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  Thailand Articles

01 Oct 2007 20:31:10 GMT

Visa Primer

First and extremely important:

Visa regulations are subject to change at any time and with little or no notice by the Thai Ministry of Immigration. Though these are usually minor changes, regulations are not applied evenly. You should check with a Thai consulate, or the Royal Thai Embassy in your country, or with the Thai Immigration Department, or with a good lawyer regarding any or all of the following.  The following is not to be construed as “legal advice”, but instead is our best understanding, as of this date, of the various rules and regulations on foreign entry into and/or residence in the Kingdom.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs website at www.mfa.go.th is the best place to start on the web for current information. Their Consulates sub-page has information on passports & visas, but we suggest you call your local consulate to verify the latest regulations before traveling there, because information sometimes changes without notice or is interpreted differently in different consulates. MFAs Diplomatic Missions Abroad sub-page has a list of embassies and consulates around the world, most of which have their own separate websites.

This section does not cover getting a visa for your Thai girlfriend to visit your country. That's a matter between you and your own government's embassy or consulate, not an issue with the Thai government (except for your girlfriend getting her Thai passport).

Suffice to say, if you think it’s difficult getting a visa into Thailand, just wait until a Thai friend tries to get a visa to visit the USA or EU!

TIPS: If you travel to an embassy/consulate to apply for a visa:

  1. It is strongly recommended that you call or email to double-check with that particular embassy or consulate to verify that the visa section will be open and able to process your visa application on time. Just checking national holidays is not enough!

  2. If you have a Thai marriage certificate or other important information, get certified translations into English before you go to the Thai consulate, because some of them will not accept documents in Thai (as many consular employees are not Thai and do not read that language).

  3. At most consulates, applications are accepted only in the morning.

Some of the Thai consulates are very helpful, providing a lot of information, very courteous on the phone. This is mainly the case with consulates outside Asia. The staff at most Consular visa sections in Asia (rightly) assume that many visa seekers from Asian countries intend to seek (illegal) employment when they reach Thailand, and thus don’t encourage applications even for tourist visas.

Nationals from most countries with Thai Consulates can enter Thailand for 30 days without a visa, via an “entry permit” stamped into your passport by an immigration officer at the airport. Nationals of most other countries, (most of which don't have a Thai consulate), can get a 15-day entry-permit stamp upon arrival. Nationals from Sweden and Korea can get a 90-day visa upon arrival. However, these are supposed to be used for tourists, not people intending to work and/or live in Thailand.

Countries near Thailand, from which many impoverished illegal workers come to Thailand seeking employment, include Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Malaysia, the Philippines, and India. Immigration officers have the power to deny a visa, including a visa on arrival at the airport (whereby you could be put on the next plane going back with available seating), and they will question arrivals from those countries very closely. If there's any doubt, get a visa before you come, and check the minimum amount of currency you must have on you (in one form or another) which varies by visa category.

If you plan to be in Thailand longer than a “visa on arrival” entry permit would authorize, you should take your passport to the Thai embassy or a Thai consulate nearest you in the country where you are currently residing, and apply for whichever visa is appropriate:

  • Tourist visa (90 days). No special paperwork is needed for visitors from western countries, or those from developed Asian countries like Taiwan, Korea, or Japan.

  • Non-immigrant visa (90 days, possibly renewable to 1 year) -- if you plan to do business here, or reside with a spouse, or retire. This requires documentation of your intent, including but not limited to a letter from your employer or your spouse's employer, or a marriage certificate with your Thai spouse.

    • Type B: If you are coming to Thailand for business, then you apply for a Nonimmigrant B (Business) Visa. This 90-day visa can possibly be extended for up to 1 year (and again for the next year) if you subsequently get a work permit and can show you've been paid the minimum monthly salary (50,000 baht for nationals of most Western countries).

    • Type O: If you have a registered legal marriage to a Thai (or to a foreigner who has a work permit in Thailand), then you apply for a Nonimmigrant O Visa. This 90-day visa can possibly be extended for up to 1 year (and again for the next year) if (a) you have documentation of sufficient salary, have paid taxes, and have a work permit, or (b) you can display sufficient funds in a Thai bank savings account (a minimum balance of 400,000 baht over the previous 3 months). You show Immigration your bank book, but immigration can also check its list of applicants using its contacts in the banks.

    • Type O-A: Retirement Visa (so-called) for those over 50 years old who keep a minimum balance of 800,000 baht in their Thai bank account over the previous 3 months and/or can prove they have a pension or regular income of at least 65,000 baht/month (including a required letter from their embassy about this pension), and wishing to retire in Thailand. If you are relying on the 800,000 baht then you must show it came into Thailand from a foreign country. Sometimes, a combination of the two (bank and pension) is allowed. A medical certificate is no longer required.

