South East Asia is fast becoming a preferred destination for those who want to get away from a daily commute and a 9-5 job. Working online as a digital nomad or freelancer is a rapidly growing lifestyle choice and South East Asia offers some key attributes to make this lifestyle work.
Nomadlist ranks cites based on their suitability for digital nomads and it is no surprise that out of their top 10 cities in the world, no less than 5 are in South East Asia. The climate, affordability, friendliness and some of the fastest internet speeds on the planet all add to the appeal.
The Visa Situation in South East Asia
We will be honest with you - when it comes to visas offered to digital nomads, freelancers or the self-employed, South East Asia is not as advanced as Europe. By the way, if you are interested in the situation in Europe head over to our blog for the full picture.
In SE Asia staying within the bounds of your visa can be hard to do. Many digital nomads, freelancers and self-employed visitors to Asia use tourist visas and visa runs, or other non work visa classes to live and work. This is generally not legal and does carry risk, the level of risk and the ease of visa varies throughout the region.
We will initially take you through the options for living and working in Asia within the law and we’ll go into those in detail. While many of these solutions may not fit the classic digital nomad lifestyle, for semi-nomads, freelancers and self employed they may be perfect.
At wherecani.live we obviously don’t support any illegal action, but we’ll still outline the various options that are available and are used by a large portion of digital nomads and freelancers.
Long Term Working Visa Options
1. Thailand BOI (Board of Investment) company
Thailand has strict rules around the ownership and staffing of companies by foreigners. If you were to open up your own company for example in Thailand, you would need to hire 4 locals for every foreigner. In a bid to inject some energy into the Thai technology industry the government has created a class of companies that have less stringent rules to follow. As a freelancer you may well be able to take advantage of this.
Companies like Iglu and COOffice will hire you and take care of your work permit requirements. Your clients are charged through these companies and then you are paid a salary. Your take home pay is approximately 70% after taxes and fees. For IGLU you need to meet the following requirements:
- a relevant degree with 2 years of experience in our (What is “our” field?) field or 5 years of experience in your field
- to work in technology or a digital field such as design, marketing or software development
- to earn over USD2,500 per month
- you are over 22 years of age
You will also need to commit to at least a year of working through these companies.
2. The Malaysian Tech Entrepreneur program
If you have a technology business, or are in the process of founding one, Malaysia might be a great base from which to explore with this program for entrepreneurs. For a new business the equivalent of USD600 will get you a year’s residency, while for an established business USD1,200 will get you a full five years residency. There is some paperwork to process and a business plan that outlines the opportunity, funding and projected income is required. You ‘ll need to have USD12,000 of available funds to show you can support yourself while the business gets going. In addition to the residency visa you will get support from the Malaysian government to assist in accessing local and regional markets.
This program offers a renewable 10-year, multiple entry residency visa linked to an investment in Malaysia. This is effectively a residence permit, enabling the successful applicant, their spouse and dependants to live in Malaysia and come and go as you please. You do need a bit of money to back you up though.
For anyone under 50 years old, you need to be able to prove assets of more than RM500,000 (approx. USD120,000) and an offshore income of more than RM10,000 (approx. USD2,500) per month. In addition, you’ll need to deposit RM300,000 (approx. USD72,000) in a one-year fixed deposit in a Malaysian bank. After one year you can withdraw up to half of that to spend on expenses approved under the program, which include: a house purchase, education for your kids in Malaysia and medical costs. A minimum of RM150,000 (approx. USD36,000) balance in the fixed deposit will need to be maintained for the life of the visa.
For over 50s the requirements are lower, proof of assets of RM350,000 (approx. USD84,000) and you need an offshore income of more than RM10,000 per month (approx. USD2,400). On approval you’ll need to deposit RM150,000 (approx. USD36,000) into a Malaysian bank and after one year you can withdraw RM50,000 (approx. USD12,000) of that to spend on expenses approved under the program.
