Can Digital Nomads legally work in Thailand?


Last edited: September 03, 2017 at 15:35:09

Interview with officials from Chiang Mai's Work Permit Office, Feb 2 & 28, 2017:

Ms. Rungtiwa Chansri, Labour Specialist Senior Professional Level at Chiang Mai Provincial Employment office
(คุณรุ่งทิวา จันทร์ศรี นักวิชาการแรงงานชํานาญการ สำนักจัดหางาน จังหวัดเชียงใหม่)
Mr. Nutthajak Srikaewlert, Labour Specialist at Chiang Mai Provincial Employment office
(คุณณัฐจักร์ ศรีแก้วเลิศ นักวิชาการแรงงานปฎิบัติการ สำนักจัดหางาน จังหวัดเชียงใหม่)
Mr. Suchart Wattanafungcharoen, Legal Officer at Chiang Mai Provincial Employment office
(คุณสุชาติ วัฒนาฟุ้งเจริญ นิติกร สำนักจัดหางาน จังหวัดเชียงใหม่)

Chiang Mai has been become the number 1 hotspot for Digital Nomads in the world and working remotely online has become more and more common for almost anyone. With these rapid developments, the question of whether and how foreigners can work or 'do their thing' in Thailand is becoming more and more relevant.
This is often a sensitive and hotly debated topic amongst foreigners, and there is a lot of (online) confusion and misinformation about this topic, so we asked the authorities directly to clarify their stance on this matter.
The following is an officially approved interview with officials of the Chiang Mai's Work Permit Office.

Interview with officials of the Chiang Mai Work Permit Office
Interview with officials of the Chiang Mai Work Permit Office

CAN DIGITAL NOMADS WORK IN THAILAND WITHOUT A WORK PERMIT?

Is it possible for a Digital Nomad to work legally in Thailand, I ask. How?

In order to work in the Kingdom, a foreigner needs to 1. be on an appropriate visa, 2. obtain a work permit and 3. pay taxes, says Mr. Nutthajak Srikaewlert.

So far, nothing new under the horizon, this part everyone knows or should know.

But ..., what is work? A Digital Nomad working on his laptop in a co-working space, is that considered work? A businessman sitting in his hotel room preparing for a seminar? A dropshipper delivering goods to a Thai customer? When does the Work Permit office consider this to be work?

It's quiet, the officials frown, this is a hard question to answer with a straightforward yes or no, even now at our second meeting after discussing the topic for several hours at our first meeting.

We realize we have come to the real core of the debate on whether Digital Nomads can work legally in Thailand, which is:
how do Thai authorities define "work".


TO WORK OR NOT TO WORK
THAT IS THE QUESTION:
THE DEBATE OF FOREIGNERS WORKING IN THAILAND
IS MAINLY ABOUT DEFINING WHAT IS WORK


Mr. Suchart Wattanafungcharoen opens a copy of the relevant section of Thai law.

" The most important criteria that this department (the Work Permit Office) considers when judging if a foreigner works or not, is: does the foreigner use energy, knowledge or effort to produce something? If the anwer is yes, then this could mean work. However, the Work Permit office may not pro-actively investigate or pursue every such case.

The Work Permit office will mostly be concerned with an activity of foreigners when:

a. Thai security is affected in a wide sense
b. the activity of the foreigner takes work from local Thai people

The Work Permit Office may go to check when a problem occurs or when somebody is reported.

Note that this is the perspective of the Chiang Mai Work Permit office only. Each department of the Thai government has its own concerns and will judge a case according to Thai law from its own perspective. If one department judges that a foreigner breaks the law, this might not be such a concern for another department.

The main purpose of Thai law in this regard is to protect Thai security, Thai workers and Thai resources. But it is up to the departments to interpret when a case is threatening these.
Resources can be interpreted to be objects, cultural factors, pictures, office infrastructure etc. "

Interview with officials of the Chiang Mai Work Permit Office

We reflect what this position would mean for probably most Digital Nomads in Chiang Mai: an estimated several thousands of so-called Location Independent Entrepreneurs stay in Chiang Mai for at least several months with the main purpose of "work".

" If a Digital Nomad comes here to work only for a short period of time (a few weeks), that is not a main concern for this Department. But if a Digital Nomad come to stay in Thailand long-term with the main purpose of working, then a work permit is needed. He/she exerts energy and resources in Thailand for the purpose of work. "

Using these criteria, aren't most Digital Nomads in Chiang Mai effectively working here illegally?

