CHIANG RAI – New visa restrictions could create headaches for travelers and expats who relied on Thailand’s easy border run policies to stay in the country for long periods of time.
Those without proper long-stay visas have for some time been able to take advantage of the border run system, exiting the country at an official border point and re-entering the same day. This would usually give them another 15 or 30 days in the country, depending on their nationality and the regulations at the time.
That all seemed to have come to a stop this weekend, however, as the government furthered a crackdown on people using visa runs to stay in Thailand. As of Saturday, May 10, immigration officials at the Mae Sai border were not allowing anyone to exit or enter Thailand at the Mae Sai crossing into, a popular spot for visa runners. Many people, including tourists looking to extend their stays and expats, do back-to-back runs that allow them to stay in the country for several months without leaving to obtain a longer-term visa. Border runs are slightly inconvenient but easy ways to extend a stay without having to leave and apply for a visa in another country.
On Saturday, tourists posted on the Thai Visa forum that they had arrived at the border at Mae Sai only to be turned away after being told that no one would receive the visa on arrival stamp from that crossing. In the past, foreigners were occasionally turned away for having done too many consecutive visa runs but the crackdown seems to have been applied to all tourists trying to make the land crossing, regardless of how many stamps they already had.
Tourists looking to extend their time in the Kingdom will now need to exit the country to apply for a proper tourist visa or will need to fly out and back in every 30 days to obtain a new entry stamp. The latter will only be an option for a few more months, however. Visa runs by air will also be prohibited beginning August 12.
The Mae Sai restrictions were enforced just days after stricter enforcement was announced at the Ranong border crossing near Phuket. Tourists will be able to do an in-out crossing three consecutive times, but must provide verifiable details of where they are staying. According to The Phuket News, whether or not they will get more than three extensions depends on whether Immigration has been able to confirm their information, and the decision will be at the immigration officers’ discretion. Tourists may be asked to show proof of income or that they have enough money to support themselves in Thailand. This is also a requirement at some foreign Thai consulates.
The crackdown is designed to prevent people from doing back-to-back visa runs without obtaining the proper visas for being in the country. Tourists will have to secure a visa from consulates outside Thailand, whether in their home country or elsewhere. It is possible to apply for a visa in nearby countries such as Malaysia, Laos, Singapore, and Vietnam, though regulations vary at each. The consulates are allowed to use discretion when approving visa applications and whether or not a tourist will get one sometimes depends on rules that can change monthly. Those who have already had several tourist visas may not be approved for another visa, or may receive a single rather than a double entry.
Officials have said the new rules are aimed at preventing people from working illegally in Thailand and from committing crimes. Though safety is the proclaimed aim, the new rules will surely cause a headache for those who have set themselves up in Thailand on tourist visas and border runs, but not other long-term visas such as the non-immigrant visa. This may particularly impact the so-called “digital nomad” set, who travel frequently and work remotely but are not employed by a Thai company. Options for those looking to avoid future visa hassle include getting an education visa to study Thai or Muay Thai boxing.
Visa regulations change frequently, and it remains to be seen how strictly the new laws will be enforced — and how long they will stay in place.
By Casey Hynes a freelance journalist based in Asia. She has lived in South Korea, China and Thailand and travels throughout the region. She is a 2008 graduate of Columbia Journalism School in New York City, and her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Vogue India and a number of regional publications. Go to http://www.caseyhynes.com follow Casey on Twitter