4. Malaysia - Labuan Company Work Permit
If you fancy living in Malaysia with an office in Labuan, the Malaysian government has made it easier for you. With the Labuan Company Work Permit, setup a company and you and your family will get a 2-year renewable multi entry work visa.
What’s more corporate tax is only 3% or you can choose to pay a maximum of RM20,000 (approx. USD4,800) in tax each year.
To apply you need to show a business plan and have paid up capital of RM250,000 (approx. USD60,000) for your business. Freelancers, including internet marketers, consultants, traders, finance professionals and others, are all included in the group to whom this visa is available.
5. Singapore – Entrepass
If you have recently started (less than 6 months prior to application) or intend to start, a private limited company and you meet one of the following requirements you may be eligible for an Entrepass visa:
- Your company has government recognised venture capitalist (VC) funding of at least USD$100,000.
- You company is a part of a recognised Singapore incubator.
- You have significant relevant business experience, a relevant business network and a strong track record at running successful businesses
- You are an innovator who holds intellectual property registered with an approved national IP institution
- You have a research agreement with a research institution or Singaporean Institute of Higher Learning
- You have an investment track record or an extensive record in senior positions in large corporate businesses.
6. Cambodia EG and EB Business Visas
The Cambodian government is not very clear on its rules and regulations and things seem to change regularly. As a result groups have popped up to keep track of the latest situation. I recommend the Cambodia Visa and Work Permit Facebook group as a good source of information on changes with regards to visas and work permits.
There are a couple of visas in Cambodia that digital nomads and freelancers can get to live and work in the country as below. With both of these visas, you would initially get an "E-Ordinary"visa on arrival at the airport or border crossing. Note that there is a tourist visa and an E-Ordinary Visa. Both of these are valid for 30 days but the tourist visa cannot be extended. The E-Ordinary visa costs $35 dollars and if you have this visa you can apply for other visas afterwards.
6 month, multiple entry “EG” visa
The EG Visa will give you an additional 6 months in Cambodia and is meant for people who are coming to Cambodia to look for work locally. Towards the end of your 30 days on the E-Ordinary visa, you can apply for the 6 month EG visa at a travel agency in Cambodia. It takes about 5 days to process so leave yourself enough time to make sure that you do not overstay your E-Ordinary visa. You need to provide your passport and a letter stating that you would like to stay in Cambodia to look for work. This is a multiple entry visa and cannot be renewed. If you want to stay longer you need to look at other options such as the EB visa below. Some freelancers have been able to get another EG visa doing visa runs ie. have left Cambodia and when they have come back in have repeated this process of getting an E-Ordinary visa and then a second EG Visa.
6 month to 1 Year Multiple Entry “EB” Business Visa
This visa used to be easy to get and was perfect for freelancers and digital nomads as you didn’t have to show any formal work or business documentation. It is a multiple entry visa and can get renewed over and over again. Unfortunately at the end of 2017 Cambodia tightened the rules to make it only for those who can get a letter of employment from a local company. If you are working locally then you apply for a work permit online here (https://fwcms.mlvt.gov.kh/) It costs $100 per year + $30 for online application + an agency fee if you use a third party (around $70). You also need a medical, proof of residency such as a letter from your landlord. If you are a freelancer or self-employed one way to get this visa is to find some freelance work locally and have that local business write a letter. The letter would need to state that you are working for them as a freelancer.
Related Blog: How we made our Digital Nomad dream a reality
Long Stay Visas (work not allowed)
If you are wanting to stay a longer than your tourist visa allows here are some options for you. Note that you are not meant to work on these visas, but many digital nomads do.
1. Thailand Education or Study Visa
While an education visa is most often used to register with a Thai language school, the official visa is for “full-time education, internship or any other educational program in Thailand.” Full time is a flexible term in this case but there will be weekly attendance requirements from any course that meets the immigration requirements, from scuba diving to massage, meditation to university level courses. All courses of any duration offer vacations, often in line with the school holidays.
