Thai Immigration’s response to COVID-19 has had a profound impact upon the overall system. Many were stranded in the Kingdom. Meanwhile, many have been stranded abroad waiting to return to family, business, or their prior living arrangements. The Immigration system is in a substantial state of flux and requirements are subject to change with little or no notice. Therefore, this article should be viewed more as guidance rather than hard and fast data which applies to a specific case.
A system in crisis, a system in transition
Immigration rules tend to remain unchanged and rather rigid for a prolonged period of time, but when they shift, they shift dramatically. COVID-19 may prove to be the catalyst for a major paradigm shift in terms of Immigration policy thinking in Thailand. It stands to reason that Thai Immigration authorities will take measures to encourage foreign tourism post-shutdown. However, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that the occasional laxity which sometimes permeated previous Thai immigration administrations will re-emerge following the end of lock down.
New Immigration Documentation
Since the inception of the shutdown and the promulgation of new immigration protocols there have been additional documents required by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand (CAAT), the Royal Thai Immigration Police Bureau, and the various Embassies and Consulates abroad. The three new broadly relevant documents required for all prospective entrants are: the Certificate of Entry, the Fit-to-Fly certificate, and insurance documentation showing coverage of $100,000 or more for COVID-related health issues.
The certificate of entry is issued at the behest of the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs after a request is made for issuance of such a document from the Thai Embassy or Consulate abroad which adjudicates the application for a Thai visa. The certificate of entry is a sort of secondary visa. For those familiar with the American immigration system, the certificate of entry is akin to a manual version of the Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA). The Fit to fly document is required by CAAT, obliging, the potential traveller to submit to a health check to ensure they are not infected with COVID-19 within 72 hours of travel to Thailand. The required insurance appears to be specifically aimed at COVID-19 coverage and may operate concurrently with other insurance requirements.
These documents are required in addition to a valid Thai visa, issuance of which may be dependent upon other new requirements relating to the rules of the specific Consulate or Embassy concerned. Upon arrival in Thailand, travellers will be required to undergo quarantine. Depending upon circumstances, proof of quarantine arrangements may be necessary before departing for Thailand. The aforementioned documents are required before a traveller will even be allowed to board a flight to Thailand.
The COVID crisis has thrown the usual process for obtaining a Thai visa into a general state of disarray. Where once the process of obtaining a Thai visa was a rather straightforward, presently it is cumbersome and time consuming if visa issuance can be accomplished at all. Tourist visas are not yet being issued. Visa-on-arrival and waiver schemes pertaining to nationals of certain countries and a waiver of the need for a Thai visa has been suspended. It appears that all visa categories require the newly created travel documentation noted above.
Immigrant Visas: Returning Permanent Residents
Those who hold Permanent Residence in Thailand will be allowed to return to Thailand subject to the newly required additional documentation noted above.
Thai O Family Based Visas
Immigration authorities in Thailand have made it clear that facilitating the reunification of families is a priority. As a result, Thai O visas can be issued to parents, spouses, and children of Thai nationals.
The process of obtaining Thai family-based visas is relatively straightforward in terms of documentation compared to the other categories. As in the past, the relevant evidentiary documentation is limited to those documents which prove the family relationship between a Thai national and the foreign visa applicant. However, as previously noted, new protocols dictate that new documentation be issued along with an O visa.
Authorities have recently published directives which authorise issuance of education visas. Applicants must submit documentation proving that they are enrolling in a course of study and that the course is occurring at an accredited institution in Thailand. In order to receive an ED visa a Certificate of Entry must be approved and in order to travel to Thailand and ultimately be admitted, the aforementioned documentation such as fit-to-fly certification must also be issued. As with all other categories, recipients of this visa will be subject to quarantine upon arrival in Thailand.
Health related travel documents seem to be especially important to Thai Immigration authorities and they seem to have made a decision to prioritise issuance of such travel documents. Those wishing to obtain a medical visa for Thailand must first liaise with their medical facility to procure documentation related to the diagnosis of the patient and course of treatment in Thailand. This documentation will be submitted to the relevant Embassy or Consulate for review along with an adjudication regarding issuance of a certificate of entry. Once the visa and certificate of entry are issued it will then be possible to travel to Thailand provided the other documentation (noted above) is submitted.
Those already in possession of a valid work permit and business visa may return to Thailand subsequent to issuance of a Certificate of Entry and the issue of the other newly required documentation noted above. Issues surrounding visa issuance for those who are not already work authorised are more complex. Those who do not have a business visa and/or work permit will need to apply for work pre-authorisation as a prerequisite for B visa issuance. The circumstances of a specific case will dictate how, and by what authority, pre-authorisation will be issued with some obtaining this documentation via the Board of Investment (BOI) while others obtaining labour certification directly through the Ministry of Labour office in the relevant province of Thailand.
On Work Permits
During the COVID-19 shutdown work preauthorisation, in the form of the WP3 letter, was suspended. In recent days the Ministry of Labour has again been accepting applications for and issuing such documentation. However, this may be dependent upon the prevailing circumstances as the application window opens only to be closed to applications shortly thereafter. Hopefully, the most recent reopening marks the recommencement of uninterrupted issuance of this documentation.
The Thailand Elite Program
The Thailand Elite Program provides a substantial benefit to their members in the form of the Thailand Elite Visa. Immigration officials have explicitly noted that Elite Visa holders will be permitted to travel in to Thailand subject to the same conditions as those categories noted above.
Retirement visas are not included on any list of those being permitted entry to Thailand and it does not appear as though retirement visas are being readily issued under the current circumstances. The rules are in the process of easing and this may change as the situation evolves.
Emergency Visa Extensions
Those who are currently in Thailand in extended non-immigrant status are strongly advised to assiduously monitor the ongoing status of their visa. Moreover, it is important to note that, at the present time, the practice of “border running” or “visa running” is not feasible as borders are closed. Concurrently, it is not possible to make a short trip in-and-out of an immigration checkpoint at a border crossing in Thailand. Therefore, if a concerned person wishes to maintain status in Thailand they should assume it will be necessary to do so via extension of status or via conversion domestically from either amnesty status or from that of their current visa. Converting from one visa category to another is a daunting endeavour at the best of times and this is even more evident under current circumstances. For this reason, those wishing to change immigration status should carefully prepare for the transition.