After spending a few hours three months ago with thousands of other expats, immigrants and foreigners at everyone’s favorite place in Thailand known as The Immigration Office, we decided to buck the Thai trend and give the online reporting system a shot for our second “90 day report”. As laughable as everything involving immigration in Thailand, they do actually have an electronic means of checking in with the teacher (Kingdom) every 90 days but catching it working is about as likely as Donald Trump tweeting something truthful. But like the expression “once in a blue moon”, which just happened to occur a few days ago, sometimes pigs fly and believe it or not, our online application switched from “pending” to “approved” in only two business days. Saving the hassle of a wasted morning, we printed out our shiny new “internet version” of the TM47 form that gets stapled and takes up valuable space in your passport. Along with our original visa, a departure card, an “extension to stay based on retirement “ and an optional “return entry permit” that gives you the privilege of returning to the country without reapplying all over again, (for a 1,000 THB fee), our passports are now up to date with five pages of Thai paperwork. At least for another 90 days anyway.
Having checked my stats page lately, I’m glad to see folks are finally beginning to understand we don’t live in Malaysia anymore. Questioning if I’d be able to keep the blog worth reading in the “digital nomad capital of Southeast Asia“, enough people convinced me that our niche is writing about two North American early retirees that chose to live in Chiang Mai. Lacking middle class 50 somethings that have enough cash to live in other expat friendly nations that prefer retired people with decent means and white-collar working families, Chiang Mai is a good place for anyone on earth that wants to escape their homeland, live a work free lifestyle or otherwise drop out of life.
And although my stats still show the posts about Malaysia’s MM2H Visa Program leading the way as my most viewed, I’m finally starting to get some inquiries about how to become an expat in Thailand. Once again expressing that my Google ranking as the one the internet’s top five sites for Malaysian visa information is not by choice, I realize I haven’t shared much about Thailand’s redundant revolving door system of visas. First and most importantly, if you’re considering a move as a retiree, you should know there is an “elite visa” program that offers long-term status (five years) but the redundant 90 day reporting rules still apply and the financial requirements are wholeheartedly unreasonable like tying up 1 million Thai Baht in their banking system a year at a time. Excluding some millionaires living in the most expensive luxury condos in Bangkok, I don’t know anyone with that much money who wouldn’t choose somewhere much nicer like the South of France so I’ll focus on the type of visa most average retired people choose which is known as “The Non-O Visa”.
Keeping in mind that Thailand doesn’t really issue “retirement visas” in the traditional sense, immigration rules change as much as Trump’s attention span so let’s start by explaining a common misnomer. Simply put, there’s two ways to live in the Kingdom on a retirement visa. Short of marriage to a Thai citizen, your status entails being a “non immigrant” which means you’re always considered a foreigner and every time you need immigration for anything from renewing your visa to re-entering the country, you’re subject to denial regardless of what documents you already have. Failing to follow any of the dozens of rules means risking your status and/or large fines so it’s important to stay abreast of immigration rules when living in Thailand. Granted I’m no doubt the exception in today’s lazy internet generation where thousands of expats simply post questions on Facebook forums when they need to do something or get fined and then complain about Thai immigration or how ignorant and archaic Thailand is.
One of the co-administrators that runs the most reliable source of information on any Facebook group in Thailand often posts otherwise and thinks he’s somehow “entitled to be here” because he’s devoted his time to learning the ins and outs of the system. Further from the truth than anything, nobody except diplomats and permanent residents have any sovereign rights in Thailand (or almost any foreign nation) and you’ll find one crowd of expats that understands this and tries to respect local culture and immigration policy even if it’s kind of ridiculous. Conversely, you’ll find an equal number of total assholes all over Thailand that demean, insult and otherwise have zero respect for anything Thai. My best guess about why they live somewhere they apparently hate is that they were losers in their own homeland, probably too poor to stay in the developed world or unwilling to work which makes Thailand’s “revolving door of tourist visas” perfect for them. Understanding this before you come to Thailand plays a role in your satisfaction unless you’re the type that can ignore everyone. (I’m most definitely not).
