Earning a Living as an Expat in Thailand


Thailand employment street sceneOnce you are in Thailand permanently you may want to find yourself a paying job to keep you occupied and earning a little income.  Here are tips and information on what is available for the Western Expat in Thailand.

Probably the most frequent question I get from people just thinking  about moving to Thailand is how does one earn a living here.  Thailand is paradise for many, including myself, but it cannot be a paradise if you don’t have any money and you don’t have a job.  In that situation, it could be Hell.

It is cheap to live in Thailand once you have learned where to find housing and how to feed yourself.  It does not seem cheap to some visitors that just come here for a holiday vacation, stay in really nice hotels and eat in nice restaurants.

When you are considering employment or any other activity to support you and your family in Thailand, you can lower your requirement from what you would need in America substantially.  Today in America I think a family of four needs to have $50K or $60K a year to live well.  In Thailand, you can do well with a quarter of that.


So what is available in Thailand to those that are too young for social security or a pension?  This may be the single most important question to ask yourself before escaping to the little tropical Kingdom of Thailand.

Thailand does not want foreigners coming over to their country and taking jobs away from Thai people, so you will find a lot of restriction of what you can do.  Foreigners are restricted from working in the following jobs:

• Work in agriculture, animal breeding, forestry, fishery or general farm supervision
• Masonry, carpentry, or other construction work
• Wood carving
• Driving motor vehicles or carriers, except for piloting international aircraft
• Shop front selling
• Auctioning
• Supervising, auditing or giving services in accounting, except occasional international auditing
• Gem cutting and polishing
• Hair cutting, hair dressing and beautician work
• Hand weaving
• Mat weaving or making of wares from reed, rattan, kenaf, straw or bamboo pulp
• Manufacture of manual fibrous paper
• Manufacture of lacquer ware
• Thai musical instrument production
• Goldsmith, silversmith and other precious metal work
• Manufacture of bronze ware
• Thai doll making
• Manufacture of mattresses and padded blankets
• Alms bowl making
• Manual silk product making
• Buddha image making
• Manufacture of knives
• Paper and cloth umbrella fabrication
• Shoe making
• Hat making
• Brokerage or agency work, except international business
• Dressmaking
• Pottery or ceramics
• Manual cigarette rolling
• Legal or litigation service
• Clerical or secretarial work
• Manual silk reeling and weaving
• Thai character type-setting
• Hawking business
• Tourist guide or tour organizing agency
• Architectural work
• Civil engineering work

Your Own Business

Thailand also restricts foreigners that want to start a business in Thailand. At least 51% of a company needs to be Thai owned (there are some exceptions for qualifying special conditions, usually in the setting up of a Thai subsidiary of a foreign company).  The way most foreigners living in Thailand handle this is by having the company owned by a Thai spouse or other family members.  There are some legal ways to handle this Thai ownership requirement by establishing a company with an attorney, and having the attorney or other agents of yours own a small portion of the company (never more than the foreigner’s total ownership) and each owner has a contractual and fiduciary obligation to the foreigner.

The Four to One Employee Ratio

Thailand employment work permitA company can hire a foreigner, and in some cases they may need to, but in Thailand there are also rules about this.  A foreigner must have a work permit to work, and in order to get one, there must be at least 4 Thai workers for every 1 foreigner employed.   Work permits for foreigners cost money and require a company to submit and qualify under the current WP rules.  That’s why you may find it difficult finding a company that wants to hire a foreigner.  And beware that there are companies that will hire a foreigner, promise a work permit but never deliver on that promise.  It all boils down to money.

The Best Jobs for Foreigners in Thailand

There are two job categories that are perfect for an expat, but not easy to obtain:

1.  Get hired by a non-Thai company (like an American company) before you come to Thailand, and get paid in US dollars into your US Bank.

2.  Work for US State Department in the diplomatic corp.  First of all as most regular America civil servants, you will get paid too much money for doing very little work, and Second, you are exempt from almost all Thai labor laws.


Here is what I see as the most viable ways in which to make a living here in our little tropical paradise:

