The first time in Thailand, I did what everyone does –get a VOA (visa on arrival). You arrive at the airport with a passport from a qualifying country and they authorize a 30 day visit. Free.
The second time I wished to stay more than 30 days. I visited the Thai consulate in Los Angeles, paid $75, and got a 60 day tourist visa. At the time you could extend this indefinitely by making the famous visa run to the border or visit the Immigration office and pay for a 30 day extension. I did this run using Jack Golf which picked up in the morning at Sukhumvit Soi 12 and got you back to Bangkok by dinner. You gave your passport to the Jack Golf people and they took care of stamping in and out of Thailand and stamping in and out of Cambodia, all while you waited in an air conditioned lounge and had the option of getting a massage, drinking, enjoying a foot massage, and loading up on counterfeit junk like Jack Daniels that tasted suspiciously like crap Thai whiskey. Cheap and painless. The Jack Golf bus was always filled with an interesting assortment of foreigners and I made a couple of transitory friends chatting with people on the ride.
As time progressed, I wanted to do things such as open a bank account with internet access and buy a motorcycle and a car that aren’t possible with a tourist visa. I did some research and discovered that a Non-Immigrant Visa allows foreigners to do almost everything Thai people can do. There are different types of Non-Immigrant Visas that have different requirements but once you have one, it increases your degrees of freedom exponentially.
For the past few years, I used a Bangkok lawyer to get a non-immigrant B visa. The lawyer charged approximately $300 and provided an inch thick stack of documents which represented that I was coming to Thailand to explore doing business with his company. The documents included copies of the corporation’s papers, names of the director, copies of the director’s passport, etc. The documents and my passport were sent to the Thai consulate in Portland along with a money order for $175. Each year, the Portland consulate issued a one year multiple entry B visa. The documentation was not completely legit because I wasn’t coming to Thailand with the purpose of doing business but, technically, it only represented that I was coming to explore the possibility of doing business. The Portland Thai consulate was very liberal with the visa stamp. The same documentation submitted in Los Angeles or Washington D.C. would have been rejected. With the B-visa, I was able to open a normal Thai bank account, get a driver’s license, buy a motorcycle, etc.
After the recent elections, this option was foreclosed. I never knew firsthand what the deal was with the Portland Thai consulate but they granted visas that other consulates wouldn’t. My guess is that someone connected with the ruling party was in charge at Portland and they made money either from the $175 fee or from kickbacks from the lawyers who provided the documentation. I did notice that the Portland consulate visa was a simple rubber stamp with a hand written serial number while the Los Angeles consulate visa is a fancy hologram embossed sticker with the visa serial number printed on it. The same documentation that would be rejected in Los Angeles or Washington D.C. was routinely accepted in Portland. With the new government, my lawyer advised that the Portland Non-Immigrant B (business) visa option was history. Portland was rejecting applications just like Los Angeles and Washinton D.C. that were routinely accepted in years past.
The end of the Portland Consulate easy B-visa is one of several changes I’ve encountered after the recent change of power. At least in some areas, the Reds seem to be ending and cleaning up long standing practices of the Yellows.
So this year, I applied for a Non-Immigrant OA (retirement) visa at the Los Angeles Thai consulate. I provide the details to ease the way for others interested in this option and who would like to conserve their time and energy providing the proper documentation and getting an O-A visa approved.
To be eligible for an O-A visa you have to document:
- Approximate income of $2000 a month or approximately $20,000 in savings.
- No police record.
- Clean medical record.
The documentation has to be notarized.
The requirements are listed on the consulate website but it’s not exactly clear what actual documents they want. They refer to an “income certificate”, a “medical certificate”, and a copy of you “police record” but exactly what these started out as and what they will accept was a bit of a mystery.
Over the years, I’ve gotten inside the head of Thai bureaucrats and understand the Thai paperwork process. It’s not about really proving or documenting anything. The process is about making you jump through some hoops for the sake of appearance. It creates jobs and everyone is happy pretending they are doing something. It’s mindless, harmless, eats some time and money, and is hardly unique to Thailand. Most Thai bureaucracies are not computerized and the paper gets filed away somewhere and forgotten.
