Big, Beautiful Border Wall; A Thai Retirement Visa Primer

Well, that got your attention, didn’t it? Despite having a military junta control its elections, parliament, and constitution, Thailand remains devoid of any big beautiful Trumpwalls. Granted, nobody living here finds much to celebrate about the Thai Government, especially when the topic of immigration comes up, but at least the nation’s not run by a narcissistic ignorant toddler who spends his days detaining despondent Burmese women at the border and separating them from their children. Possibly the world leader when it comes to the number of expats, dropouts, retirees and illegal foreigners, Thailand’s immigration system is a revolving door of endless paperwork, passport stamps, and reporting. While not exactly campaigning on a policy of stereotyping immigrants as “sending us their worst”, there’s been a recent slew of significant changes clearly designed to send as many westerners packing as possible without coming out and saying so.

Our local immigration office

Returning from hiatus a few posts ago, I mentioned that The Experimental Expats are leaving Thailand next year for Mexico. Between a burning season that’s now turned into a three-month poisonous air fiasco and climate change that’s extended “hot season” into a five-month version of Las Vegas in summer with crappier skies, the change in immigration policy for folks who “extend their visa based on retirement” was the final straw. (more on what that means later). But what changed and for that matter, who the hell really understands Thai immigration rules anyway? Here’s a hint; Not the folks at Thai Immigration. While most educated Thai people (and even most working class folks) apparently want a representative government, the military junta runs the show which means policy decisions are made by whoever has power on any given day.

Rarely discussing the ramifications of implementing said policy change, the appropriate agencies responsible for day to day operations of whatever (in this case, immigration) are usually left in the dark. Citing an example, here’s an article telling us all how the Thai Immigration Department had no clue about the major shift in policy days after it was announced. And with over 90 provinces all operating independently of one another in terms of enforcement, the Thai Immigration system often runs a smoothly as one of Trump’s tremendous summits with totalitarian dictators. (Pre-click warning: Posts about Thai Immigration are always lengthy).

Promising I’d share the changes in immigration policy but putting it off for a while, I understand that Immigration Visas are like another language to anyone unfamiliar with living outside their homeland. Given that only 36% of Americans even have a passport, I’ll go out on a limb and assume many readers want me to explain what all the Thai Visa language means. Knowing that baby boomers are retiring in droves, many folks may find inspiration from our blind adventure of settling in places we’d never even visited. And of course, North Americans make up only about one-third of my readers so I’ll share a very basic primer about Thai visas based on retirement, the idiot reporting rules you’ll need to follow if you choose Thailand to retire and my personal opinion on why staying in Thailand no longer makes financial sense (for us, anyway) given the new requirements

Given the multitude of available visas from work to education and a bunch of special ones, a discussion of all available choices is beyond the scope of my blog so I’ll focus mostly on retirement in Thailand. For tourists, passport holders of 55 countries are entitled to enter Thailand under a visa exempt provision provided that they meet certain criteria. Please refer to this link for more information. Other than retirement, the other common types of Thai visas are Work (called a Non-Immigrant “B” Visa) and Education (Non-Immigrant “ED” Visa). What’s commonly known as “Marriage Visas” are not actually visas at all; they’re one-year renewable extensions of something called a “Non-Immigrant Non-O Visa” and the rules are similar to the retirement extension that Diane and I use so bear with me and follow along. For more information on the visas other than for retirement, I like this guy’s post on The ThailandLife.com.

A “Non Immigrant O Visa”

Mostly due to misinformation, lack of uniformity between provincial Immigration offices and a general unwillingness by many folks to understand and follow rules that often change, you may notice a lot of disgruntled expats constantly complaining about being fined, denied entry, and even deported. While the rules are tedious, usually make no sense whatsoever and are designed to keep a steady flow of income into the military government’s coffers, Diane and I have never had any issues with immigration because we learn, keep track of, and follow procedures. If that’s not your personality, choosing Thailand as an expat destination might be a costly and frustrating experience.

To stay informed, the very best source of information is a public Facebook group called Thai Visa Advice. Co-administered by a very opinionated but extremely knowledgeable American, the group seems to be his thing in life. Although he’ll often join in on anti-Thai rants about incompetence, social issues and everything else that expats with nothing to do bitch about, everything he’s ever told us has proven correct and in rare cases when he’s wrong, he’ll immediately admit it and correct himself.

