Thailand’s Board of Investment (BOI) is at last getting to grips with an anomaly in the visa system: self-proclaimed digital nomads or remote workers who use modern technology to work from coffee shops, hotels, co-working spaces or libraries with a Wifi connected laptop or smartphone from anywhere in the world. Until now such work, if performed in Thailand, was illegal without a work permit whose regulations did not fit freelancers or temporary visitors.
The BOI now says that a four-year Smart visa is being introduced for some digital nomads, subject to Cabinet approval which is virtually certain as agreement has already been reached with the top government committee, the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration. It is hoped that revenue from the new venture will offset the decline in tourist-orientated income during the worldwide pandemic.
Thailand launched the Smart visa in 2018 and is an attempt to develop the country’s targeted industries by attracting highly-skilled foreign workers or investors. The Smart visa is unique because it does not require additionally a work permit issued by the Department of Labour. But, until now, the rules were very restrictive and required applicants to be earning huge salaries or to be investing millions of baht in technological enterprises. To date, only 530 such visas have been issued to the foreigner hi-flyers.
Amongst the new move’s aims is to allow digital freelancers currently in Thailand to exchange their tourist visas for Smart visas, provided that they have an employment contract with a foreign firm lasting at least six months and can provide proof of qualifications and professional experience. The minimum salary with any one employer is now 50,000 baht monthly. But after receiving the Smart visa, the freelancers’ expertise could be tapped by universities, the National Science and Technology Development Agency and other bodies. The BOI intends to broaden the scope of science and technology to include innovation and entrepreneurship. Universities will be encouraged to employ nomads to give lectures or to act on a consultancy basis.
The Smart visa is Thailand’s answer to the internationally-recognized need for a remote or freelance visa specifically to entice foreigners to come and contribute to their economies. The BOI promises to assist digital nomads in the bureaucratic application procedures, but adds that those without a formal contract with one or more employers cannot be included in the scheme. This leaves in an ambiguous situation those foreigners earning cash in Thailand less formally or even illegally in a hi-tech context which could place them in default of the alien employment legislation.
The Smart visa, once obtained, lasts for four years with annual reporting. There is no requirement to perform the unpopular 90 days reporting, whilst the visa is multi-entry with fast-track treatment at Bangkok airports. Wives and children of Smart visa holders do not need separate documentation to live in Thailand and can also study and work in the country without separate permission or paperwork. In Chonburi province, the only known Smart visa holders at the moment are found attached to the hi-tech centres of the Eastern Economic Corridor which straddles three central provinces.
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