Living and Working in Bangkok Employment, Visas & Work Permits

Perhaps the most popular job for foreigners in Thailand is English teaching but there are many other types of job available. The great thing about English teaching is that virtually any foreigner can do this – although how well they do it is another story altogether… The bad thing about English teaching is that comparatively, it doesn't pay that well, averaging at about 30,000 baht per month – and far less for positions outside of Bangkok.

In contrast, there are many professionals in Thailand working for big multinationals. This really is the way to go as, depending on your qualifications, experience, luck etc., you could potentially earn 500,000+ baht a month – an absolute fortune in Thailand that would allow you to lead the most hedonistic lifestyle you could ever desire – and truly not want for anything more! (Actually, you'd be doing extremely well to spend even half of this in a month.) Such positions are usually advertised and recruited for outside of Thailand. The more popular industries include finance and engineering. There are some lucrative computer jobs also but you really need to be a specialist or have a bit of luck to secure such a position. One must consider that there are many, many qualified Thais who would be quite happy to do the job for a fraction of the cost that the foreigner would do it for. Further, they are far more familiar with Thai workplace culture and are fluent in the local language. Since the Asian crisis of 1997, there have not been nearly as many such positions advertised targeting foreigners. The figure mentioned here of 500,000 baht is what at least two guys I knew here earned. Over the years, many people have questioned this figure, saying that it can't possibly be true in Thailand but believe me, it is. Remember, a lot of Westerners working in their homelands may accept a position in Thailand. The deal is generally their Western salary plus a 10% bonus, plus a 10 – 20% hardship allowance. They will usually get a car and driver provided, housing or a housing allowance – which can be substantial – around 100,000 baht per month is no out of the question and a few other benefits such as free education for the kids at one of the local international schools where fees are awfully high. Anyway, to further explain the 500,000 baht per month figure. Let's say we have an executive earning $US 100,000 per year in the west, roughly 3,400,000 baht a year. Add 30% to that and we are over 4,500,000 baht and with the housing and other benefits, we are up to over 6,000,000 baht per year, which is over 500,000 baht per month. These figures are realistic. Oh, how nice would it be to earn that much in Thailand!

Let me first say that the workplace in Thailand can be an unusual environment for the uninitiated foreigner and quite different to what you are used to at home. While you may suffer culture shock when you first visit or move to Thailand, you will suffer it all over again when you join the workforce here! Things are much more relaxed in Thailand but this aside, a lot of the other differences concern issues that anyone with a background in management would consider to be very negative. As harsh as it sounds, Thai culture interferes with productivity in a fairly major way and for this reason alone, so many things are much less efficient than in the West or in some cases, they just never get accomplished. An example: Your boss is older than you, presumably wealthier than you and his position as your superior demands respect. There happens to be an issue for which a solution has not yet been devised. As a younger person, you may quite possibly have a superior education to your boss and may have a few potential solutions to offer. However, as you don't want to risk your boss losing face by having the suggestion come from you – a person of lower status, you will just quietly sit on those ideas… There are so many other examples. I have taught English within the offices of companies and usually, the younger students speak better English than their older counterparts who tend to have higher ranking positions. Ask one of the younger students in a class with some older colleagues a question and they will just sit there quietly and won't answer. It's face, again.

In the Thai work environment, I often feel that second best is accepted, the work ethic is not as high as perhaps it should be, people can be seen sleeping on the job, staff will hang up on the phone with customers if the situation gets too difficult, internal office communication is terrible….and the list could go and on. While one could argue that things are far worse in Thailand than they are in the West, you are better off to simply acknowledge that they are different. To survive in the Thai work environment, you really have to forget a lot of what you are / were used to in the West – but without letting go of your convictions. To openly criticise the Thai way of doing things will put you on the outer really fast and may even jeopardise your employment.

You spend a huge amount of time at work and life in the workplace can influence other aspects of your life. With this in mind, do your best to fit in with things in Thailand and like other parts of life in the Kingdom, don't try and fight the system because it'll eat you up and spit you out. While you may have been hired because you are a foreigner, possibly even an expert in your field, you still need to be aware of the Thai way of doing things and the day to day issues of the workplace in Thailand.

Obviously companies with a high percentage of foreigners will operate in a manner more akin with what we are used to in the West, but many still have that Thai flavour. Even the embassies, multinational companies and schools employing foreign teachers have a workplace culture that is far more Thai than Western.

Much of what goes on in the Thai workplace by the Thai staff could be termed empire building. Thai staff will do all that they can to impress in their younger years and go out of their way for their immediate superior. This work will not go un-noticed and in time, that person will become known as a hard worker, someone who can be relied upon and someone who is not expendable. As this goes on, they will be given more and more tasks which assuming they complete them satisfactorily, eventually they will be rewarded with greater responsibility.

I have also noticed that Thai people across many different types of employment really do not seem to be that interested in act in a way that would be considered professional. They do not necessarily see work a anything else than a means of making money. OK, perhaps I am being harsh here, because many professionals such as teachers, medical professionals and the like do take a pride in doing their job to the bets of their ability – but many others see employment simply as a means of making money – and not necessarily as a way of developing themselves professionally and doing the best they can, which is all rather sad really.

