Education Visa / Extensions To Go The Way Of The Dinosaur, Dodo Bird; End Of An Era!
First, not that you care, I am Tod Daniels. I've spent the last 8+ years learning to read/write/type, speak/understand this oh-so hard language mostly on my own. I've also been to almost every Thai school in Bangkok to see how Thai is taught to non-native adult learners AND written reviews about most of them for a friend's website. Now, with that outta the way….
This piece is about the education visa and extension process for the purpose of studying Thai; how it was, how it is now and some speculation on where it's going. The system was possibly the most exploited visa status in the country for years and years. I've met hundreds of foreigner who were/are on ED visas under the guise of studying Thai, in my tours of the schools in Bangkok. Surprisingly out of all those people, I've met very few who could speak Thai with much proficiency. A lot can barely speak "2-word-tourist-thai", "taxi-Thai" or "horse-peak-Thai". Be that as it may.. Here's the scoop.
As recently as a couple years ago, it was relatively easy to wander into any Ministry of Education approved school teachin' Thai, sign up, pay your tuition, get paperwork to go outside the country for a single entry 90 day ED visa and then extend it every 90 days at Immigration. The way the rules were written at that time; you could do this for THREE solid years without ever stepping foot out of the Kingdom after you got that first 90 day ED visa! Back then, the minimum hours you needed to attend school (per the MOE) was 16 hours in a calendar month or like the schools hawked it "4-hourz-a-week". Now there was a lot of creative license with the schools and attendance records were routinely fudged to show students were studying the measly 4 required hours a week. People were signing up at schools, getting their initial paperwork, goin' outta the country getting that 90 day Non-ED visa, then showing up at school every 90 days to get subsequent paperwork which they took to Chaeng Wattana to get their extensions. Some students ONLY went to their school 4 times a year just to pick up their extension paperwork!
Now, there was rudimentary testing every year at the MOE but sheesh, taxi drivers ask foreigners harder stuff. I went out there to see the "testing" first hand and honestly if you can't get thru that spoon-fed, over pronounced, slow as a snail spoken Thai, either you're a half-, nit- or dim-wit or you need to study something else. Then like everything here, the schools started to "teach the test" likely to be given at the MOE. Students could show up there, parrot off a few sentences in Thai like good little white buffaloes and get their approval to study Thai another year. Even for the few students who failed out at the MOE, all it meant was they had to get new paperwork, leave the country get another single entry 90 day ED visa and start the process over. It was almost a "no foreigner left behind" sort of program.
If you didn't qualify for any other visa like; being over 50, being married to a Thai national, supporting half-Thai/foreign kids, or legally working here on a "B" visa and work permit, the ED visa was the way to go. Schools all over Bangkok capitalized on this. They beat the ED visa/extension drum loudly and proudly as a way to stay in Thailand long term. Some savvy schools had several thousand foreigners enrolled on the ED visa program all allegedly studying Thai. Schools had to rent extra office space (which was left vacant) because the MOE mandated schools have xx number of square meters per enrolled student at any given branch. Schools were registering students at one branch or another to spread the load around. It was truly the heyday of the ED visa system. The schools were hawking studying Thai like fitness clubs hawk their yearly memberships, pay your money, all the while hoping you don't show up.
There was a lame effort early last summer to control the ED visa program at private schools. Enrolled students filled out a financial form stating where their money was comin' from so they could study Thai, yet not work, and a background form was also filled out. It was nothing more than more paperwork which had to be filled out correctly to get the MOE paperwork.
As of last August all that came to a crashing and resounding halt. That's when the new Police Order 327/2557 (which controls Immigration rules concerning extensions of stay) came out. You couldn't stay in the country on the original ED visa (which you got from the Thai consulate in a neighboring country) for longer than one year. This totally shut down the MOE yearly testing to stay on the ED visa up to three years at a time. People were still getting 90 day extensions, just after the first year they had to leave and get another single entry ED visa to come back and study another year.
Then Immigration working in conjunction with the MOE and the Office of Private Education Commission came up with new guidelines about studying Thai at private language schools. They called a meeting with almost all the big name schools and told them what it was gonna be from now on. The required hours per year doubled from 200 to 400. There had to be fixed term dates for the different levels instead of classes which just repeated endlessly. If the term was 6 months you needed to attend class 4 days a week, 2 hours at a time (8 hours); if the term was for a year you needed to attend 5 days a week 2 hours a time (10 hours).
