Virginia, US
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| Jamie Gan | Yvonne Lee

Keeping Pace with Immigration in the Land of Smiles, Thailand

Thailand may be known as the “Land of Smiles,” but when it comes to its immigration system, there can also be a lot of raised eyebrows or even grimaces. As one of the world’s most promising emerging economies, Thailand has experienced remarkable economic progress over the past few years and has gained a solid reputation as a second home for various global multinational enterprises, all looking to bring in foreign talent. However, in the last few years, while we have observed that Thailand’s immigration system has ambitions to modernize and streamline, it has also perhaps struggled at times to keep up with the implementation of new changes.  

The Thai government is in the trenches working towards their vision as laid out in the 2017 National Strategic Framework. It is likely that immigration will play a pivotal role as Thailand undergoes its transformative shift to Thailand 4.0. Embracing the digital revolution to boost productivity, the government has implemented key reforms, including changes to the immigration system to ensure that Thailand’s economy is agile and ready for tomorrow’s global job market.

It is for these reasons that we recently held our inaugural Fragomen Immigration in Focus Series in Thailand: Keeping Pace: Immigration Compliance in Thailand and Beyond. The full-day seminar aimed to provide practical advice and strategies for successfully adapting to the changes in immigration policy in Thailand and other countries in the region.

Changes to the Thailand immigration landscape

We were privileged to have our keynote speaker, Mr. Worakan Kosolpisitkul, Director at the One Start One Stop Investment Centre, share with us some of the new initiatives implemented by the government in its effort to attract global talent. Amongst these changes was the introduction of the SMART visa earlier this year, which provided an alternative to the regular employment visa and work permit. The government envisages that the new growth engines driving the economy into the future (which they refer to as the S-Curve industries) will include robotics, aerospace and biotechnology. As such, companies in these sectors can avail themselves of the immigration incentives provided by the Board of Investment (BOI), which includes expedited processing times for employment visas as well as a longer duration of stay granted.

In our years of serving our clients’ immigration needs in Thailand, it is exciting to think about what these changes will ultimately mean for employers and we are keen to partner with our clients on helping them navigate the upcoming policy changes.

Comparative sessions on immigration trends in part of South East Asia (SEA)

Following the keynote speech was a panel discussion chaired by Fragomen Partners Mark Buchanan and Kenneth Lau from our Singapore office, and Ms. Aim-On Larpisal, a Senior Partner from the Thai-based firm Dej-Udom & Associates. The discussion focused on immigration trends in select Southeast Asian countries, namely Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore.

There was great interaction amongst the panelists and it was interesting to hear how the three different countries compared with each other in terms of their approaches to immigration.  It was apparent that the authorities in all three jurisdictions, each in their own way, are trying to find the right balance between protectionism of their local workforces and attracting foreign investment.

The discussion put into perspective how different countries are grappling with some of the same pressures (both internal and external) and how that is impacting their immigration policy. For example, Aim-on illustrated Thailand’s history of welcoming foreigners, but of course that has its limitations.  On the whole, however, she noted that Thailand is moving in a trajectory of streamlining and digitizing their processes. On the other hand, Mark shared that Singapore has continued tightening its immigration policy and seems set to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Finally, Kenneth shared that Indonesia has actually been an up-and-down road over the last several years, with controversial laws passed (and then reversed) in 2015, some stability introduced in 2017 when the Indonesian government was pushing to modernize the system, and then more volatility introduced this year with new regulations which, while positive on the whole, are still drastic changes that have to be managed nonetheless. 

The panelists also discussed potential workarounds and flexibility in the respective jurisdictions, as well as the interplay of national and geopolitics on immigration policy. With two of the three jurisdictions expecting national elections in the near future, volatility in immigration policies for these countries is likely to further increase.

Business traveler compliance – strategies and mindset

In the next session, Kenneth and Aim-on touched on a topic which generated a lot of interest and discussion from the audience: business traveler compliance.  

There was an in-depth discussion on the permissible activities allowed on a business visa, and under what circumstances the traveler should consider applying for an Urgent Work Permit instead. The attendees participated actively in the discussions and there was also time set aside to look at case studies, which the participants found relatable and useful as a point of reference.

“Compliance” is a word that gets tossed around a lot in the immigration space, but it is absolutely vital for businesses to remain compliant as this may have a longstanding impact on their relationship with the authorities. This was clear from the discussions generated by this presentation.

Roundtable discussions

As a prelude to the afternoon session, the team then provided an overview of the various immigration and work permit processes in Thailand and discussed the latest trends and developments in the country.  With that as the backdrop, the participants then broke off into separate groups to discuss a variety of topics selected for their timeliness and for being common “pain points.”

Attendees were given the opportunity to engage with each other in various breakout groups where issues such as managing their quota, Same Sex Partners/Non-Eligible Dependent visa options and BOI updates were tackled. This is the session where we seemed to get the most engagement from the crowd. Many—including ourselves—found the format of the roundtable sessions to be highly conducive for discussion, and helped facilitate more active conversation amongst the groups. 

Excellent client service is at the heart of everything we do, so it was encouraging to hear from our clients that they enjoyed themselves and really learned a lot from the sessions and from each other. Participants had the opportunity to meet with industry colleagues and to increase their understanding of the complex immigration issues in order to better serve their own internal stakeholders.

We look forward to catching up with our clients (perhaps again in Bangkok) and hosting the next Immigration in Focus Series.

Fragomen’s Asia Pacific Coordination Centre (APCC), based in Singapore, oversees our network of selected Local Advisors to deliver immigration services for countries where we do not have an office on the ground, such as Thailand. Learn more about Fragomen’s APCC practice here.