So where does this leave you as the foreigner in a Thai workplace? More than anything, you need to be aware of how things work, and don't try and change things too much, if at all! Sure, there will always be room for improvement but to step in and suggest sweeping changes will only contribute towards indirectly criticizing the existing system, the people that implemented those systems, and causing those people, some of whom probably still work there, to lose face. To make another person lose face in the workplace can only be detrimental to your longevity in the position and your success at that company / organisation. Things happen a lot more slowly in Thailand and you shouldn't try to change too much too fast.

The hierarchy within Thai society plays a big part in interaction in the workplace. Classic examples are staff like maids, drivers, security guards and cleaners who may be treated poorly. I have often heard it said you should not go out of your way to be too friendly with employees who find themselves a lot further down the food chain than yourself. To do so may make the Thais wonder why you would associate with someone from such a background. The Thai staff may question that if you are associating with someone from that sort of background, perhaps you come from such a background yourself!

Thais DO gossip in the workplace and Western staff often find themselves watched intensely with your every move discussed by the local staff. Don't worry about this too much as they are likely to be fascinated by you and your ways, more than being nosey as such. They may also be interested in learning not just English, but about Western ideas and the Western way of thinking.

I am of the opinion that Thais don't tend to work as fast, nor as efficiently as people in the workplace in the West. What the reasons are for this, I can only wonder, but lower rates of pay may provide less motivation. The hot weather also needs to be factored in. It can really drain your energy levels. Some menial tasks can take forever and something as simple as sorting some documents into sets and stapling them together may take an entire morning or afternoon for a small team of workers. Again, let them go about it in their own way and don't interfere! Yes, it could be handled in a far expedient manner… Companies in Thailand seem to prefer to employ a lot of people and pay them poorly which may result in their slower output, as opposed to employing a smaller number of people, paying them well and expecting greater productivity. It's different from the West, but don't think it's wrong. Things are done for a reason, which may not always be obvious.

Even more so than in the West, I would strongly recommend against work place romances in Thailand. Any female who dates a male colleague will find herself the butt of an unbearable amount of gossip. And if you go out with a girl in your office for a long time and the relationship eventually goes bad, she may feel that she has to resign, the "I told you so's" and the huge loss of face that follow could be too much to handle. Far more so than in the West, the way that you conduct your life OUTSIDE of the workplace, comes under scrutiny in Thailand. It's all part of the way that in Thailand one's image is paramount. This means that you really do have to be aware that while you may be the consummate professional at work, you can't necessarily be a renegade outside of company hours. All it takes is for one person to see you doing something considered questionable and bang, you could be down the road… I have heard it said from some foreigners employed in Thailand that they feel that some Thai companies as employers almost feel that they own their employees.

For Western men who develop a relationship with a local lass, your company will take an interest in your new girlfriend / wife and her background. God forbid if she comes from the naughty bar environment (yes, many western men DO marry prostitutes in Thailand) or even if she is just from a poor, rural background, be careful of introducing her or inviting her to company functions. This may have the effect of reflecting not only badly on you, but also on the whole company – and in a worst case scenario you may find yourself out of a job! Many a farang has had his marching orders for showing up at a company function with an uneducated, uncouth village girl. For what its worth, she is probably not that interested in going to such a function anyway and would feel way out of place and out of her depth. She would feel awkward, wouldn't know how to dress, what to do and may not even have many people to chat with. In my early days in Thailand, I made the mistake of inviting my then girlfriend, a girl from a very poor background, to my place of work to meet me for lunch. I later got a warning from my boss about it who said that it was totally inappropriate and not to let it happen again. I actually argued with him over it at the time, trying to state that she was another human being just like him and I – and he should be ashamed for discriminating against her like that. But that just showed how green I was at that time. For if any of my students (I was teaching in a very upmarket language school) had seen the girl that I was knocking around with, odds are they would have wondered what I was doing with her and may have even left the school and gone to study elsewhere! Yes, Thais are very status conscious. At the end of the day, the rich don't socialise with the poor in most countries. Thailand is class conscious and one has to be very careful who they associate with and who they are seen with.

One Western manager who had been in Thailand for some time once told me that his company wouldn't hire a single Westerner who had recently arrived in Thailand. He explained that his company had had too many problems with such guys losing the plot with the local women and that it was much safer to hire someone who was already married, or who had been in Thailand for some time. This is similar to what I was told by my boss at a language school who said that he much prefers to hire people who had been in Thailand for a while as anyone fresh to Thailand inevitably make the sort of mistakes that can go on to affect their work. I have to admit that if I was hiring Western staff, I would be exactly the same. The learning curve to life in Thailand isn't steep per se, but it does take time to get used to the way things are done and to become aware of the huge importance of "fitting in" and not rocking the boat.

