Visa, Not Everywhere You Want To Be

Ha ha, my first cliffhanger!  Another literary achievement, yaay me! And thanks to my loyal readers to expressing such enthusiastic support for the practice.  (Your reply comments say “No”, but my imagined construction of your actual intentions says “Yes, more please!”  I’ll do my best to oblige.)

So, Theera dropped me off at Kasikorn Bank at 11-ish to open a local bank account that I could use to pay rent, probably on the place we’d just looked at (which I really liked), and maybe-possibly on another place that we were going to visit after lunch.  He was going to pick me up again there at 1:30, and we’d go to the new place.

I’d read that opening an account as a farang was really easy, but that some branches didn’t know how to do it or would say that they couldn’t, and in that case you just went down the street to a different bank (or a different branch) and they’d have no problem.  The 3 main banks I’d seen recommended were Kasikorn Bank (who seemed the most common around Chiang Mai), the Bank of Bangkok, and Siam Commercial Bank.  There were others, but those were the big ones.  I picked Kasikorn, because I figured it would be easier to use with all of the branches and ATMs I’d seen.

So, I walked into the branch near my old hotel, told the guard I’d like to open an account, and he directed me to a lady who asked, somewhat unsurely, if I had a passport and a work permit.  I said that I had a passport (pulling it out), but not a work permit; I was retired, and wasn’t planning to work here.  To cut a long and somewhat confusing story short: she said that because my Thai visa was a business visa, she couldn’t open an account without also having a work permit.  But she copied my passport and said she’d check with her management and e-mail me this week.

Ok, I knew what to do.  I trooped down the street to another branch that was maybe a kilometer away, and told an attendant there that I wanted to open an account. Nope, they don’t open accounts for foreigners (and she wasn’t terribly friendly about it either).

Well, this was silly.  So I walked back up the street to a branch of Siam Commercial Bank and asked them. After being directed to a nice lady there, who was much friendlier and more helpful, I got the same story but with some more clues….

When I contacted the Siam Legal service to arrange for my passport, they sent me a questionaire to fill out, in which I told them, essentially, I’m going to be there a year at least and the purpose of my visit is basically as a student (I thought I might pick up the language, and I’d certainly be studying yoga, Qi Gong, and other things) or as a retired person. The paperwork that they eventually sent me was an application for a 1-year business visa, with a nice letter to a member of the Thai consulate in Portland saying, “Hey, Charles is going to do business with us, please give him a business visa.”  This sounded a little odd to me, but… I was doing business with them. I was paying them $500 to arrange my visa!  It was technically true… I guess that’s just how it’s done?  I’m hardly the expert here.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the business visa is very nearly the only visa type that doesn’t allow you to open a bank account (without also having a work permit).  It may also require me to file a tax statement with the Thai government declaring how much I made, and pay a (nominal) minimum tax if I made nothing. (I heard that from that Steve guy at Mamory Delicious, don’t know yet if it’s true.)

Now, a student visa requires that I enroll in formal courses and attend regular classes at an approved agency, showing up on time and basically being a “good” student, and I’ve heard some suggestions that I’d be paying more and learning less at such places (that they may be taking advantage of their privileged, licensed status); I don’t know if that latter’s true or not, but it’s clearly much more structured.  A retirement visa, you can only get if you’ve been here at least 60 days and have either a piece of paper from the American consulate saying that you’ve got a regular income (pension, whatever) or a Thai bank account with 800K baht in it (about $25K, which you can then take out again as soon as you have the visa). There’s something called a “Non-immigrant O” visa which I think is a regular tourist visa and seems to have no requirements at all, but you have to keep physically leaving the country and reapplying for it as you reenter, every 60 or 90 days or something like that.

This last one may have been better for me; I’m learning that it seems to be the normal route for people in my situation.  But maybe that’s why Siam Legal set me up with the business visa, so I could stay for the year that I mentioned without other conditions — I still have to exit and reenter every 90 days, but I’m guaranteed reentry. I don’t know, I’m grasping at straws here.  Perhaps they think I could apply for the retirement visa after I’d been on the business one for 60 days?

