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Thailand and Bali race for Southeast Asia’s 1st digital nomad visa

Neill Fronde



PHOTO: Earning high foreign salaries in cheap tropical locations? Yes please!

The popularity of the digital nomad lifestyle has been skyrocketing and with Covid-19 teaching many businesses that telecommuting works, it will only increase. Now, Thailand and Indonesia are in a slow-motion race to lure these lucrative travellers with the first digital nomad visa in Southeast Asia. Currently, many people work online from their beach houses and tropical Villas on Thai islands and in Bali – in fact, the islands are among the most popular destinations for digital nomads – except the vast majority are technically working illegally.

Notwithstanding the challenges of travel during the Covid-era, the digital nomad is the biggest workplace transformation in motion at the moment.

A digital nomad is someone that works remotely from anywhere in the world with an internet connection, untethered by a desk in an office and free to roam around the world. Freelancers often relocate from their expensive home country economies to countries that offer cheap subsistence, thus reaping the best of both worlds – their country’s high salary and their host country’s low cost of living.

It’s been called the most lucrative and fastest-growing migrant worker trend of the digital era by Nikkei Asia. Unlike the past when travellers and backpackers could score local gigs in low paying jobs like farming or bartending, digital nomads earn strong salaries allowing them to live abroad nearly endlessly with more disposable income than the average backpacker.

Most digital nomads flock to Asia on visa waivers or tourist visas which generally do not allow any type of work. But last month Indonesian Tourist Minister Sandiaga Uno spoke kindly of a long-term Visa that allowed work, clearing a path for legalizing the digital nomad lifestyle.

The tourism minister came around to the idea when he himself became a digital nomad, taking holidays from his office in Jakarta to work from Bali and rejuvenate. But the current laws forbid foreigners from enjoying Bali in the same way. There are 57 foreign monitoring teams that are searching for digital nomads and busting them for violating Visa restrictions.

In Thailand, on the other hand, the Centre For Covid-19 Situation Administration approved a plan to give up to a 4 year visa to digital nomads and allow them to work legally. The scheme falls under the current Smart Visa program created to attract experts in science and tech fields as well as foreign money investors for things like real estate and startup companies.

The idea was to attract the best and the brightest in emerging fields and technologies to live and work in Thailand. But authorities have been stingy handing out the Smart Visas, with only 625 issued over the last 3 years. Still, the construct of the visa would be a perfect launching point to reimagine into an option for digital nomads, bursting the floodgates and allowing these desirable tourists to live and work legally in Thailand.

This alluring tourist demographic of a traveller who can afford to spend money in the local economy for long periods of time is drawing pandering attention from many countries. Barbados, Dubai, and Estonia have visa offerings to allow digital nomads to work there legally. But Asia has not caught on to the trend yet, with freelance online work generally being illegal. Until Thailand or Indonesia or both enact these plans they’ve been kicking around, digital nomad work doesn’t qualify for a work visa and doing any form of labour without the proper visa is forbidden.

While both Thailand and Indonesia are slowly coming around to the idea and opportunity of welcoming digital nomads legally in their countries, no concrete policy or time frame have been announced or approved and either country. It remains to be seen who will win the race for Southeast Asia’s first digital nomad Mecca.

Watch our video about the challenges of digital nomads HERE.

SOURCE: South China Morning Post


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  1. Avatar

    Toby Andrews

    Saturday, April 24, 2021 at 6:11 pm

    I recommend do not give them anything.
    See if they can catch you. The greedy Thais would charge ferangs for wearing shoes if they could.
    A Thai in Europe could generate a $100000 a year on EBay and not need a work permit.
    I know a person in Pattaya that has been selling for years on EBay, and never had a work permit.
    Tough luck Thais.
    Keep trying though, you might find something else you can charge ferangs for, but be quick they are departing to better places . . .