Remember Westerners often earn many, many times as much as the Thais they work alongside. With many professional expats earning 200,000 – 300,000 baht per month (this is probably the average band for most salaried expats – though some earn more as mentioned earlier), they may find themselves working with staff on a tiny fraction of what they earn, such as a driver who gets just 5,000 – 8,000 baht a month and maids and cleaners who earn even less. Yes, they know how much you earn so do not flaunt it and do every little bit to play it down. And when these people do that little extra to help you, a small gift or gesture of thanks such as taking a group from work out somewhere nice for lunch will go a long way towards breaking down any barriers and improving the relationship. Actually, this is one very god way to break down some of the barriers in Thailand. Tip generously and buy small gifts now and then for those less fortunate that you who have been good to you and your popularity will soar.

Salaries are generally paid monthly in Thailand and you need to have a bank account with the same bank AND branch as the company paying you. In this respect the banking system is not quite as developed as the West. Needless to say, at the end of the month when people receive their salary the shopping malls are full and taxis can be much more difficult to hail. Bars and restaurants do a good trade at this time too.

Sick days are taken more often by Thais than would be the norm in the West and no-one seems to ever question why people are away. One can take a few days off before a doctor's certificate is required, 15 or more paid sick days per year about the average in an employment contract – but many people actually have an allowance of 30 sick days per year! With family members often looking after their older relatives, younger family members may often take time off, classed as sick days, to care for their dependants. There are numerous public holidays per year, about 17 I believe, but those with a regular 9 to 5 job may have just the minimum six elective holidays per year. Many of the locals seem to see sick days as their right to take each year, sort of like part of their holidays!

Folks on an expat package, especially those hired from abroad, will usually have terms and conditions much the same as they would have in their own country. For Westerners seeking employment in Thailand, if at all possible get hired from abroad as you will no doubt be on to a much better deal. Local hire contracts tend not to be as lucrative as contracts picked up from abroad. The difference in salary package between someone hired locally and someone hired from abroad can be more than two times, and if hired from abroad, you might get free accommodation as part of the package too.

Thai companies are forever having functions and you, as a foreigner, will be asked to attend, in fact at times you may well feel like you have been put on display, the solitary farang or one of a group of farangs that seemingly all are gawking at! If you are a professional on a big package, it will be important for you to be present, but if you are further down the food chain, it may not be quite so important for you to be present. These functions tend to be dreadfully boring but more often than not, the company will put on a fabulous spread. Such functions are important to Thais and they often waste a huge amount of work time and money organising them.

Personal presentation in the workplace in Thailand is of greater importance than in the West. It goes without saying that all business attire should be in tip top condition, shirts bright white, neatly pressed and shoes shined. Any item of clothing with even a small mark or imperfection should be discarded from your work wardrobe. You will notice some of the less well paid Thais in clothes that are in less than perfect condition, but their salary is but a fraction of yours, so it is not such an issue. As foreigners, we fall outside of the square and the Thais really do not know what to make of us so their impressions of us come almost exclusively from the clothes that we wear and the way that we present ourselves. Those favourite old, tatty clothes should be reserved for being worn inside your home where no-one can see you!

In the West, it is quite possible to be thrust into a junior management position straight out of University and in no time be in a middle management position with a lot of authority, decision making power and staff who may have a lot more experience and, significantly to Thai culture, be older than you. In the West, as long as the person selected is suitably qualified and ready for the job, this situation generally works ok. We happily accept that age isn't everything and that their may well be people younger than us who are better suited to a senior job than we are. In Thailand, it would create a big, big problem with people not knowing where they fit into the swing of things. Therefore, you seem to find a lot of older people in positions of responsibility. In many cases, these people simply may not be the best people for the job but the status thing again gets in the way of others doing that role. There are stacks of other issues in the workplace here that make working in Thailand a constant challenge. But once you break through these barriers and start to get a feel for the vibe of the Thai workplace, I am sure you will find it more fin than a similar environment in the West. Quite simply, things are different in Thailand and the work environment could really get you down if you dwelled on the negative aspects of it. If you concentrate on the positives, I am sure you'll have a great time!

One curious aspect of the Thai workplace is absenteeism and it seems that folks are allowed to avoid going to work for any of a zillion reasons. The most common is of course that one is sick, and this is flaunted by many. A curiosity being that many companies give 15 days sick leave a year and do not insist upon a medical certificate unless someone has five or more days off. Illness to family members, particularly dependants such as children or parents and your boss will not even bat an eyelid. But then there are all sorts of other excuses given such as having to go the bank to get things sorted out. If you are on a monthly salary, your salary will not be effected for taking the time off, though this is all offset by the fact that if your boss wants you to stay late, citing your contract which states that you finish at XX o'clock will not win you any brownie points at all.

One never goes hungry in the workplace in Thailand and it can seem like your colleagues are forever bringing in food. Your Thai colleagues who venture home at the weekend – read upcountry provinces – will usually bring back some item of food from their part of the country, usually a large bag / pack / portion which is then shared. It is not expected that anyone venturing on holiday, even if just at the weekend, must bring back food for everyone, but it is considered good form. If you go away somewhere and bring back items of food, ordinarily something that that part of the country is known for then you will be looked upon favourably by your colleagues.