" Yes, in a strict sense. After consulting our Public Prosecutor, his opinion is that all such foreigners need a work permit and lacking this, are working illegally in the Kingdom.
Until now, they have been left alone because they are not a main concern to our office (yet), however if problems occur or the law is adjusted this may change in the future.
As of now, Thai law does not have specific sections that cater for relatively new developments such as foreign online workers. "

How do you know that a Digital Nomad comes to Thailand mainly for work? This could be just a tourist enjoying the sun and the food, meanwhile playing with his laptop.
" Indeed, it is hard to check what is the true purpose of a foreigner coming to Thailand. Foreigners working on a laptop as such are not a main concern to this office, but if there are problems, we may go to check it. "

We agree that some of the criteria mentioned are sometimes hard to apply and that there is a problem of checking and enforcability, while the relevant sections of Thai law at their inception had not been designed to deal with border-crossing phenomena such as online work and the explosion of Digital Nomads in Chiang Mai.

So I propose to discuss some typical cases of foreigners "working" in Thailand to understand where the delicate grey line runs, which cases are clearly illegal or which would raise the concern of the Work Permit office.


TYPICAL CASES OF DIGITAL NOMADS AND FOREIGNERS
"WORKING" LEGALLY OR ILLEGALLY IN THAILAND


1. A Digital Nomad works on his dropshipping shop in a co-working space in Chiang Mai. Work or no work, concern or no concern?

The verdict: " From the perspective of the Work Permit Office, the Digital Nomad is allowed to manage his online shop during the duration of his stay in Thailand without a work permit. Even if some of his customers are in Thailand, he is just continuing to do something he was doing before he came to Thailand anyway.

However, if his products or market are mainly from Thailand, then YES this is considered to be work and it is a concern to us. "

2. A website designer offers his services to fellow Digital Nomads in Chiang Mai. Work or no work, concern or no concern?

The verdict: " YES, this is clearly work and he should get a work permit for it. This job could have been done by a Thai website designer, the foreigner is competing with Thai workers and so he needs a work permit. This can be a concern to us. "

This is a typical case, that regularly appears as a job advertisement on social media such as Facebook, which might go unnoticed or unpunished by the authorities because of its minor scale, but which is actually clearly illegal and might attract the attention of the authorities at some point.

3. A foreigner sources handicraft products in Thailand and exports them to overseas.

The verdict: " YES, this is work, because the products are taken from Thailand and it is of our concern. "

4. A foreigner sits in his apartment in Chiang Mai and teaches Chinese students online via Skype.

The verdict: " Officially, work, however it is not a main concern to our office now, so we allow the foreigner to do this without a work permit. "

This verdict considers the scale of the work and the environment.

5. An overseas company recruits foreigners in Chiang Mai to teach Chinese students online via Skype.

The company is officially established in Hong Kong, but the teachers gather in an office space with computers to ensure a smooth teaching schedule.

The verdict: " YES, this is work and all these foreigners need a work permit. The reason is because the structure of this company is such that it's conducting business in Thailand, and it's using Thai resources (office space, infrastructure) to do so. "

This case happened a few years ago when the police arrested foreigners in an office in Riverside Condo.

Note how this case is same same but different from the previous case, because if all these foreigners would be sitting at home in their apartment, this would still be allowed. The grey line zigzags here depending on the work situation, the structure of work and the enforcibility.

6. A travel blogger writes about Thailand.

The verdict: "YES, this is work and it could be our concern. This work could have been done by a Thai person. Also, in order to produce the blog, the blogger uses information, sources, material, pictures from Thailand to sell it in the international market place. Finally, the content of the blog may affect the security and image of Thailand. The blogger definitely needs a work permit to do this. "

Are you kidding me? This would mean that many well-known travel bloggers, in particular the ones that specialise on Thailand only are in fact operating illegally and would need a work permit.

" When the blogger is an international travel blogger writing not only about Thailand but many more places and he stays in Thailand not too long but just as part of a longer trip to several countries, we allow this case without a work permit. But when the blogger is focused mainly on Thailand, he / she needs a work permit. "

But many bloggers don't even make a dime with their content.

" Even if the blogger does not make any money with his blog, he is still using his knowledge and ability with content that is derived from Thailand, so he needs a work permit.

However, bloggers may not be a main concern to this office, unless there are some problems. "

Interesting judgment and somewhat surreal, it means that all specialised travel bloggers about Thailand are in fact breaching the law if they don't have a work permit for it, even if they don't generate money with their blog.

We browse over a few well-known blogs, such as Richard Barrow in Thailand.

" Yes, this blogger clearly needs a work permit, however we do not really know where he is, if not in Chiang Mai it is not a main concern of us. "

7. A programmer is doing jobs on Fiver or Upwork for clients worldwide while staying in Chiang Mai long-term.

The verdict: " Officially work, but not a main concern to this office. "

Note that you do have to pay taxes if you stay in Thailand for a period longer than 6 months.

8. A Digital Nomad is making vodcasts for his online course on Uemy on how to make money online.

He uses a space in Chiang Mai to cast the video editorial.

