Many people who have location independent businesses flock to Thailand for the great weather and cheap cost of living. Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of misinformation floating around about the legality of being a digital nomad in Thailand.
What is a digital nomad?
Before we get too far into the legal issues surrounding digital nomads in Thailand, we’ll clarify what a digital nomad is. The term generally refers to someone who is engaged in a location independent business which frees the individual to run their business from virtually anywhere.
For instance, if you are a graphic designer and you make money designing logos for customers that come to you via an online freelancer site like Fiverr, you can do that work just as easily from a beach hut on Koh Samui as you can from the US or Europe. And if next week you could pick up and move to Vietnam or another country with no break in your work because your physical location has little or no bearing on your income.
Digital nomads generally do not target their nomadic base market though. For instance, if the previous example’s graphic designer went around and solicited local businesses on Koh Samui to design their websites then they do not really fit the digital nomad definition since their income is derived from the local economy and they are less location independent.
Because the concept of people being to move freely around the world while collecting income from customers also sprinkled around the globe, many countries have yet to come to terms with how they should handle these nomadic workers should be classified.
Working in Thailand
Thailand has very strict laws regarding foreigners working in the country. Some would even say that the Thai government’s definition is overly extreme, even classifying unpaid charity work as work that requires a work permit.
Since foreign business owners are not necessarily required to obtain a work permit, there are many tales of rival business owners snitching out other business owners for doing something as trivial as carrying a box or wiping down a restaurant table. As those are considered work under Thai law, the business owner would be in violation of immigration law and subject to possible deportation.
This is probably where many people get the impression that doing any sort of work in Thailand and being a digital nomad in Thailand is illegal without obtaining a work permit.
However, this is not how immigration laws have been applied to a digital nomad in Thailand in the past which is a more important criteria than what some guy in a bar or on an online message board says.
For instance, according to the Samui Times, in Aug of 2014 senior Thai immigration officials held a public event with members of the media and diplomatic corps in order to explain various new Thai immigration laws. Senior immigration officer Thawatchai Changoern was referenced as saying the following regarding digital nomads.
He noted that online work for overseas companies that pay overseas is not prohibited but that the person will need to get a visa to stay longer, currently there is no new visa for these kinds of people.
Ironically, a month later Thai immigration conducted a raid on the PunSpace coworking space which is popular with many digital nomads living in Chiang Mai. While many initial reports claimed that it was a crackdown on digital nomads, the immigration officers did eventually release everyone and said that they had conducted the raid to make sure that nobody was overstaying their visas.
Others have speculated that the Thai immigration officers were under the mistaken impression that the people working at PunSpace were employees of PunSpace and thus were working in the country illegally. Their theory is that when it became apparent that this was not the case, Thai immigration officials wished to save face so they put out the story about visas.
If anything the quick release of everyone detained should indicate that, at least in Chiang Mai, while the whole concept of digital nomadism is still a little bewildering to Thai immigration authorities, it is certainly not considered illegal.
What’s the law?
Unfortunately, Thailand’s rule of law is not on par with what many foreigners are used to back in their home countries. An immigration officer can come out on Monday and say that working online is fine and on Tuesday they can can say that it’s not okay and that you’re being deported for working illegally.
In fact, there’s no guarantee that what an immigration official said in Chiang Mai is either legally binding in any way or even applicable to any other city in Thailand.
There is no specific law that says working online or being a digital nomad in Thailand is permitted. There is also no law saying that it is not permitted.
That’s where a lot of the confusion arises from. In the absence of clear laws, legality runs the danger of becoming the opinion of whatever Thai immigration officer is in charge and what mood they happen to be in that day.
But, technically, if one were to respond to an email while on vacation in Thailand, that would also be considered working in Thailand given the lack of laws regarding the topic.
However, I can not find any mention from any source of foreigners ever being fined or deported for working online that didn’t involve the online work as being illegal in itself (running scams, etc).
Even if merely working online was illegal, it would be both nearly impossible to enforce as well as extremely harmful to the tourism industry as many people would simply go to another country in the region rather than risk being fined for answering a work email.
Keeping a low profile
This is why it is recommended that any digital nomad in Thailand simply keep a low profile until specific laws are enacted by the Thai government that better clarify the legality of online work. That doesn’t mean you should hide in your apartment and block out all of the windows like a recluse. But it does mean, why draw attention to yourself by working out of a shared workspace like PunSpace or going around and telling anybody who will listen that you’re a digital nomad?
This keep your head down approach might fly in the face of what many people believe about being in the right or how the world should work but it’s more about avoiding problems.
All it takes is someone who doesn’t like you to go whisper in the ear of some immigration officer about how you go around bragging that you’re working in the country illegally (which may not even be true but if that is what they claim, well, it’s up to you to prove you aren’t working illegally), and, at a minimum, you’ll be spending a night or two sleeping in an immigration detention cell.
There is a certain animosity within parts of the expat community towards the digital nomad in Thailand. It’s just easier not to draw attention to what you do.
That said, the biggest problem most digital nomads will face in Thailand is not the issue of getting caught working in Thailand but staying in Thailand legally. Your typical digital nomad in Thailand will only be able to qualify for a tourist visa and, technically, immigration views tourism very differently than living in Thailand.
While Thai immigration has vacillated back and forth between being very lenient with tourist visas to randomly cracking down on tourist visa abusers, it would be foolish to create too permanent of a life in Thailand without obtaining some sort of longer-term immigration status. At best, you’re going to have to obtain a new tourist visa every 90 days or so by leaving the country and re-entering. You’ll never be sure whether or not the next time you go and apply for a new tourist visa they’ll look at all of the previous visas and decide you are no longer a true tourist.
Digital nomads who travel through Thailand and stay for 3 – 6 months at a time and then head off elsewhere are likely to avoid these kinds of problems.
Ultimately, until the Thai government defines what “online work” is or what a “digital nomad” is and how the laws do or don’t apply to them, and it is clearly written into law, it’s somewhat of an ambiguous situation.
However, given that it would be extremely difficult to catch someone working online in Thailand, the fact that Thai immigration has previously shown little interest in catching digital nomads operating their businesses in Thailand, the statements by the Chiang Mai immigration officials, and the havoc a sudden crackdown would cause to the tourism industry in Thailand, it seems to be unlikely that a digital nomad in Thailand would be at much risk.