The various embassies, of which there are many in Bangkok, occasionally look to hire staff locally and ads pop up in the Bangkok Post from time to time. However, many of the embassies advertise internally through their own Government departments in their respective countries. Clerical positions in embassies range in salary with some of the embassies of the not so wealthy countries offering a monthly salary of around 30 – 45,000 baht, a bit more than say English teaching, but with a more "regular" 9:00 – 5:00 schedule. However, if you can get a job with the American Embassy, who always seem to pay well, your contract will be paid in $US – you get a cheque in $US and I believe there is no tax to be paid either! I have heard rumours of salaries at the US Embassy that are well over one million baht a year for standard clerical type jobs but these are unverified. If true, this could be a very cushy number for a very nice salary and easy, yet secure job. I do know that the better positions pay EXTREMELY well!

Computer positions are available but they can be a bit hit and miss. I know of people doing web design type jobs earning as little as 35,000 baht per month and I know of others who do contract work and can make 500,000+ baht a month. To secure such a highly-paid position, you'll have to prove that you can offer something that a Thai can't. If you're a computer expert and a specialist in your field, you may be able to get a really good high paying job with a multinational. I receive emails from IT professionals wanting to know the low down on job availability here. Basically, before the crash in mid 1997, there were a number of computer related opportunities for foreigners. I am told that these days there are less such positions within big companies. There are of course many people running their own computer companies, keeping in contact with their customers who may be found all around the world visa the internet. If you are earning a lot of money in in the computer industry and are hoping to replicate that salary in Thailand, you may be being a little optimistic! Remember, A Thai company could employ about 20 suitably qualified Thais for the same amount a specialist in the West earns – and each of the Thais speak the local language fluently, know the culture and the workplace ethic etc and are, frankly, more of a known quantity who won't rock the boat. There aren't that many companies in Thailand these days that will take on foreign computer professionals with a package that comes anywhere near meeting the foreigners' lofty expectations. There are so many qualified people here already prepared to work for much less. If you want to pursue such a career, you are best off securing a job in the West and holidaying in Thailand frequently.

You can of course set up your own business here and there are endless opportunities to do this here with REAL OPPORTUNITIES to make money. The problem here being that the odds are against us as foreigners setting up here. If you are serious about setting up a business in Thailand, take your time. I would recommend getting a good grasp of the language first and talk with as many people as possible. Many, many people have been burnt because the system really is against us. If you have any business ideas or wish to start some sort of business of your own in Thailand, it can be done. It's all a bit tricky and you really need to register a company and get yourself the necessary licenses and work permits. Note that in the past the cost of registering a company used to be outrageously expensive if done through on of the firms who advertised, targeting farangs. But no longer! Well-known and respected local firm SunbeltAsia can register a business for you all up for something like 50,000 Thai baht.

If you do something small that doesn't require a front (office, shop) such as import / export or internet sales, then you could do quite well without drawing any attention to yourself. I imagine you would have to keep a low profile though. Strictly speaking, you should have a work permit to do such things and frankly, that is the best way to go. Keep everything legal and then you can enjoy your life without stress or worry. There seems to be a growing number of farangs moving to Thailand and doing their work via the internet. Some are self-employed while others are employed by companies back in their homelands. Basically if you earn money in Thailand you are supposed to have a work permit.

As far as non-skilled white collar work goes, there have been a few customer service based jobs advertised in the Bangkok Post from time to time. The jobs centered on answering calls from English speaking callers in the Asia Pacific region who wanted to buy products that they had seen advertised on some cable / shopping channel. The jobs were paying around $US 200+ per week plus commissions. I guess this could be an alternative to teaching if teaching isn't for you. You're looking at a dead end job though. Not to be confused with this though were the boiler room operations that were big throughout 2000 and the first half of 2001 until one day in late July 2001 when 87 foreigners were arrested on the premises of two suspect companies. The foreigners, many feigning innocence, went on to be convicted of working without a work permit and fined. To make matters worse they were deported and BLACKLISTED, i.e. banned from EVER returning to Thailand. Do not get involved in any such jobs and, perhaps just as importantly, ensure that any job that you take on comes with a work permit!

There seems to be a lot more scrutiny into farangs and what they're doing in Thailand these days. While in the past it was no secret that many farangs worked without a work permit, it has to be said that this really isn't recommended. If you're caught working without the magic little blue book, in a worst case scenario you may find yourself deported from the country and blacklisted from ever returning. I would strongly discourage you from working for any company that does not offer you a work permit. It is normal (though still illegal) for people to start the job while their work permit application is being processed.

You could pursue work as a journalist and the two obvious choices are the Bangkok Post and The Nation. I imagine that they would only consider suitably qualified people and between the two newspapers, there can't be that many openings. There are a lot of other English language publications but such work doesn't pay a great amount, only providing enough to live a fairly basic lifestyle on. There is always the option for a bit of freelance work.

