You can also check our Expats diaries here
Through its good and inviting lifestyle, constantly warm weather and beautiful sunny beaches that represent a temptation for visitors all year long, often even regardless of the monsoon season, Phuket represents a jewel in the tourism crown of Thailand as well as a much-desired haven for expats, people deciding to move away from their home country and live there for periods ranging from a few months to the rest of their lives. However, making such an important move is not by far an easy, single-step process and there are many things to take into account before deciding to join the expat communities from all over the world that choose to call Phuket their home. The following lines will be just a starter’s guide on what someone desiring the lifestyle of an expat on Phuket should know about such a decision and how it would be best to go about settling on Thailand’s tourism heart.
No, there is no confusion or mistake in the above heading, it means just what it says: before one even considers becoming an expat in Phuket, one should take into account the personal and financial aspects of such a move.
To begin with, one should think about the part of the island to which one wants to move. Phuket is largely divided into two main areas with respect to expats, the north and the south. The northern part of the island is considered a second home or holiday residence by most of the expats living there rather than a permanent place in which to live. Most of the homes there are typically rented or time-shared properties that become emptied during the monsoon season. On the other hand, the southern part of the island is normally for those planning longer or permanent stays, offering lower prices and better values for the homes. The south also used to be associated with elderly expats, being nicknamed “God’s waiting room”, but that image has been fading away lately as younger people have started to move in with their families.
Another aspect to consider at this point is the cultural one, as there can be many significant differences between the local Thai culture and that of the expat’s home country, regardless of which that is. This is particularly important if one plans to live in Phuket on a permanent basis, as this will imply dealing with the locals regularly and especially during the tourist low season. Thailand is mainly a Buddhist country and religious tolerance is one of the first things to think about when considering a move. Respecting all images of Lord Buddha as well as the royal family should be a priority for anyone wishing to spend any amount of time in Thailand, not only for expats. One should also take their shoes off when entering a temple or a Thai home, as it represents a great insult to enter a person’s dwelling while wearing street shoes. Using shoes inside the house also soils the floor, which has a much higher importance compared to European homes, as Thais usually sit and even serve food on the floor rather than using chairs and, quite often, tables. In smaller towns or villages, it is even customary to take one’s shoes off when entering a store, so a future expat should inform themselves of such things in the area where they intend to leave well before moving in. Another aspect of culture to be kept in mind is that touching other people in public may be considered offensive, particularly when the head, whether of an infant or of an adult, is touched in any way. It is believed in Thai culture that the head houses the soul and touching it removes or hurts the other person’s essence, therefore should be avoided. It can also be considered offensive to walk while holding hands with a person of the opposite gender, even if that person is one’s partner. Finally, monks should never be touched by a woman, especially while wearing their specific clothing, as this can get them into serious trouble, and even if they are only donning the yellow robe for a short time – such as a day or a week – to take merit for a deceased relative.
Finally, one needs to think about the funds available for their stay, as this will likely play a major role in the type of visa for which one will apply. Phuket is more expensive than other parts of Thailand, but general housing and food prices are lower than in Australia, Europe or the US. Chiang Mai and Pattaya offer lower prices on both food and rent, while a two-bedroom house with a decent garden in the centre of the island will take out about 10,000 to 12,000 baht per month from one’s pocket. Additionally, it is highly recommended for one to also cook and avoid eating out all the time, as this might end up causing a good deal of financial stress. Clothing and potential medical expenses are further costs one should consider before thinking about moving to the island. If the funds available for an expat living on Phuket are not sufficient to cover all of these costs for the desired period, thinking about employment should become a priority, although this will be covered later in the article.
Now that the main issues involved in deciding whether or not to move to Phuket have been covered, it is time to consider what those deciding to push forward with their plans need to do.
First of all, one should apply for the proper type of visa. Tourist visas will normally be insufficient for the purposes of living in Phuket – or the rest of Thailand, for that matter of fact – but category B business visas, category O dependent visas or category O-A retirement visas are all non-immigrant visas that can be enough for someone to live and even work in Phuket.
A category B business visa is the typical non-immigrant visa type required of those wishing to live and work in Phuket. This type of visa is valid for up to three years, depending on the exact kind: a single-entry visa will be valid for three months, a multiple-entry one will have a one-year validity, while an extended multiple-entry visa will allow an expat to live and work up to three years in Thailand. The application needs to be made outside of Thailand, at a Thai Consulate or Embassy, preferably in the home country of the expat. A single-entry visa costs 2,000 baht (around US$60), a one-year multiple-entry visa is priced at 5,000 baht (US$150) and a three-year visa costs 10,000 baht (around US$300) and all allow for a stay in Thailand of up to 90 days at a time, unless extended. The documents required for either type of visa are an application form, along with the applicant’s passport with at least six months of validity left, two passport-sized bare-headed photos, official marriage and birth certificates if applicable, along with a Letter of Acceptance from the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, official Embassy notes certifying the purpose of travel, a letter of invitation and an employment contract from the employer if applicable, as well as a copy of the applicant’s educational records.
A category O dependent visa is given to the dependants of non-immigrant visa holders working for governmental or social agencies or non-profit public organisations, as well as people who originally held Thai citizenship. It costs 2,000 baht, or US$60, and is valid for up to six months, but can be extended for one year at a time from within Thailand. It requires an application form, a copy of a valid passport, one passport-sized photo, marriage, birth and medical certificates, evidence of residence in Thailand and, if the applicant is a supporter, evidence of employment or sufficient funds to allow for a stay in the country without becoming a burden to the economy.