  2. Avatar


    Saturday, April 24, 2021 at 6:28 pm

    I am very surprised the author of this article refers to digital nomads ‘flocking to SE Asia.’ No one is flocking anywhere right now as the worlds knows. Also, it is not correct to refer to the ‘low cost of living in Thailand’. Anyone with some experience through the years will know this is no longer the case and living in many European countries is now cheaper than living in Thailand

  3. Avatar

    Bruno sørensen

    Saturday, April 24, 2021 at 6:50 pm

    This article is bullshit of lies – probably written by a thai and hes ” wonderfull land of smiles”

  4. Avatar

    jm sienz

    Saturday, April 24, 2021 at 7:32 pm

    The SMART visa requires a digital nomad to be employed by a corporation; the individual who also yearns to live the nomad lifestyle as an independent will not be able to qualify under the SMART program.

  5. Avatar

    Mr cynic

    Saturday, April 24, 2021 at 8:22 pm

    Digital nomads are free spirits who like to travel and enjoy a change of scenery regularly anyway.what part of the nomad bit don’t they get.they have no interest in basing them selves in thailand or any other place and paying taxes and why should they.once mr musk’s satellite internet becomes fully operational which will happen pretty soon they will be even more nomadic than ever.any money spent trying to lure them to thailand with the hope of shaking them down for a few baht later is stupid.the ones i have met are all well aware of the thai governments half hearted attempts to try to lure them in and find it laughable.they are nomadic through choice and not neccesity.

  6. Avatar


    Saturday, April 24, 2021 at 8:40 pm

    That’s correct; spending about 4,5K Euro per month on housing, 4 health insurances, electricity, food, car etc., definitely nowadays when you get 36 THB for a euro. 10 years ago, when I got 45 THB for a euro, life was cheaper here. I could probably live for less in my home country, but then again, that’s not beautiful Thailand!

  7. Avatar


    Saturday, April 24, 2021 at 8:49 pm

    The idea is that wit a Digital nomad visa, is that you don’t have to do the visa runs, your stay is legitimised. In most countries this is like a 12 month period.

    This article shows there are a few other countries doing so.

  8. Avatar


    Saturday, April 24, 2021 at 9:14 pm

    Tired of all the ig girls and boys having selfies and making photos in Bali and some Thai islands.
    These places are getting more expensive everyday. Mexico, Spain, Costa Rica and some European countries are better options.

  9. Avatar


    Sunday, April 25, 2021 at 12:15 am

    Thailand is done, i have to live here (thai wife and 2 kids) i would move to many other places. Its expensive, not fun like it was 10 years ago and racist. Anyone who can work on a laptop and has a wifi conection isnt staying here for long

  10. Avatar


    Sunday, April 25, 2021 at 12:20 am

    Working illegal is quite a strong statement even technically. The main goal of the law is to regulate foreigners from taking local jobs. Anyone staying in the country for over 180 days is required to pay taxes though the government isn’t issuing a work visa so it’s never enforced.

  11. Avatar


    Sunday, April 25, 2021 at 12:35 am

    I think that even with a tourist visa you can just work from Thailland as long as you do not take up employment with a Thai company and your customers are not based in Thailand.

    So if you for example work for a Singaporean bank and just VPN into their systems to do your work from Thailand then I believe this is all perfectly legal.

  12. Avatar


    Sunday, April 25, 2021 at 2:16 am

    The Thais are so desperate for money they are now doing anything and everything to pay for their monumental screw ups in the past. It wont be long before they are paying tourists to visit. Self inflicted pain im afraid

  13. Avatar


    Sunday, April 25, 2021 at 4:51 am

    Dubai gives a “remote working visa” for anyone who can prove with with bank statement that he or she had an income of more than 60 000 USD in the past one year period.

    The other benefit is that there is no income tax in Dubai, and if this individual spends more than half of the calendar year in the UAE, he wont have to pay tax in his home country either, so he can make money totally tax free.

    This is why so many multimillionaires and billionaires live in Dubai from all parts of the world.

    Switzerland and Monaco have similar system, they also attract the rich from all over the world.

    Thailand should do this too.

  14. Avatar


    Sunday, April 25, 2021 at 5:27 am

    Working remotely, for a company based on the other side of the world, isn’t “working illegally.” Good luck getting anyone to volunteer for that scheme, without making it very enticing for them. The current proposal is far from it, compared to the alternatives at a fraction of the cost. Nice try, though.