A fun day at Thai Immigration

Unlike Malaysia’s MM2H Program that Diane and I used and are still part of, Thailand generally doesn’t issue long term visas. Instead, everyone wishing to stay long term applies for a short-term visa that gets laminated into your passport and then applies to “extend the visa” based on a condition like retirement, education, work or marriage to a Thai. For retirement, you’ll need a “Non-Immigrant “O” visa. (Sidenote: The “O” stands for “other“, which is stupid since most people staying in Thailand long term are here on the basis of either marriage to a Thai or retirement and both use the “O” category).

Extensions are short (usually one year) which means annually, you’ll need to meet a set of conditions and re-apply for another extension. Every year, they’ll waste an entire page in your passport with another large stamp that states the basis of your extension and the expiry date. And should you wish to leave Thailand for any reason, you’ll have to go to immigration, fill out a two-page form called the TM.8, take copies of your passport bio page, get a passport sized photo and pay a fee to get another full page stamp called a “Re-entry permit”. Note that the permit is only good until the last valid day of your current retirement extension so if you’re not 100% sure you’ll travel before then, save your money.

This is a “Reentry permit”. It wastes an entire page in your passport and you need one every time you leave Thailand if you intend to keep your retirement visa status

Further complicating this overpriced and redundant requirement, you can either get a Single Entry” reentry permit for 1,000 THB (about $31 USD) or if you plan on traveling internationally more than 3 times before the expiry of your current retirement extension, you can save some money and get a “Multiple Entry” permit for 3,800 THB. In exchange for your cash, you get the privilege of re-entering Thailand without interruption of your current retirement extension status. Herein lies a great deal of confusion with expats. Should you forget to buy a permit before your international trip, they’ll still let you enter Thailand but only on the aforementioned “visa exempt” status. Failure to possess a reentry permit means you’ve forfeited your status of being in Thailand based on a retirement extension and you’ll have to reapply all over again. And to make it more fun, you can apply to change the status of any visa before its expiry but entering Thailand on a “visa exempt status” doesn’t count as having a visa at all; you’d need to re-enter on a 60 day “tourist visa”, which you apply for at any Thai consulate or embassy outside of Thailand, then apply to change the status to a “Non-O’, and finally, “extend the Non-O” based on whatever status you had before (retirement in our example).

So basically, once you have a retirement extension, don’t ever leave Thailand without a re-entry permit.

Ready to choose another country? Not yet? Then read on.

Moving onto the actual process of becoming a retiree in Thailand, there’s two ways to stay in Thailand based on retirement; the first method is called a “Long-Stay” or “Non-Immigrant O-A” visa but you’ll need to apply at a Thai Embassy from your home country. Giving you permission to stay one year before applying for an extension, the criteria is a bit more stringent and since Diane and I moved from Malaysia to Thailand, this wasn’t an option for us. There’s also a ten-year long term elite visa called a “Non-X” for wealthier expats with both assets and income but you have to deposit and tie up insane amounts of cash in Thailand. (Personally, I don’t know anyone wealthy that would choose a developing nation for retirement). We know very little about either of these visas, but the “O-A” may be favorable if you’re still in your home country and thinking about retirement in Thailand so here’s a link from the Royal Thai Embassy in Washington explaining all the visa categories

Using the second method whereby you enter Thailand on a Non-O Visa and then apply to extend for a period of one year based on retirement, Diane and I used the services of a guy named Jim Tachinamurthy in Penang (while we still lived in Malaysia) who was the island’s resident expert on all things involving Thai visas at the Penang consulate. Because the rules for Non-O visas have changed so much, it’s pointless to go through what he asked us for in 2017 and I’m not even sure if he still offers his services. The Non-O visa is usually a single entry 90-day visa but there is a one year version available. Requiring you to leave and re-enter Thailand every 90 days, I don’t know why anyone would want that. Initially, we visited Thailand for two weeks on a visa exempt status, found a place to live, signed a lease, opened a Thai bank account with the help of a friend already in Chiang Mai, transferred a large sum of cash from the USA (see next paragraph as to why), and returned to Penang for two weeks. Once back in Penang, we obtained our 90-day Non-O visa (for a moderate fee from Jim), wrapped up our ties in Malaysia, sent our moving boxes off, and entered Thailand in July, 2017.