Well, regardless of their reasons, the upshot was that it looked like I wouldn’t be able to open an account (not unless and until I could get the visa situation corrected), and I didn’t think I’d be able to rent a place.  I went to a lunch place (Salad Concept), and sent Theera an e-mail about that, suggesting that we should probably cancel the next viewing, and the whole search, and I’d stay in hotels until I got this fixed.  I’d get back in touch with him then, and we could continue.

He immediately e-mailed me back and said he thought I should still meet the next landlord and his wife.  He’s an American expat with a Thai wife, and may be able to give me advice.  Ok, fine.

We went to the place, and got there a little before 2pm, and I met them both, and they were great people.  The guy was maybe 15 years older than me and the wife probably closer to my age; he’d been a VP in IT in Connecticut and, much like me, his area got gradually downsized and converted and he was able to contractually resist being relocated to places that he didn’t want to be until finally the company exercised an option to buy him out.  Then he happened to go to his nephew’s wedding in Thailand, ended up meeting a business woman who was a relative of the bride, and they fell in love and have been married about 12 years. She was a fairly high level management person in the Bank of Bangkok, and although she’s retired now she has all kind of connections (friends with a recent prime minister, no less!).  Really nice people, had tons of advice about my situation, and were willing to take cash to rent their place, instead of the usual bank transfers, until it was resolved.  The husband and I had a great conversation about a bunch of stuff, and the wife and Theera had known each other for 30 years, so they chatted up a storm in Thai.

At this point, I almost felt like I had to rent the place. It was a large 3 bedroom with lots of hardwood and a big yard, for $25K baht. Downsides: No AC except in the bedrooms, not really in the part of town that I wanted, and while the downstairs was fairly open and got a bit of breeze, this was the only place we visited where I found myself sweating. Of course, it was close to 3pm by the time I noticed this, and it was the heat of the day… but it certainly made the lack of AC more noticeable.  But the wife called a friend at immigration for advice, and the husband had more advice, and the wife said she’d go with me to the Bank of Bangkok to help me get the cash. 3 months deposit (2 is more normal here), plus first month’s rent, around $3,200; they thought I could maybe get it out on a debit card if I did it from within the bank rather than from an ATM, though I was suspicious given my debit card’s $300 ATM limit.

Despite my reservations about the place itself, I decided to do it.  They were super nice, super helpful, and were great connections to have, and both spoke English, and now I was feeling like I had to say yes. So I did.  We went to the bank branch (the wife translating our interactions), and the branch manager said, “No, we can open an account, no problem!”  I felt tremendous relief, everything was coming up roses again….

And then it all fell apart again.  No, it turned out she couldn’t open the account after all, for the same reason as the others (she was very apologetic about the error). No, we couldn’t withdraw cash on the debit card (I wasn’t really surprised).  After some discussion, I said that I could probably wire her the money from Wells Fargo, and she gave me the wire transfer information, and I said I’d do it that evening.  We even tried to go to a local ISP’s office to arrange for the high speed internet connections I wanted — but it turned out that that particular office had closed/relocated.  And she had a tennis appointment to go to — which she’d been willing to forgo, but I could tell that she didn’t really want to miss it, so I kept pushing her and Theera to just end things for the day and make sure that she could get to her tennis.  So we did.  We dropped her off, Theera then dropped me off at Focus Gallery for dinner, and I walked the 25 minutes home.

I’m going to pause this a moment for a complete non-sequitor, a comedic interlude if you will, to lighten the mood.  What the hell are these?

Deer Punk

Deer Punk

Deer with a really good dental plan

Deer with a really good dental plan

I’ve been seeing these sorts of things around town.  I’m moderately certain that deer are some sort of traditional animal that symbolically represent the Thai people to the folks in this local area, and that this is an ad for an alcoholic beverage.  I’ve considered trying to look it up, but I fear I’ll lose the comedic mystery of it.  Not all things need answers.

Ok, back to the narrative: At this point, I should note that I was getting kind of depressed about the whole thing.  Partly because of these continual blocks to moving forward, but partly because I’d really liked the other place, the pre-lunch place, better.  As a place, a space to be in.  This new place had really terrific people who happened to be the landlords, and part of my decision to go with it was motivated by that knowledge and by some sense of owing them for their help.  But the place itself did not enthuse me, and as I sat at dinner I was feeling like I really just wanted to end the whole thing, claim difficulty with the wire transfer, apologize for the bother, and go on with my life.  I could feel it: I was pushing against something wrong, and winding myself tighter and tighter as my internal compass built up to flat out refusal.   They were great people, but I was picking where to live, not who to live with.  And that, in turn, made me feel guilty, to be backing out when I felt like I kind of owed them, but I was reaching a point where I just couldn’t.

