by Bruce Bickerstaff, Author, 'Your Investment Guide to Thailand'
(Originally released August 2011/Last revised February 2013)
Summary: There are around 67 million people in Thailand, and more than four million of them (or one in every 16 people) are not Thai citizens. Most non-citizens were either born here (e.g. hill tribes) or enter from neighboring countries to escape persecution and/or eke out a living. And then there are the tourists. But there is also a substantial number of expats - in the order of 300-400,000 - drawn from distant countries all over the globe. Although a number of agencies generate data concerning visiting and resident non-citizens, the most important source is the Thai Bureau of Immigration.
Many of us resident foreigners would like to learn about the size and nature of the expat community in Thailand, and also about the changes that have occurred over recent years. Due to deficiencies in the way information is currently handled, however, we cannot answer these questions easily or with any great accuracy.
The most significant outcome of this situation is not unsatisfied expat curiosity, however, but the constraining affect that this dearth of information has on the formulation of useful public policy.
Over the years I've seen quite a few figures bandied about online and in the media concerning the number of foreigners living in Thailand. These figures usually seem to relate to foreigners living in particular parts of Thailand. I have also noted plenty of speculation concerning a perceived reduction in the numbers of expats in the light of the GFC and unfavorable movements in exchange rates.
My attempts to corroborate these references led me to doubt their veracity. So I planned to write the definitive account that would blow away all the misinformation, and establish the true situation once and for all. I threw myself into this task with gusto ... only to fail miserably.
Have you ever visited an office of the Thai Immigration Bureau? If so, you probably filled-in forms and handed over a sheaf of signed photocopies. Tables and benches in the Bureau's offices overflow with small mountains of such paperwork. Or you've stood in a long queue at the airport while passports were scanned and photos taken. A government that collects this much information on a daily basis must have a pretty good handle on who is in the Kingdom at any given point in time. Then again, maybe not.
Who really cares? you might say. Who cares? Well any government that wanted to facilitate research into a host of important public policy matters in order to assess and manage the impact of visiting and resident foreigners, would certainly care. Any government that wanted to develop logical policies based on a clear understanding of present-day reality ... rather than, for example, reacting to some popularist flavor-of-the-month, or the wish-list of powerful vested interests. For example, if the Thai government was considering adopting initiatives like the Malaysian "My Second Home" program, or more recent incentives to attract qualified expats. Or, for example, if the Thai government wanted to assess and manage the impact of visiting and resident foreigners on the Thai health system.
And of course any company that wanted to pitch a product or service towards the potentially lucrative resident foreigner market, they would also care about accessing accurate information. Wouldn't they?
So who are we talking about here? Non-Thai citizens residing in Thailand include:
- Illegal entrants and visa over-stayers
- Refugees and resident non-citizens (for example hill-tribe people)
- Employed expats with work permits
- Non-working expats, including retirees, students, and those supporting a Thai spouse/family
- Short-stay visitors entering on tourist visas
Which Thai agencies collect or hold information about these folks?
National Statistical Office (http://web.nso.go.th)
The data held here is rather out-of-date - See http://web.nso.go.th/eng/stat/subject/toc1.htm. Kudos though to the NSO for at least responding to enquiries, in contrast to the Immigration Bureau and many other Thai government agencies, where apparently emails go to die.
Immigration Bureau (http://www.immigration.go.th)
The place to look here is a series of spreadsheets in the Thai language section of the web site. While these are regularly updated, they are anything but user-friendly and the explanatory material provided is completely inadequate. The data columns don't match recognized visa types, and the figures almost certainly include a goodly amount of double-counting. Further, none of the Bureau's staff seem to be sufficiently familiar with their own data to be able to answer queries. And I should mention that I consulted with staff in various sections of that organisation. In fact most staff were unaware of the existence of this information within their web site. But, on a positive note, the Bureau's staff were obliging and sought to be helpful in my face-to-face dealings with them.
Department of Employment (http://www.doe.go.th)
The Department generates statistics on the issue of work permits, although the data in the English language section of their web site is more than ten years out of date (http://wp.doe.go.th/sites/eng/statistics.html). The Thai version is current and can be accessed at http://wp.doe.go.th/monthly-statistics.
As of July 2011, the total number of work permits issued to people who entered Thailand by legal means was 584,702, of which 235,409 were issued in the city of Bangkok. Of this total number, 96,257 permits were issued to skilled expat workers across all of Thailand, including 54,421 issued in Bangkok. Although more work permits are being issued now, the skilled worker component has fallen by almost a third since peaking in 2008, when there were 78,052 issued in Bangkok.
I would also draw the readers' attention to a 2012 report by consultants AEC for the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Thailand. You can access a copy at https://www.austchamthailand.com/asp/view_doc.asp?DocCID=1066. One table in the report provides a breakdown of work permit statistics for 2010 broken down by nationality and employment type (refer section 2.2.5).
Board of Investment (http://www.boi.go.th)
The BOI generates statistics in relation to their approved or supported projects. The information gathered only relates to work permits though, and is presented within the Immigration Bureau's spreadsheets.