So now that you’ve got a Non-O Visa, what’s next? Once you enter Thailand, the clock starts on the 90 day period of your visa. Once it’s got 45 days or less until expiry, you can then apply to “extend the visa based on retirement” assuming you meet the criteria. First, there’s the financial requirement which is tricky. You can either show “cash in the bank” which means you’ll need to have a minimum balance of 800,000 THB in a Thai bank account for 60 consecutive days prior to applying. Doing the math, you’ll notice that only gives you a maximum of 30 days after entering on a 90 day Non-O Visa to get your Thai bank account opened and the cash deposited. I’d also advise not waiting until the 89th day in case of any problems at immigration. Or you can use a reliable agent like we did but that costs an extra few thousand Bhat. To be safe, we opened our Thai bank account and transferred enough cash on a separate “tourist” trip prior to entering Thailand with our Non-O Visa. Be warned that getting a Thai bank to open an account on a “visa exempt” status isn’t always easy, although if you wire the funds immediately and explain your intentions, they’re usually fine with it.

The other way to satisfy the financial requirement is by showing monthly income (usually from a pension) of at least 65,000 THB per month and this is the first rule that just changed recently. Prior to the beginning of 2019, applicants could simply visit their embassy, pay a fee and get an affidavit swearing they meet the monthly income requirement. Unfortunately, a United States Embassy or Consulate General can’t actually verify what you’re swearing to because privacy rules prohibit them from accessing official documents like financial statements, drivers licenses, and marriage certificates except by an order from a law enforcement agency. So many wannabe expats used this route rather than depositing 800,000 THB and rumor has it many falsified or greatly exaggerated their income.

An Affidavit from the US Consulate in Chiang Mai

But starting with applicants from four countries, (USA, UK, Australia and Denmark), the Thai government stopped accepting income affidavits when applying to extend visas based on retirement or marriage to a Thai. Officially, the reason given was “they didn’t know the Consulate wasn’t verifying the information on sworn affidavits“. Even for Thailand, that logic defies what’s known as Thai logic, which is basically no logic at all. More than likely, this was the first step in purging out many westerners who don’t actually meet the income requirements for retirement extensions. So now, the only acceptable proof of monthly income is 12 consecutive monthly bank statements from a Thai bank showing proof of international wire transfers of at least 65,000 THB. And DO NOT GET FOOLED; ATM transfers from a debit or credit card outside Thailand are not acceptable nor are internal transfers from one Thai bank account to another.

So assuming the income method probably can’t apply to first-time applicants extending a visa based on retirement, you’ll need to go with the 800,000 THB in a Thai bank account for 60 consecutive days method. Apparently, you can also show a combination of monthly income and some cash as long as the two total 800,000 THB and they’ll waive the 60 days in the bank rule but I haven’t heard of anyone trying this since the affidavits stopped being accepted.

The press release from the US Embassy regarding Income Affidavits for Thai Immigration purposes

And the last piece of paperwork you’ll need before applying to extend a visa based on retirement is a special certified letter from your Thai bank that verifies you’ve had a minimum of 800,000 THB for 60 days, and it’s only valid for five business days. But just to complete the “Only in Thailand” adage, the 60 day rule is only for the first time you extend. Each year after that, the period whereby you need 800,000 THB in the bank changes to 90 days prior to the application so you need to be mindful of the last day of validity. They’ll deny the entire application if you missed the requirement by even one day. Another caveat is the bank account used for income criteria must only be in your name. Thankfully, if your foreign spouse is not yet 50 years old, you can do something called following” which is what we do. Rather than open two separate Thai bank accounts and deposit 800,000 THB in each one, you can get an affidavit from the embassy that swears you’re still married and apply concurrently. For now, they still accept this affidavit as far as I know and remember that a US Consulate or Embassy won’t even look at your actual marriage certificate so don’t bother bringing it. There’s a template on the US website and it costs $50 USD. Advance appointments are required.

