There has been a lot of speculation and opinions concerning the question can a digital nomad can work in Chiang Mai, while staying in Thailand on a tourist Visa. The opinions and answers to this matter range from “yes” to “yes BUT” to “No”. Let’s clear up all the myths and misinformation because the reality is, that most of what people are hearing, repeating and sharing is wrong
My own opinion has run the gambit, starting in the flat out “No” camp and then started to read articles online and was influenced by people who appeared to know more than I did; (or at least claim with a confident sense of authority). For example this article by jonez450reloaded sounded impressive and I followed the links that were cited. The article changed my mind to the “It’s fine and O.K. to work as a nomad on a Tourist Visa” view point. I did not bother to read the whole articles and just skimmed the headlines. Big Mistake!
A meeting with my Lawyer regarding my own Thai company reveal my views were based on cherry picked knowledge (oh boy I was wrong again). I decided to follow-up on this because he was of the opinion coworking spaces are on the target list of local Immigration as are some digital nomads. It did not take too much effort to find that much of the advice and opinions given by the nomad community about this topic have come from distortions of quotes in original sources, or taken from newspaper reports quoting people essentially saying “I don’t know but I think …”
Let’s take a skeptical look at where our information is coming from and examine what is real and what is wishful thinking.
Update: 5th Feb
This update information comes from a coworking space owner who has a vested interest in Nomads. Unfortunately (again) not prepared to go on the record officially or have themselves identified. Following up on my inquiry to them before this post was made they have said … Immigration have informed them …
- They are not interested in digital nomads in particular but they are looking for foreigners that do illegal work like selling/exporting goods from Thailand online eg. Selling Thai made Furniture from Baan Tawai Market online.
- Immigration said because they are under the military internal security act, they are forced by the military to be more strict.
- They suspect foreigners that stay in Thailand for a long time go to work at the same place.
- Coworking spaces are consider in the same group as Cafes and safe to work from.
- No one is going to get deported
- It is not just Immigration who decide to go on a Raid. It is also other departments such as Police and Military
What does this new Information mean?
This updated information does not really provide any new details except
1) Immigration is not the single authority who decides what and when to raid places.
2) Added hearsay credibility to the no one will be deported knowledge base
The same texts (info obtained via facebook chat) have been sent to others who have also blogged about it coming to different conclusions. I know that the tone of my post is cautious and others paint a more upbeat position.
For a balanced view, between the overly cautious and upbeat check the Hobo with a laptop link at the end of this post
Conclusion In a Nutshell: Can a Digital Nomad Work in Chiang Mai, Thailand?
- It is Illegal to work as a digital nomad on a tourist visa
- Immigration say they are not concerned with Nomads working at home, at cafe or on their first (possible 2nd) Tourist Visa
- Immigration appear to be concerned with Nomads (or anyone) using multiple Tourist Visas and using ‘Offices’ (essentially not a Tourist but living here)
- Immigration are concerned with Nomads (or anyone) promoting they are working and making money in Thailand without a Work Permit.
- Almost all opinions shared by the community come from repeating misquoted or cherry picking original sources
- Chiang Mai Immigration are still actively investigating and collecting evidence
- It seems only nomads fitting a certain profile are at risk
It is important to note that sources I have obtained my information from have said nothing officially. This information is admittedly given as hearsay from me to blog post. But, (and it is an important but) – This information comes from people working in the legal and immigration systems in Chiang Mai.
Let’s be realistic from the start, why would anyone go on record placing themselves in the hot seat for a ‘blog post’?
Let’s examine how we are getting incorrect Information
Cherry Picking Facts! As is often the case on the internet, the news report linked in the post by people to support their opinions are often wrong. In the case of jonez450reloaded, in which he concludes digital nomads can work in Thailand … “There’s no grey area, the answer is yes. You don’t have to believe me: Immigration has said so. That article links to a story at Chiang Mai City News quoting Pol. Col. Rutphong Sanwanangkun, Superintendent of Chiang Mai Immigration who is paraphrased as saying
“If you are a ‘digital nomad’ running your own business on the internet, the immigration office says you can do this on a tourist visa.”
The first article actually reported in the Asian Correspondent quotes quoting Pol. Col. Rutphong Sanwanangkun as
“Generally speaking, to work in Thailand, foreigners should hold non-immigrant B visas and must obtain work permits from their employers. However, the increasing number of people working online does not fit into any neat visa category”.
The second article in Chiang Mai News, is referring to the Aug 20th meeting organized by the Chamber of Commerce. This meeting was mostly aimed at Expats, Business and Retired people. In this article the reporter gives the paraphrased response.
