Comparatively speaking, the "friendliness" and complexity of the rules and regulations regarding Thai visas and immigration would probably rank as about average. In recent years, however, they have gotten more restrictive, complex and more difficult to understand.
Visas have also gotten more expensive although presently the fee for tourist visas is being waived! While it is probably not fair to say these rules are hostile or unfriendly to tourists and those wishing to stay in Thailand, they are more severe and complex than one would expect in a country which proclaims to the world that promoting tourism is an important national goal.
Until recently it was possible for citizens of most non-African countries to get a free, 30 day entry stamp (technically, this is not a visa) in their passports upon arrival in Thailand, whether they arrived by land, sea or air. Unfortunately, this is no longer true. Now, if a visitor arrives by land, they can only receive a 15 day stay, after which they MUST leave Thailand. Although the visitor can turn around and re-enter Thailand within five minutes after they leave.
There are, however, two important restrictions for those using this method. First, travellers are only allowed to stay in Thailand a total of 90 days within any six month period. Second, they are only permitted four "consecutive" entries. This is confusing – perhaps intentionally so. If a traveller is trying to stay in Thailand for a lengthy period and makes a miscalculation they may find they are unable to enter back into Thailand to get their possessions and so forth.
Obviously the change in the permitted period of stay using the entry stamp method has been implemented to discourage travellers from using this option to stay in Thailand. Those that are interested in doing this can simply make a "border run" (these are sometimes called "visa runs") to a nearby border crossing, go across the border into the other country, re-enter Thailand shortly thereafter, and then return to Phuket, hopefully the same day.
It is strongly advised that an inexperienced traveller use the services of professionals advertised in The Phuket Gazette or on the Internet. They vary in quality but will get you across a border and back to Phuket in one day.
The destination most frequently used for this purpose is a Thai-Myanmar border crossing known popularly as "Ranong". Here, one crosses from the Thai town of Ranong over a 3 km stretch of water to the Myanmar town of Hawthorne (Kawthaung) and returns again.
It takes about four hours to get to Ranong and four hours for the return trip, plus about two hours spent in the border area riding back and forth in a boat, standing in lines and completing forms.
To enter Myanmar, the traveller (or his guide) must complete a visa application. A visa fee of ten US dollars is required, and the Myanmar officals actually demand "new" US bank notes, which can be purchased nearby at exorbitant prices.
Fortunately, photos are not required. It should be noted that the Thai immigration office is only open from 08:30 to 16:30 so travellers must keep track of time or they will be stuck in Ranong overnight.
It is also theoretically possible to do the run via Sadao (Dannok} to Malaysia (Bukit Kayu Hitan), but it generally takes seven hours to make a one way trip.
If a traveller does not use the services of a travel agent for this trip – and if they do not drive – it will almost certainly take two days to complete the journey as one can't go directly from Phuket to the border. Instead, travellers have to go by bus to Hat Yai, which is around 60 kilometers from the border, and arrange transportation via taxi or minivan.
The only practical option for staying in Phuket for any extended length of time is to obtain a real visa. These are given by most Thai embassies or consulates. There are different types of visas, the visa rules are continually changing, the conditions of a visa depend upon your country of origin, and different embassies and consulates have different policies so it is all very confusing, but generally, a traveller can get a 60 day tourist visa ** without too much problem. Although some embassies have rules concerning how many "consecutive" visas they will issue to individual tourists, most seem willing to issue them over and over again.
The most practical destination for people living in Phuket is the Thai consulate on Penang Island in Malaysia.* The trip to Penang generally takes two days if arranged through a travel broker. If a traveller goes through a broker, he or she will leave in a bus or minivan for Penang around midnight and will arrive in Penang in time to submit an application that morning – applications are only accepted until 12:00 noon in Penang.
Then, the traveller will stay in a hotel or guest house (usually part of the visa trip package) overnight and will go to the consulate with the other group members the next morning and pickup the passport and the visa. Actually, they are distributed by consular officials shortly before closing at noon. Then, after getting their documents, the group will head back to Phuket, and arrive in Phuket around midnight.
Thus, if a traveller left from Phuket for Malaysia at 23:30 on Sunday night, they would submit the application at the consulate on Monday morning around 10:30, they would pick it up around noon on Tuesday, and then they would return to Phuket, arriving about 23:30, on Tuesday night.
Applicants for visas will need two passport size photographs. At the time of this writing, the visa fee is being "waived", but it is uncertain how long this policy will last. Generally, the fee for a tourist visa in Penang is 110 RM (Malaysian Ringit) or 220 RM for a double entry visa.
Those planning to get a visa in Penang – or at any Thai embassy or consulate – must be aware of Thai national AND host country holidays as the embassy or consulate will be closed during these times. Remember, applications for visas must be submitted by 12:00 noon in Penang and can be picked up the next day around noon.
If a traveller from Phuket wants to make this trip "on their own", it is almost certain that they will have to spend an extra night in Penang as it is very difficult to arrange travel so that one can arrive in the morning in time to submit an application by the cut off time at noon. Those making the trip on their own will probably want to stay near Chulia Street in south Penang as there are a lot of cheap accommodations and restaurants in this area.
The Thai consulate is about a 20 minute taxi ride away. There are many travel agents in Penang who will take traveller passports and applications to the consulate and retrieve them for a small fee. This can quite helpful for those who hate talking to government bureaucrats.
It is also relatively convenient and fast to obtain visas in Kuala Lumpor in Malaysia or in Singapore. There are direct flights to these locations from the Phuket international airport, the flights are fast, and ticket prices are generally cheap. Generally, it will be necessary to stay in these cities for two nights, but accommodation is reasonably priced.
Package tours are regularly advertised in the Phuket Gazette. These are not "group" tours but involve the broker providing the traveller with airline ticket, accommodation, transfer, and help completeing various documents. It is usually quite easy to do this trip "on your own", although the travel agents can provide some "good deals". Travellers should always make air reservations a few weeks in advance if they intend to do the trip on their own.
Below are some useful addresses and telephone numbers:
Royal Thai Consulate-General No. 1, Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman
10350 Penang Malaysia
Phone: (60-4) 2268029, 2269484
Fax: (60-4) 2263121
Royal Thai Embassy
206 Jalan Ampang
50450 Kuala Lumpor, Malaysia
Phone: (603) 2148 8222
Fax: (603) 2148 6527
Royal Thai Embassy
370 Orchard Road
Phone: 65 67372158 67372644
Fax: 67 7320778
Royal Thai Consulate-General 4426 Jalan Pengkalan Chepa
15400 Kota Baru, Kelantan, Malaysia
Phone: (60-9) 7445266 7482545
Fax (60-9) 7449801
* It is NOT possible to get a visa in Ranong or Hawthorne even though many people call the trip to and from Ranong a "visa run". It is only possible to get an entry stamp in Ranong. Some who already have visa in their passports - perhaps, for example the second part of a double entry tourist visa – can activate the it by crossing the border and returning again.
** Other visas allow longer stays but are more difficult to get. They require lots of paperwork, deposits in banks, verfications of income and so forth.