  15. Avatar


    Sunday, April 25, 2021 at 7:47 am

    Arthur, Thai Elite Visa works great and no visa runs needed,which also gives you advantages as opening bank accounts, applying for a Thai drivers license, etc. Sure it means you need to be successful, but if you are a true nomad and has taken the big step to leave you home country then I guess this person has a working business plan. So what it really is about, is how much of your time do you want to spend in Thailand and for how long? Well C19 helps with that decision 🙂

    And to everyone that talks down on this visa and thinks it is expensive and what not, calculate this (and delete C19 from it): 5 year visa 500k thb contra the cost of 5 years visa runs (+ the hassle of have to do it). Then see what your sum will be, of course, this is for someone that plans to have their base in Thailand for at least 5 years.

  16. Avatar

    Tommy Truth

    Sunday, April 25, 2021 at 8:25 am

    The digital nomad pitch is a complete scam designed by the ring leaders to sell this dream of easy work in a sunny “paradise” for losers who have no skills. The ring leaders sells them ebooks and expensive courses and so on. The author clearly has no idea about the DN scam.

  17. Avatar


    Sunday, April 25, 2021 at 8:28 am

    The smart visa is for executives and well educated professionals. Most digital nomads are uneducated losers scraping by on $800/month. They would never qualify for a smart visa.

  18. Avatar


    Sunday, April 25, 2021 at 10:48 am

    @Tes:What about this calculation (versus your 500k):5X1900=9500 (for visa extension costs)no visa run as you suggest.And if you can provide proof of relevant income (overseas as well)no hassle with bank account 400k or 800k.Is it not simple?

  19. Avatar

    Toby Andrews

    Sunday, April 25, 2021 at 10:51 am

    And what must be considered in Thailand is, the cost of a visa today could double in six months.
    Plus the obligations to keep the visa might increase. The Thais are good at these tricks

  20. Avatar

    Mr cynic

    Sunday, April 25, 2021 at 11:01 am

    A digital nomad is not working ileagally in the conventional interpretation of it.the ones I know day trade online in the world’s major stock, currency and crypto currency markets.they keep bank accounts and trading accounts in singapore quite legally and legitimately and trade all over the world day and night.where ever they happen to be physically is irrelevant,how can that be ileagal.
    It is not unusual for them to trade while on long haul flights if they happen to be on one during trading hours and major market movements.if the flight were to cross Thai airspace during that time would they be liable for tax?when trades go wrong and they make paper losses would the be due a tax refund?

  21. Avatar


    Sunday, April 25, 2021 at 11:39 am

    @Ted – well, my married visa cost me 10k thb for 5 years, just need to fill a form every 3 month and go immigration once a year, so i can save 490k thb and invest it, i guess you are not very informed about the visa option to glorify the scam “elite” visa

  22. Avatar

    Sunday, April 25, 2021 at 3:21 pm

    @Boatman – I politely disagree but agree:) Overall Thailand is cheaper than anywhere else but for one reason only … Rents are far cheaper here. Obv u can rent for $500+ anywhere but in Thailand u can rent for $150+. It’s the only thing that makes it cheaper and I’ve looked everywhere

  23. Avatar


    Sunday, April 25, 2021 at 5:07 pm

    @Ted – The elite Visa is for 5 years, that is quite a commitment. There is still the nomad part in digital Nomads and 5 years is hardly nomadic. If you look at what other countries are doing with regards to DN visas. They have income requirement and health insurance requirements. Most of the visas are 12 months. I think for Thailand there is a market for a Visa different from the SMART and Elite ones.

  24. Avatar


    Sunday, April 25, 2021 at 5:12 pm – It depends what you want to rent and the quality. What Thailand has going for it as a Digital Nomad is the fact that eating out is so cheap, so you save the hassle of cooking, cleaning and going to supermarkets, that is a massive time saving which can by ued elsewhere. As for cost of living, lots of Eastern Europe is now on par.

  25. Avatar


    Sunday, April 25, 2021 at 10:43 pm

    Love the title. I didn’t know Bali could issue visas…
    Hell, the way things were going, maybe Phuket will compete with Vietnam on the same subject, who knows…

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Neill is a journalist from the United States with 10 years broadcasting experience and national news and magazine publications. He graduated with a degree in journalism and communications from the University of California and has been living in Thailand since 2014.

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