IS IT LEGAL TO BE A DIGITAL NOMAD ?
Recent events involving Digital Nomads in Chiang Mai, Thailand illustrate the importance of creating a passive income while travelling and highlight additional drawbacks of trading time for money while abroad. Originally posted January 30, 2015, updated February 7, 2015.
THE LEGALITY OF BEING A DIGITAL NOMAD IS UNCLEAR FOR MANY, NO MATTER WHERE YOU GO.
The confusion is a result of lawmakers around the world grappling to adjust to the nature of travellers who casually telecommute to work in their native countries via the internet while travelling abroad. Gaps in the visa process make it difficult or impossible to acquire the proper clearance to work online while travelling.
Simply put, tourist visas are for vacations and do not permit you to undertake any work inside the country you are visiting. Many assume the language of the law means that you cannot work for a Thai-based company on a tourist visa, and feel that it does not speak to those who casually telecommute to their native countries.
To obtain a legal work visa as a foreigner in Thailand, a work permit is required and/or you must be sponsored by a Thailand-based company.
Although it isn’t impossible to find a private organization that can sponsor you for a price, it seems like a strange step because most Digital Nomads have no intention of working for a Thai-based company.
Few are aware of these business sponsorship opportunities and they aren’t guaranteed. Without them, it’s much more difficult to acquire the correct paperwork.
DIGITAL NOMADS IN CHIANG MAI
The Digital Nomad community in Chiang Mai, Thailand is growing faster than any other country in the world and it is beginning to get noticed.
In the past year there has been an explosion of Digital Nomad friendly businesses and services popping up all over the city and throughout the country, such as coworking spaces, concierge services, and sponsored events geared towards skill sharing or networking.
This month there will be an event sponsored by Buffer, and only a few months ago Chiang Mai Digital Nomads filled seats at TEDx Chiang Mai.
Two events are shaping how Digital Nomads are perceived in Thailand. By looking at the differences between each story, we might be able to gain a clearer understanding of what is allowable in this country, what isn’t, and when to execute a little common sense.
Aware of the presence of Digital Nomads in Chiang Mai, the government has been expressing their curiosity by questioning foreigners in coworking spaces, checking passports and visa designations. No Digital Nomads have been charged or deported, and everything seems to be fine on the surface.
Many are viewing these actions as isolated oddities, as just last August an article was published at City News Chiang Mai touching on the legality of being a Digital Nomad in Thailand. The article stated it is legal to work online on a tourist visa.
“What if I want to work in Thailand? If you are working for a Thai company, you will need a non-immigrant (type B) visa and then a work permit in order to work legally. 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 article has created an echo chamber of misinformation. It was based on a statement made by an organization which a) has nothing to do with immigration, and b) was a misinterpretation of what was said. It is, however, referenced frequently by the Digital Nomad community whenever the legality of working online in Thailand is called into question.
“The event was organized by the Chamber of Commerce, Upper Northern Thailand Provincial Cluster 1, and was attended by members of the local consular corps and some foreign business owners.”
Most did not take the latter point into account and believed what they read, imagining the article trumps current immigration law.
THE RAID ON PUNSPACE
On October 1, 2014 a popular Chiang Mai coworking space called PunSpace was raided as reported by telecomasia.net.
According to their article, the raid was a result of an anonymous tip that foreigners “were working in a suspicious way” and that they feared it was a criminal gang operating some sort of “boiler-room scam”.
In the end, no charges were laid, no one was deported, and as the article states;
“Punspace said on their Facebook page that after they explained how coworking was just like an Internet cafe the immigration police now understand better and said it is OK to work online in Thailand.”
The part in their statement about it being okay to work online in Thailand was likely the City News article being referenced once again. Another statement not made by Immigration directly.
Worthy of note is that this open co-working space is full of people who are not working together for a business in Thailand on a tourist visa. They’re doing everything from writing code to surfing Facebook or checking email. It’s not an office.
THE ARREST OF FOREIGN WORKERS (NOT DIGITAL NOMADS)
This story runs a little differently. Can you spot the differences from the PunSpace raid?
Leading up to a number of arrests which rattled a few chains in the Digital Nomad community, a job listing appeared on the Job Chiang Mai Facebook page on January 17, 2015 by a local company called BOI 360 Max Co seeking a Thai national to serve as an accountant.
With just under 20 employees who were all foreigners on tourist visas, the company operated out of a makeshift office on the ground floor of Riverside Condo on Chiang Mai-Lamphun Road and was run by a Canadian national.
The company was not registered and therefore not legally operating in Thailand, which led to the arrest of 17 foreign English teachers.