Then I remembered that moment in the bank when it had looked like I could open the account after all, and the sense of relief I’d felt, and I realized it wasn’t the place that was bothering me. Yes, I’d liked the other place more, but what was bothering me was the sense of doing this the wrong way.  The root problem was the “bad” visa, blocking everything from working normally, and we were coming up with more and more elaborate ways to try to work around the problem instead of actually dealing with the root cause.  I knew this problem: I’d seen it in one of my first college English papers, and then recognized it for years in software.  When your approach is wrong, everything that follows is labored and forced and painful and you waste your time struggling like Sisyphus to push the damned problem to completion.  If you just stop, abandoned what you’ve done, and restart it the right way, the solution just flows like water, and any obstacles have simple handlings and you just flow around them.

That’s what I was feeling; this sense of pushing myself through the worst landscape because I’d picked the wrong path, instead of walking away and doing it right.  Fix the visa, then open a bank account, then rent a place.  Without that… Even if we found a way around this rent issue, what issue would come up next? Many things become harder when you don’t have a bank account, and I needed the right visa in order to clear that up. And what if I went to get the visa changed, and they said, “You didn’t do this right, you have to go back to the U.S. and apply again.”? Then everything I’ve managed to set up here falls apart.

I headed back to the hotel, and logged in to Wells Fargo just to do my due diligence on how easy the wire transfer would be… and Wells Fargo came through for me.  To do a wire transfer out of the country, I have to call them — on the phone, of all things! — and enroll in a special program that allows me to do that.  In my experience with past transactions, this means that they’ll need to send me paperwork to sign and send back to them, and the whole thing could take a couple of weeks.  (It took over a week for them to send paperwork to my US address for a new account I’d opened, and in the normal course of things that would mean that my sister would have to send it to me here, using a service like UPS, and I would have to send the signed documents overseas back to Wells Fargo.  It’s very inconvenient.)  Given their size, I don’t know why Wells Fargo doesn’t make some of these things easier, but they don’t.  If the Bangkok Bank had been able to open an account for me after all, I could have at least written them a check on my US account, but that didn’t work out.

So, I wrote Theera an e-mail explaining the Wells Fargo problem and said, basically, what I described above.  There are too many obstacles coming out of this, and every new attempt hits a new barrier, and I need to put this rental search on hold while I fix the root cause, the visa.  I was super-apologetic for wasting his time and asked him to convey my very sincere apologies to the landlords, thanked everyone very much for their efforts on my behalf, and promised to be back in touch to continue the search when I got the problem resolved.  I also asked him to let me pay him something for his time.

The summary of what followed over the weekend was a few e-mails from Theera asking if I was sure, telling me that the landlords had really liked me and were willing to even hold off on being paid for a bit while I fixed it, offering to help me in other ways (like driving me to the immigration office), and so forth.  I continued to tell him how much I appreciated everyone’s efforts but I really needed to stop and solve this properly, and that I really could not impose on his time any further. (I really couldn’t.) I got him to allow me to give him something (“for the gas money, at least”), and I stopped by his office on Monday and gave him 3,000 baht. (It would have been about 3 days rent on that property, which reflected the two days we’d been working together plus some… and without him giving me an exact value, it seemed reasonable. I’m hoping it’s slightly excessive, but I have no idea really.)

And that was that.  I’m now looking at finding hotels — or places on Airbnb — with decent WiFi that I can rent with a credit card.  On the plus side, this will let me try out different parts of the city, and it all adds to my card’s frequent flyer miles.  And I’ll make a point of visiting the US consulate here, to let them know that I’m here for a while (they like being told) and to explain the problem I’m trying to solve in case they have insight. And I’ll go to the local immigration and try to get the visa changed; or maybe just wait a few more weeks until I’ve been here 60 days and apply for the retirement visa.  That seems sensible.