One interesting option for the education visa, is at a self-defence school. For around USD1000 you can sign up for a twelve-months of self-defence classes. Attendance requirements are 2 hours, twice a week and the classes are taught in English (with no Thai language requirements) by highly qualified ex-Thai military and police instructors. There is flexibility on scheduling to allow you travel and other absences. Get fit, learn a skill and see Thailand!
2. Thailand Elite Residence Program
This program is for those who are happy to pay for a privileged service and residence visas for you and your family. VIP privileges include an expedited immigration and passport control service, a dedicated Elite personal assistant for international flights and lounge access, fast track immigration, airport transfers, and a 24-hour member contact centre which operates in several languages. There are seven program options, each varying in validity, benefits and costs. The following are the three most popular options available:
Elite Easy Access gives you a renewable, multi entry five-year residence visa. There is a onetime fee of THB500,000 including VAT (approx. USD16,000).
Elite Family Excursion is designed for a minimum of two people delivering a renewable multi entry five-year residence visa for each member. The one-time fee of THB800,000 including VAT (approx. USD25,000) covers both applicants with an additional charge of THB300,000 including VAT (approx. USD10,000) per dependent.
Elite Superiority Extension — delivers a 20-year renewable, multi entry residence visa for individuals who pay a one-time fee of THB1 million including VAT (approx. USD32,000).
Recommended Reading: The Chiang Mai Guide for Digital Nomads
3. Indonesia - Sosial Budaya Visa
This visa is officially for visiting family and friends and requires an invitation from an Indonesia sponsor. The visa is valid for 6 months and is extendable 4 times for an additional 30 days each time, for 180 days in total.
Many use this visa as an alternative to an official residency and/ or work visa especially those in Bali. The Indonesian Department of Immigration know that foreigners misuse the visa. You will be interviewed by an immigration officer to explain how you are supporting yourself and why you are in the country if you use a Sosial Budaya visa for the full six months.
4. Cambodia Visa for retirement or an “ER” Visa
You can apply for an ER retirement visa even if you are not 55 years of age. If you are under 55 years of age, you need to show proof of income - some say USD$500 per month is enough and some say USD$1000 per month - there are no clear guidelines and believe me I have spoken to many people to try and find out.
It is much easier over 55 as you don't have to show proof of income at all! This may change in the near future!
5. Philippines Long Stay Visitor Visa Extension
When you arrive in the Philippines, citizens of most countries can get a 30 day visitor visa. You can then apply for a long stay visitor visa extension. This visa is for 6 months and can be renewed. The official website for this visa is located here.
6. Philippines Special Retirees Visa (SRRV)
The Special Resident Retiree’s Visa (SRRV) is a visa for those wishing to retire to the Philippines or make an investment. It is a multiple entry visa with special tax and other concessions. There are a few option as follows:
Deposit US$20,000 in an accredited bank or invest over US$ 20,000 in Real Estate if you are over the age of 50
Prove a pension of at least US$800 for single / US$1,000 for couple if you are over the age of 50
Invest over US$ 50,000.00 in Real Estate if you are between 35 and 49 years of age.
- For retirees who are unwell and need medical care over the age of 35 years, you can get this visa if you have a monthly pension of at least US$1,500.00, a health insurance policy and make a bank deposit of US$10,000
Tourist Visas and Visa Runs
While this does require taking your chances with the immigration service, and we’d never promote breaking the law, thousands of freelancers and self-employed people enter South East Asian countries on a tourist visa and then work online. They do what is called “visa-runs” where you travel to neighboring countries and come back in with a renewed tourist visa in your passport.
If you are genuinely travelling around the region and working is incidental to your travels it will obviously be less of a flag to immigration than if you have been in one country for 6 months and are on your 5th 1-day trip to Laos!
Here are all the different types of tourist visas for Thailand:
Visa Exemption / Visa Waiver Entry
If you are from one of these 55 countries that Thailand admits without a visa (this includes the UK, USA and most of Europe) you are admitted to Thailand for 30 days without prior application, payment or a visa being issued. Once your 30 days are up you will need to leave unless you have obtained a visa.
