The Immigration Bureau is acting to end the phenomenon of “digital nomads” or foreigners attempting to live in Thailand on back-to-back border runs. The campaign centers on the nationals of 56 countries who are allowed to enter Thailand, usually by air, to obtain a 30-day visa-free stamp. They include North America, most European countries including UK, Australia, Russia, and the Philippines. Their citizens are no longer allowed to make a border run to obtain a new exemption, although they can extend their stay once by seven days at a Thai Immigration office. After that they must leave the country or go into overstay costing 500 baht a day.
An Immigration spokesman told Pattaya Today, “The concern is that the discretion to allow visa-free travel has been abused by some aliens who are not in fact tourists but illegal workers or wanted criminals hoping to avoid registration by applying for a proper visa. Thus, in future, the visa-free travel is restricted to not more than 37 days (30 days on arrival and a once-only extension of a week). Foreigners wishing to stay in Thailand for longer need to obtain an appropriate prior visa from a Thai embassy or consulate before beginning their journey.” Although the ban currently applies only to land border runs, a similar halt on air travel is to be introduced on August 13. “From then, Immigration officers at airports will be on the lookout for travelers who appear to be living in Thailand on back-to-back 30 days visa exemptions”, he added.
However, the new policy does not affect in any way the holders of double or multiple-entry 60 days tourist or 90 days non-immigrant visas. They can continue to travel to a land border and return the same day or later without any problems as long as the visa remains valid. Also entirely unaffected are the holders of one-year visas issued by Thai Immigration. They include long-stay permits based on retirement (minimum age 50), marriage to a Thai national, learning the Thai language in a certified school, or work authorized by the Department of Employment.
Exactly how many “digital nomads” there are living, or attempting to live, in Thailand remains an open question. Recent crackdowns on illegal workers in Phuket found that visa-less Russians were involved in many tourist-orientated businesses on the island, while a number of American and European farang have been found to be working illegally as tour guides, teachers, musicians or dive instructors in various cities. However, economic migrants from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, working as unskilled or manual workers in the construction and fishing industries, are not part of this particular crackdown. The Thai authorities are currently normalizing their particular status under a revitalized worker registration process covering up to two million persons needed to make up for the shortfall of Thai workers.
A Pattaya-based minibus company which organizes visa-run trips to Cambodia, mainly for Brits and other Europeans, said business had slumped by 75 percent since the crackdown began. “Only people with tourist or non-immigrant visas and a valid re-entry permit are now going to the Cambodian border posts at Poipet or Pong Nam Ron,” one of the drivers said. He added that many British and German tourists were heading to other ASEAN countries once their 30 days were used up. “We have had similar crackdowns in the past, but this one looks to be for the long haul,” he surmised.
Thai work permit regulations are very strict and forbid both paid and unpaid activities by aliens across the board. However, they are sometimes ignored as in the case of official translators or volunteer police or others seen as assisting the local authorities. With the advent of the ASEAN Economic Community at the start of 2016, a free-trade area of 10 nations, many commentators say the time has come to reform the Thai working regulations. Some point to the government policy in Malaysia where long-term retired foreigners can legally work up to 20 hours a week, subject to registration, or to Cambodia where the business visa is more flexible and more easily obtainable than its Thai counterpart.