Finally, category O-A retirement visas are issued to people over 50 years of age who wish to take residence in Thailand for at least a year and can cost either 2,000 baht (US$60) for a single-entry or 5,000 baht (US$150) for a multiple-entry visa. They require an original passport with at least 18 months of validity remaining, three passport-sized photos of the applicant, three copies of the visa application form, a Personal Data form, bank statements showing available funds amounting to at least 800,000 baht (US$27,000) or 65,000 baht (US$2,200) per month worth of income, as well as medical and marriage certificates, if the latter are applicable.
After obtaining a visa, a smart step before departing to live on Phuket would be to consider buying or renting a house for the full duration of the stay there, as living in a hotel might prove highly expensive. Information on properties available either for sale or for renting can be found on the Internet, with prices for properties on sale starting below five million baht (US$170,000) and reaching in excess of 300 million baht (US$10 million). There is something for any pocket size, depending on the area and individual circumstances of those wishing to become expats in Phuket.
Finally, one needs to actually get to their new home, a step that is most typically achieved via a direct or connecting flight to Phuket International Airport. Another option, for those wishing a more extravagant journey, is via cruise ship – or even personal yacht – which will take significantly longer, but also offer the pleasure of spending up to a few weeks at sea enjoying the luxury of a private cabin and the pleasure of on-board and off-board activities such as scuba diving. Last but not least, those who prefer to come in via mainland Thailand and thus use road transport can opt for driving across the bridges uniting the mainland territory and the island.
Upon arriving and settling into the new home, every expat will wish to integrate as quickly and as well as possible into the local community. These final steps are all that is left in order to fulfil the basic requirements of becoming a permanent (or part-time) Thai resident.
One should begin by remembering to respect the cultural differences described in the first part of this article. While the locals will often be more than tolerant towards newcomers who have yet to become accustomed to the Thai way of life, it will be a sign of respect towards their nationality and culture if the integration was to be as quick and as seamless as possible. One should always keep in mind, for example, to bow their heads slightly when passing someone sitting on a chair, so as to show they do not consider themselves superior in any way. Smiling politely and not raising one’s tone even when there are problems are additional details that should be remembered. Such small gestures, along with those already described, will bring not only more tolerance, but also friendliness and more willingness to help from the local people.
Apart from cultural integration, one should also consider registering for a medical practice and taking up insurance in the country. With major seven hospitals operating on the island, part of which are privately-owned and operated, Phuket cannot say it lacks neither quantity nor quality in terms of medical service. Private hospitals will usually offer more expensive services, but will also house better equipment and medical staff, with employees having a better grasp of English compared to state institutions. This and the fact that prices for medical services will be significantly lower compared to Europe, the US and Australia should be reason enough to choose them over Phuket’s state hospitals. The Phuket International Hospital and the Bangkok Phuket Hospital are the two institutions most often preferred by expats based on their quality of service, staff competence and attitude towards non-Thai speakers.
For those already having or wishing to establish a family on Phuket, there are several options that can be considered after moving to the island, depending on the exact location where one decides to set residence. The primary schools on Phuket are all Thai, with private institutions also offering bilingual programmes, usually pairing up English and Thai. Phuket’s secondary schools, on the other hand, are all government-owned and have Thai-language curricula, although the Chalermprakiat Somdet Prasrinakarin Phuket and the Satree Phuket schools both offer optional English language education. Finally, there are also two international schools offering English language education, as well as boarding for students between 18 months and 18 years of age, namely the British International School and the QSI International School of Phuket, offering an American curriculum.
The second to last, but probably the most important item on the list of things to do after arriving to Phuket is finding employment. This may also well be the hardest part of moving to the island, as expats will require work permits in order to be employable. Additionally, to prevent an excessive degree of international influence, the Thai government has, in recent years, limited the numbers of foreign employees that any company can hire to either specific numbers or proportions of staff by law. Nevertheless, there is quite a high demand for expats in English language education, as well as in high-profile jobs such as computer programming, management or health care, therefore university qualifications would represent a great asset when seeking employment. The easiest way to go about finding a suitable job once on Phuket is to start off by working as an English language educator. Although the pay is not particularly high, rather quite the opposite, the job will offer one a lot of flexibility, as the hours will be quite limited, permitting expats to take students in for private tutoring in order to boost income. It will also offer sufficient time for one to seek a better job in a national or international corporation, provided one has the suitable qualifications. Once a position is secured, obtaining the work permit necessary to commence one’s activity legally is reasonably straightforward, as the employer will be filling in and sending all the required documents.
To end the list of what one needs to do in order to successfully live as an expat on Phuket, a final mention goes to the visa runs, which will become part of the periodic reality of living anywhere in Thailand. These represent the yearly trips out of the country that one will need to take in order to renew their visas or to apply for a new one upon expiry of the existing residence permits. Most visa runs are done in neighbouring countries, with Malaysia being a preferred destination by most Phuket expats due to its proximity and speed of service. Of course, one can also choose Singapore or virtually any other neighbouring country holding a Thai Embassy or Consulate, but it must be kept in mind that processing may take longer in some places than in others and a stay of several days is sometimes required. The best way of going about renewing visas or residence permits outside of Thailand is to plan an entire trip or vacation to the respective country, so that going after the visa becomes a pleasure rather than a chore.
All things considered, although it may look as if the process of becoming a Phuket expat is rather tedious, once one embarks on the adventure, it will only be a matter of months before everything can be solved and a successful integration into the Thai culture and way of life can be achieved. And, while Phuket’s expat community will admit that living there continuously or for the best part of the year may sometimes not be the definition of Paradise on Earth, it will also admit that it represents a real adventure and, quite possibly, the experience of a lifetime.