The Thai Visa System – Fit For Purpose?
It was early 2003 and there was hope in Thailand. I heard that changes to the visa system were afoot. It couldn’t come too quickly in my opinion. So often, in those early years, the experience of dealing with the Thai immigration authorities felt like crawling through a sewer. By late 2003 I felt confident we’d soon see an overhaul of the Thai visa system, a range of new visas introduced targeting career-breakers, skilled migrants, and the new breed of digital nomads. I thought we’d see the 90 days restriction lifted, and visa runs would then be a thing of the past.
Sixteen years on and I’m still waiting…
Let’s take the MM2H for an example of where things could have gone. For those who aren’t aware, the Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) visa system was ground-breaking when it came in. I first became aware of MM2H in the early 2000s. The scheme allowed you advantages unheard of in Thailand – you got a 10 year renewable visa, no visa runs, you could buy property and land, you could invest, and even work a certain number of hours, and there was a list of other neat perks such as various tax incentives. The requirements at the time were reasonable, but due to the success of the scheme they have become a bit more stringent in terms of the sums of money required over the years. A contact of mine who is involved in the MM2H programme claims the government was taken aback by demand and put up the requirements as a way to get it to a level they could handle. I don’t doubt it – it was a really good deal.
Back then I felt confident Thailand would introduce a programme similar to MM2H, and even had visions of Thailand becoming the New Singapore, a hub for professionals of all kinds, attracting talent from across the world. What we actually got over the last 16 years was a steady stream of confusion, obfuscation, and pedantry.
The general consensus, and I would not deny this, is that Thailand is entitled to have any visa system it wants. But still, we should be free to ask, as interested parties, pertinent questions such as why this system, and who does this system best serve?
Let me first tackle one of the common arguments you usually hear for the Thai visa system – “to keep criminals out”. Does it really? What of the African drug dealers periodically rounded up and ejected from BKK – did it keep them out? Or the likes of the swindlers, scam artists, pedos, charlatans and boiler room rip-off merchants that have infested Thailand over the years?
Let’s be frank, if you are a criminal you are not going to do things by the book, are you? There are going to be back doors, bribes, fake and stolen passports, and other unsavoury avenues to pursue. Getting legal is not high on your list of priorities when you are, by definition, someone whose day job requires breaking the law.
Another argument I also hear is the visa system is in place to prevent Thailand being “swamped”. I don’t think this argument holds up to scrutiny. If you look at the number of westerners (for example) compared to influxes to Thailand from China then it seems if this argument were to hold water you’d need to address those huge numbers first. The 10.5 million visitors to Thailand from China in 2018 simply dwarfs the 1 million or so from UK or USA. In fact Malaysia is the closest to China with 4 million visitors to LOS in 2018. By comparison the number of visitors from UK to Thailand has been largely consistent, with a small trend upwards over the last twenty years – not exactly a tsunami. And, with a total of 40 million visitors or thereabouts in 2018 and double that (yes 80 million) projected for 2030, it does seem that Thailand is comfortable with these numbers.
Often the Thai visa system is compared to Western countries and their visa systems, but I think this is an unfair comparison. Countries such as UK, which have free health service and free education cannot be compared to Thailand where those services are not free, even to locals. In other words, the idea of controlling access to free public services does not apply, at least to the same extent as it would do in places such as UK, as there are no free public services in Thailand. One of the most common reasons for retirees to leave Thailand and return to western countries is to avail themselves of the free healthcare in their home countries, which underlines the point – if they were leeching off the Thai system, they wouldn’t be going home.
In terms of “taking Thai jobs”, farang are, quite rightly for a developing country, denied many job roles in Thailand. This, with a few exceptions – English teachers, business investors, technically skilled personnel etc. is as it should be. But access to jobs can be readily controlled through the system of work permits.
My point here is, if there are no jobs for farangs to “steal”, and no free public services to leech off, in what way can a law-abiding farang be a negative economic influence in Thailand? It is hard to see one.
Putting it another way, every law-abiding farang in Thailand is, in my view, a net contributor to the Thai socio-economic system. Yes, every. Even the so-called Cheap Charlies are net contributors to the Thai economy – they just don’t spend as much as the high-flyers.
Long-term expats avail themselves of many services and products over time. This economic contribution compounds the longer the farang remains in-country. The long-term value of an expat is therefore significant, from an economic viewpoint, and it makes perfect sense to have more of them, not fewer.
So what I am saying here is if the case against a more encouraging visa regime is an economic one, then there is, in fact, no case to answer. The farang net contribution is beyond question.
There are many social benefits to be taken into account too. Those who blog about the country, take photos, write books, and share their adventures and stories across the world. Those farang who have exposed Thais to new sports, hobbies, music, ideas, books, movies, food, TV shows and our unique way of looking at the world. This is a process that has been ongoing for many years. I believe this is a positive force, although perhaps it has not all been a bed of roses.
