from Japan to LA. We also made sure to book our flight out of the US, as we know how important onward flights are these days, especially with visa waivers which come with plenty of conditions.

So when the check in lady at Narita airport asked for our proof of onward travel, I didn’t for a second expect any problems. I showed her our flight confirmation and prepared to receive our boarding passes when we heard:

“I’m sorry, but your final destination cannot be Mexico, do you have a further onward ticket?”

Huh? We’d booked a flight out, why couldn’t it be Mexico? Well as we soon found out, as the lady found the relevant passage in the rulebook, it was one of the conditions of being let into the US on an ESTA – our travel had to end outside of Canada, Mexico or any country bordering the Caribbean sea – and we needed proof.

Of which we had none, as we were planning to travel from Mexico to Panama overland.

Usually, this would be easy – hop online and book a cheap ticket to anywhere, even if we weren’t going to use it. However as most of Central America was ruled out due to the Caribbean sea restriction, and South America has notoriously expensive flights, we were a bit stuck.

Worst of all, we only had 45 minutes until check in closed, and in a panicked state with no real idea of what routes were available, it was stressful to say the least.

Every flight I found was hundreds of pounds, which we just couldn’t afford to pay for a throwaway ticket. Even if we booked one that we could use, it would destroy all flexibility in our travel plans as the flight would have to be within 90 days of our entry date to the US.

The Singapore Airlines staff suggested booking a ‘cheap’ ticket from New York to London, and then found us a refundable flight back to Tokyo – minus a $150 fee per ticket.

Just when I was resigned to losing $300, I found Expedia’s refundable flights search. A random search brought up a flight from Mexico City to Ecuador – it was an excruciating £400 per person but it was apparently fully refundable. We double checked the ticket would clear us to fly, and then booked it.

Just to round it all off, my credit card got blocked so I had to book the whole thing on my debit card, which is generally a no-no for big purchases. But at least it was done. We checked in about 5 minutes before it closed.

It’s easy to downplay it now but we were very lucky – had we got to the airport later, or been faced with a big queue for check in, we almost certainly would have been screwed and not been allowed on the plane at all.

Now it has to be said, this was all completely our own fault. While the list of restrictions and rules is long, we should have read them thoroughly. But in our defence, most people (including us in the past) from the UK who obtain an ESTA, fly to the US and then fly home again, so no-one knew of the rule to warn us.

And as for that refundable ticket? I was almost sure there would be some fees involved with cancelling, but I called Expedia when we got to the US and we were refunded everything except a £10 service charge. It even came through within 3 days, when 2 months wait is not unheard of with AeroMexico if complaints online are anything to go by.

I just hope that by posting this, someone else will be saved the hassle we endured. Coming from Asia to the US, then onto Mexico cannot be that unusual a route for backpackers, so we hope this tale can help someone else avoid our mistake.

What still puzzles me though, is the reason for the rule. Obviously it is related to border control, but in my head it seems it would be far easier and less risky to just stay in the US if you were planning to stay illegally, than cross the border to Mexico or Canada then cross back illegally. But what do I know?

The main photo in this post uses the image 9V-SKD by lkarasawa licensed under CC BY 2.0


  1. Rene September 22, 2016
  2. James February 11, 2020
    • Greg February 12, 2020
  3. James February 12, 2020
    • Greg February 12, 2020
      • James February 13, 2020
        • Greg February 17, 2020
          • James February 18, 2020

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