The top end hotels are invariably managed by foreigners and there seem to be a lot of managerial / supervisory positions available in the better hotels for suitably qualified and perhaps more importantly, those with international experience in the hospitality industry. No idea what such positions pay but it would probably be fairly good as whenever you see a farang working in a hotel, they are impeccably dressed in European suits that must cost at least a grand US.

There are many, many bars run by foreigners in Thailand, many in the "naughty nightlife" areas. While some of the bigger bars apparently do OK, the owners of smaller bars seem to have a tough life and really, I would not recommend that as a way of life. There are all sorts of potential problems and if even a fraction of the horror stories you hear are true, bar ownership is for those with experience in the industry, or the daring! The industry has many unique problems including that of tea money, licensing laws, lease issues and a myriad of other challenges.

If running a business in Thailand the lease issue is a funny one. You buy a lease for a certain length of time and then on top of that you also pay rent to the landlord!

There are a number of missionaries working in Thailand. Many seem to have a holier than thou attitude who think they know everything about Thailand because they have come to work for free, or for God. What a croc! What is amusing is that some actually get an allowance in the region of 80,000 – 100,000 baht a month! Little do they know that this is actually a lot more than many Westerners and highly-paid Thais earn, doing an honest day's work! Unfortunately for the poor folks, bless their hearts, they complain that this really isn't enough and doesn't cover all of their expenses and they struggle to get by. They can often be found in the countryside and many of the church groups employing them insist that they study Thai to B6 level (grade 6 / 11 year old) before they begin God's work.

People often email me asking for suggestions of things from the West to sell in Thailand and items from Thailand to export abroad. As far as importing into Thailand goes, I really don't know as most mass market items are available, in Bangkok at least. One has to think about who their market is – the general population or just the expat community. I think marketing to farangs would be a whole lot easier than trying to sell to the masses although it is never easy doing business in a small niche – if something happens the niche could be gone. With regards to items to export, anything that has a high labour content involved in its production will be cheap in Thailand as labour here is SO much cheaper than the west. Further, there are some industries here that produce goods at prices far cheaper than the West. Printing is one example and the likes of greeting cards and prints / posters are so much cheaper in Thailand than the West. So long as you are not exporting copyrighted designs, I bet there could be a market for this sort of thing. There's probably money to be made in Thai handicrafts and the like but I don't know too much about that sort of thing. Basically, there are all sorts of possibilities and if you have an entrepreneurial streak, you could do very well.

Finally, I have met quite a few people who spend their time here trading stocks on the Internet. They all seem to be doing OK out of it but it seems a mighty risky business to me. You'd really need to have a bit of a buffer, financially, to do this. I for one wouldn't be able to sleep knowing that my continued existence is based purely on the performance of my stocks. Having said this, if you are someone that wants to live off your investments, Bangkok can't be a bad choice because the costs of most things here are a lot cheaper than elsewhere and the Internet infrastructure is pretty good these days. For work such as writing, programming, internet-based jobs or jobs where geographical location is unimportant, Bangkok provides an ideal base to work from.

I seem to be meeting folks all of the time who have taken early retirement and many are young, some haven't yet hit 30! Isn't this just a little bit early? At this point in one's life, Bangkok may appeal but who's to say it won't change? You don't want to spend some of the best years of your life in Thailand doing little to nothing and then later look back on those as wasted years. Further, as with the stock trading boys, it doesn't take a great movement in the markets for one to become a little nervous. Basically, whatever you do in Bangkok, try and do something productive and keep busy. And if you are contemplating early retirement in Thailand, make sure that you have enough money or assets / capital so that if things go badly, you can return to your homeland and are able to retire there – or have the skills / ability to get back into full-time employment. People retiring in Bangkok early seem to live their life as though they are permanently on holiday and go through no small amount of money. Basically, if you are planning on retiring early, think very carefully about it.

One of the benefits of getting a job in Bangkok is that as long as it is above board, a work permit should be included. To get a work permit, you need to first get a non-immigrant type B visa. This can only be obtained from a Thai embassy outside of Thailand and to get it you need a letter from a prospective employer saying that you have accepted a position within their organisation blah blah blah. Once you have this, there is all sorts of paper work to fill out, a medical certificate to get, a large number of photos to be taken and then leave it all to your employer to arrange the rest. It can take a few weeks for everything to come through. Strictly speaking, you shouldn't start work until the work permit has been issued but in reality, that is seldom the case. There are quite a few companies that will offer you work but will not provide you with a work permit such as some part-time positions, some English teaching positions and some jobs that foreigners are not supposed to be doing. There are also a lot of companies operating in what could be considered a bit of a grey area and these companies seldom offer work permits.