Here’s why this occurrence varies from the raid on PunSpace and is not a clear indicator of the local government’s stance on Digital Nomads;
- This wasn’t a single traveler, casually working alone, online, through another country: It was a full-fledged brick-and-mortar business operating locally without a license.
- All of the employees did not have proper visas to work for this Thailand-based business.
- In lieu of operating an illegal business, they still advertised their business with job postings on the internet with the intention of hiring a Thai national.
The only thing in common with the PunSpace story is another strange anonymous tip. In this case, authorities were alerted of a group of foreigners who may be tutoring Chinese spies, and both Thailand’s Security Affairs Section and Chiang Mai’s Chinese Consulate were alerted. You can read more about these arrests on Bangkok Post.
DIFFICULT TO ENFORCE
Unchecked, it would appear that Digital Nomads are conducting themselves in their native country, being paid in their currency, through their banks, working with their clients.
Most Digital Nomads start their journey working casually on a flexible schedule as a sole proprietor or for a registered company back home, not for a company based in the country they are travelling through, especially on a tourist visa.
So far there are no reported cases of any Digital Nomads facing any negative consequences of tending to income-generating online projects while in another country on a tourist visa or otherwise.
For the most part, Digital Nomads are difficult to identify, and they are generally viewed as a positive contributor to the economies they travel through.
NEW TERRITORY FOR LAWMAKERS.
2015 could potentially be the year that countries formally address Digital Nomad culture and consider providing a legal framework which will more effectively accommodate the unique lifestyle.
As I write this, Digital Nomads in Chiang Mai are being interviewed by news organizations so that they might start an open discussion with the local government.
Perhaps Chiang Mai is ground zero for a new precedent to be set, and the first country to recognize Digital Nomads with a proper visa designation –which could earn it official status as The New Paris of the East, and generate positive media attention to a country recently battered in international media coverage.
WHAT ISN’T A DIGITAL NOMAD?
Some definition of what a Digital Nomad may be required going forward; as in —we are not people who go around setting up illegal businesses on tourist visas. There’s a fine line, and it only takes one ignorant person to set off a political drama.
We need to remember that this is a worldwide concern, not just one in Thailand. And that if they’re collecting online evidence in Thailand, which they are, it can then be assumed that other countries are all over the world.
FIRST RULE OF FIGHT CLUB
The Digital Nomad community is a global phenomenon and I can’t think of one country that clearly recognizes this type of world traveller by removing obstacles from acquiring a visa that accurately defines their activities.
Until recently the community has been relatively fringe (you could almost say underground). But with the popularity of specific bloggers, podcasters, meetups, events, seminars, retreats, and conferences like Dropship Lifestyle and DCBKK in recent years many aspiring nomads are choosing to stay in Thailand instead of heading back home.
The government is trying to attract ‘the right kind of tourist’; the kind that spends money, follows the rules and eventually moves on. Which is a pretty fair proposition.
I suggest a little more discretion.
UNWRITTEN LAW OF DIGITAL NOMADS
There’s plenty of commentary springing up on these recent events and the legality of how Digital Nomads finance their travels, without any solid clarification or resolution. I didn’t want to cover this subject without providing some sort of solution –a way to adapt and prevent any unwanted circumstances.
I am not suggesting that anyone break any laws, I strongly endorse generating a passive income so you do not work while you are travelling and respecting the terms of your visa type.
In contrast, I also suggest a touch more discretion within the community. You wouldn’t drink a beer at a park back home without a paper bag over it. It’s sort of like that.
The Digital Nomad modus operandi, in no specific order;
BROWN-BAG YOUR WORKFLOW, BRO:
- Don’t talk too much about being a Digital Nomad on commercial projects. Being a Digital Nomad is a lifestyle, not a job title.
- Don’t rent or create an office. Keep it casual. An office is a version of hell that you wanted to leave behind.
- Don’t put stickers that say “XYZ Niche Event, Chiang Mai” on your laptop.
- Resist the urge to stand up and yell “I got my first sale!” at all times.
- Avoid crowded coworking spaces.
- Must make the effort to get proper double or triple entry visas.
- Don’t share earnings reports in videos or on websites that clearly state you where you currently live. Same goes for online forums that are open to the public.
- Don’t post/advertise/flaunt/spam in forums that are open to the public. Pseudonyms?
- Local bank accounts are only for spending money.
- Focus on passive income.
- Spread out, work at home more.
Nomad-ing around with your laptop won’t get the average person in any trouble if you keep it discreet, respect the visa process by acquiring double or triple-entry visas, and stay out of trouble.
Any additional “rules” you would like to suggest, or information you’d like to share? I’d love to hear it and I bet other readers will, too.