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If I've got a flight booked to a country that requires an e-visa for entry (say Brazil, for example), and my visa hasn't been processed yet, but will most likely be processed within 24 hours of my flight's arrival, is it safe to board my flight, and then just wait in the transit area of the airport until my visa is approved? Or could I get in trouble for even arriving at the airport without a visa?

Would it be helpful to buy a cheap onward ticket for the next day, just in case I get asked any questions about why I'm waiting around in the airport?

Note: I'm making a few assumptions like 1) the airline doesn't check if I have a visa and I'm able to board the flight 2) the visa will be approved 3) I am flying with only carry-on bags 4) I already have an international SIM in my phone 5) if the visa isn't approved for any reason, I could just buy an onward flight to somewhere else.

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    Your first assumption is almost certainly incorrect. Airlines are typically fined a few thousand dollars for each passenger they bring to a country without proper documents, so you're almost certain to be denied boarding. – phoog Dec 4 '18 at 5:34
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    @phoog I've been in a situation recently where during check-in for a flight I was required to acknowledge that I had been informed that an e-visa was required, but definitely didn't have to prove that I actually had one (which was good, as I hadn't gotten it yet). It's possible that that's the airlines' way around any responsibility, I don't know - just a data point. I was allowed to board; your mileage may vary. (was in the US, don't recall carrier but likely United) – A C Dec 4 '18 at 6:33
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    @AC the destination country would also be significant. Certainly telling people that they need an e-visa would not be sufficient for systems like the US (and I think also Canada) where the airline sends the traveler's details to the destination country before issuing a boarding pass and receives a message instructing them that it is either okay or not okay to board the passenger. If the passenger doesn't have the right documents, the country will send a "do not board" message. – phoog Dec 4 '18 at 15:40
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    When I walk off a domestic flight, I'm in the boarding area, with restaurants, trinket shops, thousands of people waiting for flights, and all that. You may be assuming international flights work the same. Not necessarily! They often disembark to a special area with only bathrooms and an immigration desk. There's no boarding there, and no way to buy an onward ticket on the fly. You must exit through immigration. – Harper Dec 4 '18 at 19:29
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    @Harper But at international hubs outside of North America, there's often also a separate corridor you can take instead of going through immigration that will go through a security check and then to the international departures area without ever passing through immigration. Many countries allow international-to-international transit without having permission to actually enter the country (though the U.S. and Canada have no such international transit zones.) That said, your airline will still deny you boarding if you don't have permission to enter or an onward ticket. – reirab Dec 5 '18 at 23:43
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You won't get in trouble for arriving at the airport without a visa. Instead, the airline you're flying won't let you on the plane to depart in the first place. They can check the status of electronic visas at the time you check in. They do this because the airline is responsible for transporting you back out of the country if you are refused entry. If you don't have a valid visa, and you need one, you will be refused.

  • I'm flying from a country that doesn't need a visa to enter Brazil, so I have a feeling they might not be checking. But if they are checking, I think buying a refundable onward flight might work. – Jo Sprague Dec 4 '18 at 1:20
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    @JoSprague It doesn't matter what country you board the flight in. The fact that that country's citizens don't need an e-visa doesn't matter if people of your citizenship do require an e-visa. They will check for it as soon as they see your passport. – Michael Hampton Dec 4 '18 at 3:23
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    @JoSprague: Having worked on the system which determines which documents a passenger has to fill in to be allowed to check-in, the inputs are at least: airport of departure and arrival, date of departure and arrival, nationality of passenger. The airline may have configured it wrongly... but from experience they tend to be conservative and ask for more rather than less. In your case, this would mean that the general rule is "Passport + Visa", and then a specific rule overrides it for citizens of the specific country of departure. – Matthieu M. Dec 5 '18 at 15:40
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As Greg Hewgill notes, the airline will not allow you to board. The airline will generally use a database of visa requirements (e.g. Timatic) and will determine what documents you require based on the passport you present. So if you present a passport that requires a visa to enter Brazil, they will know you require a visa, regardless of what country you're flying from. This is generally built into the airline's IT system and is not simply something they may forget to do even if you're flying from a country where many people don't require visas.

Buying an additional refundable flight out of Brazil wouldn't work either, because Timatic will tell them that you can only transit without a visa if you have "a connecting flight booked on the same ticket in transit." As stated on a Brazilian government site, you need a transit visa if you have separate airline tickets to change planes in Brazil. The airline will enforce this rule and deny boarding as well.

In addition, not all countries and airports allow you to remain in the transit area overnight, so even if you make it there, you could have a problem if you stick around for long enough.