Thai companies don't always make the best employers and what I would consider abuse of employees is rife. Employees might be employed to work Monday – Friday, 9 AM – 5 PM, but seldom may leave the office until much later on in the evening, sometimes as late as 8 or 9 PM – and in some cases this may be almost every day, not just in the case of a special project or something like that. Thais pay a huge amount of respect to their boss, simply because of their job title, and that is the person who pays their monthly salary. Obviously Westerners are quite different. I always tell people to brush up on the labour laws in Thailand. While it is important to do your best to fit in, and not rock the boat too much, neither do you want to bend over and accept unfair terms and conditions that are outside the spirit of fair play. As a farang in Thailand, your lack of knowledge of the local ways of doing things as well as the local labour laws can be used against you and companies can mess you around with virtual impunity. Do what you can to educate yourself on your rights as an employee. Thailand is not indifferent to the rest of the world where the labour court tends to side with the employee in an employee vs. employer dispute. And yes, they have been known to award in favour of the Westerner when he has taken on a Thai!There are several visas available to you as a foreigner entering Thailand. While the regulations may change at any time, as at early 2005, all holders of passports from North America, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand are, for the time being, all subject to the same rules and regulations. What most people visiting Thailand get is a 30 day stamp upon entry to the country, often mistakenly referred to as a tourist visa – which actually it is not. This is essentially an entry permit, and not a visa as such, and are issued at all entry points in to Thailand.

In the past you could simply exit the country and re-enter with a new 30 day entry stamp or a tourist visa, seemingly forever. Some people did this for years and years without any real problem. They were simply too lazy to get the more appropriate visa for long-stayers – or they did not qualify for the said visa. Many years ago I predicted that this loophole will be plugged and in October 2006 it was. The Thai government enacted new visa rules that clearly state that foreigners entering Thailand can only spend 90 days in a 180 day period in Thailand on the 30 day entry stamps. That means you could exit the country to a neighbouring country and re-enter immediately. You could do this three times after which point you could not return for 90 days (assuming you used the entire 30 days). Alternatively, you could get 10 of these 30 day entry stamps and use each one for 9 days, meaning a total of 90 days. This was then repealed and you can now come and go as you wish without any limit although existing in Thailand indefinitely on tourist visas or visa waiver stamps will eventually raise the eyebrows of an Immigration official, I reckon.

There are two types of tourist visas available to you and these must be applied for at a Thai consulate / embassy outside of Thailand. The first is the 60 day tourist visa and the second is the double entry tourist visa. The first time this type of visa is applied for it is usually issued without any problem. You usually just have to fill out a form, submit a couple of passport photos and pay the fee. The 60 day tourist visa can be extended while you are in Thailand for, I believe, a period of 30 days (though this may have changed so it is best to check with Thai Immigration for up-to-date information). After that, I believe you may have to exit the country and get a new one and return. You can also get a double entry or multiple entry tourist visa. These allow you to exit the country and get another 60 days which in turn can be extended for 30 days in country. Confused? You should be, because the whole issue of visas can be very confusing.

The Thai authorities have indicated that they will not continue to issue tourist visas ad infinitum, as had been the case in the past. Too many foreigners took advantage of the system and were working in-country illegally. The Thais welcome foreigners but they want us to be in the country legally – with the appropriate visa. Actually, they do make it quite easy for most to continue to reside in Thailand without any real problem. If you really do want to stay in Thailand it IS possible to find a way to do it legally. Obviously, while you have a tourist visa, you are, strictly speaking, not allowed to work or perform any task that results in you making an income.

The next category of visa is the non-immigrant B. This is the visa is for those coming to Thailand to work or to conduct business. To get this type of visa, one must apply at a Thai embassy or consulate outside of the country with a letter of support, whether from your future employer or from the company for whom you will be doing business. Some consulates and embassies require more documentation. It should be noted that if you have your own company, you can simply write yourself a letter on your company's letterhead paper saying you are going to work in Thailand and voila, you'll get the visa. There are two types of non-immigrant B visa – the single entry which is good for 90 days and is predominantly issued to those applying for work, and the multiple entry variety which is usually issued to those people who will be coming and going while on business. Ordinarily, you cannot get a non-immigrant visa without a letter of support.

Another visa many Westerners apply for is the non-immigrant O visas, the "O" standing for "other". They are issued to those in some sort of relationship with a Thai national such as those who are married, have children with a Thai national or who wish to retire in Thailand.

MBK Shopping Centre, where you can find almost anything.

It is illegal to work in Thailand without a work permit. It doesn't matter what the work is, be it English teaching, working for a Thai company part-time or full-time, doing consulting work, working for important or influential Thais, or even doing internet based work that has nothing to do with Thailand. If you work while you are in Thailand without a work permit, it is illegal! Now that is not to say that it doesn't happen. In my estimation, for every Westerner working legally in Thailand there is at least one working illegally! And there are many, many Westerners in Thailand who have a work permit but are still not entirely legal. An example would be an English teacher who has a work permit for their main job, which may be a Monday to Friday affair, but they may also do some part-time weekend work at a different school, for which they do not have a work permit. Work permits allow the work permit holder to perform a specified job for a specified company and are not "open-ended" so to speak.

