The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on countries’ immigration systems all around the world, with consulates closed, government offices operating at reduced capacity, and international travel banned in many places.
As an international tourist destination and regional economic hub, Thailand ordinarily welcomes over 35 million visitors each year. The country is also home to an estimated 150,000 expatriates – some of whom stay for only a few years, while others stay decades.
Since the early days of the pandemic, the Thai government has passed temporary relief measures that allow international visitors to remain in Thailand pending the easing of travel restrictions. Visitors on temporary stay visas, such as tourist visas, transit visas, and entry stamp visas, are permitted to remain in Thailand until 31 July 2020 even if their visas have expired in the interim. This extension is automatic and the foreigner is not required to fill out a Thai visa application to obtain it.
Although the above visa solutions provide considerable relief to tourists, foreigners in other categories do not benefit from similar allowances. Providers of Thai business advisory services can help, but they may run into additional roadblocks caused by the pandemic.
The ticking clock
For long-term visas, such as non-immigrant business visas (“non-B visas”), non-immigrant dependent visas (“non-O visas”), and education visas (“ED visas”), there is no automatic extension. These visas must continue to be renewed upon expiry, even during the COVID-19 lockdown period. However, if a foreigner does not intend to renew – for example, the expatriate completed her assignment but is unable to leave the country during the travel ban – she may remain in Thailand until 31 July 2020.
Moreover, while the Thai government’s efforts to assist foreign visitors and expatriates are welcome, the pandemic has created some special circumstances which existing Thai immigration policies and regulations do not properly address. These circumstances are tied to the requirement for foreigners to leave the country in order to convert their visas or apply for new classes of visas.
Often, a new class of visa must be issued by an overseas Thai consulate. In the current environment, even when travel restrictions are lifted, such travel requirements are often highly impractical due to the need to enter quarantine at each destination. Significant hardship could therefore result for expatriates and their families.
In the course of our effort to assist expatriates and their families on immigration matters, we have routinely come across the following dilemmas:
- Foreign international school students who have graduated in May 2020 will see their ED visas expire upon graduation. In normal circumstances, many of these children would travel abroad to continue their higher education. However, in the current pandemic, universities across the globe have delayed receiving freshmen and are requiring students to engage in distance learning from home. For foreign students living in Thailand, the expiry of their ED visa means they cannot remain in the country after July 2020 even if their parents and guardians are still here. Under current immigration procedures, these students must travel out of Thailand and apply for fresh visas at a Thai consulate before returning to live in Thailand.
- Foreign business travelers who intended to enter Thailand on a temporary visa and then convert to a long-term stay visa will in many cases be required to leave the country. Normally, a foreigner may come in on a visitor visa and convert their temporary visa to a long-term visa at the Thai immigration bureau. This is a routine and common approach for processing visas, allowing visitors to apply for a work permit within Thailand. However, if the visitor visa has expired, the foreigner must travel out of Thailand to reapply for a new visa at an overseas Thai consulate.
- Expatriates who want to change their long-term visa class are required to travel out of Thailand. Foreign students who graduated from Thai universities must travel out of Thailand upon the expiry of their ED visas in order to apply for non-B visas at an overseas Thai consulate before coming back into Thailand to start their new employment. Similarly, expatriates such as a parent with a non-O visa, who is returning to work in Thailand, must travel out to apply for a non-B visa in order to come back into Thailand to start work.
All these circumstances hinge upon a travel requirement that imposes unnecessary hardships on expatriates and their families in this time of crisis. As countries continue to impose mandatory quarantines on travellers, the result is that expatriates must remain for 14 days in the foreign country to process their visa, before enduring another 14-day quarantine period on their return to Thailand. Expatriate parents will not be able to leave their children for such a prolonged period of time. The converse is also true, as children may not be able to travel out of Thailand alone for an extended period without adult supervision.
As a leading provider of business advisory services in Thailand, we feel that the immigration department should review the types of special circumstances outlined above. Swift action can lead to the approval of new procedures that address these issues and provide sensible visa solutions.