Is it legal to be a Digital Nomad?
This website features occasional sponsored posts, affiliate links, and uses cookies. By visiting our website you agree to our Site Policies. If you'd like to work with us, click here.

Recent events involving digital nomads in Chiang Mai Thailand illustrate the importance of creating a passive income while travelling, and highlight additional drawbacks of trading time for money while abroad.

The legality of being a Digital Nomad is unclear for many, no matter where you go.

The confusion is a result of lawmakers around the world grappling to adjust to the nature of travelers who casually telecommute to work in their native countries via the internet while travelling abroad. Gaps in the visa process make it difficult or impossible to acquire the proper clearance to work online while travelling.

Simply put, tourist visas are for vacations and do not permit you to undertake any work inside the country you are visiting. Many assume the language of the law means that you cannot work for a Thai-based company on a tourist visa, and feel that it does not speak to those who casually telecommute to their native countries.

To obtain a legal work visa as a foreigner in most countries — in Thailand’s case; a “Non-Immigrant B Visa”; you require a work permit / be sponsored by a Thailand-based company.

Although it isn’t impossible to find a private organisation that can sponsor you for a price, it seems like a strange step because most Digital Nomads have no intention of working for a Thai-based company.

Few are aware of these business sponsorship opportunities and they aren’t guaranteed. Without them, it’s much more difficult to acquire the correct paper work.

Chiang Mai Digital Nomads

The Digital Nomad community in Chiang Mai, Thailand is growing faster than any other country in the world and it is beginning to get noticed.

In the past year there has been an explosion of Digital Nomad friendly businesses and services popping up all over the city and throughout the country, such as coworking spaces, concierge services, and sponsored events geared towards skill sharing or networking.

This month there will be an event sponsored by Buffer, and only a few months ago Chiang Mai Digital Nomads filled seats at TEDx Chiang Mai.

Conflicting Information

Two events are shaping how Digital Nomads are perceived in Thailand. By looking at the differences between each story, we might be able to gain a clearer understanding of what is allowable in this country, what isn’t, and when to execute a little common sense.

Aware of the presence of Digital Nomads in Chiang Mai, the government has been expressing their curiosity by questioning foreigners in coworking spaces, checking passports and visa designations. No Digital Nomads have been charged or deported, and everything seems to be fine on the surface.

Many are viewing these actions as isolated oddities, as just last August an article was published at City News Chiang Mai touching on the legality of being a Digital Nomad in Thailand.

The article stated it is legal to work online on a tourist visa, however the following quote is an over-simplification of what is truly legal under the law.

“What if I want to work in Thailand?

If you are working for a Thai company, you will need a non-immigrant (type B) visa and then a work permit in order to work legally.

If you are a ‘digital nomad’ running your own business on the internet, the immigration office says you can do this on a tourist visa.”

The article and statement above has created an echo chamber of misinformation; it was the result of a game of “operator” in that it was based on a statement made by an organisation which a) has nothing to do with immigration, and b) was a misinterpretation of what was said –however it is referenced frequently by the Digital Nomad community whenever the legality of working online in Thailand is ever called into question.

This might be how authorities view digital nomads currently, but it isn’t the law, so it’s best to not advertise that you’re working online for a formal job –or working at all.

“The event was organised by the Chamber of Commerce, Upper Northern Thailand Provincial Cluster 1, and was attended by members of the local consular corps and some foreign business owners.”

Most did not take the latter point into account and believed what they read, imagining the article trumps current immigration law.

The Raid on Punspace

On October 1, 2014 a popular Chiang Mai coworking space called PunSpace was raided as reported by telecomasia.net.

Can-Digital-Nomads-work-in-Thailand

According to their article, the raid was a result of an anonymous tip that foreigners “were working in a suspicious way and that they feared it was a criminal gang operating some sort of boiler-room scam”.

In the end, no charges were laid, no one was deported, and as the article states;

“Punspace said on their Facebook page that after they explained how coworking was just like an Internet cafe the immigration police now understand better and said it is OK to work online in Thailand.”

The part in their statement about it being okay to work online in Thailand was likely the City News article being referenced once again. Another statement not made by Immigration directly.

Worth note is that this open coworking space is full of people who are not working together for a business in Thailand on a tourist visa. They’re doing everything from writing code to surfing Facebook or checking email. It’s not an office.

The Arrest of Foreign Workers (not Digital Nomads)

This story runs a little differently, can you spot the differences from the PunSpace raid?