We could say that the Thai visa system has been abused over the years, and that is putting it lightly. Back-to-back visa exemptions, visa runs over the border and back in a day, etc. all leave a bad taste in the mouth. But, if you wanted to stay long-term in Thailand, or even extend beyond a few weeks, what were the practical alternatives for many? With regards retirement specifically there are many who do not quite meet whatever the latest “finger in the wind” financial requirement the Thais come up with to live in their country, but the people who fall below these requirements are still net contributors anyway – so why exclude them by denying them a reasonable avenue to stay long term?
I’ll come back to my earlier question and ask – who is the Thai visa system meant to benefit, and the answer seems to be an obvious one – Thailand. But how does a confusing and restrictive system actually help Thailand?
Let’s take a recent example – people being hassled at Swampy – many on fully-legal visa exemptions. I have heard several reports of this and even experienced it myself back in 2016 – my most recent trip to LOS. Take the guy who recently wrote into Stick about visa hassles at Swampy. He seemed like a legit guy, with plenty of money to spend in Thailand. A frequent visitor to Thailand he was told if he wanted to come back, and avoid being blacklisted (note the threatening tone of that), to get a tourist visa next time. No wonder he was left scratching his head – he hadn’t done anything wrong! Sure, in the scheme of things getting a tourist visa is not a massive hassle or expense, and at least they didn’t put him on the next plane home. But let’s say he thought to himself – actually I can’t be doing with this, I’ll go to Philippines or Myanmar or Laos or Cambodia or Vietnam, instead next time, we have to ask ourselves how Thailand benefits from that? Actually, they don’t – they lose. So how do these visa hassles possibly help Thailand? Your guess is as good as mine.
Sure the loss of the odd punter here and there will not make a difference – but multiply this over thousands of people, and over years, and this is a significant negative impact. With growth in China slowing, the tourist foreign exchange has never been more valuable – or at least it provides a valuable addition to the diversification of Thailand’s income portfolio.
I was recently (2018) in the Philippines for an extended stay. It was awesome and what’s better is I can enumerate my visa problems with one word – zero. You can even extend visa in country as we did – no ridiculous “visa runs”, no immigration officers trying to catch you out. Who “lost” from me extending my stay? Philippines won (I spent more money there), and I won (I got to explore some more islands and do some more diving), the classic win-win. When was the last time you felt like you experienced a win-win with the Thai visa system?
The retirement visa options in Philippines are also very attractive, although to be honest the tourist visa system is so accommodative you almost don’t need it. Philippines also has a stated goal of attracting more retirees to Philippines – and the PRA are quite clear on the reasons why – huge socio-economic benefit (https://pra.gov.ph/mandate-vision-and-mision/). This clarity of intent is very important – and polar opposite to the Thai way of doing things, which seems to me to reek of lack of clarity, and ill-thought-out knee-jerk reactions, followed almost immediately by face-saving retrenchments.
So how has the Thai visa system progressed over the last 16 years? The bungling has been laughable and, as the more cynical expats would no doubt say, oh so typical of Thailand. Remember the 90 days in 180 days rule? Hastily abandoned when even the immigration officers couldn’t make head nor tail of it. Just one example.
And we still have the visa run regime. Thailand does its best to eliminate the visa run with restrictions on land border crossings and so on, while on the other hand making a visa run your only option if you want to stay in-country more than 90 days, which you may well want to do as a legitimate long-term tourist.
A review of the Thai visa landscape today is still one rife with confusion and grey areas. Just check the forums or Q&A sites. Even the official websites often contain unclear or contradictory information. Changes could kick in at any time that would see the eviction of long-term net contributors to Thailand. Retirees live on a knife edge of uncertainty. Wasn’t retirement supposed to be relaxing? How does any of this benefit Thailand?
This seems, at its heart, a schizophrenic system. On the one hand you have a system where foreigners are encouraged to visit, but at the same time Thailand seems hell-bent on booting out as many farang as possible – even those who have done no wrong and have only made positive contributions socially and economically. This negativity seems to apply to both tourists and expats.
In short, where is Thailand going with all this? What is the end game? Frankly, who knows! Perhaps the notorious Thailand Elite card hints at one possible future.
But, maybe there is a darker explanation of the Thai visa system to be uncovered here? Many farang have expressed over the years that they no longer feel welcome in Thailand. Many have left. Many have expressed the belief, and I think there is some justification for this, that Thailand is a deeply xenophobic country that simply tolerates foreigners for their money. If this is true, then the schizophrenia of the Thai visa system is almost logical. After all, how many times over the years have we heard the phrase “they want your money, but they don’t want you”. Could that, in a nutshell, be the unsavoury truth behind the Thai visa system?
Best article in some time, in my opinion. I don’t disagree with a word you say.
I have been sitting on an article for a while about retirement in Thailand. So many people have asked me to write something about it but they’re not going to like it when I finally publish it because in short, my thoughts on retirement in Thailand are simple: don’t!