I’ve been living in Thailand for a few years and these are reflections on what options foreigners have to stay in Thailand long term.
How long is long-term?
Most of the foreigners don’t even need a visa to stay in Thailand for 30 days or less and if you wish to stay for up to 3 months you can make a tourist visa before your arrival to Thailand.
Staying longer than 3 months
I won’t comment on a few weird and complicated ways to stay in Thailand such as registering a business or marrying a Thai citizen because I don’t think those are good options if your only intention is staying in Thailand for the long term.
I won’t cover the retirement visa so if you are 50+, you should take a closer look at Thailand’s retirement options.
Option 1: Border runs
There are no restrictions on how many 30 day stamps you can get at the border so one of the obvious solutions is just to cross the Thai border once a month. There are plenty of bus services with their sole purpose of crossing the border. Such a service would cost you from $50 to $100 per run.
Pros: - easy to do, no paperwork - relatively cheap
Cons: - be ready to spend a full day on each border run - it’s not always comfortable
I wouldn’t recommend this option unless you wish to stay in Thailand for a short time, about 5 months or so. Having 1 tourist visa + 2 stamps on the border would be the best option in this case.
Option 2: Visa runs
Visa runs are similar to border runs but they are a bit more involved since you not only have to cross the border but you also have to apply for a tourist visa while you are in another country. The thing is, you can’t apply for a tourist visa if you are in Thailand so you have to cross the border first. There are a lot of services that may help you with that and the usual price is about $150 per run.
Pros: - you can stay up to 3 months inside the country after each visa run - relatively cheap
Cons: - takes 2 full days - you have to sleep in the bus, which is a hellish experience - you can’t leave the country, it will invalidate your visa (unless you buy a special permit)
I think this is the best option if you want to stay in Thailand for 6 months. Staying longer than 6 months is possible, but you might get a special stamp in your passport if you use this kind of visa more than 2 times a year. With that stamp it will be impossible to get a tourist visa again.
Option 3: Student visa
There are plenty of foreign languages worth learning and Thailand is a good place to do that. It’s pretty cheap and easy to study a new language in Thailand. There are many schools here and the tuition fees start from $400 per year.
You have to leave the country once to get this kind of visa but after you come back you can stay in Thailand for as long as you want but you have to be willing to study. Another issue with this kind of visa is the corruption. You have to go to an immigration department every 3 months to extend your stay and those guys will make you suffer unless you are ready to pay a bribe of ~$150 so the overall yearly cost would be about $1000.
Pros: - you can keep extending your visa as long as you want - it has the same price as previous options but you will have more comfort
Cons: - you need to pay about $500 upfront - you have to study and it takes time (as I mentioned above, the guys at immigration actually don’t care if you study or not as long as they keep getting their bribes) - you can’t leave the country, it will invalidate your visa (unless you buy a special permit)
This is the cheapest and most comfortable option that would allow you to stay in Thailand longer than 6 months.
Option 4: Thailand Elite
It’s certainly true that money can bring you a lot of comfort and Thailand is no exception. Elite visas are aimed for business travelers and they allow you to stay in Thailand for 5 to 20 years, depending on the type of your visa. The cheapest Elite visa is called Elite Easy Access and it would cost you about $15 000.
The only big problem with this visa apart from it’s cost is that you still have to report to the local immigration office every 90 days. The law is the law and there are no exceptions, every foreigner has to fill a report with his current residence address every 90 days. The Thailand Elite team tried to make this experience as pleasant as possible so they opened a concierge service in Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai and they can go to the immigration office and stand in a queue for you but you have to visit them to drop your passport and to take it back a few days later.
Pros: - almost zero bureaucracy - priority line at the airport immigration - 24 free transfers from the airport
Cons: - price
I think that Thailand Elite is the best option for staying in Thailand long term. The price is high but let’s see the monthly cost:
$15 000 / 60 months = 250 dollars per month
Still about twice more expensive than the other options but there are no other options with that amount of comfort and there are no hidden costs. For instance, each border run will cost you 1 day of your time and it’s not a pleasant experience. What’s the price of 1 day of your life? If it’s more than $100 then Thailand Elite will be a better option for you.
I use Thailand Elite and I think that it’s worth it. Is protects me from all the bureaucracy and corruption and allows me to spend more time on things that I actually like. The visa overhead is easily compensated by the lower cost of living compared with EU or USA. You can rent a good house here for $500, why don’t you pay $250 more to forget about all the formalities with your long term stay in the kingdom?
I think that staying in Thailand is complicated but it’s still one of the best and cheapest places to live if you are location independent. The best available option for a long term stay is a Thailand Elite visa and if you are looking for cheaper options I would suggest you go for a student visa which will save you a lot of time and efforts compared to border/visa runs.