Do you dream of making a living as a freelance blogger in Thailand?
Let’s get this straight off the bat: Thailand is not only the Land of Smiles, but also the Land of Silk and Money. Getting the relevant visa AND a work permit (and making it as hassle-free as possible) will cost you a tidy sum.
This is a pain, particularly for writers who are just starting out.
I’m guilty of not playing safe. Holding a valid business visa but not a work permit, I took my first freelance actions in a grey area.
As time was marching on and the expiry date of my visa coming dangerously close, the prospect of ending up in the notorious Bangkok Hilton felt throat-tightening. It was about time I arranged for a new visa, and this time a work permit as well.
If you’re moving to Thailand or are blogging here already, why take the risk of the grey area becoming black-and-white?
I know an ironclad way to cut through Thailand’s red tape. Hang on, I’ll pass you the scissors in a moment.
What types of visa can you use to freelance in Thailand?
The visas that I know will enable you to apply for a work permit are:
- Non-Immigrant B (Business or Work Visa)
- Non-Immigrant O (Dependant / Family / Retirement Visa — only foreigners married to a Thai national can get a work permit with this type of visa, retirees cannot.)
- Non-Immigrant B-A (Business Partnership Visa)
- Non-Immigrant I-B (Business and Investment Visa)
For the sake of simplicity, I’ll only talk about the Non-Immigrant B visa in this post.
Single entry and multiple entry visas: What’s the difference?
‘Single entry’ means that you can only enter Thailand once with the type of visa you have. If you wish to leave the country without the visa becoming void, you have to get a re-entry permit – before leaving the country. The Thai embassies and consulates don’t issue 3-month Non-Immigrant B multiple entry visas, only 12-month ones.
Work permits in Thailand: The grey area
Without a work permit, you’re screwed. You can’t open a bank account, cannot get a monthly subscription for a mobile phone, and can’t buy a motorbike – unless, of course, you’ve got a network of people who are able to arrange that without you possessing the coveted document.
And most important, you can’t legally work in Thailand without a work permit, even if you hold a valid Non-Immigrant B visa.
Peter from TheThailandLife.com said he’d be very surprised if I could find him one freelance writer with a work permit who is working online for foreign clients from a base in Thailand:
The reason it is not illegal is because it falls into a grey area of the law that is not covered yet. When the law regarding foreign nationals working in Thailand was written, it did not consider the eventuality that foreigners would base themselves in Thailand and be working through the Internet, while not employing Thai nationals or working for Thai companies. That is why some bright spark set the company called Iglu up, because they realised that they could take advantage of this situation.
Iglu is a BOI (Thailand Board of Investment) promoted company. They’re entitled to take you on, receive payments from your clients and pay your wages. It sounds easy and might be, but I’m not sure how costly that will be.
If you prefer to work on a case-by-case basis as a freelancer rather than ask a BOI recognised company to employ you, you can contact the MOL (Ministry of Labour). That will involve a lot of bureaucracy, and the outcome hinges on the officer’s decision.
Is anything wrong? I can see you pulling a face… and smiles go such a long way in Thailand.
And Dennis told me that by law, yes, I need a work permit and have to have one. He said he did understand the pain that that causes for freelancers and how it doesn’t necessarily make financial sense all the time:
I can’t advise to break the law, but let me rather remark that from my professional and personal experience in all my years here, I have only seen cases where they’ve known where to find you and were waiting for you to do something wrong.
He mentioned a newspaper article that quoted a top Chiang Mai immigration officer who apparently said he didn’t consider digital nomads to be working. Dennis pointed out that while this wasn’t a message from the responsible department for work permits, it showed how undecided the Thai government is on this issue.
According to Dennis, some directive decisions are in the pipeline. But for the time being, the only way to legally work as a freelance blogger is to open a Thai or BOI company and grin and bear the monthly expenses.
‘That’s it from my side. There’s no good definite answer,’ Dennis added.
Now you’re enlightened, aren’t you? 🤔
I feel you.
I also didn’t know what I was supposed to do about all of this.
Keen to burn that bloody red tape, I googled ‘Visa Centre Koh Phangan’ and struck gold.
Visa services for freelancers in Thailand
Apple Visa Service helped me get a 3 month single entry Non-Immigrant B visa, and later helped me to get a 12 month multiple entry one as well, PLUS a work permit as a freelancer. (Or rather, a ‘Coordinator Manager’ and later a ‘Marketing Manager’ because those were the closest terms available to describe freelance writing.)
As such, I was about to have permission to work anywhere in Thailand as a freelance blogger!
