Ashley Connor

Don't worry. I'm from the Internet

The Digital Nomad and Immigration Law

Becoming a digital nomad these days is easier than ever. With the prevalence of high-speed internet across the globe combined with cheap air travel and the willingness of companies to do businesses with remote workers, it’s possible to travel the globe whilst doing the work you love.

This type of lifestyle has some significant benefits, but it also has some legal barriers that people should consider before embarking on such an adventure.

In this post I’ll mostly be referencing Thailand for two reasons:

  1. It’s one of the most popular destinations for digital nomads.

  2. I lived there on-and-off for several years and therefore have knowledge of the Thai visa system.

Be sure to check the laws in all the countries you wish to visit.

The Benefits

Travelling whilst working on your startup is a great idea, it allows you to see the world whilst getting your business off the ground hitting two birds with one stone.

It’s practical too as a significant cost of starting up is just living. You need to pay for a roof over your head, food in your stomach and utilities. Doing this abroad in countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia or Ecuador is significantly cheaper than doing it at home in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or Europe.

Visas

These low-cost-living countries usually have very lax visa requirements so you just turn up with your passport and receive 30, 60 or sometimes 90 days free of charge.

If you want to stay longer than this you usually can if you are willing to jump through a few hoops:

Thai Visas

Visa Type Days Permitted To Stay Max Allowed Restrictions Cost
Visa Free 30 at airport* 15 overland** 3 per 6 month period Return air ticket required if coming via airport Free
Tourist Visa 60 days/entry 3 Must leave and re-enter the country after 60 days 1,900 baht/entry
Non-Ed (Education) Up to 12 months – 90 days/entry 1 Must attend an approved education course in Thailand, must also prove attendance, not required to leave country 2,000 baht + cost of course

* Citizens of South Korea, Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Chile get 90 days at the airport ** Citizens of U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Canada, and Japan can get 30 days overland

There are other visas – notably the Non-O visa which is usually given to the close family of a Thai citizen and the Non-B visa given by invitation from a Thai company for those conducting business in Thailand. All Non-O visas have single entry (valid for 90 days) and multiple entry (1 year, 90 days per visit) variants.

The Downside

There’s one major downside. It’s illegal to work in Thailand as a tourist.

I know what you are thinking – “I’m not really working” – well according to the law you are.

To be able to legally work in Thailand the foreigner must have a valid non-immigrant visa and a work permit issued in his name allowing him to perform a specific job at a specific location for a specific company in Thailand.

http://www.thailandlawonline.com/translations/foreign-employment-working-of-aliens-act

Let’s also look at Thailand’s very strict definition of what work is from the Alien Working Act 2008:

“work” means engaging in work by exerting energy or using knowledge whether or not in consideration of wages or other benefit;

The part ‘whether or not in consideration of wages or other benefit’ means that all work – paid and unpaid – is considered by the act.

Now that’s a pretty lax definition covering almost all human activity imaginable. Practically it doesn’t translate that way and authorities are not that strict but to those who are working, the law will be enforced.

So as a tourist – if you are working for clients or on your startup then you are breaking the law.

“I won’t get caught”

No doubt policing this type of thing is extremely difficult and the majority of illegal workers are not caught. As a digital nomad your chances are even better as you are out of the public eye and most of the time not engaged with individuals or businesses in the country.

As of late however people have increased their public presence working in coworking spaces, on ‘hot desks’ or in Starbucks. Others have been actively blogging about being a digital nomad under their own name whilst they are still in the country!

By doing this you are opening yourself up to extortion from anybody who knows about it.

Imagine if a disgruntled client emailed Thai immigration to report you for working illegally or the competition bidding on the same work as you decides to do the same hoping your new found dilemma would leave you unable to take the job. Far-fetched examples no doubt, but not impossible.

You also are publicly and openly admitting to breaking laws, which is a poor reflection on your own character back home. It could prevent you from finding work in the future.

“It’s not illegal. I don’t live there”

People are quick to justify why they are not breaking the law. They’ll find titbits online that ‘prove’ they are legal. Not case-law mind usually quotes from officials.

A recent quote from an immigration official representing Chiang Mai based immigration office:

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.

http://chiangmaicitynews.com/news.php?id=4366

This will be great news if:

  1. It’s confirmed by Bangkok Immigration office
  2. The law is amended

Neither I personally believe will happen.

It’s not only Thailand – these restrictions are everywhere

These types of laws are not uncommon and a few google searches tell me a lot about other countries:

Malaysia

Working or Undertaking Activities That Are Contrary To the Conditions of the Issuance of a Pass or Permit

Penalty: Upon conviction punishable by a fine not exceeding RM1, 000 or imprisonment not exceeding six months or both.

http://www.imi.gov.my/index.php/en/main-services/enforcement/violation-of-conditions-stipulated-in-the-passpermit

Indonesia

Please be informed that it is not easy for foreigners to work and stay in Indonesia since Indonesia has very strict and complicated immigration/ visa requirements and regulations, and the process can be very long. Applicants should be aware of this before making any further plans.

http://www.indonesianembassy.org.uk/consular/consular_work_in_indonesia.html

Vietnam

B3: granted to persons who enter Viet Nam to work with Vietnamese enterprises.

B4: granted to persons who enter Viet Nam to work at representative offices, branches of economic, cultural or other professional organizations of foreign countries, Vietnam-based non-governmental organizations.

C1: granted to persons who enter Viet Nam for tourist purposes.

http://visa.mofa.gov.vn/NewsDetail.aspx?type=Info&id=28

Although digital nomads don’t strictly fall under visa B4 I still wouldn’t be happy with the legality of working under a C1 visa.

It’s not risk free

Being a digital nomad is not risk free and advocating to readers that this is all above aboard is downright irresponsible and unethical.

As always with the law – it’s prudent to talk to a lawyer first.