Oh, and remember the problem with the ants and the promised new hotel room?  I’ve realized that my post yesterday I got the day wrong on that; the ant problem was Saturday morning, after the events I described above.  (The problem with writing this stuff up a few days later; the days start to blur together.)  I woke up on Saturday, after my second night there and the rental stuff put on hold, and then found the ants, and realized I’d have to find a new place.  I went down to breakfast at Coffee Monster, came back a bit before the office opened at 9 (hassling with the neighbor’s dogs each time I entered or left the hotel, I was now carrying a big stick in each hand). I found a possible new hotel, and then talked to the desk clerk a bit before noon.  She convinced me to let them give me a nice, second floor, corner room, and to come back later after it was cleaned.

I went back to Coffee Monster for lunch (great WiFi),and then walked down to a scooter rental place called Vanessa’s Motorbikes, which I picked (a) because I’d heard of motorbike scams (you rent a bike, the store knows folks who steal bikes with their store’s label for them, and then they charge you replacement costs) and thought this cute couple would be highly unlikely to do that, and (b) look at them, they’re adorable!  Their office was inexplicably closed, so I made my first international call to the number on their window, and made arrangements to come by on Sunday morning.  Then I walked home, a bit disappointed but better exercised, and with a chance to pick up instant noodles at 7/11 for dinner.

I came back at around 3:30 (I think the dogs were elsewhere this time, which was awesome), and the young lady showed me to this room:

Taken after I moved in, in case you're wondering why there's stuff spread all over my new room.

Taken after I moved in, in case you’re wondering why there’s stuff spread all over my new room.

The old, 1st floor room had the same shape, but no window on the left (and the patio didn’t wrap around as this one’s balcony does), and it had had a view of the neighbor’s wall.  In fact, the new view’s a bit better as you come inside.

An actual Room With A View

An actual Room With A View

The WiFi turns out to be very slightly worse in this location than it was in my prior, more central room, but not by much; it’s still good enough for everything but ESO.  I’ll live.

And Saturday night I exchanged e-mails with Robin, the motorbike rental husband, to confirm the appointment and make sure it was convenient.  His e-mail address was “thaiboxer-robin@…”, so I resolved to remember to pay the rent on time.

And that’s it for now.  Expect motorbike photos in the next post — and this isn’t a cliffhanger, because you can have some reasonable confidence that I haven’t killed myself riding the thing. Yet.

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8 Responses to Visa, Not Everywhere You Want To Be

  1. Familywitch says:

    Well I can rest easy now. I really hate cliffhangers, but I am sure that you got quite the amusement from our reactions so that makes me smile. Nice to know that the red tape the US makes you go through is a world wide thing. I hope the visa thing gets fixed easily and without you having to pay taxes. I am looking forward to the scooter pictures. Will you be wearing a helmet??? I am sure that no one there does, but from the way you describe the traffic, it may be wise till you get the hang of, what I am sure will be, their “quirks”.

    • Charles says:

      I did indeed get quite the amusement. 🙂

      And I feel that I’m spoiling nothing to say that, yes, I’m wearing a helmet. It’s not just a good idea, it’s the only way I’d get on that bike!

  2. Familywitch says:

    Oh, and I really like the Room With A View!!!!! Everyone deserves a room with a view!

  3. Florida says:

    Are your internet connections secure? Would you trust using the “banking by mail” feature with Wells in order to pay your deposit as well as 6 months rent in advance? At least you have a really nice place to stay right now – I can’t remember the rate you were paying for the downstairs room – did it remain the same?

    • Charles says:

      A worthy concern, and one of the first things I prepped for as I was coming here. I have three security measures in place: (1) using a Mac (they have better firewalls, though IE has gotten better), (2) Wells Fargo (and most other sites now) use https, which encrypts the traffic to and from the server, and (3) the Tunnelbear program, which creates a secure, encrypted channel to a server in the US, and then your requests go out normally from there. You can also use Tunnelbear to “pretend” that you’re in another country. So, for example, you can watch British shows on the BBC website despite being in the US, or watch Netflix as if you were in the US.

      And, yes, it remains the same, about $30/night. 🙂

  4. Mark says:

    Wait. You’re in Thailand ?!?

  5. Holly says:

    Hang in there! What a stressful situation, but you will end up where you are meant to be.

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