The Nomad's Guide to Chiang Mai

CoCo Blog

November 29, 2019 / by Lily / In Resources

Does Thailand Have a Digital Nomad Visa?

The responsible traveler who likes to plan things (so they don’t, you know, get denied entry and deported and stuff) may wonder “how do digital nomads live in Chiang Mai long term?” or “does Thailand have a special visa for digital nomads?”

The short answers are “by skirting immigration laws and bending visa restrictions” and “no.”

Given Thailand’s popularity both as a stop on round-the-world tours and a long-term base for location-independent workers, this may come as a surprise. Those who have spent some time in the kingdom, however, will know that grey areas in laws and enforcement are pretty normal here.

Is Thailand Creating a Visa for Digital Nomads?

While there was much excitement leading up to the SMART Visa scheme announced in 2017, it did not turn out to be the long-wished for solution desired by digital nomads (more on that below). That said, Thailand has been moving quickly to update visa schemes and policies designed to encourage knowledge transfer and foreign investment. Freelancers and remote tech-workers in particular could well be the beneficiaries of an expanded SMART Visa program.

The highly opinionated mind behind this blog is willing to bet you that in a year’s time, Thailand will have issued some type of visa solution for digital nomads.

Digital nomads represent a growing class of long-stay tourist who ought to be seen as desirable by governments. Most remote-workers and entrepreneurs are highly-skilled, earning their income from outside the country and injecting it into the local economy via apartment rentals, coworking passes, posh brunches, and a bottomless appetite for coffee. Nomads engage in fewer risky behaviors (like drinking) than the typical tourist, and unlike retirees, they’re unlikely to become an uninsured burden on the healthcare system.

DNs also have access to something that governments in countries trying to bridge the development gap desperately want: knowledge. Thailand is making a big bid to digitize and position itself as the startup capital of Southeast Asia. To achieve ambitious targets, homegrown talent won’t be enough. Thailand wants and needs entrepreneurs, investors, and highly-skilled workers.

The people who are digital nomads today are exceptionally privileged. Thanks to higher-education, digital literacy, and strong passports, digital nomads can choose how they want to live and work. The countries that are able to attract this demographic is going to have a big advantage in the coming years. It’s why countries like Germany, Estonia, Georgia, Malaysia and more are creating visa and residency schemes to seduce the wandering digital worker to stay a little longer.

Thailand’s technocrats are educated and savvy and while the messiness of politics in this country tends has a tendency to ham-string public servants, make no mistake, highly influential parties are already hard at work.

While no official public announcements have been made to date, this is a priority item for NIA, BOI, DEPA and other government agencies with a stake in Thailand’s digital future. We look forward to reporting back on this in the coming months as details emerge.

For those who are ready to move to Thailand now or can’t afford to just wait around though, what are the current alternatives?

In the next section, we’ll break down the top visa options for digital nomads in Thailand, explain some of the who and hows. If you’re looking for a detailed how-to guides for any of the visas below, this is not it. We do, however, link to official websites and well-researched resources we trust.

*DISCLAIMER FOR THOSE WHO DON’T UNDERSTAND HOW BLOGS AND THE MODERN INTERNET WORKS* None of what you read below constitutes legal advice. CoCo is not a legal company and the writer of this blog is not a lawyer. Use the information below at your own risk.

A Digital Nomad’s Visa Options in Thailand

For a little background, here’s a list of the visa and residency options used by digital nomads to live and work in Thailand:

  • Tourist Visa
  • Business Visa
  • Education Visa
  • Elite Visa
  • SMART Visa

Choosing the right visa option for you depends on 1) how long you want to stay in Thailand, 2) what country your passport is from and 3) where you’re currently located. How much you have to spend on a visa and visa services is also relevant, but that mostly applies to those who want to be in Thailand long term.

According to a recent survey on The Economic Impact of Digital Nomads, 86% of digital nomads have entered Thailand on a tourist visa (thanks to the Chiang Mai Entrepreneurship Association for putting out the survey and sharing their data with us!). If Thailand is but one stop on your world tour or you’re just dipping your toes into this lifestyle, a simple tourist visa is your best option.

For those wanting to stay longer in the country, education visas come in handy, and survey results indicate that 24% of nomads in Chiang Mai take advantage of this option. 16% are here longer term on non-immigrant visas of various description, while 12% of digital nomads have a non-immigrant business visa.