The verdict: " Can be considered work in the same way all most digital nomad work, however not a main concern. He didn't take a job from Thai people. Also, the content of his blog is not about Thailand and so it is not using sources of Thailand. <"

9. A foreigner imports a container of German bicycles and sells them off in Thailand.

The verdict: " YES, this is work, because a Thai person could have done this. "

This case happened recently, the authorities arrested a foreigner doing this business.

Other, common cases that occur very often in Thailand and are normally not within the work field of Digital Nomads but are still interesting to discuss are:

10. A businessman travels to Thailand for a few weeks and conducts some business activities on behalf of his company

The verdict: " No work permit is needed. The businessman is allowed to meet business partners, discuss business opportunities, source products, even present merchandise to potential buyers and sign contracts on behalf of his company, because the nature of this is just temporary activity in Thailand.
Also, Thailand has an agreement with the ILO (International Labour Organisation) that foreigners can work in Thailand in this way. "

This verdict follows the advice of the State Council which interpretes work narrowly.

11. A foreigner owns a couple of condominiums and rents them out.

The verdict: " Officially, foreigners are prohibitted to conduct any property related business, this is one of the so-called forbidden jobs for foreigners. Foreigners would have to register this business and they cannot own more than 49%. However, this is NOT considered work when it concerns just 1 or 2 condos but it is when there are 10 condos for rent and he's specifically doing this as a business. If the foreigner only bought the condos as an investment and does no work at all to rent them out but has hired a local Thai to do this on his behalf, then the foreigner does NOT need a work permit. "

12. A farang-Thai couple owns a restaurant and the foreigner is involved in the management of the restaurant

The verdict: " This is a common and delicate case. If the foreigner is only sitting in the restaurant but not serving customers, not training or managing staff, not cooking and not buying supplies, then he does NOT need a work permit for this. But if he involves in any of these activities, officially he does need it.

However, at the same time, there is another section of Thai law that applies to this situation which is that when this is a small family business he is allowed to take care of his family.
So in practice, normally no work permit is enforced. "

13. A foreigner yoga teacher teaches periodically or permanently in a yoga studio in Chiang Mai

The verdict: " YES, this is clearly work and a work permit is needed. "

In Chiang Mai, most foreign-owned yoga studios probably violate the law in this way, employing foreign guest teachers temporarily or even permanently. It hasn't been a priority of the authorities to go after these illegal practises, but they could.

14. A foreigner plays music in a bar or restaurant to entertain guests

Judgement: " YES, work and work permit is needed. This is a job that could have been done by a local Thai. "

This case happened a few years ago when the police arrested many foreigner musicians everywhere in town.

NO MAGICAL FORMULA

These cases may illustrate how the authorities, in this case the Chiang Mai Work Permit office positions itself with regard to the issue of foreigners working in Chiang Mai, especially digital nomads.

The Work Permit office also stresses that " there is no mathematical formula to determine what constitutes work, each case has to be evaluated individually. All circumstances will be taken into account, including the time that the foreigner resides in the Kingdom, the true purpose of the foreigner coming to Thailand, the work location and work situation of the foreigner and so on. "

WHAT ABOUT PAYMENT?

Does it matter that a foreigner receives money in Thailand for actitivies done, for "work"? Does it matter how he receives his money (the payment channel: cash, bank transfer in Thailand, Paypal, Stripe, Payoneer etc.) ?

" The main criteria that the Work Permit office uses to judge if a foreigner works or not are not about payment. Even if a foreigner does not receive payment in Thailand, he could still be considered to be working.

But payment and the payment channel can be taken into account when judging a case. "

CONCLUSIONS

Most cases of Digital Nomads who stay in Thailand for a long time (say several months instead of several weeks) with the purpose of "work" can officiallly be viewed as doing work by authorities. This means, they actually need a work permit and are acting illegally if they work without a work permit.

The reason why the authorities have so far allowed it, is because there was no main concern, Thai jobs or Thai security were not threatened, there were no problems or nobody reported it. This position of allowance may change in the future, if there are problems or if Thai law is adjusted.

While most Digital Nomads staying long-term to work in Thailand actually need a work permit, but are allowed to 'do their thing' because they are of no main concern, some Digital Nomads are clearly crossing the line and may be a concern to the authorities and get checked, especially those competing with local Thai workers, threathening Thai security in some way, retrieving resources from Thailand or those working in a company-like structure.

Do you have an opinion on this or do you have experiences with working online legally?
Share it underneath as a comment.

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Andrew Posted on July 25, 2017 at 12:43:47
Fantastic. We need a work permit but in order to get one we need a company that will pay us 50,000 baht and has 4 Thai staff to apply on our behalf.

Perhaps next time a detailed article about How we are supposed to get this magic work permit when the law makes it impossible to obtain.
Jukebox Posted on July 19, 2017 at 06:52:28
Can you ask how does a foreign musician who wants to play in bars and restaurants get a work permit. I agree that Thai musicians can do this work but what if a bar, resort, hotel or restaurant specifically wants someone who can sing English songs?