The first stop at Chiang Mai immigration

While this whole process sounds like insanity, it’s actually not so bad if you understand and follow the rules. Financially speaking, the 800,000 THB requirement in a Thai bank for 60 (or 90) days worked well for us. Since international wire transfers are costly and the Thai bank that most Americans use just got caught violating a US banking rule that made it simple to transfer USD from one US bank to their affiliate in New York and concurrently deposit it as THB in a customer’s account in Thailand, we like to make one transfer of cash per year. Given the inexpensive cost of living in Thailand, the 800,000 THB (currently about $25,000 USD) supplies us with ample cash for rent, entertainment, and food for about three quarters of a year. Up until this year, we’d cover the 800,000 THB rule no less than 90 days before re-extending and then simply use the cash after the extension is granted. As soon as your extension was granted, you were free to withdraw any or all of the cash from the Thai bank account. But then came the huge announcement that affects us and was the final straw in our decision to move on

New Thai Immigration Visa Requirements for extending visas based on retirement now require not only that you deposit 800,000 Thai Baht 90 days prior to applying, but KEEP THE ENTIRE AMOUNT IN THE BANK for 90 days AFTER the extension is approved. At that time, you can withdraw a MAXIMUM of ONLY 400,00 THB and 400,000 MUST REMAIN IN THE THAI BANK ACCOUNT AT ALL TIMES for the duration of the extension (9 months)

While an insignificant amount of interest is paid in most Thai bank accounts (perhaps 0.02%), this means all the retired folks that count on using the 800,000 deposit for living expenses need to wire additional funds for living as well as tying up over $25,000 USD in the Thai banking system. Already artificially inflated, this helps the Thai government keep their currency stronger than it should be while penalizing middle-class folks like us. Complete and utter bullshit, I’m not giving the Thai government that much cash in exchange for about $10 a year in interest. Thankfully, we have enough Thai Bhat in our account to at least meet one more 90-day requirement but after that, see ya.

Typically Thai, they’ve not announced any way of checking the new requirement. Speculation arose that they’d give a “temporary extension”, make you come back 90 days later, check the balance again and then remove the restriction for the remaining nine months. But it’s now believed that they intend to check the new asinine financial requirement only when you extend the next time and if you’ve not met the rules, your extension will be denied and you’ll have to leave Thailand and start all over again

Should you now be rethinking your plans, I’d be remiss if I didn’t share with you the other idiot reporting and administrative rules. First, there’s 90 Day Reporting. Even after getting your original visa extended based on retirement for one year, the Big Brothers of Thailand still make you “report” your whereabouts every 90 days. Requiring another form but no fee, you can only do this in person at the province where you live or you can do it by mail if you trust third world postal services. Although there’s an online version that takes two minutes to submit, naturally, it only works sometimes for some applicants with no rhyme or reason. And the first time you report or after you get a new passport, you’ll need to do it in person to get “on their system”. Luckily, we’ve successfully used the online method four times.

The TM.47 Form

The 90-day calendar resets every time you re-enter Thailand so you can avoid the reporting if you go on international vacations no later than every 89 days. Most importantly, it has nothing to do with the dates on the one-year retirement extension but penalties for failure to report accrue based on how long you’ve lapsed and you risk having your next extension denied if you ignore this idiot reporting rule. It’s best to keep the receipt stapled into your passport but remove it if you leave in case the geniuses at the customs counter remove it; you may need it later to prove you’ve reported previously. And every foreigner in the Kingdom for more than 90 days has to do this regardless of their visa status.

Next, there’s the TM30 or “Notification of an Alien Staying with You”. Originally designed only to track tourists, this moronic form is something filled out by a Thai entity (landlord, hotel, Airbnb, etc) that shows a foreigner is staying at their premises. Not more than 24 hours after signing our lease, the house owner’s sister went to immigration and got one for us. But here’s the idiotic part; Each and every night you’re not physically present at the address on the TM30, you’re supposed to go down to the immigration office in the province you live in when you return, and have them update it with a little date stamp. And for international trips, the requirement is 24 hours after re-entering Thailand. Stupid enough because they’ve already had an immigration officer at the airport check all your paperwork and give you legal permission to enter Thailand, it gets really dicey when you travel domestically in Thailand.

The TM30 receipt; yet another thing that stays stapled in your passport

Since every hotel, Airbnb owner and even Thai citizen’s house where you stay is supposed to check your passport and file a new TM30 showing you’re staying with them, it hypothetically overrides the one you already carry in your passport which means it won’t match their records the next time you file a 90 day report or extend your visa. The “stated purpose” of this procedure is so they can record you back at the residence you originally filed to stay at. But here’s the thing. Many provinces (and Bangkok) have no time for this shit and they may or may not care if you do this. Sadly for us, Chiang Mai always enforces this rule and other popular destinations have also begun enforcement.

