Thailand Visa A Decade And A Half History Of Visas In Thailand

Let’s have a history lesson about visas and long stay Westerners residing in Thailand.

Up until the mid ‘90s many Westerners living and / or working in Thailand used to remain legal by exiting the country as their visa was about to expire, entering a neighbouring country where they would go to the nearest Thai embassy or consulate and apply for a new visa, and then return to Thailand. For many people, this was a 4 times a year trip and became known as the “visa run”.

Many long-term Thailand residents did this for years, some guys boasting that they had Thai visa runs throughout the entire duration of their 10 year passport.

Even though these foreigners were using visas for a purpose other than what they were intended, the Thai Immigration authorities had a relaxed policy and allowed it. While the visa runners were essentially exploiting a loophole in the system, so long as their visa was valid and they seemed to be decent, upstanding citizens, the Immigration authorities appeared to have no real issue with it – and turned a blind eye even when it was plainly obvious that many of these visa runners were most likely working in Thailand without a work permit.

But for those people living like that, the visa runs became rather tiresome and at some point in time, I believe in the mid ‘90s, some cunning businessmen started up their own visa run service that didn’t require the passport holder to exit the country. Those requiring a new visa would give their passport to one of these “companies” and their passport would go on holiday – but they would stay in Thailand. The passport would leave the country, being stamped out of the country and into a neighbouring country. It would then make a trip to a Thai consulate or embassy, possibly in that country (or possibly in another country!) before it would come back to Thailand with the new visa. The visa was a 100% legal visa procured in an illegal way – if that makes any sense! The cost of the service varied. It was around 3,000 baht simply to send your passport out of the country and come back with a new stamp at the border or you could also for a whole new visa such as a new Non-Immigrant B Visa or a Tourist Visa for which there would be a supplementary charge of 3,000 – 4,000 baht on top, meaning a total cost of 6,000 – 7,000 baht.

The benefit of sending one’s passport out of the country was that the passport holder could remain in Thailand and go about their business without the hassle and expense of traveling out of the country. (It should be noted that many people making the visa run did so overland, to Penang, Malaysia, a trip of some 20+ hours by train and boat in each direction.)

Businesses offering this service advertised in the classified section of the Bangkok Post and other popular newspapers and magazines over a period spanning many years. In the first half of 2000 there was a full page profile of the Swede who ran the largest and most popular company offering this type of service. Thai Visa, as the company was called, had an office on Sukhumvit’s Soi 23 staffed by the Swede and his Thai wife. It was a professionally run business but what they, and other companies, were doing, was actually illegal. Clearly the Bangkok Post reporter or editors didn’t know that when they ran a full page article profiling him and his business!

The way it worked was this. A customer would lodge their passport with the company which would then post it by EMS (high speed traceable postal service) to the south of Thailand where an agent would take it (and probably actually a bunch of other passports) across the border. This agent was on a tour bus with many foreigners and rather than have everyone get off the bus, the Immigration officials on each side of the border would stamp the passports – and so that customer’s person exited Thailand and entered Malaysia.

If the passport only needed to cross the border and come back, then it would come straight back via a similar method and be sent back to Bangkok by EMS where it would arrive the next day. If the passport holder actually required a new visa, not just the border stamp but a whole new visa which could only be procured at a consulate or embassy outside the country, the passport would be taken to the Thai consulate in Penang where the visa would be processed, again by an agent with a bunch of passports – and the passport holder would never actually be seen by the embassy staff. The passport would then make its way back across the border and returned to the office in Bangkok where its owner could collect it.

There were many businesses offering this service and apparently most operated flawlessly. The first big shock to the industry was at the very end of the year 2000 when the Swede’s domestic situation deteriorated and he had a major falling out with his Thai wife that saw, amongst other things, the whole glass front of the Thai Visa shophouse smashed. The wife knew that the business was dodgy and after a failure to reconcile their relationship she informed the police who came and arrested her hubby who was subsequently deported and blacklisted (although rumour has it he was able to return to Thailand some time later).

Customers returning to collect their passport were horrified to find the shophouse closed and no note on the door explaining what had happened! This was picked up by the English language newspapers and it became a major talking point on the popular Internet forums of the day. While we will never know the exact number, rumour has it that around 30 farangs’ passports were somewhere in transit when he was busted. In all fairness to his wife she managed the issue extremely well and as best can be determined, all passports got their visa and all were returned to their owners, none of whom were visited by the boys in tight brown uniforms.

Now with the major player out of the way, the whole send the visa out of the country service became more well-known and all and sundry started offering the service.

There were guesthouses, laundry shops, bars, legal firms, various officials and even Westerners in the Thermae Coffee House handing out business cards, all offering the service!

All sorts of off business were in on the act, many of whom just passed the passport on to an agent who did the donkey work and they collected their commission, essentially acting as a middleman.

There was the Nana Guesthouse, the short time hotel in Nana Plaza of all places, where many bar owners and managers of the day used the service. There was Visa Vince, an Aussie whose service was particularly well-known amongst English teachers. It was alleged that there was even an official office in on it although my balls aren’t quite big enough to mention which one! As is so often the case in Thailand, everyone wanted a piece of the pie and this was a business easily copied.

I read an estimate, back around 2004, that well in excess of 50,000 visas had been issued over the years by people sending their passports out of the country. I’d believe it. Yep, it really was that widespread.

But the whole dodgy visa scam – and that is what it was – a scam, had grown too big and become too widespread. You didn’t have to be a genius to see that it was all going to come crashing down.

It wasn’t a fateful day as such because it took a while for the news to break, but back in 2004 the shit really hit the fan.

