Posted originally on: by . Last modified: February 1 2018.

The Thai SMART Visa – The best visa for digital nomads, or almost useless?

Thai Smart Visa

There has been much talk about a digital nomad visa for Thailand in the last few years, so when the SMART Visa was announced with basic, fairly cryptic, details in 2017, many got excited about what it could mean. No more visa runs?! No more 90 day reporting?! Multi-year visas?! Was Thailand about to acknowledge digital nomads and make them legal?

No. They weren’t. In fact, now we’ve got the SMART Visa eligibility details, its actually hard to see who the visa is designed for at all.

The new SMART Visa for Thailand lets you stay and work for up to 4 years, with once a year immigration reporting, no re-entry permits required, and even your spouse and children are included.

Is this the best thai visa? The ultimate digital nomad visa? For business pros? Or is it completely useless? Read on to find out…

Contents:

What is the Thai SMART Visa?

The SMART Visa is Thailands attempt to try and attract foreign skills and money in to Thailands business and technology ecosystem. It’s been introduced by the PMDU (Prime Ministers Delivery Unit) to help build Thailand 4.0.

In the Thailand Board of Investments own words “The SMART Visa program is intended to attract experts, senior manager and investors to work, or invest in technology companies to help develop the 10 targeted industries which will, in turn, drive technology and innovation in Thailand.”

“SMART Visas will be an important factor in pushing the country toward Thailand 4.0” said Duangjai Asawachintachit, secretary-general of the Board of Investment.

Who is the SMART Visa aimed at?

The SMART Visa is designed for companies (in one of 10 targeted sectors) to bring in expensive foreign talent to work for them easily (T and E visa). It is designed to attract investors who also want to live in Thailand (I visa). And its designed for founders of startups who want to bootstrap, develop and grow their business in Thailand (S visa).

What are the eligible targeted industries?

There are 10 targeted industries outline by the government that working in allows you to get the SMART visa. These industries form the S-Curve; this is what Thailand hopes will drive its economy forward in to the future. They are:

  1. Next-Generation Automotive
  2. Smart Electronics
  3. Affluent, Medical and Wellness Tourism
  4. Agriculture and Biotechnology
  5. Food for the Future
  6. Robotics
  7. Aviation and Logistics
  8. Biofuels and Biochemicals
  9. Digital
  10. Medical Hub

Industry 9 is “Digital” which is very vague – almost everything is digital now! The Minister of Industry put out this industry cluster report, where he outlined “digital” and it essentially underpins most things in the above list:

  • Cloud Computing
  • Consumer Insight Analytics and Data Centers
  • Creative Media and Animation
  • Cyber Security
  • E-commerce (Sell-Buy-Pay-Deliver)
  • Embedded Software
  • Enterprise Software & Digital content
  • Internet of Things: Enabled Smart City

Is it a digital nomads visa?

The new SMART Visa isn’t a digital nomad visa. Its almost completely useless for digital nomads. It is a visa focused around technology, and it is designed for people who want to be mainly based in Thailand. Not very nomadic. So if you want to go and live in Thailand for 4 years, it could be for you. But that means you aren’t much of a digital nomad.

Is it relevant to any typical digital nomad industries?

A few industries jump out of the list – I know a few people in high end luxury and health tourism. The digital category includes ecommerce, enterprise software and content, creative media and cloud computing – I know a few people working in each of those industries, so maybe the project you are working on falls in to one of those too. The “digital” category may need updating by the BOI in future, it seems too vague right now.

Are the new SMART visa benefits any good?

The privileges the SMART visa gives are good compared with most other visas from Thailand. Up to 4 years validity, once a year reporting to immigration (normally 90 days), no re-entry permits required (means you can come and go without worrying your visa will be messed up), spouses and children included (great if you have a family), spouses given permission to work anywhere (never heard of anything like this before).

When can I apply for a SMART Visa?

The visa became available on 1st February 2018, so you can apply for it, if you are eligible, right now.

The Four New SMART Visas Examined in Detail

SMART T Visa – Designed for Science & Tech Talent

If you are a skilled science/technology worker, maybe like an app developer or hardware engineer, this visa allows you to come and work in Thailand easily, and bring your family. If you’re getting San Francisco-style wages from a company, Thailand is a truly amazing place to spend that money.

