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Thai visa FAQ

Questions relating to Thai visas are some of the most common ones popping up on the Visa and Border Crossings section of the Travelfish.org forum. Given the Thai authorities change the rules so often it is no surprise that people get confused regarding both the need for a visa and how they can get one. So what follows is a brief summary of the rules and regulations regarding Thai visas along with some background information that may help.

Why does Thailand change its visa rules so often?

As anyone who has been to Thailand knows, it is a great place to travel and spend time in. Many first time visitors become regulars and many regulars (yours truly included) end up living there for a prolonged period. Getting a visa for a prolonged stay however is both complicated and a bit expensive, and, if you're doing it above board, the process generally requires that you are either retired or in legal employment.

Rather than jump through the hoops to get a non-immigrant visa (and the work permit that follows) many people just don't bother. They instead work illegally and do visa runs on a regular basis to remain in the country as a tourist. It's easy to lump all these people as sexpats holding up the bars in Pattaya, but the picture is a good deal more complicated. Some work for employers that will not get them a work visa, or are simply self-employed. Others are remote workers -- working via the internet for overseas companies. We have a good friend who worked as a marketing executive for a global marketing firm in Bangkok who did visa runs for five years because his employer wouldn't make him legal.

In the old days, these people would leave Thailand every 30 days, mostly via the border crossing to Cambodia at Poipet. They would enter Cambodia, turn around and head straight back to Thailand and get another 30 days. Others would go down to Penang every two months and get another tourist visa that was good for three months in Thailand (with extensions).

It is these people that the Thai government is trying to catch by changing the rules.

So what visas are available

There are two main means of entry to Thailand for people visiting for tourism purposes.

The visa-free entry
For nationals from certain countries there is a visa-free entry programme. This means you arrive and get stamped into the country for free. If you arrive by air you get 30 days and if you arrive by land you get 15 days -- some nationalities (see below) are eligible for 30-days overland. You are theoretically required to have proof of onward travel (more on that later).

If you are visiting Thailand for a short period and are a national of one of the eligible countries, this is the way to go.

A 30-day visa-free entry can be extended for 15 extra days at an immigration office for 1,900B. The 14-day visa-free entry can be extended for 7 days (also costs 1,900B).

The eligible countries for the 30-day visa free entry by air only are: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bahrain, Brunei, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Iceland, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Monaco, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Oman, The Philippines, Portugal, Qatar, Singapore, Spain, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, UAE, UK, USA and Vietnam. Nationals of Brazil, Republic of Korea and Peru are eligible for a 90-day stay.

The eligible countries for the 30-day visa free entry by both land and air are: German, French, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK and USA.

The tourist visa
Tourist visas are available at Thai consulates and embassies. Tourist visas are not free, but the charge varies from consulate to consulate. Something around the US$30 mark is pretty common.

Tourist visas are valid for two months and can be extended for a third month (incurring a 1,900B fee).

Some embassies -- notably Kuala Lumpur and Vientiane -- have reportedly issued dual-entry tourist visas, effectively giving travellers six months in Thailand.

There is also a whole lot of information on non-immigrant visas which I'm not going to get into as they're of limited use for tourists -- see ThaiVisa for a near endless stream of information in this regard.

Proof of departure

By the books, the Thai authorities require that you have proof of departure from Thailand within the period that your visa allows you in for. So if you're arriving on a tourist visa they want to see a ticket out within 90 days, while if you're doing a visa-free entry, they want proof that you will depart within two weeks or a month.

The problem is that even legitimate tourists may not have proof. For example, if you're planning on overlanding to Malaysia, you won't have a pre-purchased bus ticket to prove when you are leaving.

In practice, proof of onward travel is very rarely asked of legitimate tourists and we'd suggest -- especially for those on a short trip through -- not to worry about it. If you do want to have all your bases covered, buy yourself a cheap ticket with a low-cost carrier out of Thailand and just don't use the ticket.

Also, if you are a legitimate tourist and you are asked for proof and can't provide it, as long as your passport doesn't contain 15 pages of visa-free entry stamps, you should be able to talk your way through it.

Remember -- legitimate tourists are not the target of these rules.

But my airline says I need a ticket out

This can be a problem. We've received some reports that some carriers -- notably British Airways and Jetstar -- won't let passengers board without having a ticket out of the country. This can often come down to the attitude of the person at check-in. All you can do is check with the airline beforehand and if they require it then pick up a cheap ticket out of Thailand to prove you are leaving.

Can I use visas back to back?

Yes, at the moment there is no written regulations saying that you can't use tourist visas back to back. So you could conceivably get four tourist visas to give you a full year in Thailand (with you briefly leaving three times to get a new visa).

So what sort of visa should I get?

If you're in Thailand for a short time (under a month) and are eligible for visa-free stay -- then use that. If you're going to be in Thailand for over a month, get a tourist visa. If you're going to be entering Thailand on multiple occasions then look at how long each stay will be and plan accordingly. Bear in mind you can get tourist visas in all of Thailand's neighbouring countries. So for instance if your plan calls for three weeks in Thailand, then two weeks in Laos, a month in Vietnam, two weeks in Cambodia then six weeks in Thailand, arrive on a visa-free entry and then get a tourist visa in Phnom Penh to cover you for the six-week stay.

Other points

It is a good idea to think of it in these terms: Being granted admission to Thailand is a privilege, not a right. Dress reasonably and always be polite when dealing with immigration officers. Losing your cool will not get you anywhere. Really.

No two Thai consulates and embassies treat visa issuance in the same way, and likewise no two immigration officers.

The above is intended as a guide only.

About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.

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