Over the years, many people have asked me how to get a visa to do missionary work in Thailand, so I have put together this post to give a brief overview of the options. My intention here is to give signposts for where to start, not to provide comprehensive instructions for everything you need to do to successfully apply for a visa. Government regulations and requirements can change without notice, and vary from location to location, so what follows is merely general guidance and pointers, which may or may not match what you actually find when you apply for a visa. With that said, the various visa options for those wanting to do (Protestant) missionary work in Thailand are as follows:
1) Religious Affairs (RA) Visa
This is a one-year renewable visa that allows the holder to do teach and propagate the Christian religion to interested parties. If your primary work will be evangelism, church planting, or some other church or parachurch related ministry, this would be the most appropriate visa for your work. It takes significant time, paperwork, and connections in order to successfully apply for this type of visa. You need to have at least a one-year degree or diploma from a Bible college or theological seminary, and a church or mission organization in Thailand with visa slots available for you to use. To use a church or organization’s visa slot, you either need to be a member of that group or have some kind of agreement or memoranda of understanding (MOU) between them and you or your church or organization.
There are five organizations in Thailand that are recognized by the Thai Ministry of Religion and able to request RA visas, namely the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT), the Thailand Baptist Convention, the Evangelical Fellowship of Thailand, the Seventh Day Adventists, and the Roman Catholic Church.
The Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT) is a member of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and has fraternal ties with the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA) and other other Presbyterian bodies in different parts of the world. If you are from a mainline Presbyterian denomination, CCT would be your first option to explore.
The Thailand Baptist Convention is connected to the Southern Baptist Convention and their missionary arm, the International Mission Board (IMB). If you are Southern Baptist, and part of IMB, this is probably your best route (unless you are going to Thailand independent of the IMB)
The Evangelical Fellowship of Thailand (EFT) is by far the broadest of all the Protestant groups under the Ministry of Religion, incorporating many different churches and missionary organizations under their umbrella. Most interdenominational or small evangelical mission organizations working in Thailand would come under the EFT. If you are part of a mission organization that is already a member of the EFT, you should talk to your organization about how to request a visa through them.
For missionaries from an organization without an established presence in Thailand, or for missionaries sent directly from their home church, the best way to obtain an RA visa via the EFT would be to connect with an organization (church or parachurch) that is a member of EFT, and ask if they have visa slots available and what they require from those who use their visa slots. Most organizations will not hand out their visa slots to just anybody, so you’d be best to approach an organization that you’d be content to be associated with, and perhaps work alongside in some capacity. Many organizations do not want to be simply “used” by others to get visa slots only. Also, it should be noted that not all churches or organizations in Thailand are able to sponsor you for obtaining a visa.
For a Religious Affairs visa, your sponsoring organization needs to request a visa for you from the appropriate religious body (such as CCT, Baptists, or EFT) recognized by the Ministry of Religion. If that body (i.e CCT, EFT, etc) approves your organizations request to give you a visa, then that body will then request permission from the Ministry of Religion to give you a visa. If the Ministry of Religion approves, that approval letter will return to the major religious body (again, CCT, EFT, etc), who will write a letter to the Royal Thai Embassy where you want to apply for the visa, requesting that you be given a visa because of this thick stack of official letters from your sponsoring organization, the major religious body over your sponsoring organization, the Ministry of Religion, and the Immigration Department. Somewhere in there, I think there needs to a letter from the Immigration Department too, but I am not sure at what step of the process that is requested.
With all the appropriate paperwork in hand, you need to appear in person at a Royal Thai Embassy or Consulate outside of Thailand to request your visa. Once you have your RA visa in hand, your organization can easily request dependent visas for your spouse and children (if any), whose visas will be dependent upon yours. Once you have your RA visa and arrive in Thailand, you need to apply for a Work Permit at the Labor Department.
The first time you apply for an RA visa, you must apply (and receive) the visa at a Thai embassy or consulate OUTSIDE Thailand. RA visas are valid for one year and you can apply for an "extension of stay" (visa renewal) within Thailand by presenting yourself (and a thick stack of paperwork) to the appropriate Immigration office in your province or region of Thailand. With an RA visa, you don’t need to leave the country at all, but you do need to send in a very short 90-day form every (you guessed it) 90 days to confirm you are still in Thailand. Both your visa and work permit need to be renewed (extended) on an annual basis.
