Expat retirees went in to a frenzy this week after a news report broke of a new visa option which some misinterpreted as what many have long dreaded, Thailand Immigration would be tightening up on the requirements for a retirement visa. Many feared their stay in the Land of Smiles might be coming to an abrupt end. This paranoia was a false alarm, but at the same time it was a reminder for all foreigners in Thailand that other than the few who have residency or citizenship, there are no guarantees that you can stay indefinitely.
The so-called recent visa crackdown is anything but recent and can be traced back to 2006 when an American teacher in Bangkok, John Mark Karr, was arrested and extradited to the United States to face charges over the 1996 killing of a child beauty queen. Karr’s arrest resulted in a media storm. Foreign teachers in Thailand found themselves under greater scrutiny and the requirements for foreigners teaching in Thailand were tightened up.
With Karr’s arrest came the realisation that a lot of foreigners were essentially residing long-term in Thailand on visas designed for short-term stays. The government would crack down and each year requirements were tightened and loopholes closed.
A limit on the amount of time you could spend in the country on visa waivers was introduced, but would later be rescinded. Some consulates were once known to be a soft touch. Those that became known for issuing visas to anyone with a valid passport lost the right to issue certain types of visas.
The days of some Thai visa mills language institutes basing their advertising – indeed their whole business model – around getting students a long-stay visa are over as the Immigration Department cracked down on education visas and all but eliminating what was the easy option of staying in Thailand year after year. Thousands signed up for a language school solely because they wanted the benefits of an education visa – but they never attended class. When Immigration interviewed these so-called language students when they went for a visa extension and found they could not speak more than a few words of Thai, the racket came to an end.
A surprising number of people stayed for years by making monthly border runs. Every month they took a trip to a neighbouring country – often on a visa run company bus – crossed the border, entered the neighbouring country before turning around and coming straight back – all so they could get another 30 days permission to stay in Thailand. The Immigration Department put a stop to that and the computer system now flags anyone who spends a certain amount of time in the country on visa waiver stamps.
Double- and triple-entry tourist visas have been abolished, replaced with a multiple-entry tourist visa which has much more stringent requirements – and most embassies will only issue it to the those who live in that country or are legally resident there, eliminating the ease with which many foreigners residing in Thailand travelled to a neighbouring country and applied for a tourist visa there. Now they have to fly all the way home to get such a visa and even then it’s no certainty that it will be issued.
The requirements for the holy grail of visas, the multiple-entry business visa, are exhaustive and few find they can meet those requirements these days – just as few embassies issue them. And the old trick of applying for a multiple-entry non-immigrant "O" visa for the supposed reason of visiting friends or family in Thailand has been all but eliminated.
The one visa that has not been cracked down on yet is the retirement visa, a class of visa widely abused by those who don’t have the required funds. To get around that, they make a false representation at their embassy which then issues them with a statutory declaration saying that they have a monthly income of 65,000 baht or more. This document is presented to Immigration at their annual visa renewal to qualify for said visa.
The frenzy this past week amongst foreign retirees in Thailand comes on the back of the Immigration Department’s English language slogan of “good guys in, bad guys out”. Many retirees appear not to have noticed that their visa is a non-immigrant class i.e. it is NOT for someone emigrating to Thailand or moving there permanently. It does not guarantee you can continue to reside in the country indefinitely. This should be no surprise given that retirees have to renew their visa (technically, it is not a visa, but an extension of stay) at their local Immigration office annually. Unless you have permanent residency or citizenship, your stay in Thailand – irrespective of its length, and irrespective of the ties you may have with the country, be they perceived or otherwise – is, in the eyes of the Thai government, temporary.
Indefinitely Visa Options
While it may seem like visa options are running out, there remain two easy ways of staying in Thailand indefinitely.