Kattiya Pandech, Chief of the Phuket Provincial Employment Office, has confirmed that new provisions issued by Royal Decree in March 2019 are in effect, ‘allowing foreigners with work permits to legally work in any field, anywhere in the country, for any employer as long as the work being done is not on the list of occupations prohibited to foreigners.’
Relax. Freelance blogging is not on the list of occupations prohibited to foreigners. 😎
To start preparing my visa documents, all they needed was my passport — and cash, obviously. It cost me more than a few bob. Still, their fee was likely less than the monthly Iglu expenses would’ve been in the long run.
To have all your new papers ready in time, turn up at the visa centre no later than 5 weeks before your current visa expires. It took Apple Visa Service only a week in my case, but don’t take that for granted.
Here’s what you’ll need to get a work permit in Thailand
If you’re an employee, you need more documents than a freelancer who’s enlisted a visa centre to help.
With Apple Visa Service helping me, it was pretty straightforward. Once you hold a Non-Immigrant B visa, you only need three recent and identical 4 x 6cm photos of yourself in business attire (Kodak shops can edit the photos for you, so you can even show up in tie-dye clothes if that’s your style), and a medical certificate confirming that you’re free of:
- Drug addiction
- Third stage of syphilis
- Chronic alcoholism
I can recommend Doctor T opposite Milky Bay resort at Baantai, Koh Phangan. You won’t need to kill time there for ages, his clinic is very organised. Besides, he only charges 500 THB for the evaluation, which is a lot cheaper (and faster!) than hospital testing usually costs.
Once you provide Apple Visa Service with the photos and the medical certificate, they’ll send it to the Ministry of Labour. Depending on how busy they are, it’ll take some 2-3 weeks till you have that highly sought-after document.
Easy, isn’t it?
Well, here’s the catch: they don’t issue Non-Immigrant visas in Thailand.
So if you’re already in Thailand, you’ll have to leave, cross a border, and apply for your visa in another country, before you can apply for your work permit. (It doesn’t have to be your home country; a quick trip to Malaysia, for instance, will do.)
As I was already in Thailand, I had to follow this rule and make a trip out of the country to apply for my visa. Luckily, this scenario is common enough that there are services available in Thailand to help you with the trip.
Making a visa run across the border
Mr. Kim has made a name for himself as the person to talk to when it comes to visa runs. He’s not the only guy who offers this service in Koh Phangan though. Sabai Sabai at Thong Sala’s Panthip Market is good too, I’ve heard.
Here’s what I had to bring to Mr. Kim to apply for a 3-month Non-Immigrant B single entry visa:
- Apple Visa Service’s documents
- my original passport
- two recent and identical 3.5 x 4.5cm passport photos
- the completed visa application form
- 20,000 baht to show at Thailand’s border, proving I could afford my stay
- 3,200 baht for the Thai consulate’s fee in Penang
There were quite a few factors I had to bear in mind when I was planning my trip. Apple Visa Service’s documents were valid for one month only; the Royal Thai Consulate General in Penang was open from Monday to Friday (in some cities they’re open from Sunday to Thursday); I knew I wouldn’t get the passport back on the same day, but on the next day – provided I handed in my papers before 12pm. Plus I checked Malaysia’s and Thailand’s public holidays, as the Thai embassies and consulates in Malaysia are closed on those days.
But after taking all of those dates into account, I was all set.
My first visa run : Koh Phangan to Don Sak to Hat Yai to Penang
I slumped into a chair, watching the sea slip by at the crack of dawn, and reflected on why the fudge I couldn’t get this visa without leaving the country.
A Thai photographer had taken a snapshot of me before I knew it. The irony made me smirk – I’m usually the one who’s taking pics of people in similar situations, rarely asking for permission.
I’d barely got off the ferry from Koh Phangan to Don Sak when this paparazzo caught me looking at scores of young tourists waiting to board the ship. My dismay must’ve been written all over my face.
Body painting, glitter, hot pants – they were ready. Most of those fledglings were going to the famously hedonistic full moon party, I was convinced. (Nothing wrong with that, but the older I get, the less I can stand the masses!)
‘This is the long one,’ a young American girl with dreadlocks said to her friend in a jaded tone of voice, indicating that the bus ride to Hat Yai would take ages.
Google Maps told me it would take 4.5 hours for the 327 km journey from Don Sak to Hat Yai, whereas the 213 km ride from Hat Yai to Penang would ‘only’ take 3 hours.
4.5 hours…well, that’s not too long. It could be worse! I thought, trying to cheer myself up. As a seasoned traveller, I knew that it was going to get worse as the air-conditioner was bound to stop working at some point.