Department of Provincial Administration (http://www.dopa.go.th)
According to one slightly-dated but interesting paper I found, DOPA maintains statistics on the number of foreigners listed in house registration books (tabien baan). I couldn't find this data online now, and I doubt such figures would be accurate anyway. Most foreigners don't bother to have themselves listed, and those that try are often told (incorrectly) that foreigners cannot be listed in a tabien baan. See www.smc.org.ph/misa/uploads/country_reports/TH.pdf
Department of Tourism (http://www.tourism.go.th/2010/en/statistic/tourism.php)
This is a helpful source which is updated regularly, but the figures do not differentiate short-term visitors from others. The statistics provided in the Thai language section are more comprehensive and more current than those in the English-language section. The tourism statistics people here are also good at responding to email enquiries.
From Jan-Dec 2010 international visitors spent an average of 4,079 baht per day, with an average length of stay of 9.12 days. The latest figures tell us that international visitors arrivals to Thailand totaled 1,515,587 people in the month of July 2011.
NGO's and universities
I was fortunate to receive assistance from staff at the Institute of Population and Social Research at Mahidol University (http://www.ipsr.mahidol.ac.th/ipsr), and the International Organisation for Migration (http://www.iom.int/jahia/Jahia/activities/asia-and-oceania/east-and-south-east-asia/thailand/cache/offonce). I have attached a schedule of information provided by the latter, which draws on multiple data sources to provide a 'best-guess' of the situation as of the end of 2009.
You will see that, of the total resident population of 3,514,831 non-citizens, the vast majority are refugees and asylum-seekers, plus workers from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. The IOM paper identifies 106,486 working expats, 121,109 non-working expats, plus a host of other related categories including visa over-stayers (65,558), visa extensions/changes (92,014), and students (19,052).
I was also referred to the web site of the Asian Research Centre for Migration, however this provides only quite limited data in relation to work permits (http://arcmthailand.com/statistics.php)
Foreign embassies in Thailand
Many foreign embassies maintain databases of their own nationals who are resident in Thailand. The problem here is twofold. Firstly, most people don't bother adding their details to such databases. Secondly, these databases are really only designed for the use of embassy staff in emergency situations.
Dear reader, at this point you are probably asking ... "How can it be so difficult just to know how many foreigners are living here?"
Well in fairness to the Thai authorities, keeping tabs on resident foreigners is a bit like herding cats. We change visa status. We leave and re-enter Thailand via single-use or multiple use 're-entry permits' - sometimes several times a year. And some of us do visa runs. Other foreigners stay in Thailand for many years and thus - apart from ninety day reporting - disappear from the radar screens as far as annual statistics are concerned. Sneaky ones enter illegally, or overstay their visas and disappear. And the Thais make a complex situation even more so with their poorly co-ordinated, diverse and confusing array of resident categories and related regulations.
Would it be possible for the Thai authorities to do better? Absolutely. But only if there was both the will to do so, plus an investment in appropriate IT and staff training. And at the moment there seems to be neither. The Immigration Bureau still uses manual typewriters and carbon paper for pete's sake! Foreigners may not have bar codes, but we do have unique names and passport numbers. Most of us are checked into and out of the country, and whilst we are here we must report in every ninety days. It should be possible to possess an accurate real-time picture of the number of legally resident foreigners (plus visa over-stayers). And further, there is no reason why this information should not be freely available to the public.
Yes there would be a significant cost associated with this, but if the data was to eventually be used by a range of agencies then a whole-of-government funding priority should be assigned to this project.
As noted earlier, the primary data source is the Immigration Bureau, and at the moment there is a big question mark over the accuracy and usefulness of that material. The term "garbage in-garbage out", is a little strong for Thai sensibilities but still rings true. Good information is a pre-requisite to good public policy. Inaccurate or inaccessible statistics contribute to poor or inappropriate policy. And let's not forget that such laws or policies can, and often do, have a direct bearing on peoples' lives and livelihoods.
Copyright Bruce Bickerstaff 2011 (Email: thaiinvestbook at gmail.com)
Table 1. Estimated foreign population residing and working in Thailand, approximately end of 2009
Stay and work
Professional, skilled and semi-skilled workersa b
§ Foreigners with work permits
§ Diplomats and officials
Other temporary staya
§ Stay with Thais
§ Stay with Thai wife
§ Stay with resident families
§ Others (including medical treatment and study)
Tourist and transit visa extension and visa changesa
§ Basic education
§ Higher education
§ Residents awaiting nationality
§ Born in Thailand to non-national parents
§ Previously undocumented persons
§ Persons overstaying visas, 2007d
Refugees and asylum-seekerse
§ Registered in official camps (December 2010)
§ Unregistered and other categories
Migrants from Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar
§ Regular new entrants under MOU (end 2010)f
§ Entered or completed NV process (end 2010) f
§ Unregistered and family membersc
1 444 803
2 455 744
3 141 580
3 514 831
Source: Jerrold W. Huguet and Aphichat Chamratrithirong, eds., Thailand Migration Report 2011 (Bangkok, International Organization for Migration, 2011)
a Data provided by Immigration Bureau.
b Includes dependents.
c Suchada Thaweesit and Bongkot Napaumporn, "Integration of minorities in Thailand", in Thailand Migration Report 2011.
d Sciortino and Punpuing (2009:16).
e Supang Chantavanich, "Cross-border Displaced Persons from Myanmar in Thailand", in Thailand Migration Report 2011.
f Data provided by Ministry of Labour.