Starting with the method unavailable to us, the first type of visa is called an “O-A Longstay” and must be obtained by applying at a Thai Embassy in your home country. The main difference between that one and the regular “non-O” aside from the physical location requirement is that it’s more stringent with background checks, medical requirements and some other issues like notaries not associated with the method we used. Financially speaking, the requirements are similar although here in Thailand, if you’re American, you can simply visit the consulate in Chiang Mai or the embassy in Bangkok and make a sworn declaration stating you meet the income requirements in lieu of depositing cash into a Thai bank account.
Disclaimer: The rest of the expat world hates this rule knowing that many people purge themselves and there are rumors the Thai immigration may stop accepting this document soon. I NEVER CONDONE making false statements to any government agency.
Since I know nothing about this method, I’d suggest you visit the Thai government website or consult the Facebook group Thai Visa Advice for more information on this program. I also do not recommend using an agent while overseas as we did with our MM2H Visa. Used much more often to get retirement status, the “O” in the “Non-O” Visa simply means “other”. Flipping through the official immigration rules, you’ll see that Thailand offers a cornucopia of lettered visas for education, study, work, marriage to a Thai and a host of seldom used classes like the “ED Muay Thai and Martial arts Training” or “ED Cooking Class” options. Here’s a link with all of them if you’re curious. Written by one of those people who make their living selling you information you can find yourself for free, I don’t ever advocate paying for e-book starter kits.
Now comes the confusing part. There’s three ways to enter Thailand. First, there’s “Visa Exempt” status which means you land at an airport, arrive at immigration, fill out an arrival and departure card and get “stamped in”. It’s supposed to be for tourism only and you’re given 30 days to stay with no further visa requirements. Overstaying results in fines when you leave and most developed western nations can use this option. Often confused with “visa on arrival”, the latter option is for citizens of 19 specific countries that don’t qualify for “visa exempt” status but are given a special counter at immigration thereby bypassing the need for a pre-approved 60 day tourist visa.
More commonly used repeatedly by those who don’t qualify for retirement visas but want to live in Thailand is the “60 Day Tourist Visa“. Obtained by visiting any Thai consulate or embassy outside Thailand, almost anyone can qualify for this as long as they’re not on some blacklist (That’s an entirely different and complicated topic that’s outside the scope of this post). As the only country I know of that redefines the word “tourist”, Thailand generally allows people under age 50 to do a “visa run” which means leaving Thailand after their short-term tourist visa expires to apply for another one. (Visas are extendable to 90 days by shelling over some cash at an immigration office and most people wait until the 60th day to do this).
Neighboring nations like Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia make a killing issuing these visas at a Thai consulate and you can join regularly scheduled visa run buses that take groups of “tourist residents” over the border twice a week. Unclear who gets to stay and for how many times, I only know the rules always change and since I’m not wild about this whole system that allows “tourists” to apply for drivers licenses, open bank accounts and sign long-term leases, I’ll leave this topic for others and move on to the “non-O” visa.
Finally, there’s a “non immigrant” visa that falls under all the categories besides tourist like work, education and various others. But you can’t get a visa “based on retirement” for your first entry. Instead, you have to get a non-O from either within Thailand or from outside the country. The first option can apparently be done by entering with another class of visa (even tourist) and applying to change the status to an “O” visa. Not seeming practical for us since we lived in Penang when we began the visa process, we used option two which means you apply for a “90 day non-O” visa at a Thai consulate outside Thailand. Needing a reason to qualify, we used “intent to extend based on retirement” and if you’re successful, you’d then follow a new set of rules and apply within Thailand to “extend it”.