If you have your own Thai company in one of the required industry sectors, and you’re the expert, then you could transfer your existing Non-Immigrant Visa “B” to this SMART visa and enjoy the benefits.

Eligibility:

  • Science and Technology experts
  • Salary at least 200,000 baht (£4,500/$6,250) per month
  • Employment contract for at least 1 year
  • Employing Thai company operates in at least one of 10 targeted industries and is certified by government
Rights and Benefits:

  • Maximum 4 year visa, but never exceeding employment contract term
  • No work permit required for working at the endorsed company
  • No 90 day reporting; Yearly reporting instead
  • No re-entry permit required
  • Benefits extended to spouses and children


SMART I Visa – Designed for Investors

If you are an investor, this visa is for you. It’s a nice bonus for any high net worth who wants to fund a startup, that they get to live in Thailand trouble-free. Work permit is for the mentioned company only, so perhaps suitable for a Chairman or Board member role. With a work permit and tax residency, it could also be a nice way to minimise tax payments.

Eligibility:

  • Minimum investment of 20 million baht (£450K/$625K)
  • Investing in technology-based companies in targeted industries
  • Investment must be maintained for length of visa
Rights and Benefits:

  • Maximum 4 year visa
  • No work permit required for working at the endorsed company
  • No 90 day reporting; Yearly reporting instead
  • No re-entry permit required
  • Spouses and children granted permission to stay in Thailand
  • Spouses granted permission to work with no work permit required


SMART E Visa – Designed for High Level Executives

Almost the same as the T Visa, but this visa is for non-scientific non-technical people, designed for CEOs, MDs, and high ranking executives. Requires 10 years of work experience, and a degree, so no-one under 30 years old is going to be eligible.

For entrepreneurs in the targeted industries with their own Thai businesses, this visa could be interesting as meeting the requirements could be easy, so switching from Non-Immigrant Visa “B” to this SMART visa is well worth it.

For entrepreneurs in the targeted industries with a business based elsewhere and wanting to stay in Thailand, it could be worth setting up a subsidiary business in Thailand to employ yourself and then qualify for the visa.

Eligibility:

  • For high-level executive positions (MD, CEO)
  • Holder of Bachelor’s degree or higher
  • 10+ years of work experience
  • Salary at least 200,000 baht (£4,500/$6,250) per month
  • Employment contract for at least 1 year
  • Working for technology-based Thai project/company in at least one of the 10 targeted industries
Rights and Benefits:

  • Maximum 4 year visa
  • No work permit required for working at the endorsed company
  • No 90 day reporting; Yearly reporting instead
  • No re-entry permit required
  • Spouses and children granted permission to stay in Thailand
  • Spouses granted permission to work with no work permit required


SMART S Visa – Designed for Startups/Entrepreneurs

Designed for early-stage startups or projects that will turn in to businesses. With the banking deposit, perhaps a founder with some Angel investment who wants to bootstrap the business for a year.

The rules for this visa seem overzealous, like they are only doing this so approved accelerators and incubators in Thailand have a way of attracting foreign entrants to their programs. That makes sense, but not much use to anyone else.

Eligibility:

  • Fixed bank deposit of 600,000 baht (£14K/$19K) with the remaining maturity term of above 1 year (plus 180,000 baht – £4K/$5.5K – per person for extra family members)
  • Health insurance policy for entire stay (1)
  • Participating in an endorsed incubation, accelerator program, or a similar program (2)
  • OR obtaining joint venture status (3)
  • OR being endorsed by a relevant government agency
  • Must set up a company in Thailand within 1 year with at least 25% ownership in the targeted industries
  • OR be a board member of company in the targeted industries
Rights and Benefits:

  • 1-year visa for the first time, renewable for maximum 2 years if requirements are met
  • No work permit required for working at the endorsed company / on endorsed projects
  • No 90 day reporting; Yearly reporting instead
  • No re-entry permit required
  • Spouses and children granted permission to stay in Thailand
  • Spouses granted permission to work with no work permit required

Clarifications about Eligibility for S Entrepreneur Visa:
1 = There is no indication if you have to buy health insurance before you apply and what happens if you are denied
2 = Only accelerators or incubators endorsed by the Thai government are eligible (very very few)
3 = “Joint venture” could mean a few things, but we’ll assume its entering in to a partnership agreement with a Thai person or company.

