Thailand long term residence options: Comparing elite status and permanent residence
This article focuses on long term Residency in Thailand in either the Thailand Elite program or in lawful permanent resident status as opposed to non-immigrant visas which, although renewable, only have an annual or bi-annual validity.
The Thailand Elite Visa: The Ultimate Long Term Tourist Visa?
The Thailand Elite program provides a VIP experience for those wishing to stay in Thailand long term. Those interested in joining the Thailand Elite program can obtain membership in 5, 10, 15, or 20 year increments. There are a number of perks associated with Thailand Elite status, including concierge services, fast-tracked immigration processing at airports, and limousine service. Additionally, there is also the Thailand Elite Visa. However, such amenities come with a price: as a general rule, each 5 year increment in the program costs 500,000 baht. There are multiple programs and each has a different fee and benefit structure. Furthermore, the Elite Visa is held on an individual basis, so family members cannot have derivative status, but the program provides for family packages and the overall cost of such packages may mitigate the cost of each individual's membership. The Elite Visa is inextricably linked to the duration of one's membership in the Thailand Elite program, so if one purchases a membership for 10 years, then one will be entitled to Elite Visa status for the same length of time. It should be noted that the Thailand Elite Visa sticker itself is issued with a 5 year validity, but upon the expiration of an initial visa sticker a subsequent sticker can be obtained in order to reflect the member's total length of membership benefits. Although the Thai Elite visa provides substantial benefits it may not be optimal for everyone. The Elite visa could be described as a long term tourist visa. Each time an Elite visa holder enters Thailand he or she will be stamped into the country for a 1 year duration. The visa holder can come and go as he or she desires and so long as the visa sticker is valid Thai immigration authorities at the port of entry will grant a 1 year visa stamp. Should the Elite visa holder wish to extend their stay in the country at the end of an initial 1 year of lawful status, it is possible to do so with the assistance of the Elite program concierge staff. To be clear: a Thailand Elite visa does not confer the right to work in the Kingdom and the visa itself, unlike a Thai business visa, cannot act as a platform for a Thai work permit application. For those wishing to stay long term in Thailand in a retirement or leisure capacity the Thailand Elite visa is the ultimate tourist visa and can act as a less cumbersome alternative to the Thai retirement visa. However, the status conferred by the Elite visa is not permanent. The Elite visa is considered a non-immigrant visa. For this reason, those on such visas must adhere to rules pertaining to 90 day reporting and the TM30 in the same manner as other non-immigrants in Thailand. Only approval of a residency application can grant a foreign national unconditional lawful permanent residence in Thailand.
Advantages of Permanent Residence
For the expat who has been granted permanent residence in Thailand the benefits can be substantial both practically and in a more intangible sense. For example, those with Thai PR do not need to deal with the same Immigration regime as those who maintain non-immigrant status. Case in point, a foreigner who has permanent residency does not need to adhere to the rules in Thailand regarding the TM30 address reporting. Concurrently, those with resident status also do not need to file a 90 day report of address in Thailand. Those with PR are listed in a Thai House registration book (aka Tabien Baan). This can make frequent mundane tasks (banking, driving license application or renewal, and work permit applications to name but a few examples) more efficient.
The inherent nature of an expat's lawful status is different after attaining PR. Those with permanent residence are issued an Immigrant visa as compared with a non-immigrant visa. Also, those with PR are not subject to the same requirements that non-immigrants must adhere to. However, residency in Thailand does not necessarily mean that an expat need never deal with Immigration, or the Thai government generally. Those who travel overseas must maintain an immigrant visa in order to remain in lawful status while abroad. They must return to Thailand from overseas within 365 days or else lose their residence status. The police book must be updated every five years.
One aspect of Thai Permanent Residence, when compared with residency in some other countries, is the fact that work authorisation is not inherent to Permanent Resident status in Thailand. This means that notwithstanding the fact that an individual may be legally resident in Thailand, that person may not necessarily have work authorisation. A work permit must be maintained in order to take up employment activities.
Applying for Permanent Residence
Eligibility to apply for Thai permanent residence often comes after a prolonged presence in Thailand with work authorisation. There are multiple categories under which an applicant may apply for permanent residence. However, the vast majority of approved cases involve an applicant who has been living in Thailand for a prolonged unbroken period in business or marriage visa status with unbroken work permit status during the same period of time. There are also income thresholds which must be overcome in order to perfect an application. The specific financial requirements will vary depending upon the facts of the applicant's circumstances. It is noteworthy, that PR applicants apply individually. Therefore, spouses do not process merely as derivative applicants, but must file a standalone application.
It is not possible to apply for permanent residency in Thailand on a year-round basis. In fact, the so-called "window" for application submission only opens for a designated period of time each year. In years past, the duration of time during which an application could be filed was relatively short. In some cases the "window" may only be "open" for a matter of weeks or months. In 2019, Immigration allowed submission of applications from mid-summer until the end of the calendar year. This was viewed by some observers as an extension of the "Good Guys In, Bad Guys Out" initiative undertaken by the Thai Immigration Bureau insofar as the relatively prolonged period of time allotted to applicants was viewed as a way of getting more "Good Guys" into permanent lawful status. It should be noted that Thai Immigration authorities have always maintained a quota for PR applications based upon nationality. Presently, the quota remains at 100 slots allocated per nationality and an additional 100 slots set aside for stateless persons.
After an application is lodged, the case will be processed through the Royal Thai Immigration Police Bureau and the Ministry of Interior. There are multiple interviews associated with a successful application. Each application is unique so attempting to provide a "one size fits all" analysis would be fruitless. The process of obtaining PR can be time- and resource-intensive. There is a great deal of documentation that a foreign national must submit in a successful application. Some of this documentation must be certified not only by government agencies abroad, but also by the relevant organs of the Thai government.
The cost of initial application is 7,600 baht. However, upon approval, a subsequent 100,000 to 200,000 baht fee is required, depending upon the category under which the application was approved. After all fees are paid and one's name is placed in all relevant documentation (house book, police book, etc.) an individual can truly be considered legally resident in the Kingdom of Thailand.
Author: Benjamin W. Hart, Managing Director, Integrity Legal (Thailand) Co. Ltd.
Email: email@example.com and www.legal.co.th
Series Editor: Christopher F. Bruton, Executive Director, Dataconsult Ltd, firstname.lastname@example.org. Dataconsult's Thailand Regional Forum provides seminars and extensive documentation to update business on future trends in Thailand and in the Mekong Region.