You start with a 90 day non-immigrant visa and extend to a year by submitting an application to the Immigration Department before your visa will expire. You will normally get a 30-day extension while the application is being considered and processed (assuming it is complete and you meet the requirements), and it may require multiple trips to the immigration department for additional 30-day extensions.

Important note -- if the one year application has not been approved before your visa expires, then you must make sure to go back to Immigration and ask the clerk to stamp your passport with another visa extension before your visa expires, which is extended one month at a time and may possibly require more than one trip. This situation has improved over time so that most people don't need additional 30-day stamps. In fact, many retirement visas have been processed on the same day.

  • A visa on arrival or transit visa is issued upon arrival in Thailand for those who arrive without a visa, and is similar to a tourist visa except that you get only 30 days, and it requires a ticket for continuing your travels onward out of Thailand. It can be extended for 7 days at the immigration department.

  • There is no longer any "investment visa" (as of October, 2006) although previously-issued investment visas have been granted “grandfather” status.

Normally, a visa is valid for one entry and one exit. If you plan to exit and re-enter Thailand within the period of your visa you may want to apply for a "re-entry permit" along with your visa, so that you don't have to go back to a Thai consulate for another visa (requiring two trips, one to drop off your passport and apply, another to return and pick it up). Instead, you go to an immigration department in Thailand and get the re-entry permit on the spot in one trip. This does not extend the expiration of your visa, but just lets you exit and return without needing a new visa.

You can also apply for a "multiple-entry" visa when you first apply for your visa in your home country, if you are applying for a non-immigrant visa. This saves you the trips to the immigration department in Thailand if you are entering and exiting Thailand often on business. However, business people with a 1-year non-immigrant B multiple entry visa still can't stay in Thailand longer than 90 days per visit unless they extend their visa based on a work permit. The multiple-entry visa is intended to save people the hassle of multiple embassy/consulate trips per year.

It is difficult to get multiple entry visas, as well as non-immigrant B visas, from Thai consulates in neighboring counties in Asia. It can be done - with all your paperwork in perfect status - but it is inspected much more closely. It is much easier to get these kinds of visas in your home country.

Again, the multiple entry visa means you don't need to visit either an embassy/consulate or the immigration department for a year, but you still must exit the country at least every 90 days. Many people in a multiple-entry visa, after 3 months in Thailand without leaving, do a "visa run" to just quickly step over the border and back to get another 90 days.

Many foreigners who originally came to Thailand on tourist visas but decided to live here started making these "visa runs" to the border every 30 days for a new visa-on-arrival. There are businesses that serve those making visa runs, whereby you book your place on a bus or minivan which takes a whole group to the immigration post at the border with Cambodia, Burma, or Malaysia.

Some foreigners used to stay in Thailand for many years by doing the monthly visa runs. However, the Thai government put an end to this starting in October, 2006. You will not be allowed to stay in Thailand more than 90 days out of a 6 month period. For example, if you've been in Thailand for 84 days and then come back in again, your visa on arrival will give you only 6 days in Thailand, and after that you cannot enter again until your 6 month period is over.

Malaysia grants visas upon arrival to passport holders of most countries, and Cambodia has immigration officials at the border who offer quick visas in a few minutes for a small fee. (Laos is a bit different, and that situation is somewhat less official and more fluid, so you may want to get your Laos visa at the Lao embassy in Bangkok, although it will require 2 trips.)

In October 2006, the Thai government changed the rules which impacted people doing "visa runs" based on the 30-day visa-on-arrival loophole. The new rule states that in any 180-day period, you can get only three 30-day visas on arrival. However, at the same time, they increased the tourist visa period to 90 days.

Some hopeful people have noted that a foreigner could stay permanently based on a 90 day tourist visa followed by 3 x 30-day visas-on-arrival, then another 90-day tourist visa followed by another 3 x 30's, and so on. The problem with this comes after 6 months when it is time to get another tourist visa. All indications are that no other Thai embassy in Asia will grant another tourist visa after seeing all these stamps, and the person must go back to their own country or another distant country to (maybe!) get a new tourist visa from the Thai embassy/consulate there.

It has always been more difficult to get visas from Thai embassies and consulates in nearby countries after one's passport shows a history of hanging out in Thailand as a tourist for a long time already (with a few exceptions, but those consulates have also gotten stricter recently), compared to getting visas in one's own country. For example, many consulates in Asia would deny an application for a tourist visa if the applicant had just left Thailand on a tourist visa and was clearly living in Thailand as a “tourist”. You could still enter Thailand, but only on a 30-day visa-on-arrival at the Bangkok international airport or the border.