Digital Nomad Guide to Tourist Visas for Thailand

Tourist visas are designed for - you guessed it - tourists! And if you’re not planning to live in Thailand long term, this is you, even if “tourist” is an adjective that sticks in your craw. These include single-entry tourist visas, multiple-entry tourist visas, and visa-exempt entry (also just called “stamps”).

Designed to encourage travel to tourist-friendly Thailand, these are super easy to get. You can apply through consulates and embassies around the world, or if you’re from one of 64 countries, you can just show up and get a visa-exemption stamp upon arrival. This gives you permission to spend a minimum of 30 days in Thailand, with possibilities to extend for a longer stay.

If you apply for extensions and are smart about doing border hops and visa runs, you might be able to game the system to get 6 months in Thailand. If your itinerary includes travel to neighboring countries, you can easily build this into your plan.

To enjoy greater flexibility though, apply for a multiple-entry tourist visa from your home country. While it used to be possible to apply for the METV whilst abroad, Thai embassies around the world have cracked down on this. The METV allows you to spend 4 or 6 months in Thailand (some passports can even get a year) though you will still be required to apply for extensions and do border runs.

For those already outside their home country or considering options for staying a little longer in Thailand, it is possible to apply for a single-entry tourist visa from outside your home country. For those already in Thailand, Laos and Malaysia are the most popular destinations (pro-tip for those going to Vientiane, Laos be aware that appointments have to be booked in advance these days!). The cost to apply for a visa varies depending on the embassy, but is typically under $50.

If you’ve been in and out of Thailand for a while, do keep in mind that its more common now for immigration to use computer systems to tally your time in Thailand and those with many stamps in and out or who have already spent more than a cumulative 6 months in the kingdom may get hassled at the border. Sometimes this results in more questions and a stern warning, sometimes a jokey suggestion it may be time to wife up and get a marriage visa, or in some cases, being turned away entirely and forced to buy a flight out of the country. Yes, for real. This happens

To restate though, if you’re coming to Thailand for the first time and you’re planning to spend no more than 3 months here, you can basically skip the rest of this article. Entering the country should be a breeze for you.

There’s a lot of advice online that will make it seem like getting a visa for Thailand is difficult or stressful, but that’s only for people who have been coming here for years or are trying to stay long-term, i.e., they’re no longer tourists. It’s easy for tourists to come to Thailand, so don’t stress.

Further reading:

Business Visas for Digital Nomads in Thailand

Most “business visas” issued in Thailand are for employment. In other words, a local company wants to employ a foreigner so they need to issue that person a visa. This is just not relevant to most nomads.

The other type of business visa is the Non-Immigrant B Visa (Conducting Business) which is for “foreigners who wish to setup or conduct business in Thailand,” so again probably not relevant for most digital nomads who may be “working” in Thailand, but not actually “doing work” in Thailand.

If you’re looking to make Thailand an official base of operations or your work requires you to make frequent business trips to Thailand, then this may be the visa option for you. (But like, are you even a nomad then? Probably you call yourself location-independent and whatnot).

Bear in mind there’ll be tons of fun paperwork involved to confirm your financials, travel itinerary and more. If you’re self-employed then you’ll almost certainly have to register a company in Thailand which involves lawyers and accountants and more paperwork. In order to legally work in Thailand, foreigners also need a work permit along with the appropriate visa. Yay, even more paperwork!

If you’re a digital nomad who feels icky about the idea of “working illegally” in Thailand and thinks that getting a business visa will be the answer - it’s probably not worth the hassle. But we’re not lawyers at CoCo, if you want a definitive answer consult a lawyer! Searching for answers on the internet is more likely to lead you to a visa forum circle-jerk rather than a clear solution. 

Do note that if you’re in Thailand on a typical business trip, you’re fine. Thai authorities are not out to get you. People come to the country all the time for conferences, business meetings and the like on tourist visas with the intent to do business. That said, it is probably still simplest to mark the Purpose of Visit on your arrival card as “holiday” to avoid hassle.

Further reading:

Education Visas and Programs in Chiang Mai for Digital Nomads

The most commonly pursued option for foreigners wanting to extend their stays in Thailand, education visas are straightforward to get and get you 6 months or 1 year in this sunny and beautiful kingdom, with possibilities of renewing for further study.

An education visa is issued for the purpose of study (in the case of nomads this typically comes under the category of “informal” i.e. non-university study). Common programs are for studying Thai language, non-Thai languages, and martial arts like Muay Thai or hand to hand combat.

This visa gives you the right to live in Thailand, but not to work, and if you plan to work around the rules, for goodness sake do not bring this up in any of your submitted paperwork or whilst speaking to immigration. Tons of digital nomads living and working in Thailand use this visa, and it’s a big open secret, but let’s not spoil it shall we?