The Thai authorities are fairly pragmatic about this. They know that there may be a need for the foreign labour, especially in positions like English teaching. Crackdowns are not common and on the few occasions when there has been a crackdown or a work permit check, it has usually been prompted by something i.e. someone pissed the cops off so they crack down to make a point. But this does not mean it is ok to work without a work permit. If you are working illegally, you are always vulnerable. All it takes is for someone to tip off the authorities and you could be trouble – and trouble in this instance could mean deportation and in a worst case scenario, perhaps even being blacklisted from ever entering the country again.

If you wish to get legal – and you should – there are options available to you. If you are working for an organisation, insist on them getting a work permit for you. If they do not want to provide you with one, then leave. Remember, if you are working without a work permit then you have no protection whatsoever should there be any problems. And sadly, it is not unusual for some organisations to point out to their staff that as they do not have a work permit, they should not complain. I know of more than a few cases where Westerners were exploited by their employer and when the Westerner threatened to go to the authorities about this or that, the employer simply told them to go ahead, clearly pointing out that as they were working without a work permit they should expect that that would now become an issue. A very nasty business indeed!

If you are working for yourself, or wish to start up your own company, you can register your own company and get a work permit. There are a number of firms advertising such services in the newspapers and in other publications. The cost of registering the business and getting a work permit seem to be in the range of 60,000 – 70,000 baht, all up. It might sound like a lot but once you have done that, you are legal – and will not be subject to any of the problems that someone working without a work permit may. It will also remove the need to exit and re-enter the country every time your visa is about to expire, a process which can become time consuming, costly and downright boring. Remember if you are in Bangkok, the nearest exit points out of the country are a fair way away and all but Malaysia (Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia) require that you obtain a visa to enter that country – which just increases the hassle and the cost. And Malaysia is a long way from Bangkok! So, not only is it time away from Bangkok and work, it also costs a bit to get there.

In the old days, that is back in the '90s, it was almost the norm for people to do visa runs for years and years, but these days, most people cringe at the idea of having to exit and re-enter the country regularly. It is a lot easier to become legal these days and if you wish to operate a business, or work, or simply wish to stay in Thailand long-term, you should look at a long term solution.

Another option, although a very foolish and illegal one, is to retain the services of one of the companies that offer a mischievously named "visa service". What these companies do is send your passport out of the country and have someone take it through all of the immigration exit and entry points where it gets stamped with all the exit and re-entry stamps done. The visa is acquired illegally but the visa itself is apparently, genuine. The problem with using such companies is that what they are doing is HIGHLY ILLEGAL and should anything happen while your passport is in their possession, you could be in a lot of trouble. Also, who's to know just who uses your passport? They might have a terrorist or criminal use your passport to enter and cross international borders. You do not want that!

As crazy as it sounds, this sort of carry on was very popular in the past. A company called Thai Visa operated such services for many years and they were apparently used by many expats before they were busted. The owner actually had a shop on Sukhumvit Soi 23 where this service was offered from was expelled from the country, back in 2000. I remember reading a large article in the Bangkok Post about them, where the Post unwittingly profiled an illegal business!

It should be noted that Thai citizens over the age of 15 are required to carry a national ID card. As foreigners, we do not have such a card. The law says that we are therefore supposed to have our passport with us at all times but in actuality few people do. If you get in any difficulties while your passport is out of the country, things could get rather embarrassing to say the least. THIS SENDING THE PASSPORT OUT OF THE COUNTRY SERVICE IS HIGHLY ILLEGAL! DO NOT DO IT NO MATTER WHAT YOU MAY BE TOLD! On the subject of carrying your passport on you at all times, what I personally do is have a laminated copy of the main page of passport in my wallet at all times, as well as a photocopy of the visa page. I have never been asked to produce my passport but I am sure that if I was asked this laminated copy and photocopy would suffice.

Be aware of overstaying your visa in Thailand. While many foreigners overstay and don't have too many problems, it could become a big problem if you are picked up on an expired visa before you exit the country. The official policy on overstayed visas is that the overstayer pays a fine of 500 baht per day, up to a maximum of 20,000 baht – 40 days overstay. One might just let their visa expire and pay the fine as they exit. Truth be told, the Thai authorities are generally very easy on us and even someone who has overstayed for a long period of time is usually allowed back into the country – unlike folks who overstay visas in the West and might find themselves unable to return for a period of time. Where all of this gets a little complicated is if you are caught in country with an expired visa. There are a number of things that may happen including deportation or even a trip to the dreaded Immigration Detention Centre. I urge you to make sure that your visa is ALWAYS valid.

I personally know several people who have overstayed their visas – everyone was treated differently.

