I moved to Thailand in the fall of 2017 in order to live out my early retirement dream lifestyle.
Moving abroad and taking advantage of geographic arbitrage is, in my opinion, vital to unleashing the full potential of early retirement. It’s why I discussed it so much in my best-selling book, 5 Steps To Retire In 5 Years.
But not all is perfect, nor will it ever be.
Thailand, like many other countries, is going through some changes in regard to how they manage their borders.
These changes are resulting in a much stricter approach toward visas and broader immigration policies. I think these changes are more evolutionary than revolutionary in nature, as things have been slowly moving in this direction for many years. But it does appear that the speed of that evolution is becoming more rapid, especially over the course of just the past six months or so.
Thailand has been developing its economy and country for a long time. The economic expansion has been undoubtedly aided by tourism – Bangkok is regularly the most-visited city in the entire world.
This expansion has improved the standard of living for millions of Thai people. And that’s wonderful.
But Thailand finds itself in an enviable position nowadays.
They do not necessarily need to court tourists and expats, due to a combination of immense demand and an economy that no longer desperately needs that tourism money. Furthermore, the massive boom in short-term Chinese tourists makes Thailand less reliant on long-term tourists/expats (particularly those from the West).
The demography of tourists here has significantly and rapidly changed over the last decade. I’ve seen this play out firsthand just in the time I’ve been here.
For example, there are now more than 10 times as many Chinese tourists as American tourists coming to Thailand. That’s very different compared to just five or ten years ago. My neighborhood is barely recognizable today compared to when I first visited Chiang Mai in 2016. To give you some perspective, Thailand is on pace to see ~11.5 million Chinese tourists enter the country in 2019, which is almost 17% of the entire population of the country of Thailand.
Well, changes in immigration policies are reflecting a change in tourism focus. Priorities have shifted.
Thailand’s immigration arm is now, in my view, far more interested in catering to tourists (particularly Chinese tourists) who come for a short stay, spend their money, then go home.
I’m sure the desire for short-term tourists to spend their money and then leave has always been there. But there’s clearly a sense of urgency now, shaped by the aforementioned demography, which is quickly altering visa conditions for longer stays.
Supply is finally meeting demand. The money is flowing, And long-term stayers (who happen to be predominantly Westerners) aren’t really worth the trouble anymore.
Thus, long-term visas for Thailand have become much more difficult to ascertain and maintain.
Frankly, I get it. I wouldn’t say I’m surprised about this. It’s simply math and common sense.
However, Thailand’s visa clampdown does directly affect me.
The Changing Of My ED Visa
Whereas it was once relatively straightforward to live indefinitely in Thailand, or at least stay for rather extended periods of time, it’s now becoming substantially more difficult. Almost impossible, really.
This is especially true for those under 50 years old, not married to a Thai national, without a local job, or unwilling to buy into the Elite program. Even those over 50 or married to a Thai national are seeing some difficulties they haven’t seen before – new regulations for these long-stay visas have become mighty onerous. And getting a job over here was never easy or suitable for most people (foreigners are mainly limited to teaching anyway).
I came here in late 2017 on an ED visa. That’s a visa designed for educational programs.
Before enrolling, I was initially advised that I could study for 3-4 years. The administrators were very relaxed about it, assuring me it would be no problem to renew the visa for at least that long.
I figured that kind of time frame would give me some time to settle in, test things out, and make sure I felt comfortable with living in Thailand. I’d then just have to reassess things down the road.
That sounded fantastic to me.
Well, 3-4 years have now shrunk to just two years.
My program will cease to have me as a student as of January 2020. They’re even telling me that new students might not even get one year.
The visa conditions for long-stay foreigners here in Thailand have recently deteriorated markedly.
Educational programs across the country, ranging from language to Muay Thai, are becoming more burdensome to participate in. This is because long-stay visas in general (which include the ED) are becoming much more stringent, regulated, and monitored than they have been in the past.
I originally figured I’d do my program for 3-4 years, sign up for a different program after that expired, and mix in some tourist visas along the way. That would get me an easy 8-10 years in Thailand. I didn’t come here necessarily thinking that I’d live here that long, but I figured I’d at least have a number of years to feel things out.
It used to be no problem to do something like this.
But it’s not like that anymore.
This leaves me in a precarious position of having to figure out a new path much earlier than I originally had in mind.
That’s okay. I think adaptability is a hallmark trait of my personality. And adaptability is extremely important as it pertains to early retirement, if not life itself. Change is the only constant in this world. Evolve or die.
This reassessment has left me with a visa plan for 2020.
I’ll have to take another look at things a year from now. There’s a good chance that I’ll be unable to stretch things much longer than this, if I can even get through 2020. But I’m going to take a page out of the book from my Thai counterparts and live more in the moment.
Visiting Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia In January For A Thai SETV
The first step to this plan is to visit Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in January 2020 in order to apply for (and receive, hopefully) a single-entry tourist visa.
Including an extension that can be done in-country, this visa will allow for 90 days inside Thailand.
Oh will accompany me on this trip, which she’s excited about. She’s never been to Kuala Lumpur.
KL strikes me as a “poor man’s Singapore”, which I’ve discussed before.
I was in Kuala Lumpur briefly at the end of 2017. But I’m going to spend about a week there this time around, which gives me the opportunity to better explore KL and get a real feel for the city.
When looking at the options for the early retiree expat lifestyle in SE Asia, Malaysia struck me as a solid SE Asian option if one couldn’t or didn’t want to live in Thailand.
As such, I’m looking at this as a great opportunity to take a break from Thailand, get a vacation, and even scope out a place for its potential as a long-term destination. I want to eat some local food, check out prices, and immerse myself in the atmosphere. Kuala Lumpur looks promising.