“If you are a ‘digital nomad’ running your own business on the internet, the immigration office says you can do this on a tourist visa.”
This one sentence is NOT what Immigration spokespeople said, this is a reporter giving her opinion of what was said. Does this matter? Hell yes! There is more to the story. This was an off the cuff comment made by a spokesperson, referring to the change in visitor demographics and his opinion. Granted his opinion is more valid than yours or mine – but it is not the complete story.
In the Beginning
Thai Immigration Law
Thai Law which clearly and definitely says … You can not undertake any work in Thailand while you are here on a Tourist Visa. This is clearly written on every single Visa application form, in the details about filling in the form, on any website dealing with immigration assistance. This is not a grey area at all. People can ‘hope’ that the new paradigm of the Digital Nomad means countries will have to adapt their immigration laws to cope with it. Hoping and wishing does not mean it is true. To be fair to Chiang Mai Immigration, they have stated they are not concerned with enforcing the law for most digital nomads here on a Tourist Visa. But as you will see further down – not all nomads are safe!
The PunSpace Raid
On October 1st 2014 PunSpace (a coworking place), was raided as reported by telecomasia.net as a “bungled raid on a digital nomad co-working space in the northern city of Chiang Mai”: One of the 18 (some reports say 11) people detained was well known nomad and Chiang Mai resident Johnny FD. Johnny informed a concerned nomad community what was happening with his blog about the situation with regular updates. Much of the guessing and speculation began here in the comments about Johnny’s attempt to report what was happening. Much of the theories and opinions where based around there being no charges laid, and everyone being released.
Because no one was charged speculation went from ‘bungled’ headlines to ‘everything is fine, they just did not understand what a digital nomad was’. My research suggest in fact Immigration know exactly what a digital nomad is. The often online repeated statement “They did not know what a digital nomad was’ came from this news report which quotes a staff member of Punspace who actually said
““The soldiers asked ‘what are these farang (foreigners) doing here?’ They didn’t know what we are”.
Let’s examine this more …. A Punspace staff member was talking to a soldiers (the hired guns) not to Immigration personal. The same newspaper report in the next paragraph states plainly
“An immigration official refused to answer questions about the raid, but confirmed they were monitoring places like Punspace “with lots of farang” as part of an ongoing investigation.”
The major impression we are given as a result of this raid is that Immigration did not know what a digital nomad was. The factual reality is that Immigration declined to justify the reasons for the raid, but stated they are continuing to investigate. These two conclusions are not the same thing.
The English Teacher Raid
On January 23rd 2015 at 12.30am, Chiang Mai Immigration raided a modified office room in the ground floor of Riverside Condo on Chiang Mai-Lamphun Road and detained 17 foreigners, who were teaching English on Skype. The raid as reported by Bangkok Post has been copied and pasted and commented upon in online forums all over Chiang Mai and Thailand, with the usual speculations and opinions being expressed about the whys and whats of working in Thailand.
All 17 foreigners were taken to Mae Ping police station to be prosecuted, and their passports and laptops were seized. The were held for 8 hours before being release. Prosecutions are intended for each of them, but as of yet I could not determine how many would be charged and deported.
Interestingly while this is simply a breach of the law, Chiang Mai News reported Officials saying they believe the teachers were tutoring “Chinese Spies” and have reported the matter to Thailand’s Security Affairs Section and Chiang Mai’s Chinese Consulate. Training Chinese Spy’s? On the ground floor of a condo unit, in plain site of everyone! Let’s not forget we are in Thailand, and in Thailand the Farang is always wrong, no matter what the situation is.
The Digital Nomad able to work … Speculation says ….
The information given online, in forums, by word of mouth is totally inconsistent. I admit that I gave my own impressions of what I thought the situation was as well. And my ‘opinion’ was influenced and formed with intellectual laziness. I did not take the time to go to the source of information and in hindsight I did what every human being tends to do. I selected the opinions of others that fitted into what I wanted or already believed – and I downplayed information that contradicted this.
Over the course of the last few months, my opinion and advice regarding our ability to work here has shifted from yes to no to yes. Like almost everybody giving their advice, I did the best to repeat what I hoped was the situation without actually looking into the reality of the situation with any effort.
There is too many different versions of what is possible and what is not possible, but the general consensus of the majority of online commentary experts seems to be…..
1. It is illegal to work on a tourist visa
2. It is illegal to work on a tourist visa, but just do it anyway
3. It is the same thing as checking your emails or going on Facebook
4. It is not illegal to work in Thailand as long as you are not working for a Thai company, receiving pay in Thailand and the work you do is not for Thai nationals.