  • Person number one overstayed a tourist visa for four years. He was caught in Pattaya after his ex-wife ratted on him to the immigration police. He went to court, was prosecuted and did sixty days prison. He since came back to Thailand and overstayed his tourist visa for another year before leaving. Some people obviously do not learn.
  • Person number two overstayed by nine days and exited at Don Muang airport and was not even fined. Nothing was said and he was just stamped out of the country. He had made every effort to go out neatly dressed and well presented as is important when dealing with officials in Thailand so perhaps that helped?
  • Person number three overstayed his visa by three years and exited the country overland. After a bit of a scare, immigration accepted the 20,000 baht fine – he had prepared the money in advance – and let him exit without charge and he subsequently re-entered an hour later with a new, totally legal entry stamp!
  • Person number four exited overland at Nongkhai / Laos eight days after his visa had expired. He was charged 1,600 baht and of he went to Laos and returned three days later, no problem, with a new visa.
  • Person number five was one day over his visa. He had already bought a ticket to fly out of the country the next day and was planning to pay what would have been a two day overstay fine at the airport. He was unfortunate to be caught in a random immigration raid on his apartment building. Notwithstanding that he had a ticket to exit the country the very next day, he was locked up in what he describes as truly hellish conditions in the Immigration Detention Centre. He was released a few days later after his embassy got involved to get him released. A policeman escorted him to the airport and he managed to get a flight out and return a few days later. He described it as a harrowing experience.
  • Person number six had a visa that had expired by two days and he was somewhat nervous about it. He approached one of the visa services that promise to efficiently deal with overstays. His passport went out of the country and came back with stamps indicating that he had exited the country BEFORE the visa had expired. The visa service offering this service got busted by the police a few months later but the visa turned out to be fine and when he later left the country, he had no problems. He was very lucky.

If enough foreigners continue to flaunt the immigration rules and overstay their visa, the Thai authorities might make things more difficult than they currently are. For this reason, we should all try and make sure our visa status is in order. Remember, it is a privilege for us to visit or live in Thailand, and not a right – and we need to respect that. If you do get caught for overstaying, a note to that effect is stamped in your passport and who knows, a little flag may go into the immigration computer too. Don't do it – it's really not worth it! One day, these past indiscretions may come back to haunt you. While I cannot confirm it, I believe that if you get deported from Thailand, it has an effect on entry into all of the countries in the ASEAN region, but like I say, I cannot confirm this for sure.

While many foreigners work in Thailand for years and years, few ever become Thai citizens, with a right to live and stay in Thailand forever. Even if you marry a Thai citizen and have children and raise them in Thailand, you are forced to extend your visa each year and it is only ever extended for 12 months at a time. Getting permanent residency in Thailand is possible, but it is said to be a complicated process that few go through. Going down to Immigration each year is worrisome, knowing that there is always a chance, no matter how small or trivial, that you may be denied a visa extension and told that your stay in Thailand won't be extended.

One also needs to be aware that if you commit a crime in Thailand, are arrested, charged and subsequently convicted then you are supposed to be deported, irrespective of how long you have been in the country, irrespective of how small the crime is and irrespective of any ties you may have, be it family, business, property etc. This all contributes to making one's stay in Thailand seem as though it is somewhat impermanent. Trust me, no matter how long you stay in Thailand, you will always be considered farang (or Indian, African, whatever your nationality may be) by the Thais. With all this said, a number of people have been found guilty of a crime in Thailand and not deported, while others have been deported and have returned to the country on the next available flight and been allowed to enter as if nothing had ever happened!

A foreigner residing in Thailand for more than three years, for which they can show the appropriate visas (tourist visas are not accepted), can apply for residency. This requires a mountain of paperwork, background checks, interviews at Immigration and it is long, drawn out process. For full details on this you would be best off to go and ask for more details at the Immigration Department at Soi Suan Plu. I believe that the cost of applying for residency status is either 95,000 or 190,000 baht, the price dependent on whether you are married to a Thai national or not. There are various advantages in achieving residency but to be honest, I am not clear on just what they are.

A good friend of mine who had visited Thailand a few times decided to relocate to Bangkok for a period in an effort to help decide whether he wanted to stay in the country long-term. He was able to work a job for customers back in his homeland whilst in Thailand using the internet but in the end he decided, for various reasons, that Thailand long-term was not the best option and it would be better to move back to his corner of Farangland. These words describe how he reached that decision.

One of the most important factors was that I felt like a second class citizen in Thailand. I would never be able to own my own land, never have the right to vote and maybe even never be able to become a Thai citizen. This was not important at first, but it started to bother me later. I found it way too risky to build my future in a country where I am basically at the mercy of the Thai government, and with the change in power, I was not so sure things would go my way. People with no tangible prospects should really consider if they want to have their possessions, a wife and a family in a land where they have a very uncertain future. I mean, what would you do if you own a condo, have a wife and kids and you go to the Immigration office and you get told to leave the country within 10 days, that your visa will not be extended? People should consider if they want to (and can) put up with this. I heard stories about people who always got nervous when their visa was about to expire and had to do a visa run again. Work permits do not come with a guarantee, either.

The late Chris Spekreijse, The Netherlands, 2001

You spend so much of your life at work that as good as Bangkok is, one still wants to get a job that they enjoy – or at the very least, tolerate. I wouldn't recommend coming to Thailand blindly and looking for work without any real plan as you may end up with something that you don't like.