The nice thing about ed visas is that they’re pretty easy and straightforward to get (at least the first couple times). Another upside is that good schools are also super helpful about paperwork, helping to send you warnings and reminders, and managing follow up visa paperwork for you.

One downside of ed-visas though is they’re not cheap since you have pay for the visa application and for your program of study which can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars depending on your school of choice. They’re also not set up for multiple-entry so you will need to apply for re-entry permits when leaving the country and traveling during your course of study.

You will also, of course, have to actually attend classes! Depending on the program, this might be just class a couple hours a week, though some courses will be more intensive. Some programs, however, literally just need you to show up once a week to sign the register and you leave right after (did we mention people are blatantly abusing this system?).

Further reading:

  • Once again we’d recommend turning to Expat Den for their guide to education visas.
  • Due to the widespread abuse of this system, schools get black-balled and run into issues constantly - even reputable ones - so at this point in time we’ll decline to share links or comment on specific programs to follow up on. To get the latest, check out the Thai Visa Forums.

Elite Visa for Digital Nomads in Thailand

If you’re committed to staying in Thailand and you’ve got money to burn, congratulations, you can make all your Thailand visa problems go away with the Elite Visa!

This is a privilege scheme with zero to no real perks for residents in Chiang Mai, and frankly we admire the balls Thailand has to even offer something like this, but there’s capitalism for you - there’s always someone willing to pay if you can find them. Commentary aside, this is a program that’s been around since 2013 and plenty of wealthy nomads and expats take advantage.

The main benefit of the Elite Visa is you can get a renewable multiple-entry visa valid for 5 years or more that requires no additional extensions or border runs. You also get access to fast-track visa services and a concierge to help you with the pesky day to days of setting up bank accounts, buying property etc.

For these privileges, the Elite program asks for a mere THB500,000 fee (roughly US$16,500) for the 5 year visa. If you’ve got THB2 million on hand you can get a visa for an astonishing 20 years! 

Steep, but if you’re living in Thailand longterm and you factor in visa fees over time along with the cumulative airfare and hotel costs the numbers could well work out in your favor. You’re basically paying a huge chunk up front to sidestep the hassle.

The Elite Visa is a pretty nice option considering that so few other visas suit digital nomads, but bear in mind that this visa doesn’t give you the right to work in Thailand and you still need to do 90-day reporting (or a least have an agency do it for you).

Further reading:

Thailand SMART Visa for Digital Nomad Startups

Hopes were dashed when the details of Thailand’s SMART Visa scheme were released a couple years ago and it turned out to be next to useless for digital nomads. While the first iteration of this program was universally panned for obscene and unrealistic criteria and capital requirements, changes and updates to the requirements were rolled out pretty quickly.

Designed to encourage entrepreneurship and investment in innovative business sectors, the SMART Visa program has special visa classes for talent, executives, investors and entrepreneurs along with their spouses and children.

For digital nomads working on a startup and looking for a permanent home, the SMART S for startup entrepreneurs may be worth checking out. While the 1 year and 2 year options are clearly intended for those with capital and a strong intent to make Thailand a business base (so probably not nomads…), a 6 month option is available for those admitted to approved incubator and accelerator programs (could be nomads?!).

The benefits of the SMART Visa program are that it eliminates the need for a redundant visa and work-permit, and also relaxes some of the check-in requirements, both excellent reductions in the usual red tape around Thai bureaucracy. Some criticism is warranted though since the program is new and lacks adequate administrative support. Jury’s still out, but we say things are looking hopeful.

Non-startup-y nomads would do well to keep tabs on the SMART Visa program - rumor has it a so-called “SMART Freelancer” extension of the program is in the works. Thailand is keen to attract talent and encourage knowledge sharing, and those with the skills to create and scale startups, digitize SMEs, and mentor techy businesses could be in luck.

Further reading:

 

While nomads heading to Thailand have a number of visa options for short and long-term stays, none of these are ideal for the roving entrepreneur or remote worker. The digital nomad trend is fairly new in the scheme of things, however, so its unsurprising governments (who are not exactly known for moving fast and catching on to trends) have yet to catch up.

Thailand has been going through some major political shifts and we’re seeing exciting changes that signal more openness in the government, as well as baffling and backward blunders, but there’s cause to be hopeful that the kingdom will be one of the first countries in the world to truly embrace digital nomads with made-for-purpose visa policies.