Adding to the confusion, Thai consulate staff are NOT employees of the Royal Thai Immigration Bureau. Given that they’re unfamiliar with rules about “extension of visas based on retirement”, they may ask you for proof of a bank account, cash, proof of an address in Thailand or any other list of things they’re not authorized to do. And making it even harder, you can either apply for a “single entry 90 day visa” (which is what we recommend) or you can apply for a “1 year multiple entry visa” which costs more. The latter option means you MUST leave Thailand every 90 days and re-enter even though the visa is technically for a one year term. It’s also not extendable “based on retirement” so I’m unsure why anyone looking to stay based on retirement that’s not planning a trip every three months would use it. Either way, it’s all a pain in the ass since there’s no hard set of rules for getting a Non-O Visa outside Thailand.
Solution? An Indian guy named Jim Tachimamurthy in Penang who’s the island’s resident expert on everything about Thai visas at the Thai Consulate in Penang. For a fee, he takes your passport and advises what, if anything, he thinks his buddies at the Thai consulate would want to see (can you say kickback?) to approve a “non-O” visa. Telling us we should open a Thai bank account first, deposit about 100,000 Thai Baht (about $3,200 USD) and return to him with a bank book as proof of intent, the resident expert at Thai Visa Advice agreed with me that they have no authority to ask for this but also agreed that if you apply yourself and you’re rejected, they will remember you if you then try to use Jim. So we took a three-week trip a month before our lease in Penang expired, stayed in a suburban hotel, and entered Thailand on a “visa exempt” status. On our first day, we opened a Thai bank account. No, this is not straight forward; we got lucky and went with a guy who knew the branch manager but it always helps when you show them your willingness to deposit a large sum of cash. (which we got in Penang at the money changer). Simultaneously searching for a place to live, we signed a lease in a few days, gave the landlord two month’s deposit in cash and went back to Penang where we visited Jim the next day and then finished packing.
As promised, Jim gave us back our passports the next day with two shiny laminated “Non-O Immigrant” visas. Stamped with an “enter by” date that gives you 90 days to arrive in Thailand, you’d then use that visa to enter and they’ll stamp how long it’s good for on your arrival card (that stays stapled in your passport). As for the misnomer, it’s important to mention this is the ONLY VISA we’ll ever get. Once in the Kingdom, the next step is waiting until there’s at least 45 days or less until the expiry date of the Non-O visa and then applying to “extend based on retirement”. Extensions are only valid for one year and then you have to repeat the process at immigration (or pay an agent) annually for as long as you wish to stay. As for leaving the country for travel, it’s not possible during this transition period and once you get the “extension based on retirement”, you’ll need to buy a re-entry permit if you want to leave Thailand. Failing to know this and returning without it would void your entire one year extension. The re-entry permits are valid for as long as the retirement extension and are either good for a single entry (1000 THB) or multiple entries (3,800 THB which means it’s only worth it if you plan on travelling internationally four times before the retirement extension expires).
Ready to give up on a Thai retirement visa yet? Now it’s time to explain the rest. (Did I even mention being age 50 or older is the first requirement?) Before applying the first time for a retirement extension, you’ll need to make sure your Thai Bank account has a minimum balance of 800,000 Thai Baht for not less than 60 consecutive days before you apply. Knowing the first possible day you can apply to extend is the 45th day before the visa expires, for us this meant making sure enough cash was in the Thai bank account before we even had our 90 day Non-O visa (An alternative is wait until you arrive, transfer the cash no later than 30 days after arrival and wait 60 days to apply but that cuts it close if there’s any immigration issues). Since there’s no joint bank accounts in Thailand, you’d think Diane would also need her own bank account with 800,000 THB. Thankfully, if your spouse is not yet 50 years old and can’t qualify for the retirement extension, she can “follow” on yours but you’ll need to have a letter from the U.S. Embassy that swears you’re married. At a cost of $50 USD, it’s easy to get in Chiang Mai but you do need an appointment and they don’t give out a lot so plan accordingly. There’s no proof required to get this form but if you apply for the extension in person, there’s a chance an immigration officer can ask to see the original marriage certificate.