  1.  Teaching English.  This is one job in Thailand that is very much in demand if you are a native English speakers.  There are not enough teachers to fill the need.  Anyone with a college degree can easily get a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Certificate and get a job that can support themselves.  And if you don’t have a college degree, you still may be able to do it if you have enough smarts and ambition.  A lot of English language teachers in Thailand earn a fair wage, and often supplement that with private English lessons in their home.  Sometimes teaching jobs can provide you with free housing, and all the legit teaching jobs should supply you with a Thai work permit.  One of the best sources for English language teachers is Ajarn.com.  (Ajarn means “teacher” in Thai language). They tell everything that you need to get started teaching in Thailand, and they have lots of job listings.  There are TEFL schools in Thailand, and I can recommend one in Chiang Mai UniTEFL. They have a four week course for native English speakers that will get your certificate for about $1400 USD.  It’s a hands-on course, spent partially in real school classrooms, and once you have completed the course, UniTEFL can probably place you in an immediate teaching job in Thailand.  Most people earn $1000USD to $1500USD per month for full time right after getting certified.  This TEFL certificate is good for life and is accepted worldwide, so you can easily hop to another country to teach if you want to.
  2. Start your own business in America.  I would recommend this for people that are comfortable being an entrepreneur, which certainly is not for every one.  There are lots of things to buy in Thailand that you can take to the US and sell.  Artwork and any handicrafts do well because they are so cheap in Thailand, and can be so expensive back home.  Thai craftsmanship is excellent, and it is good to find a niche that has your interests and you can be enthusiastic about it.  I have seen many successful small businesses buying Thai clothing, candles, wood carvings, ceramics, Buddha statues, and orchids for sale back home.  Beautiful paintings that would fetch $200 or more back in the States can cost $30 in the right markets in Thailand (I have done this myself).  People can sell them online while they are in Thailand (but have to deal with high shipping costs), or then take things to the US on frequent trips to make bigger money.  The best situation is to have a US partner that you can supply to do the selling back there.  You have to be creative and energetic and enthusiastic about what you do, and you can start out with just a little money. There is actually no limit to where this can take you.
  3. Computer contracting work.  Other enterprising expats do a lot work on the computer.  There are writing jobs and making successful blogs (my blog is not designed to make money, so don’t look at mine as a good example), or giving business advice.  Even professional writing of books or magazine articles (travel writing for instance).  I ran into an expat in the North of Thailand that runs a collection agency out of his house.  He collects in the US primarily by phone, and can do this because phone rates nowadays are very low.
  4. Diving Instructor.  In the South part of Thailand, there is the best scuba diving available in the world.  Lots of tourists want scuba lessons, and they need it from a native English speaker.  If you are experienced in this and have the inclination, there are lots of job opportunities with diving lessons.
  5. Accountants, Sales Professionals, Buyers, Lawyers, Business people.  You probably will not find anything from a Thai company, but multinationals doing business here need professionals living in the country that have good experience in these areas.  The rub is that it is more likely you find this kind of job before you move to Thailand.  There are other places in the World (lots of them) that offer more opportunities than Thailand for these kinds professionals .  And Thailand is notorious for having scam operations using boiler room telephone solicitors and other on-the- edge businesses.  Walk carefully if you are looking for a business professionals occupation here in Thailand.
  6. Actor/Model/Musician.  There is an interest in talented people in these careers.  It is not steady for sure, but it can be rewarding if you build up your own personal value.  American music is appreciated here, including American Country Music. But of course there are competitors from every corner of the globe.  Filipino bands, for instance, are famously well talented and will work cheaper than any typical American expat musician.
  7. Non Profits.  There are opportunities in Thailand doing charitable works for others which are, of course, very rewarding in ways other than money.  There is plenty of need, with international organizations and Christian church missionaries requiring as much help as they can get.  Getting started in this career often requires several years of doing work for no money or almost no money, however.
  8. Be a Writer.  There is plenty of ideas floating around Thailand for developing literary talents.  Outside of Bangkok, it is easy to set up an environment to concentrate on your writing work.   The great Novel, or How To Books,  or Freelance Work; the limits are only with your imagination.
  9. Start a Blog.  This is something I did with the blog you are reading now.  The pay is very low from a few ads and odd sources and the demand is high to produce something useful (like this blog does).  And if you have a unique niche that makes your information stand out, you can do it anywhere that has electricity and a decent internet connection.  And sometimes it is fun to get your opinion out there and make a little difference in the world.  Sometimes your blog can open doors to other income areas, like writing articles for major websites and magazines —- something I get to do every once in awhile, and earn a fair amount.

So these are about the best one can hope for in employment in Thailand.  If back in the USA you are an electrician or building contractor or landscaper or any one of the labor intensive skills that pay well back home, you won’t find anything like this here.  You have to remember that skilled labor is not expensive in SE Asia.  Same goes for those in the medical/dental fields.  In the US, they can make a good income, but here in Thailand there are few opportunities for non-Thais.

And be aware of scams and criminals.  There are business people that would be unable to operate legally in America or Europe that find a spot in Thailand, where the government might not watch a business so carefully.  There are plenty of these kinds of businesses.  And do not do anything illegal in Thailand (like sell drugs).  The consequences can be devastating, and much harsher than back home.  Be a super skeptic when meeting a Farang in Thailand with great ideas to make big money.  There are plenty of shady characters in the expat community, and the scammers are always on the lookout for fresh blood.

It also must be well understood by a job seeker in Thailand that you do not have all those Nanny State protections you may be used to back home.  It is not easy to assert your rights as a worker (you are a foreigner, after all), and forget about things like unemployment insurance and government benefits.  Not having this kind of protectionism is why most of us here like living in Thailand.  Happy expats in Thailand don’t want a Nanny State.  And if you don’t get a long enough lunch break or the conditions of working are too harsh here in Thailand, you have the opportunity to quit and find something else.  Complaining won’t get you very far here.

If you have any questions about working as an expat in Thailand, I welcome your questions. You can get a personal response if you write to me via email at expatchiangmai@gmail.com.

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