Getting approved for the Visa

Being eligible is just the first step in getting this visa. Getting approval is the next thing and this has to be done before requesting the visa. Every application has to go through several department approvals.

Your application must be approved by the BOI, the National Innovation Agency, the Digital Economy Promotion Agency, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other agencies.

This process is expected to take “around 30 days” but it will probably take much longer.

Each visa has different departmental sign-off, and this graphic shows you which approvals are required:

Where do I apply for a SMART Visa?

Once you’ve been approved, foreigners who meet the new visa’s requirements can apply for it like any other visa – from Thai Embassies and Consulates around the world.

If you are in Thailand, you can go to the One Stop Service Center for Visa and Work Permit, located at 18th Floor, Chamchuri Square Building, Phayathai Road, Pathumwan, Bangkok 10330.

For questions about approval and to start the approval process, telephone: 022091100 Extension 1109-1110 or email: [email protected]

Which SMART visa can you get? 5 question calculator

Answer these 5 questions and find out if the SMART visa is for you…

1) Is your business, project or investment in one of the 10 required industries?
If it isn’t, this visa isn’t for you. If it is, carry on…

2) Do you have a business where you do or could pay yourself a 200,000 baht (£4,500/$6,250) wage per month?
If you aren’t, this visa isn’t for you. If you are, you could qualify for the T or E visa. Otherwise, carry on….

3) Do you have 20 million baht (£450K/$625K) available to invest and not touch for 4+ years?
If you don’t, this visa isn’t for you. If you do, you could qualify for the I visa. Otherwise, carry on….

4) Has your project/startup been accepted on a Thailand-approved accelerator or incubator program?
If it hasn’t, you may still qualify if you’re in partnership with a Thai person or company. If not, carry on…

5) As a project/startup founder, do you have 600,000 baht (£14K/$19K) in a bank account somewhere.
If you haven’t, this visa isn’t for you. If you have, you could qualify for the S visa.

Other Questions about SMART visa:

Who is eligible for SMART Visa?

All nationalities are eligible to apply for the visa if the other business and personal requirements are met.

Can I switch a Non-Immigrant Visa “B” to a SMART visa?

Anyone who already has a business visa may change to SMART Visa to enjoy better rights and benefits as long as they meet the requirements.

Does the incubator / accelerator have to be based in Thailand?

The PMDU told me that “An incubation or accelerator program or similar program can be anywhere in the world. However, the program must be endorsed by National Innovation Agency (NIA) or Digital Economy Promotion Agency (DEPA) of Thailand.”

What accelerator or incubators are running in Thailand?

F6S, which is the industry standard for finding accelerators and incubators currently has ZERO listed running in Thailand. So getting on to an approved accelerator might be tricky!

Luckily we know of a few others – check out 500 Tuk Tuks, True, DTAC, Spark, or more are listed here.

Verdict

Expected as a digital nomad visa, the reality is that you must be an expert, top level exec, serious investor or a startup that happens to tick the right boxes.

I can see why the government have done this. But as usual, the Thai departments behind the visa have over-thought it, designed it by committee, and its turned out not really serving anyone that well.

Existing business who want to hire from abroad need to be approved and then pay highly competitive wages (within Thailand). Investors need to have a serious high net worth to put in over half million dollars, and with crypto markets so bullish, and the Thai startup ecosystem so infant, who would invest that amount just for a visa? For startups, it might be attractive, but the requirement to be involved with an accelerator or incubator really reduces the amount of founders this will apply too.

The only people I can see benefitting are those with Thai businesses, or non-Thai businesses that can switch their current structures to a Thai one. So not really attracting any new talent, but legalising/restructuring existing businesses and visa setups. Smart? Nope!

This could have been a brilliant move by Thailand to embrace the digital worker industry, but they’ve failed to do so.

What do you think about the SMART Visa? Is it for you? Are you going to apply? Have you applied? Let me know and leave a message in the comments below.

About the Author:

Hi, I'm James, a location independent entrepreneur! I travel the world while working on my own businesses, as well as helping friends and people I meet make more money. Follow my journey on Twitter or Instagram.