Thailand risks losing out on lucrative nomad market

You are never too young to be a digital nomad.

Notwithstanding several government promises, the establishment of one-stop-shops and enthusiastic support from the Board of Investment, the position of remote workers using an internet connection in Thailand remains ambiguous and illegal. The issues have now been taken up by supportive pressure groups such as Nomads’ Embassy and Facebook gatherings such as Global Digital Nomad Network.

They stress that Covid has changed the world: it is now estimated that at least one fifth of the working population in the industrialized world are remote. Many will not resume full-time office-based work in their lifetime.  Instead, they can work anywhere using laptops in coffee shops, co-working spaces, beaches and libraries. As Techsauce, the knowledge sharing platform, says, “Countries round the world are starting to see the advantages of attracting digital nomads with special visas.”

The Tourist of Authority of Thailand and the Board of Investment have publicized their recommendations for digital nomads, but nothing has yet appeared in the Royal Gazette. The known elitist details are aimed at high-income professionals, yet don’t cater for the mainstay of online teachers of English, drop-shippers, crypto traders, affiliate marketeers, bloggers, content writers, Amazon sellers or freelance web developers.

Many people like the idea of not working in one location.

The policy statements to date are for digital nomads to be included in the latest proposals for 10 year visa applicants, or for the existing four year Smart visa program which uniquely doesn’t require a work permit. But both options have detailed requirements such as high registration fees, a substantial contact with a named overseas employer, documented qualifications, fuzzy tax rules and immigration hoops. For example, a digital nomad who happens to have a non “O” volunteer visa must cancel it before being eligible for the Smart version.

An alternative way is to set up a company, but most nomads are not interested in showing 2 million baht in paid-up capital and a minimum of 4 Thai employees to support one work permit. A Representative Office can partly alleviate these restrictions, but that raises other issues such not easily generating legitimate income and needing a head office outside Thailand. It’s all much too complicated for your average remote worker with a laptop on his or her knee wanting to enjoy life as well as earning a living.

So, the thousands of nomads already in Thailand continue to be in the legal dump of behaving illegally, but without anyone in authority taking much notice as long as they don’t seem to be threatening actual Thai jobs. The keyboard tappers mostly survive on visa exempt (30 days) permission, or 60 days tourist visas, or even Covid-related extensions. A few of the better-off income earners have elected an Elite visa – 600,000 baht for five years – on the grounds that the immigration bureau never asks what they are doing here.

Nomads work anywhere with an internet connection.

In the meantime other countries have moved ahead with legislation. Barbados has attracted much nomad interest with its Barbados Welcome Stamp, although the small print has the drawbacks that the registration fee is US$2,000 and you must put in writing that you will earn at least US$50,000 annually. There are similar problems with the schemes available in Estonia or Antigua and Barbuda.  You may have trouble renewing after the first year or two. The small print is the key.

Several European nomad visas are classified as freelance passes, though each country has its own policy. Armenia offers a five years residence permit, a local tax ID as a sole proprietor, a reported income of at least US$1,000 monthly, with a tax rate hovering between 0 and 5% and no work permit needed. There’s even a path towards citizenship there. By contrast, Thailand is promising much but delivering nothing to one of the world’s biggest future markets. There’s surely got to be more to immigration policy than constantly searching for those elusive multi-millionaires in their private jets. Let’s hope so.