Digital Nomad Arrested not

Leading up to a number of arrests which rattled a few chains in the Digital Nomad community, a job listing appeared on the Job Chiang Mai Facebook page on January 17, 2015 by a local company called BOI 360 Max Co seeking a Thai national to serve as an accountant.

BOI 360 Max Co

With just under 20 employees who were all foreigners on tourist visas, the company operated out of a makeshift office on the ground floor of Riverside Condo on Chiang Mai-Lamphun Road and was run by a Canadian national.

The company was not registered and therefore not legally operating in Thailand, which led to the arrest of 17 foreign English teachers.

Here’s why this occurrence varies from the raid on PunSpace and is not a clear indicator of the local government’s stance on Digital Nomads;

  • This wasn’t a single traveler, casually working on their own, online, through another country: It was a full-fledged brick-and-mortar business operating locally without a license.
  • All of the employees did not have proper visas to work for this Thailand-based business.
  • In lieu of operating an illegal business, they still advertised their business with job postings on the internet with the intention of hiring a Thai national.

The only thing in common with the PunSpace story is another strange anonymous tip. In this case, authorities were alerted of a group of foreigners who may be tutoring Chinese spies, and both Thailand’s Security Affairs Section and Chiang Mai’s Chinese Consulate were alerted. You can read more about these arrests on Bangkok Post.

Difficult to Enforce

Unchecked, it would appear that Digital Nomads are conducting themselves in their native country, being paid in their currency, through their banks, working with their clients.

Most Digital Nomads start their journey working casually on a flexible schedule as a sole proprietor or for a registered company back home, not for a company based in the country they are travelling through, especially on a tourist visa.

So far there are no reported cases of any Digital Nomads facing any negative consequences of tending to income-generating online projects while in another country on a tourist visa or otherwise.

For the most part Digital Nomads are difficult to identify, and they are generally viewed as a positive contributor to the economies they travel through.

New territory for lawmakers.

2015 could potentially be the year that countries formally address Digital Nomad culture and consider providing a legal framework which will more effectively accommodate the unique lifestyle.

As I write this, Digital Nomads in Chiang Mai are being interviewed by news organisations so that they might start an open discussion with the local government.

Perhaps Chiang Mai is ground zero for a new precedent to be set, and the first country to recognize Digital Nomads with a proper visa designation –which could earn it official status as The New Paris of the East, and generate positive media attention to a country recently battered in international media coverage.

Is Being a Digital Nomad Legal?

What isn’t a Digital Nomad?

Some definition of what a Digital Nomad may be required going forward; as in —we are not people who go around setting up illegal businesses on tourist visas. There’s a fine line, and it only takes one ignorant person to set off a political drama.

We need to remember that this is a worldwide concern, not just one in Thailand. And that if they’re collecting online evidence in Thailand, which they are, it can then be assumed that countries are all over the world.

First Rule of Fight Club

The Digital Nomad community is a global phenomenon and I can’t think of one country that clearly recognizes this type of world traveller by removing obstacles from acquiring a visa that accurately defines their activities.

keep calm fly to thailandUntil recently the community has been relatively fringe, you could almost say underground. But with the popularity of specific bloggers, podcasters, meetups, events, seminars, retreats, and conferences like Dropship Lifestyle and DCBKK in recent years –many aspiring nomads are choosing to stay in Thailand instead of heading back home.

The government is trying to attract ‘the right kind of tourist’; the kind that spends money, follows the rules, and eventually moves on.

Which is a pretty fair proposition.

I suggest a little more discretion.

Unwritten Law of Digital Nomads

There’s plenty of commentary springing up on these recent events and the legality of how Digital Nomads finance their travels, without any solid clarification or resolution. I didn’t want to cover this subject without providing some sort of solution –a way to adapt and prevent any unwanted circumstances.

I am not suggesting that anyone break any laws, I strongly endorse generating a passive income so you do not work while you are travelling and respecting the terms of your visa type.

In contrast, I also suggest a touch more discretion within the community. You wouldn’t drink a beer at a park back home without a paper bag over it. It’s sort of like that.

The Digital Nomad modus operandi, in no specific order;

Brown-Bag Your Workflow, Bro:

  • Don’t talk too much about being a Digital Nomad on commercial projects. Being a Digital Nomad is a lifestyle, not a job title.
  • Don’t rent or create an office. Keep it casual. An office is a version of hell that you wanted to leave behind.
  • Don’t put stickers that say “XYZ Niche Event, Chiang Mai” on your laptop.
  • Resist the urge to stand up and yell “I got my first sale!” at all times.
  • Avoid crowded coworking spaces.
  • Must make the effort to get proper double or triple entry visas.
  • Don’t share earnings reports in videos or on websites that clearly state you where you currently live. Same goes for online forums that are open to the public.
  • Don’t post/advertise/flaunt/spam in forums that are open to the public. Pseudonyms?
  • Local bank accounts are only for spending money.
  • Focus on passive income.
  • Spread out, work at home more.

