BANGKOK – The days of freewheeling foreigners staying in Thailand without proper visas are over. Thailand’s military-run administration has begun a crackdown on expatriates using immigration loopholes to stay in the country, sometimes for years.
Those affected include long-term stay tourists, early retirees, fly-in fly-out workers, English teachers, illegal workers and so-called “digital nomads” who work for companies in their homelands.
A crackdown is also under way to enforce existing laws stating that all foreigners, including tourists, carry their passports or photographic proof of their identities at all times.
The law states Police must also be informed within 24 hours when foreigners change address, with violators fined for non-compliance. Immigration Officials have said this is unlikely to be enforced, however foreigners might worry about corrupt officials seeking to line their pockets with some quick money with misuse of the law.
The restrictions come as the Thai military maintains a tight grip on how the country is governed following its May 22 coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, after months of political unrest.
Under martial law, gatherings of more than five people are banned, the media faces strict censorship and authorities are swift to clamp down on dissent.
Immigration officials have announced that from August 12 foreigners will be banned from taking so-called visa runs to obtain short-stay, back-to-back visas that have allowed them to repeatedly extend their stay through border stamps. The visa runs have spawned businesses that facilitate cross-border trips by foreigners, some of whom are known to have been using the loophole for more than 10 years.
But immigration officials say that even foreigners on valid tourist visas may now be denied entry if border officials suspect they are spending too long in the country or working illegally.
Foreign embassies and other diplomatic missions in Bangkok have been asked by Thai immigration officials to warn their citizens that laws will be strictly implemented to prevent what they call “visa runners”.
“Foreigners who come to Thailand must seek a proper visa in line with the purpose of their intended stay here,” the Immigration Bureau said on its website.
Immigration officials have also announced a crackdown on foreigners who overstay that will result in many being banned from entering Thailand for years or even for life.
Until now people on tourist visas were fined the equivalent of $17 for every day they overstayed up to a maximum of $669 if they presented themselves at an airport or immigration office. In most cases they were allowed to immediately leave and then re-enter the country.
But under the crackdown those who overstay more than 90 days and surrender to immigration officials will be prohibited from returning for one year. Those who overstay for more than five years will be prohibited from re-entering for 10 years. Penalties are even harsher for those who do not surrender and are arrested for overstaying.
Expatriate website forums have been flooded with comments about the restrictions in the country where tens of thousands of expatriates have made homes on the resort island of Phuket and cities such as Pattaya and Chiang Mai.
One popular forum said that the hardest affected may be expatriate retirees who do not meet the financial requirements to obtain a one-year extension of stay. Some support a Thai partner and children.
The number of tourist arrivals in the country collapsed after the coup, even before the Tourism Authority of Thailand had cut its forecast for foreign arrivals this year to a five year-low of 26.3 million as political unrest deterred visitors.