At that time this hare-brained scheme was rolled out, Immigration began proficiency-testing of the foreigners showin' up to get extensions of stay based on studying Thai. It was random, unfair and totally haphazard in its implementation. It also throttled the thru-put of the ED visa section at Chaeng Wattana down to a snail's pace. I personally know of people who got there at 8:30 AM when Immigration opened and didn't get their extensions until late in the afternoon! Even to this day, the ED section out there is routinely open until 5 or 6PM while the rest of Immigration closes at 4:30!
Immigration also started looking at students from some schools with a more critical eye, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just put students on the spot. Now they were put thru the ringer and during the 'testing' asked things like how many hours a week did they study and sneaking in surreptitious questions like where a student worked (because you can't hold a work permit on an ED visa). Immigration knew this visa type was exploited, tried to tighten it up, but in typical Thai fashion they did a knee-jerk pendulum swing from a fairly lax system to one which was anything but.
Right about this time was when Immigration started not giving the full 90 day extension on ED visas. Students would show up, get 'tested', and get anything from the “7-day-get-outta-dodge” extension on up to 60 days. Few if any got a full 90 day extension. Now in Immigration's defense, the Thai version of the Police Order governing studying at a private school says extensions can be granted for NOT MORE than 90 days at a time so Immigration is well within their rights to hand out whatever they wanted to in terms of an extension of stay. It’s just they did this with no warning to the students or the schools.
Surprisingly, despite all this, a lot of schools didn't raise their prices at all. Even though the total hours per year doubled (from 200 to 400), meaning a student spent twice as much time in class as before, and students weren't getting just three 90 day extensions a year (the first 90 days is covered by the original ED visa gotten outta the country). Some students who got a 30 day extension were trudging to Immigration every month to get just another 30 day extension! This effectively doubled or tripled the paperwork schools were submitting to the MOE and then handing off to the students to go get an extension of stay at Immigration. It also drove the price of visa/extensions up too. Before you'd get a single entry ED visa for 2000 baht then pull three 1900 baht extensions in country letting you stay here for about 7700 baht in fees per year. Now people are coughing' up twice or thrice as much to stay the same length of time.
Obviously there were/are "work-aroundz". Some schools employed "agents" who had 'greased the wheelz' already. Students paid a premium for the service of not even going to Immigration, just turning in their passport at the school and then picking it up a few days later with their extension stamped into it. FWIW; the schools doin' that still couldn't get 90 day extensions, most got 60 or 70 days.
Interestingly enough, these changes also had a ripple effect on students who weren't even studying Thai. Before if you were studying English, Korean, Japanese, Chinese or any language a school could pull an MOE certification for, you waltzed out to Immigration and got your 90 day extension without any fanfare or trouble. Mostly because the workers at Thai Immigration can't speak any of those languages, so had no idea if you're really studying or not. Now students studying a language other than Thai mostly get 60 days too.
I think the exploitation of the ED visa/extension system as a viable way for foreigners to stay in Thailand long term is on the down swing. If I was a betting man, I’d bet “dollarz-to-durian” you're going to see some real power players in the “teach Thai to foreign buffalo” marketplace start downsizing or selling out altogether.
Don't get me wrong, it was a really good run! I know several school owners who made MILLIONS of dollars (not baht) hawking ED visas for studying Thai from as little as 5 years ago. A Thai language school was a very lucrative business to get into. Now, I wouldn't take a private language school for free. It's just too uncertain, too iffy and no one knows how it’s going to all play out.
Unfortunately what the “powerz-that-b-here” don't see is that there is a HUGE demographic of young foreigners who don't "fit" neatly into any of the available visa/extension categories. These people are moneyed up enough to live here without working in the country and more importantly they want to live here. At present there is no visa class they can utilize to stay long term. With the scrutiny being put on back to back visa exempt stamps and indeed even on back to back tourist visas, the only avenue previously open to this demographic was the ED visa system. Right now I think all they've got is the Thai Elite Card, which has their cheapest price point at 500K baht. However, that does give a 5 year hassle free visa for Thailand good for a year at a time, along with other perks too.
My advice would be, IF you ain't goin' to school to really learn Thai, find another avenue to further your stay here. The way the system is now and the way it looks like it’s going is just not a stable enough platform to guarantee a foreigner is gonna stay here trouble free long term.
Anyway, that's all I got. Hate the message if you want to, but don't hate the messenger…