It seems like every other foreigner you meet in Thailand these days is doing some sort of work online.
Whether a retiree managing business affairs back home via email, or a full scale internet marketer working out of cafes and co-working spaces, more and more people are taking advantage of being location independent.
In the last few years, online workers have flooded into Thailand; travel writers, bloggers, web developers, Pay-Per-Click advertising managers, affiliate marketers, poker players, the list goes on.
Let's not also forget the hundreds, if not thousands of movie extras working on tourist visa's too.
The problem is, the laws pertaining to foreigners working in Thailand were written prior to the growth of the internet, which means that anybody falling into one of the aforementioned categories cannot obtain a work permit that covers the type of work they want to carry out in the Kingdom.
The moment you conduct any type of work online in Thailand, you are breaking the law, period.
As black and white as that may be, even those desperately trying to comply with the law currently can't do so. And here's why…
What Happens When You Try To Legally Work Online In Thailand?
Back in 2009, I wrote a post about working in Thailand, and as part of my research I popped off an email to a well-known Bangkok-based legal firm asking whether a permit was required for a person working online in Thailand for a foreign client.
The response was interesting, and corresponded with the “no one is going to say anything” line people were following at the time. Here is that response:
Thank you for contacting [name undisclosed]
Legally speaking you are required to carry out your tasks with a corresponding WP. Regardless of the fact that you are doing your job through your laptop. This is because you are earning income whilst you are in Thailand.
At the same time the process of procuring a WP is just complicated as opposed to just doing your thing discreetly. Logically, thus, I would opt for the latter like more or less what you are doing at the moment.
The most important thing in the end is you have a visa that makes your stay in Thailand legal.
Should you have further questions, please don't hesitate to contact us.
Have a nice day!
This shocked me a little. And so I asked my brother, a lawyer in the UK, what he thought of this stance. His response was:
“I would be very sceptical of a law firm, or lawyer, that actually advises you to break the law. We often point out to clients that what they are doing is against the law and the action they should take to remedy it, but would always stop short of advising them not to do it”.
But as we all know, Thailand was a different place back then. The whole “working online” thing was very new and there were no legal guidelines specifically covering this area.
Having spoken to a fair few people working online in Thailand over the years, I've discovered that I'm not the only person to receive this response.
In fact, law firms have been giving out this advice for a number of years, because they themselves have been waiting for the law to catch up with and regulate this modern way of working.
Fast forward to 2014 and the issue has still not been addressed. And just as the aforementioned legal firm stated, “the process of procuring a WP is just complicated as opposed to just doing your thing discreetly”.
However, some would argue that the law doesn't need an ‘online worker' inclusion, because it already provides a clear definition of what working in Thailand means:
Alien (or foreigner): a natural person who is not of Thai nationality. Work: engaging in work by exerting energy or using knowledge whether or not in consideration of wages or other benefits.
This definition is very broad, catching in its net all forms of work. Technically, even if you're staying in a hotel for a week on a tourist visa, sending a few work-related emails each day is against the law.
So How Can I Obtain A Permit To Work Online In Thailand?
Here's where it gets problematic.
Foreigners cannot set up as a sole trader or limited company with one employee (you). To obtain a work permit, other than through an employer, you need to set up a Thai company.
The requirements for this are a minimum of 4 thai employees per foreigner, a 51% holding Thai partner who isn't included in the 4 employee quota, 2 million Baht business capital and a business premises.
Not really a solution for a guy who sends a few emails a day from a cafe, is it?
You can't convert a tourist visa to a work permit, either. You must enter Thailand with a non-immigrant business visa and have a prospective employer.
The employer will then file an application for a Work Permit on your behalf with the Alien Occupational Control Division. If you are employed outside of Bangkok, this will be applied for at the local Provincial Office of Employment
Are There Any Plans To Change The Law?
The relevant authorities have been aware of people working online inside Thailand for many years. It is likely that for the most part a blind eye has been given for three key reasons:
- The cost involved in developing legal guidelines and an alternative work permit for those working online couldn't be justified against the low volume of online workers.
- It would require considerable resources to investigate each person suspected of working online, and in many cases would be difficult to prove.
- Where does one draw the line? You can't penalize a person on a 6-month tourist visa who sends 6 emails a day, and then not penalize a person on a 30-day tourist visa who sends 3 emails a day.
The fact is, new legislation needs to be put in place, with a special work permit developed for those working online. The current law then needs to be amended to include an exception for those needing to send urgent work emails while on holiday.
Are You In Danger Of Being Arrested Or Fined?
Unless you've been hiding under a rock for the past six months, you'll know that the NCPO (The National Council For Peace & Order) has instructed immigration to crack down on illegal workers. This has largely been focussed on persistent visa runners, obtaining in-out tourist visas and then working illegally for companies inside Thailand.
It's important to note that this crackdown was prompted by the number of illegal tour operators and guides working in Thailand, not those working independently or for companies outside of Thailand. The NCPO cited Russian, Korean, and Chinese nationals as the main culprits illegally earning money from the Thai tourism industry.
Rumour has it that the NCPO is getting around to looking at work law and considering how they might legalize online work and tax it accordingly, but as you imagine, they have their hands pretty full right now with other pressing matters.
But for now, know that there is no exception. If you are working in Thailand without a work permit, then you will be subject to the following prosecution:
A foreigner who engages in work without having the work permit for it shall be liable to imprisonment for a term of not exceeding 5 years or to a fine from THB 2,000 to 100,000 or both.
I Don't Want To Work Illegally – What Can I Do?
There are two things you should do immediately.
The first is acquaint yourself fully with the law. Understand what the current legal guidelines are and exactly where you stand.
You can read the latest law concerning foreigners working in Thailand here:
**Note: there is not one reference to “web” or “online” in this document.
The second thing you should do is speak with a reputable lawyer and seek legal advice. At least that way, should you be accused of working illegally, you can at the very least prove that you have actively been trying to get a permit to cover the type of work you do. Make sure you keep all correspondence between yourself and the law firm.
It doesn't matter whether you are working for a Dot Com based outside of Thailand, or whether your ISP or VPN is based in the US or Europe. It doesn't matter whether you pay tax in another country, or whether you get paid for your work or not, if you are conducting an activity that falls under Thailand's legal definition of ‘work', then you are working illegally.
Hopefully the authorities will soon create a category for online workers that enables them to remain in Thailand and pay a local tax.
With only 2.5 million tax payers in Thailand, this will be of great benefit to the economy, and would be far more profitable than spending Thai taxpayers' money to investigate and deport those working online.
Recently been given legal advice about working online in Thailand? Share your experience below.