Earlier this year, we left Thailand from Bangkok’s airport and then traveled by car throughout southern Thailand for four weeks upon returning. Because of this rule, we visited Chaing Mai Immigration 35 days after reentering Thailand to update our TM30. It was obviously impossible to report to Chiang Mai immigration 24 hours after reentering Thailand because we were 1,000 miles away. Probably due to Diane looking Thai, the girl at immigration asked where we’d stayed, gave us a dirty look and then stamped the update anyway. But the next day, we heard of someone at the same office getting fined for not updating the TM30 within 24 hours after reentering Thailand.

Enjoying Koh Chang on our “smoke escape”

Finally, there’s the TM6 Departure Card that everyone gets on any international airline trip into Thailand. Even long term expats with no intent to leave for a while are supposed to retain the part they give you back in the passport for surrender when you eventually depart. To confuse everyone more, if you’re here on a retirement extension like us and you take an international trip, the “visa number” you enter on the TM6 form at customs when returning is the number on the reentry visa we talked about. But, when you do your next 90 day reporting online, you’ll need to use the number on the TM6 that you retain when they ask your visa number and NOT the number of your original Non-O visa or the retirement extension.

This is the TM6 Departure card and also has to stay stapled in your passport until you leave Thailand.

Got it all? Good; I spent many hours reading, following changes and asking questions. Luckily, we’ve had no issues so far but it’s all moot because The Experimental Expats have had enough of this shit. With one form, two affidavits and a bunch of financial paperwork, we can apply for immediate permanent residency in Mexico at the Mexican Embassy in Bangkok and not even have to enter Mexico for six months. Then it’s one time at Mexican immigration and voila; No more reporting bullshit. So now that you know Thailand acts more like China in terms of its authoritative rules monitoring foreigners, you may or may not want to retire here. Having no regrets because we’ve had a lot of positive experiences, it’s still time for us to move on and while I apologize for the 4,000-word diatribe, I thought I’d present it exactly like it is and let you judge it all.

Good Luck and Happy Travels. I’m happy to answer questions if I can and comments are greatly appreciated.

3 thoughts on “Big, Beautiful Border Wall; A Thai Retirement Visa Primer

  1. Valérie

    Wow, thanks for your very detailed explanations! Your post was super helpful for us. We are still in the early stages of planning our escape (aka early retirement), and Thailand was one of our favorite destinations to establish a home base and travel throughout SE Asia. But after reading your post and realizing that we’d be at the police station or the immigration office every other week seemingly, stuck in endless reporting, calculating start/end dates for visas etc., it’s not so appealing. I totally get why you are leaving, the last thing you want to do during your “freedom years” is spend precious time dealing with a bureaucratic nightmare, in a country that could kick you out any time.

    We are still interested in moving back to Asia (although Mexico is also a strong contender), but it looks like Vietnam or Malaysia would be easier than Thailand. Same weather, food, people and culture great in both, safety not an issue and at least we could come and go without too much hassle, like you and Diane did when you lived in Penang.

    And by the way, thanks for coming back and posting again! We love following your adventures, you make us laugh, but you also help us plan in a big way! Can’t wait to discover what you did during your escape from Burning season. 😉

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    Reply
    1. rodi (Rob and Diane) Post author

      Hi Valerie
      Thanks for the long honest comment. Let me add that Malaysia has changed a lot since Najib got voted out and the 93 year old PM is surprising a lot of people with very anti western policies. MM2H has gotten harder and more restrictive and I’d highly recommend using the agent we did.

      For us, Vietnam was just OK. The people are quite different; the nation is in fact communist even though they’re free to earn money and it shows. They’re scared of the government and much less friendly than the Thai. It’s cheaper but for a reason. Development for the super rich has started in Denang and will ruin the coastline for the average Vietnamese. This is no different than Malaysia or most developing nations that are now experiencing quickly growing elite classes while the bulk of the population struggles. We had three different guides and they all had different attitudes; one blind to reality; one cynical that would leave if he could and one hopeful but cautiously. But yes, nobody has stupider Shit than thailand when it comes to immigration idiocy and reporting.

      Thanks for following. Cheers.

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      Reply
      1. Val

        Noted, thanks! Things are changing so quickly, I guess when the time comes for us to move, we might as well take a whole year to travel around those countries and see what the situation is visa-wise. Sort of like a gap year for the newly retired 🙂

        Like

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