As the holidays approach in Europe and America, many Europeans, Britons, Americans, Canadians, and Australians begin to ponder the prospect of a holiday in the Kingdom of Thailand. Long term immigration and visa issues are a major concern for many prospective long term tourists.
However, much like Shangri-La there seem to be more impediments to returning to this paradise. Most notable among these obstacles is the plethora of competing visa regulations being promulgated from the ordinance drafting machine that is Thai Immigration. To add confusion to complexity, many of the regional Consulates and Embassies are running things according to their own rules in a similar manner to the way a local chieftain runs his own fiefdom.
The rules get more complicated, but the game continues. Hopefully this will provide some insight for those looking to stay in the Kingdom for a long (or short) period of time.
Thailand Visa Exemption Stamps
First and foremost on the minds of short term travelers is the issue of Thailand visa exemptions. The visa exemption stamp is the 30 day stamp given to most tourists arriving at the Airport. Currently Thai Immigration is giving 30 day exemption stamps at the airport to anyone holding a passport from a country on the exemption list (US, UK, CA, most EU, AU, NZ, etc). Technically, these stamps are supposed to given an infinite number of times, provided the entrant is always coming through the airport. That being said, I have heard reports that this is not the case and more than about 3 entrances will get your passport heavily scrutinized (they can always turn you away as well).
Currently, at land borders, entrants seeking visa exemption stamps are only given 15 days of lawful presence. This is important to note because local immigration requires at least 21 days of status to process a visa extension or conversion. Therefore, the immigration officers have effectively barred long term status to those entering Thailand via a land border without a proper visa. If you are looking to stay long term, do not go about it this way.
Thailand Tourist Visas: Free If You Can Get One
After the less than spectacular tourist numbers last year, the Thai government announced a fee waiver for all Tourist visas sought abroad. This led to something of a backlash from Consulates overseas as the workload increased and the resources decreased. However, the plan seems to have had some positive effects as there has supposedly been an increase in tourist visa applications (possibly due to the fact that visa exemptions are now harder to come by).
Even though first-time tourist visa applications are being reluctantly approved, later applications for the same category are being critically reviewed. The Royal Thai Consulate in Penang, the on-again off-again visa run destination for most farangs in Thailand has made the policy that they will not issue multiple tourist visas. This seems to be the prevailing attitude throughout the region, with some exceptions. As a consequence, those wishing to remain for a longer period than 3 months might be wise to seek out a non-immigrant visa rather than using exemptions or tourist visas.
The Rise of the Non-Immigrant Visa
It appears that non-immigrant visa applications are on the rise. Although tourist visas technically are classified as non-immigrant, for these purposes we are talking about B visas, O visas, and retirement visas. O visas are always popular with those staying in Thailand long term as they allow for 90 days per entry. Should one acquire a 1 year multiple entry visa, then it could be utilized 4 times for a duration of stay amounting to 90 days per entry. The Business visa is also popular for those who may be looking at making their vacation more full time by attempting to gain employment and applying for a work permit. Acquiring a Thai business visa can be a difficult task, particularly if one does not have company sponsorship, but it is a highly flexible visa from legal standpoint. Finally the retirement visa: perfect for those over 50 who can prove financial resources to cover their living expenses. The only major downside to this one is the fact that employment is prohibited, but in general it is much easier to obtain than some other categories. Those interested in possible employment should look at the Business visa.
In my opinion, the non-immigrant visa categories will become more popular as the border run is slowly phased out, but then again this time next year we could be talking about how no such visas get issued anymore. Acquiring long term Thai immigration status in the Kingdom of Thailand can be difficult. Therefore, one should plan accordingly if still at home because: prior planning prevents police detention.