Peeping out of the window between tacky pink curtains, I marvelled at the sight of coconut palms and perfectly aligned rubber trees. Stretching away over millions of acres of exotic deep green woodland, these forests looked like cemeteries of inverted chicken legs, apart from the verdant colour. Skinny buffalos grazing on vast plains were as brown as the rivers nearby.
It seemed, I reflected as the landscape was rolling past, that nature is all around you when you step off the well-trodden tourist trail.
Meanwhile, it was getting hotter and hotter on the bus. As expected, the air-conditioning wasn’t working properly. I started to sweat, and my head ached, which is why I wasn’t particularly amused by the driver who happily dropped off and collected people at will along the way. Sometimes, they were even sitting on the floor because there weren’t enough seats.
But… mai pen rai! (It doesn’t matter!) – as Thai people like to say. I killed time listening to my MP3 player, and arrived in Hat Yai after a 6-hour ride.
On the next bus from Hat Yai to Penang, I was surprised that we had to pay the driver 20 baht each to get the stamp in our passports for leaving Thailand at Sadao’s border checkpoint. But this was no scam, because at the immigration counter we were told ‘no other fee is charged in passing this border (during office hours).’
Malaysia’s streets are cleaner than Thailand’s, and everything seems more orderly. There isn’t such traffic chaos – at least not on the way to Penang. Also, the air is less humid on that island than in Malaysia’s neighbouring country.
I arrived at ‘Jim’s Place’ in the evening at around 9pm, and it was still open. Jim Tachinamurthy is the agent specialising in Thai visas, and he must’ve known that there was a minivan on its way.
It took a load off when Jim’s staff told me that I didn’t need to show up at the consulate. That’s what their service is for. All I had to do was give them my papers and pay 380 Malaysian ringgit. This included Jim’s and the consulate’s fee for the Non-Immigrant B visa as well as 40 ringgit for the bus ride back to Hat Yai.
Paying in Thai baht would’ve been possible too. It would’ve cost 360 THB for the bus trip to Hat Yai, plus 3,200 baht for Jim’s and the consulate’s fee. Since it isn’t easy to get Malaysian ringgit in Koh Phangan (and possibly in the whole country), this is worth considering. Most banks in Koh Phangan only buy but don’t sell ringgit.
Here’s Jim’s business card in case you want to get in touch with him yourself:
Queuing well ahead of time can be crucial for whether or not you get the visa on the next day. The Thai consulate only accepts a limited number of visa applications per day — and lots of tourists know that, so they line up hours before the consulate opens.
Safe in the knowledge that there was no need to get up early with Jim’s staff taking the trip to the consulate for me, I went out like a light and slept really well – until fuck knows how early it was when a bunch of noise outside woke me up un-gently.
I went to see Jim to get my passport and he took the piss out of me, talking about my ‘cool hairstyle’. I didn’t mind though, I was happy I got my new visa.
My second visa run: Pak Bara to Hat Yai to Sungai Kolok to Kota Bharu
A couple of months later, I was in the Thai tourism hub of Pak Bara and I was ready to extend my visa. While you can extend some visas without leaving Thailand, I could not. So I had to make another visa run across the border into Malaysia.
Apple Visa Services told me I didn’t have to visit Penang this time, and recommended going to Kota Bharu instead as there were not many people applying for the tourist visa there.
‘No, you don’t need an agent this time. Kota Bharu is easy,’ Desy from Apple Visa Services said. Apparently, that was the consulate where long-term stayers went to get their Non-Immigrant visa.
I got some puzzled glances in Pak Bara when I said I wanted to go to Sungai Kolok, Thailand’s southernmost city. But it turned out that minibus rides were available from Pak Bara to Hat Yai bus station. It cost 150 baht, and I booked it on the spot.
On the second visa run, I had to bring the following papers with me to apply for the 1-year Non-Immigrant B multiple entry visa (which meant that I could leave the country and come back to Thailand as many times as I wanted, without a re-entry permit):
- Apple Visa Service’s documents
- my original passport
- completed visa application form
- my original work permit (that I’d got in Thailand)
- 750 ringgit (or 7,500 baht) fee for the Thai consulate
- 2 identical and recent passport photos
- 20,000 baht to show at the border (to prove that I’m able to afford my stay)
Sandwiched between a Thai guy spreading his legs ultra-wide to my right and a large heavy package to my left, I was on my way to Sungai Kolok.
Sitting sideways, stretching and exercising in positions I wasn’t used to, I was having a hard time feeling comfortable. The guy sitting to the left of the package wasn’t very compassionate either. He kept pushing it to my side because I had so much space.