If you leave Thailand while your RA visa is still valid, you need to apply for a Re-Entry Permit at either an Immigration office or at the airport. A Re-Entry Permit requires only a nominal fee, one form, and copies of relevant pages from your passport. But if you leave the country without a Re-Entry permit, you will lose your RA visa and have to start the application process all over again. The application process for an RA visa, from start to finish, can take 3-4 months or sometimes longer.
2) Foundation Visa
A number of missionaries obtain their visas through a foundation. Numerous churches and ministries have established non-profit charitable foundations registered with the government. The process of establishing and registering a foundation is lengthy, and requires things such as a Thai board of directors, a brick-and-mortar office location, and at least some Thai staff. The charter of the foundation must state the purpose of the foundation, and those who obtain visas through a given foundation must be doing work related to the stated purpose of the foundation.
There are two primary types of foundation. One is a foundation for community development and social work. The second is a foundation for more explicitly religious work. Foundations for community/social development can be religious in nature but they must have charitable or community work as their primary purpose. The government expects holders of foundation visas to be primarily engaged in the work specified in the foundation documents.
In recent years, there have been a number of missionaries who have visas from a community development/social work type foundation, but who focus on church planting, evangelism, or some other directly church-related ministry. This is technically a misuse of the visa slots and the Thai government becoming stricter in what work they will allow people with such foundation visas to do. The government does not look favorably on those who hold foundation visas but spend the majority of their time doing work not directly related to what it says on their visa. That said, if your primary work is community development or something similar, there would be no problem for you to have this type of visa and also be involved with evangelistic or church-related ministry as well. If you or your organization are going to establish a foundation, it is important to think through how you describe the purpose and goals of the foundation in the documents that are submitted to the government because it is expected that the work you do (and receive a visa to do) corresponds to what you told the government you would be doing. You can use a foundation visa to do church planting and direct evangelism as long as that type of work is included in your foundation’s registration document.
3) Education Visa
Although an education visa is not a long-term option, new missionaries usually need to do Thai language study for a year or more anyhow and might want to attend a language school that can help them obtain an education visa to do Thai language study. This type of visa is dependent on you attending a certain amount of language classes at the Thai-language school that helped you get your visa.
The education visa is good for one year, but you can apply for three consecutive one year visas for a total of three years. But you must leave the country each year to re-apply. Most Thai language schools for foreigners who can help you obtain this type of visa are located in areas with higher concentrations of foreigners, such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai. For missionaries, an education visa can be a good way to start out as they study language, get adjusted to the culture, and get to know Thai churches and other missionaries. During the time they are on an education visa, new missionaries can explore other visa options that are more long term.
I have assembled here a brief list of Thai language schools that other missionaries have used.
4) Work Visa
If you want to come into Thailand and teach English at a college, university, or private tutoring business, or work for some other sort of business or company, you can usually obtain a work visa via the school or company. Your visa would be dependent upon your work contract and you would need official letter(s) from your employer. If this job is your primary work in Thailand, it is not a problem for you to also engage in voluntary religious work as part of a church or ministry. You would need to apply for this visa outside Thailand at a Royal Thai Embassy or Consulate after you receive the appropriate paperwork and contract from the company or school in Thailand.
5) Tourist Visa (not recommended)
For missionaries who are intending to be in the country long-term, a tourist visa is not a good option and is far less than ideal as you need to leave the country and obtain a new visa every 30 or 60 days. In the past, some missionaries and other foreigners have used tourist visas to stay in the country indefinitely, but the Thai government has become wise to this strategy and is now limiting the number of tourist visas a person can obtain in a given calendar year. Once you’ve hit 6 tourist visas, you can’t get any more for the year, and thus can not enter the country until the following year.
For short-term teams coming into the country for a few weeks to few months, it is possible to apply for a 60 day tourist visa which can be extended for an additional 30 days. For those planning to be in Thailand less than 30 days, it may not be necessary to apply for any visa at all since Thailand grants a 30 day visa exemption for visitors from many (but not all) countries. Visitors from five countries (including South Korea and Brazil) can recieve a 90 day visa exemption. Granted that short-term mission teams are going to want to do some tourist activities anyhow, it has usually not been a problem for tourist visa holders or those in the country on a 30 day visa exemption to also help out with outreach activities or to teach some English, as long as they do not receive any payment.
6) Retirement Visa
If you are over a certain age, and have enough money, it is possible to get a retirement visa and do whatever you want, religious or not. The last time I talked with someone on retirement visa, I was told that the Thai government requires applicants for retirement visa to produce proof of at least 800,000 Thai baht in their bank account, or an affidavit affirming that they have an income of at least $2000 USD per month.