Things had got so out of control that every man and his dog got in on it. The problem was that some of offering the service did not really know what it entailed. Instead of sending the passport down to an agent at the border, they got copied Immigration stamps made up! So instead of passports leaving the country and getting legitimate stamps in an illegitimate way, passports were merely stamped in Bangkok with fake Immigration stamps and given back to the passport holder a few days later. These stamps were fakes!

It is ironic that when the shit finally hit the fan that it was unwitting travellers who in all likelihood believed that they were partaking of a bona fide service who were caught. (Compare that with long-term residents who all surely knew that it was dodgy!)

You see, when the passports went down to the border, not only were they stamped in and out as they should have been, the details were entered into the Immigration computer. But with the passports which merely received fake stamps, nothing was entered into the Immigration computer. In the case of the infamous Khao San Road visas – yes, travel agents and guesthouses in the backpackers’ haven had got in on the act, the visas were very clearly fake and when these travellers eventually went to exit the country, what it said in the Immigration computer and what it said in their passport were two completely different things!

At the time all this broke I was contacted by a friend working at one of the Bangkok embassies. He told me that that particular week that there had been in excess of 250 foreigners caught with these dodgy stamps in their passport! The Immigration department went to the trouble of placing adverts on Radio Thailand IN ENGLISH stating that anyone who wanted to extend their visa should go to the nearest branch of Immigration for advice and that under no circumstances should they lodge their passport with an agent to have it sent out of the country as such was illegal and anyone doing so would be prosecuted under Thai law.

I don’t know how many people got caught up in the mess but would guess at the very least it was in the high hundreds, but probably more likely well into the thousands.

The fake stamps could be detected by the number on the stamp which it was believed could be tracked back to an individual Immigration officer. Apparently every officer had a stamp with a different number. The numbers of the dodgy stamps quickly made it on to discussion forums and pandemonium set in as all of those who had availed themselves of this illegal service checked their visa stamps and went into a mad panic if the number matched the visa stamp in their passport! The Immigration department must have issued orders to all Immigration border posts for all officers to examine passports that had a certain type of visa within a certain timeframe.

This resulted in a frenzy. Many realised that their stamps were dodgy and they knew that when they went to leave the country they would be in the pooh. What followed was an amazing number of passports reported lost, stolen or having taken an unplanned trip through the washing machine! Police reports of lost, stolen or destroyed passports soared overnight and local embassies were inundated with applications for new passports.

In all fairness, I thought the Thai Immigration department handled the situation extremely well. Many people caught were let off with little more than a warning. The most common course of action for anyone caught at the main Immigration office with a dodgy visa was for that person to head to either the airport or the border IMMEDIATELY and get a new, 100% legal, visa. You can’t say Immigration wasn’t fair!

The businesses which had provided this visa service either disappeared completely (I hear, now in 2008, that one or two have resumed service) or changed the way they did business. Instead of actually providing the service of sending passports out of the country, they provided documentation that would allow someone to exit the country and get their chosen visa at an embassy or consulate. For this, I understand a few thousand baht is charged. A lot of the paperwork is dodgy, the reasons given for applying for the visa are quite false i.e. purporting that someone is doing business for a company which in fact they have no association with. Needless to say, one should not have anything to do with people filing dodgy paperwork for visas. Of course, there are also firms doing this sort of thing legitimately, so it is all rather confusing!

Since 2005, it has been more difficult to get visas for Thailand, entirely due to the widespread exploitation of the system that had taken place for more than a decade. Where Thai embassies and consulates had previously granted applicants visa after visa after visa, seemingly ad infinitum, now they are much more careful in scrutinising documents and determining just what the applicant’s reason for staying in Thailand is. If it appears the applicant is simply existing on back to back non-immigrant visas and appears to have no clear means of support, the visa may not be issued.

Westerners had always been able to enter and exit the country on 30 day entry stamps for an unlimited period of time. There was no limit on the number of such stamps you could have and you could, in theory, live indefinitely in Thailand on these 30 day stamps – if you were prepared for the hassle of exiting and re-entering the country every 30 days. The problem was that the major centre for foreigners in Thailand is Bangkok which is a few hours to the nearest border (Aranya Prathet / Poi Pet, Cambodia is about 3 hours away) and it was more convenient to get a 90 day visa, than merely a 30 day entry stamp.

However, the Immigration Department realised that this loophole was being exploited and in late 2006 they introduced the long-overdue rule that foreigners could spend no more than 90 days in a 180 day period in Thailand on these 30 day entry stamps. They never said you could not stay longer, just that you could not do so on this type of entry stamp which is intended for bona fide tourists only.

So, as at the time of putting this section of the site together, March 2008, it is getting more difficult to exist in Thailand on short term visas. The immigration department has never said that one cannot stay indefinitely, but they do want people to have a visa appropriate to their circumstances.

To complicate matters and to further sully the image of Westerners in Thailand, there have been a number of high profile arrests of Western pedophiles, some of whom had existed in Thailand for a long time on various visas, but had never got a full one year visa or a work permit. This brought the authorities’ attention towards the visa situation and is attributed as the major reason things were tightened up further.

Of course we should not overlook the case of the high profile arrest of the fellow considered the Asian mastermind of Al Qaeda, a certain Mr. Hambali who was arrested in Ayuthaya province in 2003. It was determined that his visa has been procured illegally.

Long-term abuse of the visa rules and regulations by foreigners has made it more difficult for those who wish to remain in Thailand long term. If things were still as relaxed as they were in the good old days, there would be absolutely no need for this section of the website to exist!