Visa on Arrival
If you are from one of the 21 countries that can purchase a visa on arrival (this includes China and India) you can purchase a visa at the border on your arrival. The visa is TBH2,000 (approx. USD60) and allows you to stay for 15 days – it will be stamped into your passport with your departure date. Once your 15 days are up you will need to leave unless you have obtained another visa.
Single-Entry Tourist Visa (SETV), also called the “60-day tourist visa”
This visa needs to be applied for outside of Thailand and generally takes 2 visits to organise. You’ll need to travel to Thailand within 3 months of the visa being granted and it grants, as per the name, a 60-day single stay. If you leave you will forfeit the remaining days on the visa unless you obtain a Visa re-entry permit (available at immigration departments or the airport.) Unless you have suddenly had to leave Thailand and are dumping the majority of your SETV it may be easier just to reapply for a new SETV in your destination country.
Multiple-Entry Tourist Visa (METV) or “6-month multi entry visa”
Like the SETV, you’ll need to apply outside of Thailand. This grants you unlimited entries over a six-month period with each stay no longer than 60 days. This is the visa that best fits most digital nomad requirements (except, obviously, being able to legally work.)
Free 30-day tourist Visa
Indonesia offers visitors from many countries a free 30-day tourist visa. This visa is available on arrival in Indonesia but is not extendable. You’ll need to leave Indonesia within 30 days.
30-day paid extendable tourist visa
For a small fee you can purchase a 30-day tourist visa at the airport and this visa is extendable for 1 30-day period meaning you have 60 days available to you.
60-day paid extendable tourist visa
You’ll need to apply for this visa before you arrive in Indonesia and it does require a bit of paperwork, but it can be extended 4 times for periods of 30 days meaning you have 180 days in Indonesia on this visa.
Recommended Reading: Digital Nomads in Bali: Guide for living and working in Bali
Visa on arrival (VOA)
Citizens of most countries need to apply for a visa before they arrival. You can get the visa from your local Vietnamese embassy or use an agent. There are plenty of agents online. Within a couple of days you are sent an approval letter which you hand over at the airport along with a form, 2 passport photos and the visa fee to receive your visa. You can apply for 1 month, 3 month single or multiple entry visa.
At the time of writing there were 22 countries that did not need to get visas in advance as follows:
Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, UK, Myanmar, Brunei, Belarus, Japan, South Korea, Norway, Russia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines. Note that you need to arrive at one of the 6 international airports. You cannot get these visas at land ports.
The Vietnamese government have been trialling an e-visa system. Here is the list of countries where citizens can apply for an e-visa. E-visas are single-entry only, valid for 30 days. Unfortunately, there has not been great feedback on the system.
Here is a link to the E-Visa Portal.
Single Entry Visa
Malaysia offers 90-days visa free travel for many nations. Others, including Chinese and Indian nationals are required to get an Electronic Travel Registration and Information (ENTRI) visa before they arrive.
Click here to see what the requirement is for your country.
Multiple Entry Visa
This is valid from 3 to 12 months but to be eligible for this you need to be doing business of some sort with a local company or the government.
South East Asia has many appeals and endless attractions. Amazing natural beauty and variety, food that will never get boring and friendly people are things that have made these countries some of the top tourist destinations on the planet. The upsides for digital nomads and freelancers are obvious and this means there is infrastructure and support for you to take advantage of the fact that your next collaborator/investor/partner may just be sitting at the table next to you in your favourite coffee shop. While the visas on offer are far from ideal hopefully this article has given you enough information to make your mind up on taking the plunge into this stunning part of the world.
For further information, resources and links on these countries have a look at our detailed pages:
By the way, we'll keep this guide updated using our partner network and some cool technology behind the wwwwherecani.live website that keeps us updated of changes on government websites and portals, so check back here regularly.
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