  • Your answer could be improved by quoting the relevant part of Timatic. – JonathanReez Dec 4 '18 at 6:53
  • @JonathanReez I'm not sure I follow what you're asking for. OP didn't say a nationality or departure airport, so looking up the exact situation in Timatic wouldn't be possible. Also, my understanding of Timatic is that it requires a membership to access, though I seem to remember SkyTeam having a free front-end available to it at one point. – reirab Dec 5 '18 at 23:49
  • @reirab when saying "because Timatic will tell them that you can only transit without a visa", its better to quote the actual text – JonathanReez Dec 5 '18 at 23:55
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    @JonathanReez True, but I'm not sure that that's possible without knowing (at least) OP's nationality and origin city. I did find that SkyTeam Timatic front-end if OP wants to provide that info and someone wants to check it, though. – reirab Dec 6 '18 at 0:07
  • @reirab you can use any random nationality which requires a visa for Brazil – JonathanReez Dec 6 '18 at 0:07
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Here are some more things you should be aware of:

1) the airline doesn't check if I have a visa and I'm able to board the flight

Greg and Zach both mentioned correctly that airlines do check your eligibility to be landed at the destination; as they are fined and are responsible for repatriation if you are inadmissible.

2) the visa will be approved

This a dangerous assumption to make, and as per #1, a moot point.

3) I am flying with only carry-on bags

This really doesn't have an impact on your waiting in the transit area. At some airports, you can freely move between the transit and the landing areas. In others, transit areas are limited, restricted, or may be closed entirely.

4) I already have an international SIM in my phone

Not really relevant to your original question, not sure why this is even a concern.

5) if the visa isn't approved for any reason, I could just buy an onward flight to somewhere else.

You are assuming that you will find a sales desk in the transit area for the airline you want to take. This is risky. In my experience, transfer desks in transit zones don't sell new tickets (they can only assist with existing reservations and upgrades / downgrades). I have had many people whose flights were cancelled try to buy tickets on another airline but the agents were unable.

If an onward ticket is required for your visa, this will also be checked by the airline before you are boarded.

Gone are the days that you could buy a ticket from the gate agent - these days you need a ticket just to get past security.

Would it be helpful to buy a cheap onward ticket for the next day, just in case I get asked any questions about why I'm waiting around in the airport?

At some airports you may be questioned if you look like you don't belong - as to what you are doing in the transit area. A ticket may not help you, since you would need a boarding pass to really justify your presence in the secure area.

In some airports, there is a limit on how long you can stay in the transit area (before you must be landed or depart).

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    The international SIM is relevant because the OP wants to be able to check if the visa has been approved from the transit area. They could also use the phone to buy a new ticket/do online checkin for a new boarding pass. That said, the issue with the airline not letting them board is the main point. – ajd Dec 4 '18 at 7:15
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    Points 3 and 4 are connected because nowadays you can buy a ticket online. Who even uses a sales desk any more? – Konrad Rudolph Dec 4 '18 at 9:54
  • Yes, any old phablet can be used to purchase onward tickets, but there may be a waiting period for a name check. The days of paper tickets being like bearere bonds are gone. – mckenzm Dec 5 '18 at 0:01
  • Airlines frequently allow boarding without the visa, especially if you have multiple passports. You get paged on a layover for your rights to continue. This happens to me when I buy a long stay return ticket and and a (much cheaper) return flight home inside the dates of the first booking. It's even possible to buy a visa online for some countries. This happens to naturalised Aussies that leave their Passports at home (!). The Airline may have previously established their Nationality. – mckenzm Dec 5 '18 at 0:10
  • I assume OP has listed point 4 for the same reason as ajd. However, many international airports offer free wifi nowadays, so the usable SIM may be not required – for a different reason. – Jan Dec 5 '18 at 7:37
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Judging from my personal experience (primarily with JFK and MIA), your tickets will be checked by the airport staff/security regardless of whether you're going to clear the customs or proceed to the transit area. If there are no transit passengers on board, there may not even be an option to get there as the corresponding door would be locked.

While this is impossible to say whether or not you would be "lucky" with the visa check upon departure and the ticket check upon arrival, generally such a strategy sounds like a risky undertaking.

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    The US is unusual in requiring all transit passengers to go through passport control. – Patricia Shanahan Dec 4 '18 at 3:04
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    The US, Canada and Schengen (for external flights). – Burhan Khalid Dec 4 '18 at 5:34
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    @BurhanKhalid most Schengen airports do not require external-to-external transit passengers to clear immigration controls. – phoog Dec 4 '18 at 5:36

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