There are lots and lots of foreigners living in Thailand

Thailand is a popular choice for western expats and retirees alike, but tracking down precise numbers is a difficult task. The best estimate is about 3.5 million non-Thai citizens, of which more than 200,000 are skilled workers and western retirees.
By: Bruce Bickerstaff
Sept. 14, 2011 - PRLog -- Over the years I’ve seen quite a few figures bandied about online and in the media concerning the number of foreigners living in Thailand. These figures usually seem to relate to foreigners living in particular parts of Thailand. I have also noted plenty of speculation concerning a perceived reduction in the numbers of expats in the light of the GFC and unfavorable movements in exchange rates.

My attempts to corroborate these references led me to doubt their veracity. So I planned to write the definitive account that would blow away all the misinformation, and establish the true situation once and for all. I threw myself into this task with gusto ...  only to fail miserably.

If you have ever visited an office of the Thai Immigration Bureau, then you probably filled-in forms and handed over a sheaf of signed photocopies. Tables and benches in the Bureau’s offices overflow with small mountains of such paperwork. Or you’ve stood in a long queue at the airport while passports were scanned and photos taken. A government that collects this much information on a daily basis must have a pretty good handle on who is in the Kingdom at any given point in time. Then again, maybe not.

Who cares! you might say. Who cares? Well a government that wanted to assess and manage the impact of visiting and resident foreigners would care. For example, if the Thai government was considering adopting an initiative like the Malaysian “My Second Home” program ( ... or wanted to examine the impact of visiting and resident foreigners on the Thai health system ... or to facilitate research into a host of other important public policy matters.  A government that wanted to develop logical policies based on a clear understanding of present-day reality ... rather than, for example, based on the popularist flavor-of-the-month or the wish-lists of powerful vested interests.

And of course any company that wanted to pitch a product or service towards the potentially lucrative resident foreigner market, they would also care about accessing accurate information. Wouldn’t they?

So who are we talking about here? Non-Thai citizens residing in Thailand include:

· Illegal entrants and visa over-stayers
· Refugees and resident non-citizens (for example hill-tribe people)
· Employed expats with  work permits
· Non-working expats, including retirees, students, and those supporting a Thai spouse/family
· Short-stay visitors entering on tourist visas

Which Thai agencies collect or hold information about these folks?

National Statistical Office (
The data held here is rather out-of-date - See Kudos though to the NSO for at least responding to enquiries, in contrast to the Immigration Bureau and many other Thai government agencies, where apparently emails go to die.

Immigration Bureau (
The place to look here is a series of spreadsheets in the Thai language section of the web site. While these are regularly updated, they are anything but user-friendly and the explanatory material provided is completely inadequate. The data columns don’t match recognized visa types, and the figures almost certainly include a goodly amount of double-counting. Further, none of the Bureau’s staff seem to be sufficiently familiar with their own data to be able to answer queries. Most don’t even know it exists. But the Bureau’s staff is generally helpful and friendly, which is nice.

Department of Employment (
The Department generates statistics on the issue of work permits, although the data in the English language section of their web site is more than ten years out of date ( The Thai version is current and can be accessed at

As of July 2011, the total number of work permits issued to people who entered Thailand by legal means was 584,702, of which 235,409 were issued in the city of Bangkok. Of this total number, 96,257 permits were issued to skilled expat workers across all of Thailand, including 54,421 issued in Bangkok. Although more work permits are being issued now, the skilled worker component has fallen by almost a third since peaking in 2008, when there were 78,052 issued in Bangkok.

Board of Investment (
The BOI generates statistics in relation to their approved or supported projects. The information gathered only relates to work permits though, and is presented within the Immigration Bureau’s spreadsheets.

Department of Provincial Administration (  
According to one slightly-dated but interesting paper I found, DOPA maintains statistics on the number of foreigners listed in house registration books (tabien baan). I couldn’t find this data online now, and I doubt such figures would be accurate anyway. Most foreigners don’t bother to have themselves listed, and those that try are often told (incorrectly) that foreigners cannot be listed in a tabien baan. See

Department of Tourism (
This is a helpful source which is updated regularly, but the figures do not differentiate short-term visitors from others. The statistics provided in the Thai language section are more comprehensive and more current than those in the English-language section. The tourism statistics people here are also good at responding to email enquiries.

From Jan-Dec 2010 international visitors spent an average of 4,079 baht per day, with an average length of stay of 9.12 days. The latest figures tell us that international visitors arrivals to Thailand totaled 1,515,587 people in the month of July 2011.

NGO’s and universities
I was fortunate to receive assistance from staff at the Institute of Population and Social Research at Mahidol University (, and the International Organisation for Migration ( I have attached a schedule of information provided by the latter, which draws on multiple data sources to provide a ‘best-guess’ of the situation as of the end of 2009.

You will see that, of the total resident population of 3,514,831 non-citizens, the vast majority are refugees and asylum-seekers, plus workers from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. The IOM paper identifies 106,486 working expats, 121,109 non-working expats, plus a host of other related categories including visa over-stayers (65,558), visa extensions/changes (92,014), and students (19,052).

Foreign embassies in Thailand
Many foreign embassies maintain databases of their own nationals who are resident in Thailand. The problem here is twofold. Firstly, most people don’t bother adding their details to such databases. Secondly, these databases are really only designed for the use of embassy staff in emergency situations.

Dear reader, at this point you are probably asking … “How can it be so difficult just to know how many foreigners are living here?”

Well in fairness to the Thai authorities, keeping tabs on resident foreigners is a bit like herding cats. We change visa status. We leave and re-enter Thailand via single-use or multiple use ‘re-entry permits’ – sometimes several times a year. And some of us do visa runs. Other foreigners stay in Thailand for many years and thus – apart from ninety day reporting – disappear from the radar screens as far as annual statistics are concerned. Sneaky ones enter illegally, or overstay their visas and disappear. And the Thais make a complex situation even more so with their poorly co-ordinated, diverse and confusing array of resident categories and related regulations.

(... continues ... to view a complete copy of this paper that includes a data table please visit

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Your Investment Guide to Thailand was initially published in January 2010. A revised version was then published in May 2011. Details concerning this publication can be accessed at (author) and/or (publisher)
Source:Bruce Bickerstaff
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Tags:Thailand, Retirement, Expats, Statistics, Research
Industry:Society, Research, Government
Location:Chiang Mai - Chiang Mai - Thailand
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