Getting a bank account in Thailand was pretty straightforward. Noone at the bank asked for a proof of address, nor did they care how long I will be staying in the country. In the last post, I mentioned a friend of a friend who managed to open an account even though he has overstayed on his visa by more than a few months. His overstay is probably coming up for a year, in fact.
Anyone who overstays on a visa in Thailand is fined THB500 (USD15.52) for every day past the visa expiration date. Typically, overstayers have little money to start with, at lease of those I know, so as the fine grows, they have less chance of getting out of the country.
Official discretion by brown envelopes
There is, however, a way out if you know the right people. And, yes, it relies on the discretion of certain officials. The story I heard came from one particular province, so I am guessing it applies in all immigration offices.
A man called Jim* needed to get back to the US, for the birth of his child. His visa had expired six months previously, so his fine at the border would have been around THB90,000 (USD2,795 ) and Jim had no chance of paying it.
Now, the unofficial ‘get-out’ fee which is paid under the table to the ‘right person’ at the immigration office is THB20,000 (USD). So, Jim approached a friend who knows the man to arrange this. The official – let’s call him Jit* – asked for the THB20,000 fee to be paid in cash, not specifying the colour of the envelope. Jim still couldn’t get the money together here, so arranged for his wife to wire the money over to Thailand, straight into Jit’s bank account. The only other information Jit needed was Jim’s flight details.
On the day of his flight out, Jit met Jim at the airport, and walked him right through immigration without contest from the officer at the desk.
This is open and accepted bribery and corruption, which while it benefits the foreigner who can’t afford to pay the fine, engenders the culture of under the radar payments which makes Thailand so appealing to some and a den of iniquity to others.
Flexible approach to the rulebook
Many people who come to live in Thailand do so to escape the rigidity of life in Europe, Australia or the US. Don’t get me wrong, I am talking about the people who come here to set up legitimate businesses, giving work to Thai citizens. Those who appreciate the freedom Thailand offers are not all on the run from a court case or the child support agencies, although they are here too.
There is an audible sigh of relief from the farangs – the Thai word for foreigners – on any bus crossing the border from the clean and relatively well ordered Malaysia into southern Thailand. Once you cross the border, the streets are messier and have more potholes. Street food stalls crowd the border on the Thai side, as do ramshackle emporia selling everything you might need for the home or garden as long as it is made of plastic.
Whatever the feeling stems from, whether joy to have another three months with your Thai family, or to get back to the home you have invested in, you can feel it and see it on the faces of other travellers.
Another friend of mine, one of the straight up business people who has invested a fortune in the country and employed numerous people and has created a trust legacy for the family of her closest staff member, explained this freedom differently.
After about a year of doing business here, getting to know the culture and juggling visa requirements, she turned up at the same immigration office where Jit works one December morning to get a new stamp. However, there was a problem. She was 90 days late on her stamp which meant her visa had expired by three months. The official – not Jit – looked over her passport again, confirmed her European nationality, smiled and told her that she must take more care of her visa dates as he cannot always help her with this but he understood that sometimes ‘farang’ forgets these things.
My friend started to weigh up the days she’d overstayed, the risk of her having to leave the country and abandon her business until she could get a new visa, and how much she would have to pay the official to get out of this. She expected him to ask for a bribe. But something unexpected happened.
‘Merry Christmas.’ he said, ‘Don’t do it again.’ He stamped the passport and gave her another three months in the country.
*Not their real names. I don’t know their real names.