The favorite overland route to a Thai consulate/embassy for 90-day visas has been to Penang, Malaysia, near the border with Thailand. (Going to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, is generally done only by air, and takes longer and costs more.) It has been noted that foreigners returning to Thailand from Penang by surface transport have been stopped at the border by immigration for in-depth inspection even though they have a visa, starting around the beginning of October, 2006. At the time the new rules were announced, it was stated that visitors to Penang were strongly encouraged to fly there because of an unsettled security situation in Southern Thailand.

The most common 30-day visa-on-arrival and multiple-entry visa run destinations by bus (because they are cheapest and quickest) have been as follows:

  • Cambodia: Aranyaprathet (Poi Pet), Pong Nam Ron, and Pailin

  • Burma: Mae Sot (nearest Chiang Mai) or Victoria Point (nearest Phuket)

  • Malaysia (only one point, Butterworth)

These are where the visa run companies bring busloads of people. It's usually about 10 to 12 hours round trip from Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket, and Chiang Mai. Alternatively, you can just go to the normal bus stations alone and get a ticket to any of those towns. At the destination bus station are usually groups of motorcycles and tuk-tuks whose eyes brighten at the sight of a foreigner and immediately offer to bring you to the border. And, of course, you can always fly anywhere on your own, as well. It’s easy to find agents in Penang, for instance, who will handle your application for a visa without you ever having had to step foot in a government office there.

If you stay beyond the expiration of your visa, then you will be fined when you depart. This is called "overstaying your visa". There is a daily fine for overstaying a visa, capped at a maximum amount.

It's well known that there are foreigners who deliberately overstay their visas, some by a long time, and instead of doing visa runs, just opt to pay the fine when they finally leave. Many have left this way without any hassle except filling out the paperwork and paying the fine at the airport.

However, if you are found in Thailand by the authorities with an expired visa, for example in the center of Bangkok, then you can and most likely will be put in the immigration detention center and held there until you have sufficient funds and a plane ticket out of Thailand. The immigration detention center is a crowded and very uncomfortable and unpleasant place, and you may be laying down among some serious criminals. Also, if you overstay a visa, you will normally be denied another visa until you've left Thailand for a minimum of 90 days.

You are not allowed to work in Thailand unless you get a work permit, i.e., you are not allowed to get a salaried or consulting or any kind of job employed by a person or company in Thailand or to engage in self-employment here. You can explore doing business, attend meetings, and many other things without a work permit on a clearly temporary basis as a clearly outside entity with a clearly limited purpose here, but you must know the limits of what you can do.

You also cannot enter into many kinds of service contracts or own registered property unless you have a work permit, even including those married to a Thai national unless they also meet certain other requirements (though many places sell you things or sign off on service contracts anyway, and the illegality of it is just overlooked as long as nobody objects).

For many years, Thailand was not a strict country regarding people entering the country, but that has started to change. The expressed intent of the Thai government is to discourage undesirable foreigners and their activities, especially those resorting to criminal means to support their lifestyle in Thailand. The tourist/retirees have been more-or-less caught up in that net, although the government has not relented in their cases, despite many complaints.

The year 2006 was a year of crackdowns, mostly in reaction to foreign mafias trying to establish themselves in Thailand, and the activities of individual criminals and gangs. First, in May, 2006, there was a crackdown on foreigners buying new property based on shell companies they control. In June and July, there were some high profile cases and inspections of government land department offices. Then, in August, 2006 there was a crackdown on formation of new shell companies by nominee shareholders (whether or not they were buying property). In October, 2006 there was a new fingerprint recording system at the new airport for all arriving foreigners. So, while many foreigners are of the opinion that the new rules were introduced by the military government after the September, 2006 coup, the crackdown was well underway under the previous government.

Thailand is not a police state with harsh punishments or penalties; it is, in fact, a fairly easygoing place to do business and live. This is why a lot of people do business here and live here. There are not officials going around demanding to see all your papers. In fact, Thailand is generally much more relaxed than most Western countries about aliens entering with little governmental oversight. However, if you engage in activities which offend others or flagrantly violate the law, then these laws can and often will be used against you.

Offending the Thai culture, insulting Thai people, criticizing the monarchy can get you in serious trouble. Don’t even bother arguing that it’s your right of “free speech”. There is a very real limit to the expression of speech that insults or offends.

But you needn’t have any problems if you behave like a polite guest. When in Thailand, be like the Thais, i.e., “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”, and you’ll be fine.

 


 
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