An example of this is the many photo/radar cameras set up around Bangkok. The policeman takes a picture documenting you exceeded the speed limit and a notice is sent to the registered owner of the car. If the owner doesn’t pay, there are no consequences because auto registration records are not computerized. There is no way for them to collect the money when you re-register your car and no way for the policeman on the street to know you have outstanding unpaid tickets. This explains why on the main highway north out of Bangkok, near Thamasat University, the policemen started collecting the fines on the spot instead of sending notices in the mail—which BTW solves the no computerized records problem very cheaply and efficiently.
I’ve encountered “the process” when getting a Thai driver’s license.
To get a Thai driver’s license you have to take a test. One part tests your reaction time. You sit down in a chair, a red light flashes, and you hit a faux brake pedal. If you do it fast enough you pass and given the time allowed a paraplegic could pass. It’s idiotic but you have to do it to get a license. The other parts of the test are equally mindless and impossible to fail. Nothing is really measured and nobody is really screened but it provides jobs and the appearance that the license means something is maintained. A Thai friend with a driver’s license says she has never driven a car. A friend in the Thai DMV and asked if she wanted a license so she got one. She’s licensed but doesn’t know which pedal is the gas and which the brake.
Just like getting an OA visa, a Thai driver’s license requires mindlessly submitting documentation. For a driver’s license, a letter of residency from the U.S. embassy is required. The problem is that there is no such thing as an official “letter of residency”. The U.S. embassy understands this so they give you a letter (for $40) with the U.S. embassy seal embossed on it that says you live in Thailand. It proves nothing but it satisfies the Thai bureaucratic process.
My experience with Thai bureaucracy is that if you follow instructions and provide what they want, even when the logic defies you, everything gets rubber stamped, everyone smiles, and you accomplish your goal. There is nothing evil, predatory, or any of the calculated “get” farang attitude that certain internet bloggers claim inundates the Thai government. The visa process is just bureaucrats being bureaucrats. It’s the same the world over.
So first, I went down to the Thai consulate and talked to the visa department about what documents they would accept. The lady manning the information desk was vague and non-specific but I got the idea that they just wanted something that looked official and didn’t really care if it really documented anything. I complied.
For the medical certificate, there is a form. I took it my doctor and he signed that I don’t have leprosy (no kidding), cholera (no kidding) and some other diseases which no American has. My guess is that the diseases are from the inter-war period when cholera, syphilis, and other plagues were carried by visiting seamen.
For the criminal record check, I went to LAPD headquarters downtown. You go down into the basement, hand over your passport and $16 and they give you a letter (on LAPD stationary) that says you haven’t been arrested in Los Angeles. The clerk explained that the letter doesn’t say you don’t have a criminal record just that you haven’t been arrested in Los Angeles. I explained that this was for a Thai visa application so it just has to look official. She looked skeptical but took my $16 and issued the letter.
If you need to really document a clean arrest record, you can go down to the Norwalk Sherriff’s office, where they actually take your fingerprint, check nationally, and give you a certified letter documenting you lack of an arrest record anywhere in the U.S. but that costs $42 and I didn’t want to drive an hour or more.
Because the LAPD letter was on official stationary, it was accepted even though it didn’t really document a lack of a criminal record.
For the income certificate, I got a letter from my employer stating my income. This could have been forged but since it was on company letterhead it was accepted. I work for a large government agency and my letter was legitimate but it’s easy to see how someone who owns their own company or prints some letterhead on their laser printer could fabricate a letter and beat the system.
The main problem was getting the documents notarized. When I took papers to a notary, he explained that he couldn’t notarize them. Normally notarizing documents certifies that the person signing is the person he claims he is. If the LAPD commander would come to the notary with his I.D. and sign in the presence of the notary then his signature could be notarized. My doctor and my employer would both have to come to the notary too to get the documents notarized. This obviously wasn’t going to happen. I had a long discussion with a notary but he said there was nothing to notarize unless these people came to the notary with me.
Not sure what to do, I took my application to the Thai consulate and asked what they wanted or would accept. Just like the letter of residency for the Thai driver’s license they just wanted something notarized. The nice English(?) gentleman working the visa window directed me to a notary across the street who was used dealing with the consulate. The notary issued a notarized document that said I was the official custodian of the application and stamped it with his official stamp. Cost $10. This didn’t attest to the accuracy or legitimacy of my documentation but it was enough to satisfy the consulate.
I submitted everything Friday morning and the visa was ready to be picked up on Monday.
Compared to what the U.S. puts foreigners through to get a U.S. visa, the Thai process was easy and painless.