- Marrying a Thai citizen allows you to apply for an extension of stay based on marriage. In what is something of an anomaly (and as such I would expect this to be something they look at soon), the financial requirements for someone applying for a marriage visa are half of that for a retirement visa. It makes no sense given that many foreign husbands support their Thai wife. I would not be surprised if the authorities chose to substantially increase the financial requirements for this visa to be issued.
- The other option for any foreigner who wishes to remain in Thailand hassle-free is to buy the Elite card. There are various options with the most affordable costing 500,000 baht. That gets the cardholder a 5-year visa which if used correctly allows one to stay for almost 6 years in Thailand. Defraying the cost of that period of time, it works out at around $2,500 per year to remain in Thailand without the need to make any visa runs or to renew / extend the visa annually. Given the amount of time and money some spend on visa runs, this is a decent option.
I think part of it comes back to the reputation of foreigners in Thailand. Thailand has never attracted the best of the West. There are good folks but there’s a lot of ratbags too – and the latter are often the most visible. Many Thais give the impression that they are happy for foreigners to visit but would be just as happy if we did not stick around too long.
Probably the biggest story of the year regarding foreigners resident in Thailand was that of the 3 Americans arrested after police served a search warrant on a property where a dismembered body was found in a freezer. What did that do for the reputation of foreigners in Thailand?
And what about this story from the past week featuring a European on the rampage in Sin City. Pattaya news items featuring foreigners don’t tend to make the national news but this one did – and those fantastic images of this mad man who looks like he stepped off the set of a horror movie aren’t going to do anything positive for the reputation of foreigners in Thailand.
A few years ago I wrote about how some Thais had become frustrated at the way foreigners were driving up the prices of affordable accommodation in Bangkok. In areas that used to be the end of the skytrain line like Prakanong and Onut, you could once get a basic room in some reasonable buildings for around 4,000 THB a month. As these areas become popular with foreigners who did not want to live more beyond the reach of the skytrain, they were willing to pay a premium to live there, outbidding the Thais. In some buildings rent rates jumped from 4,000 THB to almost 10,000 THB per month in just a few years as foreigners drove up prices, and put them out of reach of the everyday Thais who traditionally lived in such buildings. Some Thais saw foreigners as having a negative effect on their own lives.
Much of the immigration in Thailand is uncontrolled and there are no quotas, for example, on the number of foreigners who can retire to Thailand. Uncontrolled migration is something many in developed countries are unhappy about and it was a major factor in the UK voting in favour of Brexit and the US voting to elect Donald Trump as president. All around the world people are becoming fed up with what they see as uncontrolled migration. With Thailand attracting so many foreigners, is it really so hard to see why the Thais might feel the same way – especially when you see some of the foreigners who call Thailand home?
I find it highly amusing that those who cite one of the major reasons for leaving their homeland was the influx of foreigners who make little or no effort to assimilate, who speak a different language to them and make zero effort to learn the local language, who behave badly in public and who are considered disrespectful towards local women. Are foreigners in Thailand any different?
If Thailand wants to get serious about the quality of foreigners residing in the country they should copy what Western countries do. Any foreigner applying for a long-stay visa should have to produce a clean criminal record from their homeland. Thai Immigration law prohibits entry to those who have done time in their homeland – but checks aren’t made. If Thailand was to introduce a criminal record check, I believe the number of foreigners residing in Thailand would drop a little and importantly, the quality would go up. It’d be a win : win for both Thailand and the expat community. That would be a good place to start.
At the same time there is a compelling reason why Thailand should open the border up, make things easy and encourage immigration. Thailand has an ageing population and a very low birth rate. While many foreigners point to the short-term economic advantages of residing in the country, it is the long-term economic ramifications of a population decrease that Thailand ought to consider.
While migration can bring great social and economic benefits – and migration along with free trade are two of the biggest contributors to increased prosperity – uncontrolled migration is not without its challenges. Throw in a healthy dose of nationalism and it’s not hard to see why Thailand has tightened up the enforcement of visa rules in recent years.