The Mae Sai-Tachileik border crossing occurs over the old bridge; the new bridge east of town is principally for heavy goods vehicles and not for foot passengers.
Crossing presents you with three options. First, it is an official entrypoint into Burma if you have a valid Burmese visa. (There are no visas on arrival as of October 2015.) Second, Thai and Burmese immigration will let you cross for a short period if you just wish to look around or do some shopping; you'll need to return before 19:00 on the same day, no visa is required and no stamps will appear in your passport. Third, you can cross with your passport for a day or less with no Burmese visa required, but Thai stamps appearing in your passport. You must also return in the latter case before 19:00.
Crossing into Burma for onward travel is relatively straightforward and as long as you have a valid Burmese visa in advance then you just get stamped through customs and walk 100 metres over the bridge to Burmese immigration. (See more about onward travel and Burmese regulations in our Tachileik section.)
Popping into Burma for the day is also generally straightforward. You deposit your passport with Thai police and pay a fee of 100 baht to the Thai sand 500 baht to the Burmese officials, and you can then walk over the bridge with a temporary entry permit, wander around Tachileik to do some shopping, including duty free, and return to Thai immigration and pick up your passport with no entry or departure stamps involved. If you stay overnight in Tachileik, be warned that you will be in serious trouble the next morning!
Visa runs are the most complicated. You still pay 100 plus 500 baht for a temporary pass but you take your passport with you, thus receiving a Thai exit stamp and, on return, a Thai entry stamp. If all goes well, you then receive a stamp with an extra 15 or 30 days -- it just depends upon what the Thai government is issuing. This whole system is subject to wide ranging and last minute changes -- all we can do is describe conditions at the time of our mid-2015 visit. It may well have all changed by the time you get there.
When we arrived at Thai immigration, officials were helpful and friendly with a reasonable level of English. There was a handwritten sign in English stating ‘SORRY NO VISA RUNS’ however, when we enquired about crossing to Burma, the police officer asked if we’d like to take our passport with us or not. That would have made it a visa run so... go figure!
At various times in the past, whether you could get another would depend upon how many of these ‘visa run’ stamps you had in your passport already; officials were limiting extension to a regular tourist visa in this manner to a maximum of three times. You will need to check at the time of your visit and note that conditions may even have changed by the time you reach Mae Sai if you’re travelling up from Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai. Operators in the latter offer special visa run daytrips by minibus to Mae Sai and they at least ought to know what’s happening. Needless to say it probably is not a great idea to turn up at immigration with a half-day left on your allotted time. In case of problems, allow yourself at least a day or so to get back to Chiang Mai airport and get a flight out to Vientiane or somewhere.
In August 2015 they were granting 30-day visa exemptions to the following nationalities only: UK, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, United States and Canada. At least 50 other countries were allowed 15-day visa on arrivals or 15-day visa exemptions, including most European countries plus Israel, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, most but not all of ASEAN members and a selection of other seemingly random nationalities such as Ethiopia, Uzbekistan and Mongolia. People with any other passport will not be allowed to cross here -- please check. These regulations are generally decided by bilateral agreements and are not only down to the whims of the government in Bangkok.
As of September 2015 -- that is, just after our last in-person visit -- in the wake of the Bangkok bombing, visa exemptions and visa on arrivals have been seriously curtailed at many land border crossings including Mae Sai. There is no way of knowing how consistently these regulations will be applied and for what length of time or if conditions will become even stricter.
Finally, note that if Thai border officials are not certain that Burmese immigration will let you enter or indeed that they themselves will allow you to re-enter, then they will not let you cross in the first place -- the last thing they want is tourists stranded in no man’s land.
By Mark Ord.
Last updated on 4th March, 2017.
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