5. As long as you don’t actually do a job a Thai person can do Immigration have no problems, especially if it’s online
5. It’s a grey area, there are no laws regarding digital nomads working here, let’s work and wait and see
Whats the Real Story!
On Friday 30th January, I went to see my Lawyer,  I have removed the reasons I went to see the Lawyer as that revelation while used to give evidence of my sincerity could be used against me at a later date. [end edit] and the conversation turned to Digital Nomads. Long story short.
What the Lawyer Told Me
Cutting to the chase because you have had to read a bit to get to this point. Here are the main points
- The person quoted in all the press statements from Immigration is a spokesperson he does not make decisions, there is another section that does this.
- It is illegal to work in Thailand on a Tourist Visa – that’s it bottom line
- Immigration needs to prove in court that someone is breaking the law to get them deported
- Immigration is now actively collecting this evidence for future arrests to provide proof
- Punspace was not a bungled misunderstanding, they knew what a nomad was, and got statements as evidence
- Immigration’s investigators are likely to have joined and monitoring Facebook groups and nomad forums to ‘watch & record’
- Not every Digital Nomad needs to be worried
Obviously I was greatly disturbed by this. I am a member of this community and as much as I care for your safety and well-being, – you lot and your friends are my customer base. My lawyer said that not all hope was lost, Immigration were targeting specific criteria, and while technically illegal to work in Thailand at all without a work permit; For now, Immigration are not concerned with the average digital nomad working while they travel. :By average” they are referring to the nomad with a 3 month stay in Thailand on their way to other places.
I wanted confirmation of this and had my staff call  My staff members associations with the Immigration office were provided to establish credibility. This has been removed as it could potential create problems in the future. The basic gist was I was trying to arrange a meeting) [end edit]
The Nomads being Targeted
There is bad news: It is illegal to work in Thailand on a Tourist Visa. It does not matter if your company is in another country or you are not taking work away from Thai people, or selling products in Thailand, or working for a foreign company selling to a foreign company. A Tourist Visa is for a holiday. If you intend to work while you are in the Kingdom of Thailand you do not come on a Tourist Visa legally stating on the application that you will not be working. If you are making an income or exchanging your time for a potential income – YOU ARE WORKING!
And good news: For now only specific people are going to have a problem. Local Immigration officers are fully aware of what a nomad is and how we contribute to the economy. Immigrations major concern is to remove undesirable elements from Thailand. This is one of the major reasons the Visa run of the past has been shut down. The thinking is, if you can not afford to leave the country and obtain a Visa to return, you are not contributing to the ‘Happiness of Thailand”. In other words, your poor – go away. By the same token, if you are making money and living here long term, but are not paying the required fees to obtain a Work permit – you are not contributing to the ‘Happiness of Thailand”
What is the criteria Immigration investigators are concerned about?
- Anyone working from anything that can be defined as a ‘Office”. This includes condos converted into Offices (as in the Skype English Teachers) and spaces deemed to look like an Office (rented enclosed working spaces in coworking spaces) and actual rented Offices
- Anyone who publicly states they are working in Thailand as a digital nomad without a work permit. Investigators are looking at Forums, Facebook groups, Nomad seminars with a fee, and personal blogs – and collecting evidence
What are Immigration investigators not concerned about?
- Visitors who are holidaying in Thailand as part of an extended overseas vacation
- People working from inside their own condo or apartment
- People working in open cafe (something that does not resemble an office)
- People without a history of living here repeatedly
- People who are working and not openly promoting they are breaking the laws of the Kingdom of Thailand.
What happens if you are arrested?
Section 54 of the Immigration Act
In case there is an order of deportation for the alien; while waiting for the alien to be deported the competent official may order the alien to stay at any prescribed place or he may order the alien to report to him ( competent official ) according to a prescribed date, time ,and place with Security or with Security and Bond. The competent official may also detain the alien at any given place as many be necessary.
Immigration may hold you for 48 hours to complete their investigation and then further extend this to 7 days if need be. Any detention longer than 7 days must be approved by a court. Hence you are more likely than not to appear before a judge within 7 days after being arrested.The expense of detention and deportation will be charged to the person involved.
If you are arrested, you will be taken to Immigration, who will cross reference you to the information they are collecting. If you are on the suspect list, it will be assured this time they will have the evidence to take the matter further. (if they decide to). They are collecting information from Blogs, Facebook posts and other sources we like to chat in. You will be given time to arrange for legal representative, and contact your Embassy; but Immigration have the right to detain you in a location of their choosing. This maybe in locally, in Bangkok or they may let you return to your place of residence.
