Expat retirees in Thailand faced with tricky choices

Published:  10 Jun at 6 PM
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Expat retirees who chose Thailand as their new home from home are now faced with difficult decisions.

Although the expat presence in Thailand’s capital Bangkok is mostly composed of professionals with established jobs, hotspots all across the country still have their own share of foreign residents. Retired expats in particular have been given a rough ride over the past few years as regards changes to visa regulations, all of which have caused worry and fear that another relocation might be the only option.

Foreign communities of various sizes can be found in popular cities and resorts from Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, the rural northeastern province of Khon Kaen and its surroundings to Hua Hin, Pattaya, Phuket and other southern islands. Exact numbers are unavailable, but it’s believed the bulk are retirees from the West. Thailand doesn’t offer a dedicated retirement visa, with the majority using either the O/A or O visas as long-stay vehicles. However, both visas must be renewed annually, and the unpopular 90-day reports often cause problems for elderly expats. Adding to the issues is the fact that some local immigration offices are friendly and helpful and others are definitely not. Using a visa agent is a legal way to ensure an extension is given, but can be the expensive option.

A recent change which caused consternation in Thailand’s retired expat community was that holders of the renewable O/A visa must now purchase compulsory private health insurance from a small list of Thai companies, even if a comprehensive international health insurance plan is already in place. Investigation of the policies on offer found that charges were extremely high and coverage was low, leaving many expats over the age of 65 unable to cover the costs even although they had savings which could be used in an emergency.

At the same time, an order was made forcing Thailand’s public hospitals to charge foreigners twice the rate charged to Thai nationals. Worse still, it now seems prices charged by Thai private hospitals are now higher than in many Western countries, excluding the USA. At present, retired expats in O visas are exempt from the insurance requirement, but the majority are worried that they’ll be next. Previously, another new rule had been introduced, in that those receiving overseas pension payments or investment returns could no longer simply state to their embassy representative that the required monthly amount for visa renewal was remitted from overseas. Embassies stopped issuing these standard letters, leaving expat pensioners to find their own way out of the mess, usually via a visa agent.

Of course, the required 800,000 baht deposit for either visas must still be kept in a Thai bank account, but the rules for using any of it were changed. At this point, as ambiguity became the name of the game, immigration officers understandably gave up and made up their own detailed rules involving proof of cash originating overseas and other issues. Right now, in the middle of the pandemic, it’s even worse for older expats who just happened to be outside Thailand when the lockdown was announced. In addition, those who need to leave temporarily for any reason aren’t allowed back at present, even if they have a Thai wife and family dependent on them. For resident expats with valid visas from, say, the UK or USA with their poor handling of the pandemic crisis, it seems they’ll be trapped where they are for the foreseeable future, even allowing for the selective opening of Thailand to Asian travellers.

Piling problems onto uncertainty and a growing feeling of being unwelcome, Western expats wishing to stay in Asia are now investigating alternative states in the region as regards visas, financial requirements and, most importantly, whether long-stay will mean exactly that. It seems it’s now a ‘once bitten, twice shy’ moment for Thailand’s retired expat community.
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