After I get the SETV, I’ll come back to Chiang Mai and stay here until April. That’s how long the visa will last (including an in-country extension).
Visiting The USA In April For A Thai METV
Once my SETV expires, I plan to take a trip to the States in order to get a multi-entry tourist visa. This trip will occur in April.
With the proper set of extensions and border runs, the METV allows for up to almost nine months in Thailand.
The METV is great because of its unique duration among tourist visas. Unfortunately, it can only be obtained in one’s country of residence. This means I can’t apply for a METV in, say, Vietnam.
So a long flight back to the US it is. Interestingly, April 2020 will mark the first time I will have been back in the USA since I left in September 2017. I’m not sure how it’ll feel to step foot back in the country after almost three years away. I guess we’ll find out.
Oh will accompany me on this trip, too. That’s if – and it’s a big if – she can receive a tourist visa to visit the US. It’s not easy at all for a Thai person to get a visa to the States. I’m working with her to make sure she has her ducks in a row, but that’s no guarantee she’ll get a visa.
Concurrently, she has to save a lot of money between now and then. The US will want to see some money in her account. And I’ve already advised her (going back to this past summer) that she’ll have to pay much of her own way on this trip.
The visa and the savings are two big hurdles for her to clear. I’m looking at this as a bit of a character test to see what kind of grit she has and what kind of partner I really have. She fully understands the gravity of the situation, so let’s see what she can muster up.
If she can come, we’re going to make this into more of an extended tourist trip.
That means taking a lot more time in the country, seeing some sights, and genuinely just enjoying ourselves. It’d be the first time she’s ever been that far away from Thailand. She’s never seen something like the States. As such, I’d want to make sure it’s an experience worth remembering for both of us. Plus, it’s a chance to spend some extended time outside Thailand, which has the added purpose of making me more of a true tourist.
This trip is going to focus on the West Coast. It’s the closest region of the States to Thailand in terms of distance. And Los Angeles has a Royal Thai Consulate General that issues the METV I need. So that’s perfect.
I’d like to see parts of both the Pacific Northwest and California.
I spent some time in Portland back in early 2017, and I’d like to show Oh around the city. Extreme politics, rampant homelessness, and brutal income tax rates aside, I like it. I admire the city for its take on sustainable urban development, TOD, public transit, and the UGB. Its built environment west of 82nd is impressive, and the interplay between the urban and nature is wonderful. If I were to ever live in the States again (something that is unlikely), Portland comes to mind as a possible option. After all, it’s where young people go to retire.
This trip has yet another purpose. That’s to give Oh a chance to experience American culture firsthand, just in case we find ourselves pressured (due to the deteriorating visa situation here) to move to the States together. I’d want her to visit and see the place before ever executing something like that.
However, there’s a good chance that Oh can’t get the visa or put away the money necessary to accompany me. In that case, I’ll almost certainly skip the US and instead decide to take a gamble with a series of SETVs throughout 2020.
I don’t have any desire to take that long, expensive trip back to the States all by myself. Oh not being able/willing to come eliminates much of the reasoning behind going to the States in the first place. So the idea then would be to visit different places across SE Asia throughout 2020 for purposes of tourism and visas.
But that idea would be more of a gamble because Thai immigration looks at back-to-back SETVs unfavorably. Getting a series of them only serves to amplify the risk of an entry denial. But I’d much rather stay in SE Asia than go all the way back to America.
Of course, even the METV is a bit of a gamble. There’s no guarantee of entry with it. And if immigration doesn’t let me in, I’m forced to sit in a detention center (on my dime) until I can arrange a plane ticket back to the same place I just came from. No bueno.
This plan is obviously subject to change. The visa situation for long-term stays is fluid. And by fluid, I mean getting worse by the day. But this is where I’m at with things right now.
I wanted to share this with you readers just so everyone knows where I’m coming from with the upcoming travel.
I’ve been living a fairly quiet life here in Chiang Mai over the last couple years. I’ve been focusing on the “three P’s” of enjoying FIRE. And it’s been fantastic.
I’m now obligated to get out of my productivity bubble.
I’m actually not all that upset about this. I like change. I like keeping my “edge”. And being uncomfortable occasionally is part of that. It’s good to get outside your comfort zone from time to time. I sometimes get so caught up in the enjoyable structure of my life, that I kind of lose sight of everything else. I’m looking forward to seeing new places and tucking some new experiences under my belt.
However, I do wish that this situation where I’m being forced out of my comfort zone wasn’t a direct result of a severe and sudden deterioration in the viability of living in Thailand long term.
I’ll use this as an opportunity to travel and get out of my bubble, but I’ll have to simultaneously monitor the ongoing immigration changes. If Thailand doesn’t really want me here past next year (or sooner), I’ll have to carefully consider whether or not it’s sustainable to live here under the current circumstances. There’s even the possibility of being denied my first ever SETV at this point.
Most of the long stayers I’ve met in Thailand over the last two years have moved on, or are in the process of moving on, because of the restrictive visa policies, onerous new regulations for foreigners living here, and/or worsening exchange rates (for certain Western currencies) – the local immigration office sure looks different these days.
Honestly, if I didn’t have Oh in my life, I’d also move on in January after my ED visa expires. I thoroughly enjoy living here. No doubt about that. Just as well, though, I could see myself enjoying my lifestyle in many other places with less restrictive visa policies. It’s a big world out there. I wouldn’t mind trying somewhere else out for a few years. But I have a great relationship with a wonderful woman, so I’ll do my best to stay and work things out.
Onward and upward. It’s going to be a fascinating 2020!
What do you think? Interested in retiring early abroad? Already retired abroad? Thoughts on navigating visa policies?
Thanks for reading.
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