It is likely based on the history with over stayer, if you can show the means to leave, you will be released and given the ‘opportunity’ to leave the country. BUT If you have ever watched Thai news on TV or read the papers; Thai authorities love to parade their good deeds in the media. Not only parade them but as in the case of the English lessons via Skype, they justify with exaggerated claims it was a “spy training ring“
What is the Chance of anything happening?
I freely acknowledge, that I, like everyone (except a few people within Chiang Mai Immigration) have no idea what might or might not happen. This matter is of concern to me because it at the base level affects my bottom-line. Nomads are my income base, and I have no intention of wanting to scare anyone away from Chiang Mai.
Best that can be done at this point is to examine what is known, what is uncertain (and define it as uncertain) and what is known to be myth. For me, just 1 day ago I was saying any threat of Immigration deporting digital nomads was a myth.
Now I know this is not the case. But luckily it is not every nomad, and you can easily avoid any risk by following a few common sense decisions. Sadly it would seem the people who are openly and actively promoting Chiang Mai as the place for Nomads to come, are most affected.
Here is what is known:
- It is Illegal to work here on a Tourist Visa. That’s it bottom line. This is the Law, even if it is a law that has not kept up to date relating to digital nomads. Even if it is a law that has not been actively enforced for whatever reasons. Even if it will damage the economy of Chiang Mai – this is the law as it stands and at any time it can be enforced.
- Immigration has stated that the single entry Visa tourist who works from home, or a cafe or a coworking space in an open area is not of concern to them and should not have any problems.
- Most of the information that we are using to base our decisions on are cherry picked from articles, misquoted, or from people guessing. Repeated misinformation does not make it true, no matter how many people want to think it is.
- Most of what you read, including previous comments I have made is copied and pasted wishful thinking
- Chiang Mai Immigration are conducting further investigations. They are monitoring and collecting information on people who are openly sharing that information online.
- Immigration is collecting evidence in order to be prepared to prosecute and deport aliens they feel are a detriment to Thailand.
- Immigration knew what they where doing when they raided Punspace.
- Punspace, and other coworking spaces are going to be visited again. It is possible that only those people in ‘offices’ will be detained, it is possible their will be a list of people being looked for, it is possible it is a scare tactic
- Immigration have names and details of high profile people openly advertising they are earning money while living in Thailand
Here is what is Unknown
- If digital nomads is a priority for the new government (Army) or local Chiang Mai Immigration
- If this is a nationwide thing or just a concern for Chiang Mai
- If this is a national policy or instigated by one member of the local Chiang Mai office
- If any real action will be taken on the information gained from Immigrations ‘ongoing investigations’
- If Nomads under the “no concern” position of the spokesman comments, is real policy.
- If digital nomads have any official status (negative or positive) with Immigration
- If a case can be put forward on our behalf by local Thai business people
- If this is a real threat or just posturing for publicity
What can be done?
Latest update: You can get a volunteer work permit for 30,000 baht for web based services. And other type of Visas
The bottom line is ….
1) It IS illegal to work here on a Tourist Visa – get this stuck in your head. There are no special circumstances or exceptions!
2) Immigration spokespeople have stated that they are unconcerned with enforcing this for the vast majority of digital nomads passing through Thailand on a Tourist Visa. (and maybe those living here quietly)
3) Immigration are conducting further investigations and have a criteria they are looking for that make us a possible risk
a) Working from something that looks like an Office.
b) Consistent long time residency in the Kingdom of Thailand on Tourist Visas
c) Openly flaunting you are working and living here
d) Exporting Online products that are made in Thailand (added Feb 5)
4) So far nothing has been acted upon specifically targeting digital nomads. The Skype English teachers were targeted because they were using an Office, and possible training Chinese spies (read with unbelievable sarcasm)
I will repeat again, the day before I investigated and wrote this, I was of the opinion that there is nothing to be concerned about with Immigration raids and being deported. I still think this to be the case for almost all of the digital nomads living in Chiang Mai for being deported; rather fines will be levied.
I have changed my mind on the possibility of there being no further raids on coworking spaces, although I doubt will end up with any or many arrests. I am certain (as I can be on hearsay) that investigations and information collection is happening; weather anything will come of it, I have no clue. I would love to think (maybe hope) that through being observed, the positive light of an open and sharing community of travelers will be shown. I would like to think that a deeper understanding of the nomad community will help lead to Visa reform.
Imagine if Thailand became the first country to accept and embrace the digital nomad movement? Imagine how much media attention and increased tourists they would get if they provided a place that supported the latest version of the entrepreneur?