Finally, you’ll need to go the branch you opened your bank account with and ask for a special letter that confirms you’ve had 800,000 THB in the bank for at least 60 consecutive days (This requirement changes to 90 days for all subsequent applications to extend). Another example of redundancy, the letter serves no purpose since you’ll have to show your “bank book” to immigration anyway. (yes, a bank book is that archaic thing from our childhoods) and it must be updated on the day you apply which means you’d need to go to the ATM in the morning, do a transaction and then run it through the “passbook update” machine to prove it’s a current balance. And the letter has to be issued and signed within five days of your application.
So on the 46th day after we entered Thailand, we decided to waste the cash and shelled out 3,000 THB each for an agent’s fee and another 1,900 THB each for the immigration fee. Dropping off the paperwork at the agency that’s conveniently at the same mall as immigration, we came back six hours later and had a shiny new black stamp in the passport on yet another wasted page that specifies our “Non 0 Visa” has been “extended based on retirement” for one year. About the only good part is they let you keep any remaining time on the original Non-O visa and the one year extension period doesn’t begin until the end date of the original visa. BUT, the 90 day reporting period begins the day they approve the extension so it won’t correspond neatly with the date of the extension unless you wait until the 90th day to apply (not advisable).
Isn’t Thailand fun? While it seems daunting, it’s actually not difficult once you muddle through all the paperwork and regulations but I’d be remiss if I didn’t close by telling you about the two important issues that are often misunderstood. On top of endless ways to track foreigner’s movements, there’s another gem of a form called a TM30 (Registration of Foreigner). Within 24 hours after moving into a house or condo, the landlord (or condo management) must file a form stating where you’re staying which acts as the official record of landing for immigration. It also needs to stay stapled in your passport and every time you return form an international trip, you need to go to immigration and “report back” even though you would have already been admitted based on everything I’ve already explained so they obviously know you’re in the country legally. They’ll put a new the date on the TM30 and if you fail to do this, you may have trouble doing the next 90 day report. Which, by the way, starts over every time you re-enter the country and has NOTHING TO DO with your “Non O Visa” that’s been “extended based on retirement”.
Even worse, the technical rules of the TM30 state that a foreigner needs to check in at immigration every time they spend even one night away from the address they’re registered in and the government expects every hotel, guesthouse and Airbnb to file a TM30 form on your behalf when you check in. Obviously designed to track movements of tourists, the theory goes that when you do your next 90 day report, if a hotel you stayed at while visiting another region filed the TM30, the immigration system will override the one you carry in your passport even though there’s an obvious intent to keep residing at that address. Thankfully, enforcement comes and goes, it’s mostly enforced in Chiang Mai only since it’s simply not practical in the capital region and following this rule often results in a wasted trip to immigration where immigration’s told many Chiang Mai expats that it’s unnecessary to update a TM30 after domestic travel. Everything involving expats (and “resident tourists”) in Thailand depends on the mood of the immigration officer and that’s the most important lesson you should take out of this post if you’re considering retiring in Chiang Mai.
Sadly, I see I’ve droned on for over 3,000 words and still didn’t even talk about the 90 day reporting. Simply put, every foreigner staying in the county has to “report” their whereabouts to immigration every 90 days no matter what your status. While you can pay an agent to do this, it’s the only requirement that’s fee free and it can be done online (hypothetically), by mail or in person. But to make it fun, the 90 days starts over every time you leave Thailand so in the course of a one year extension based on retirement, you can actually leave on the 89th day four times if you really wanted to avoid this double secret probation requirement.
So to reiterate and summarize this insanity, the end date of a Non-O Visa that’s extended based on retirement is independent from the 90 day reporting requirement, the process of staying in Thailand is more tedious than any nation on the planet and if you’re still interested in living here after reading this post, The Land of Smiles is more than happy to take your money (and time). For anyone still confused or wanting some more information, feel free to leave a comment and I’d be happy to help. Or steer you south to Malaysia. Cheers from Northern Thailand.