Nomading around with your laptop won’t get the average person in any trouble if you keep it discreet, respect the visa process by acquiring double or triple-entry visas, and stay out of trouble.

Any additional “rules” you would like to suggest, or information you’d like to share? I’d love to hear it and I bet other readers will, too.

You can find Thailand’s Immigration Act here if you’d like to take a look at it for yourself. 

This an excerpt from Digital Nomad Escape Plan: From Cubicle to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Download it today, and keep it for later.

Digital Nomad Travel Blog

If you liked this post, pin one of these!

Legal to Be Digital Nomad Legal to Be Digital Nomad



Free Digital Nomad Course
Digital Nomad Tools
Best Bank Digital Nomads
Remotely Jobs
Personal Coaching for Digital Nomads

Free Giveaway in October

Double website opt-ins or sales with social proof: We're giving "Proof" software away (full year, $348 USD value) in October, visit our Giveaways page for more information.

Learn more

Hobo Laptop Giveaway Proof
 

Free Chiang Mai Digital Nomad Guide

If you're planning to become a travel blogger or digital nomad in the near future, we invite you to take a look at Digital Nomad Escape Plan; a full-fledged (almost) 200-page ebook to help you get started on your nomad travels in Chiang Mai, Thailand (and it's completely free).  

Learn more

Follow

Download Digital Nomad Escape Plan for Free



Guest Post Travel Blog

Get our Free Newsletter!

Get every blog post, free giveaway announcement, and exclusive discounts from our sponsors delivered directly to your inbox.

19 comments

  1. As someone about to begin my nomadic lifestyle, I appreciate the article, though admittedly to me these are all no-brainers in terms of your rules, but good to read nonetheless and your other points/references were interesting and informative. Thanks.

    1. Happy to hear. Totally agree, it’s pretty standard but it’s easy to get carried away when you’re working on something kickass and the media is candy coating the law. I understand why some do, “Lifestyle Design” is built on it.

  2. What about attendance at conferences? TEDx and DCBKK and the like. What are the regulations for speakers and attendees? What about conferences where the presenters get paid to deliver?

    1. Great question; I have wondered if these Chiang Mai events require a partnership with a local business operator. For those who don’t know, in order to have a business in Thailand it requires part ownership of a local citizen which also has it’s caveats.

      Maybe, maybe not. I subscribe to ThaiVisa.com’s newsletter and keep an eye out for this subject. Other really successful retreats out here, too.

      This is another example of where new-ish or even seasoned nomads may need some clarification. Does a local government get to tax any event sponsorships? Would love to hear from someone on these questions.

          1. Also just a side note; I do not think that this is a viable option for Digital Nomads. This is typically for people who want to create a business, get offices, employ locals and contribute to the local economy.

            If you run an internet business and employ people from overseas (e.g. VAs from the Phillipines) then I highly doubt you will be given approval for this. Nor do I think you would want to go through all the trouble to register a BOI company in any case.

    1. You can’t do advertising with a 100% foreign owned Thai company? Sort of pointless for a big chunk ‘o hobos. I’ll stick with a tourist visa.

  3. Just keep moving and you’re a PT. The concept is as old as the hills, although I can understand that with so many joining us there are bound to be kids who need to be told.

  4. Well for one thing it’s illegal in the UK and if you admit this to the authorities (for example by saying it is your means of support when applying for a visa for something else), you will be denied and banned.

    1. Thanks Nelson, I agree; eventually a visa will have to be made. I think that with Chiang Mai being so popular and so revered within the community that if we get enough DN in one place it may create the impetus for such a travel visa.

  5. Great post! I’m just starting with this lifestyle as you call it and was wondering what’s the official word from the immigration office. Let’s see how it develops.

    1. Thanks Nico! I don’t think they’ll be acknowledging telecommuting on any visas anytime soon, which is probably a good thing more or less. It would be really beneficial to Thai tourism if they did though, that’s for sure. One day!

  6. Unless they seize your laptop and study what you have been doing on it then it will be impossible to track down a digital nomad. Even in a coworking space, you have loads of responses to any inquisitive immigration person e.g. I am writing emails, I am booking flights, etc etc

Leave a Reply