The topic of visas, and visa related issues (such as the TM30, the 90 day report, or the re-entry permit), is often upon the lips of expats in Thailand. Hopefully this article will provide some insights regarding the types of visas available and the differences between them.
Tourist Visas to the Left of Me, Permanent Residence to the Right, Here I Am in Non-Immigrant Visa Status
As a preface to this article it should be noted that we are discussing non-immigrant visas. While it was once possible to remain in Thailand, effectively living here, for a prolonged period of time on a tourist visa or a 30 day visa exemption stamp issued at the airport, those days are well and truly over. Therefore, this type of status is not the subject of this article. Concurrently, permanent residence in Thailand is treated in a substantively different manner from non-immigrant visas under the Thailand Immigration Act.
Non-Immigrant visas are the type of travel document that the vast majority of expats in Thailand first use to maintain lawful long-term status and these types of visas can have their validity extended depending upon the specific circumstances of a given case.
The Non-Immigrant Business Visa
A mainstay visa category for expats in Thailand is the business visa. The business visa can provide a platform for applying for a Thai work permit and it can also be used solely for the purpose of attending corporate functions in Thailand. Those seeking a business visa from a Thai Embassy or Consulate abroad must file an application which adheres to increasingly strict guidelines regarding visa issuance. For instance, within the ASEAN area virtually every Embassy or Consulate requires evidence of work pre-authorisation before a business visa will be issued. This requirement can lead to many Catch-22 situations involving initial issuance of a business visa. Generally, if a Thai work permit is issued to an individual with a business visa, then it may be possible to obtain an extension of business visa status in Thailand.
Business Visas and the Board of Investment
Discussion of business visas can be bifurcated into two different discussions: business visas for SMEs (as noted above) and business visas for large companies. In many cases, companies of a certain size (especially where financed by foreign investment) will have certification under the Thailand Board of Investment. Business visas and work permits issued under the BOI are a somewhat different animals compared to standard business visas. For example, BOI sponsored business visas and work permits may be issued for a 2-year period as opposed to the standard 1-year. Meanwhile, BOI certified companies may obtain a concession to have more work permits issued on their companies compared to their non-certified counterparts. From a convenience perspective, BOI certification is significantly beneficial as it allows use of the One Stop Visa and Work Permit Service which can greatly streamline processing.
Smart Visas: The New Kid in Town
Discussion of BOI brings up the topic of the rather recently created Smart Visa scheme. This new type of visa allows for built-in work authorisation and the types of visas issued vary depending upon the specific circumstances of the case. It should be noted that while there are many perks associated with the smart visa it is arguably the most scrutinised visa category of all due to the oversight of the various ministries responsible for authorising an operation that is eligible for smart visa issuance.
The Non-Immigrant O Marriage Visa
Pursuant to Section 34 (15) of the Thai Immigration Act, immigration officers may issue visas to those seeking temporary stay in Thailand for “Other activities as prescribed in the Ministerial Regulations”. This is the enabling legislation for the visa category colloquially referred to as the O visa. O visas may be issued to foreign nationals who are married to Thai nationals. The terms of initial visa issuance at a Thai Embassy or Consulate abroad will vary depending upon the rules of the specific post, but the rules for extension of stay in Thailand with such status are relatively fixed. Namely, the applicant for extension must show 400,000 THB in a Thai bank account for a specified period of time or recurring monthly income of 40,000 THB per month. Thai O marriage visa may act as a platform for a Thai work permit application. An O visa may be available for those who exclusively support Thai children as well, but the terms of issuance and extension will be adjudicated on a case-by-case basis.
The Non-Immigrant Retirement Visa
There is an ongoing debate as to whether the retirement visa is an O visa or an O-A visa. In fact, there is a distinction being made by some between an O-A (which is supposedly only issued at an embassy or consulate outside of Thailand) and an O visa extension based upon retirement (which is supposedly only issued in Thailand). It is this author’s opinion that all retirement visas are inherently the same as they are all issued pursuant to the aforementioned Section 34 (15) of the Thai Immigration Act. Before expounding further, it should be noted that in order to obtain and/or extend a retirement visa an applicant must show 800,000 THB as a bank balance or 65,000 THB in monthly recurring income for one year prior to application. In recent months the requirements for obtaining and extending a Thai retirement visa have been in a state of flux. First, approximately 14 months ago, many embassies (including the US, UK, and Australian) in Bangkok stopped issuing affidavits regarding income for their nationals which could be used as evidence of an ability to meet financial obligations for retirement visa issuance or extension. This has resulted in applicants for retirement visas needing to show funds on hand in a bank account. Further, Thai authorities recently announced that medical insurance will now be required for those who wish to obtain and/or extend their retirement visa. There remains some ambiguity especially with regard to those who were in Thailand and extending their retirement status prior to the enactment of this rule. It appears from the statutory language on this topic that Thai Immigration officers will retain discretion to allow retirement visa extension without medical insurance coverage, but that discretion will be exercised on a case-by-case basis and it is not prudent to pre-suppose that those seeking retirement visas moving forward will be accorded deference with respect to this discretion by immigration officers. Instead, this discretion seems aimed at equitably dealing with those who obtained their retirement visa before the medical insurance rules were enacted and are now too old or infirm to obtain coverage.
There are other types of visas such as the Education visa or the Thailand Elite visa which provide ongoing lawful status, but neither of these categories fits the same mould as the categories noted above. In the case of the ED visa, it is issued for a specific period for a narrow purpose. Meanwhile, the Thailand Elite Visa is, in a sense, a prolonged tourist visa with VIP status. Permanent residence and Thai Elite Visas will be discussed in future articles.