If you are an American who is planning to visit Thailand for only a short visit of 30 days or less, there is no need to obtain a Thai visa before departure. A free 30 day tourist visa will be issued to you at the immigration checkpoint at Bangkok international Airport (BKK). This visa is sufficient for the vast majority of travelers who visit Thailand.
But if you plan to stay in the Land of Smiles from more than one month, you should obtain an extended stay visa before leaving your home country. There are several different options to choose from, which I will explain in detail so that you can determine which one best suits your needs.
Keep in mind that anyone planning on entering Thailand via air travel on the free 30 day tourist visa will be required to show proof of a pre-purchased flight departing Thailand within that 30 day period. Thai immigration has a reputation of being quite strict with this requirement, and therefore the airline in America will not allow you to board the plane if you only have a one-way ticket to Thailand and no visa. I learned this lesson the hard way and was forced to purchase a plane ticket departing Thailand while I sat in the airport terminal in Los Angeles before they would allow me to board the flight.
Non-immigrant Tourist Visa
If you know you are going to spend six months to a year or more in Thailand, you should secure your Thai visa ahead of time, and there are a couple of different routes that you can go. The most popular is to obtain an extended stay non-immigrant tourist visa, which will allow you to stay in Thailand for 360 days, or roughly one year. The downside to this visa is that it requires a visit to the Thai Embassy in America, which may be inconvenient depending upon where you live. If you live on the West Coast, the closest Thai Embassy is in Los Angeles.
It will take a couple of days to process the visa, so plan accordingly. When in Thailand under this type of visa, you will be required to leave and reenter the country every 90 days. Your passport will then be stamped for an additional 90 days and this can be done up to three times.
If you plan on staying in Thailand for a year or more and you have an interest in learning the Thai language and culture, I would recommend that you consider opting for the education visa. With the education visa, you do not need to exit the country every 90 days. Rather, you only need to report to the immigration office in Pattaya every 90 days in order to renew your visa. This is much more convenient than having to make visa runs to the border.
You will be required to attend Thai language school two or three days a week for 2 to 3 hours each day, depending on your preference. Strict attendance is not required, however, and they are actually quite flexible with this. I have been on the education visa for the last two years and I would recommend it. Attending school allows you to meet new people, and having a grasp of the Thai language comes in quite handy while living here. The cost of one year of school, including the education visa, is roughly 25,000 baht. You should contact the school prior to leaving America, and they will handle all the paperwork involved. I attend the Walen School and can recommend it.
Visa Runs to Cambodia
Some foreigners staying in Thailand opt for visa runs to Cambodia in order to extend their visa, but it is not nearly as popular now as it used to be. This is usually accomplished through a travel agency who provides a minibus and handles all the paperwork involved. The cost is about 2000 baht and the round-trip takes approximately 4 to 5 hours.
The reason that this is not as popular now is because the rules were changed about three or four years ago. Each visa run used to renew the visa for 30 additional days, so people would simply had to Cambodia once a month and could stay in Thailand indefinitely this way. But now, land border crossings only give 14 day visas, making it a much less attractive option. Entrances to Thailand by air still give the 30 day visa, however.
if you are over 50 years old and plan to retire in Thailand, you have the option of obtaining a retirement visa which is probably the most convenient type, as it has less strenuous requirements to maintain it. You must prove that you have the means to support yourself by having 800,000 baht deposited in a Thai bank account for a specified period of time. Alternately, you can use proof of income such as Social Security or pension to satisfy this requirement.
The retirement visa, I would say, is best secured once you have already been living in Thailand for a period of time, rather than before you leave America. I recommend your entrance to Thailand be through one of the other types of visas, initially. You will need to contact and work with the officials of the Thai immigration office in order to satisfy the requirements of this visa.
The vast majority of Americans traveling to Thailand will find the 30 day entrance visa sufficient for their needs. It is most convenient, and requires no preparation or forethought. Just show up at the airport and get your free visa. For those requiring longer stays, make sure that you have secured an extended stay visa prior to heading to Thailand. Being prepared will spare you much frustration and headache.
If you have any new information regarding Thai visas, please let us know in the comments below. Thanks.