The ever-changing world of Thai work permits for foreigners

Thailand’s work permit rules and updates are baffling to many expats and would-be investors in the economy.

Traditionally, there are two routes for expat foreigners needing or wanting a job here. If offered a post by a registered company or school, the prospective employee needs a non-immigrant “B” (business) visa issued by a Thai embassy or consulate abroad. The employer should provide the bulk of the required documentation, supplemented by the employee’s personal data and confirmed qualifications. If the employer declines to take that basic preparatory responsibility, it can be assumed that the offer of a job is not sincere and that a work permit is a fantasy.

The second route is where the foreigner intends to start his own registered company to trade in Thailand and beyond. The first steps are to register a company name with the Business Development Agency, have at least three Thai shareholders (can be fewer in some circumstances), have capital of at least 2 million baht, and notify the Thai labour and tax departments. The next step is to obtain the non-immigrant “B” visa abroad and, on return, submit an application for a work permit at the Department of Employment and an extended visa from the immigration bureau. It’s a complex process usually requiring professional legal input.

For foreigners with a Thai spouse, any non-immigrant visa will suffice and the requirement to have specifically a “B” type is waived. Some occupations are barred to aliens. They include manual work, most agriculture and construction, jewelry manufacture and wood carving. A noteworthy point is that a royal decree of 2018 freed up “occasional” work such as business meetings, committee work or participation in cultural activities and sports from requiring a business visa at all. In 2021, a new non-immigrant “M” visa was introduced for foreign media correspondents though this is available only prior to entry from Thai embassies abroad.

In 2018 new ground was struck with a four year Smart visa whose holders are excused from having a work permit at all. It is used principally by skilled professionals in targeted science and technology industries, found for example in the Eastern Economic Corridor which surrounds Pattaya. Smart visa holders are excused the 90 days reporting procedure, although this has become less irksome since online signing-in became feasible in most areas. The Smart visa also has provision for start-up entrepreneurs and the wife and children of successful applicants.

In late 2022, the 10 year Long Term Residence (LTR) visa was launched by the Board of Investment. Although wealthy retirees and rich global travellers are welcome, the thrust has been to attract digital nomads working for international companies listed on the stock market and professional workers and executives looking for tax breaks and freedom from the rigid quota system whereby one foreign work permit must be supported by four Thai employees. A digital work permit is automatically provided which does not require adherence to traditional employment rules. About 2,000 applications have so far been lodged with the Board of Investment, but there are no published statistics on completions or withdrawals.

Although Thai authorities in recent years have tried to diversify the foreigner working rules in Thailand – leaving aside the Memoranda of Understanding with the governments of Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos for economic migration – they remain complex, overlapping and off-putting to many. The status of voluntary work and the many interpretations of the “volunteer visa”, which was carelessly used during the Covid pandemic as just another way of extending a visitor’s stay, are also matters of concern. A national review of all working visas in Thailand is well overdue.