14 peeps were sitting in this limousine, and surely 200 packages kept us company. But you can’t complain when you pay only 200 baht to get from Hat Yai’s bus station to Sungai Kolok in 4 hours – direct, without a stop in the troubled provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat (apart from the package delivery and pick-up service along the way).
There weren’t many cars in the streets of Pattani, riders were far more common than car drivers. The coastline had something peaceful about it, but it wasn’t more than a white flag in a war zone. After every kilometre or so there was a checkpoint. Heavily armed soldiers with machine-guns and bullet-proof vests were on sentry duty, their fingers on the trigger, ready to shoot.
Arriving in Sungai Kolok, I was too weary to haggle. The 10-minute trip on a motorcycle was probably worth 30 baht, but I was glad to make a guy happy by paying him 100 baht for the ride to my hotel.
The next morning there were lots of cabbies and moto taxi drivers at the Thai-Malaysian border, but I knew exactly how I could travel as inexpensively as possible, and gave them a miss.
There isn’t an ATM at the frontier, but I recommend you change 500 baht into ringgit at the laundry place. That way, you have enough money for a bite to eat and the bus ride to Kota Bharu, which takes about an hour. The laundry has a grocery store next door, and it’s conveniently close to the Malaysian immigration office.
About 100m down the road from the laundry, opposite the petrol station, you’ll find bus number 29 that goes to Kota Bharu, the last stop on the route. Just ignore the taxi touts who’ll ask you where you’re headed. To be polite, you can tell them you’re waiting for bus 29 — that’s all they need to know. You won’t find a taxi that can offer you a better price than the paltry 5 ringgit for the bus ride to Kota Bharu.
Listening to my MP3 player on the bus, I nodded off and only woke up at the final stop, Stesen Bas Kota Bharu.
From there, I took bus number 4 to continue my journey to OYO 558 Rayyan Soffea Hotel (a 15-minute ride that cost 2 ringgit).
Don’t expect OYO 558 Rayyan Soffea Hotel to be in a quiet location. It’s beside a street that’s busy even at night, making it difficult to catch some sleep. And when other noises wake you up at an unearthly hour, you’ve got to take it in your stride. The benefit of this hotel is that it’s only about 3km away from the Thai consulate.
I took a gamble and went to the consulate in the afternoon, the same day I arrived, unsure of whether I’d get my passport back the day after or would have to wait one more day. They asked me my job, the name of the company that provided my documents, and what services Apple Visa Service offered.
I was lucky and could collect my passport 24 hours later, at 3pm – with my visa. Normally, you have to hand in your papers at the consulate before 12pm to be able to pick your visa up the following day.
Of course, I still needed to get back to Thailand, so I went to catch a train.
Clouds of diesel smoke billowed from train 452 as it arrived at Sungai Kolok’s old railway station. The locomotive approached at a snail’s pace, but 20 minutes early, tooting and screeching to a halt.
The fare was ridiculously low at 42 baht, but I was aware there was a risk of having to pay a much higher price for taking a train in this region. One railway worker paid with his life on 3rd September 2016 when a train was bombed in Pattani. And in December 2018, 4 bombs went off in Narathiwat, one of which exploded under a concrete sleeper of a rail track.
The provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat in the deep south of Thailand have been strife-torn since the early 2000s. Many countries advise their citizens not to travel there, especially not by train.
And yet I did. Feeling the sweat coming out of some seatmate’s pores in a minivan all the way home simply wasn’t a tempting option.
Heavily armed soldiers wearing bullet-proof vests were patrolling the train, looking under benches, making sure there was no bomb among the rubbish. And then the train tooted again. There were loud engine noises, and the wheels started to grind forward.
I had my 12-month multiple entry visa, and I was on my way back to Thailand.
Is getting a Thai work visa really this much effort?
Yes, and it’s unavoidable if you want to stay on the right side of the law.
Rumour has it you can hire lawyers who are a lot cheaper than the visa centres, but I’m not sure how reliable they are and how easy it is for them to deal with bureaucracy.
If you don’t find a competent solicitor within the time you have to spare (I couldn’t), then you’ll have to stump up some money for a visa centre or a BOI company to help you.
For a hassle-free experience (apart from the required trips to Malaysia that are inevitable), I find it’s best to contact a visa centre.
Or, if you’re more concerned with saving cash than obeying Thai law, then you’ll wind up working in the grey area without a visa or work permit. If you decide to do that, it’s wise to get a VPN, which stands for virtual private network. This camouflages your location, i.e. your IP address, so you won’t look like you’re working in Thailand after all. 😁
Either way, figure out what’s best for you and your specific situation.
You CAN cut through the red tape and start freelance blogging in Thailand! And once you do, you’ll never look back.