Thailand’s complex process to visit: How I didn’t have a visa until 36 hours before departure

Jul 7, 2021

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I’m supposed to be on a flight to Thailand tomorrow evening, and, until this morning, I wasn’t even sure I was going.

My editor asked on June 29 if I was interested in flying to Thailand. I’m fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and knew Thailand was preparing to reopen, so I was interested in flying to the country to cover the reopening.

I’d been to Thailand twice before the coronavirus pandemic, so I was curious to see how the tourism-dependent economy planned to bounce back. At one point, I was convinced that this reporting trip was not meant to be. What followed was over a week of unclear directions, compiling paperwork and back-to-back application denials from the Thai consulate in New York City.

Thailand is welcoming certain visitors with open arms but if you’re expecting an easy application process, you may want to temper your expectations — and apply in advance.

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Phuket’s ‘Sandbox’ program

The Mai Khao beach on Phuket. (Photo by luliia Serova / Getty Images)

Phuket, Thailand’s most popular island destination, welcomed international visitors for the first time in 15 months as the country cautiously reopens to some fully vaccinated travelers.

Under the scheme, called the “Phuket Sandbox,” fully vaccinated visitors can enter Phuket from a list of countries, including the United States, and skip the government-mandated 14-day isolation period. To be eligible for the program, travelers must submit to a COVID-19 test before flying and two more tests after arrival. All international visitors must also download a location-tracking app and cannot travel to the Thai mainland for 14 days. Travelers not staying in Phuket for the full 14 days cannot travel to the mainland at all.

The “Phuket Sandbox” initiative is the Thai tourism industry’s latest attempt at wooing back travelers: It previously offered $1 per night hotel rates and promoted six resorts offering a “golf quarantine” earlier this year.

Officials hope the “Phuket Sandbox” will provide a successful blueprint to reopen Thailand’s other popular tourist hot spots on October 1, the target date set by Thailand officials. Those destinations include Bangkok, Chonburi, Chiang Mai, Petchaburi, Prachuap Kiri Khan, Phang Nga, Krabi, Surat Thani and Buriram.

My experience applying to the ‘Sandbox’ program

Phuket offers excellent waters for sailing. (Photo courtesy Shutterstock)

Applying for the Phuket Sandbox program is not simple or even straightforward — and perhaps that’s the Thai government’s intention.

After all, Bangkok and several other Thai provinces are under restrictions for 30 days (even as Phuket reopens) after a surge in cases. Nearly 6,000 new infections are reported a day, according to Reuters. And, according to local reports, a ‘Sandbox’ tourist tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalized. 13 passengers on the same flight as the person who tested positive are also required to quarantine.

With those figures in mind, I understand why Thailand is taking a stricter approach to tourism. Traveling to Thailand means jumping through more hoops than in other countries — a Bangkok Post editorial called the program a “prison vacation.” But where the government could do a better job is in its explanation of the application process.

Here are the requirements for entering Thailand under the Sandbox program:

  • Passport and valid Thai visa or re-entry permit
  • Must be fully vaccinated against COVID‑19 no less than 14 days before the travel date and must have a vaccine certificate to verify vaccination
  • A printed Certificate of Entry (COE), a letter given by the Thai Embassy or consulate that allows foreigners to enter the country
  • A negative RT-PCR test, issued within 72 hours before departure
  • Insurance covering a minimum of $100,000 of medical costs, including medical expenses if the applicant contracts COVID-19
  • A Health Declaration Form

These are just the requirements needed to get into Thailand — the Certificate of Entry is an application all on its own, as I quickly found out. After confirming my travel dates, I immediately began to work on my COE application, which you can fill out online.

The application process started normally, with requests to enter my passport and travel information. The country says it can take three working days to process applications, and with my travel dates on the horizon, I knew I needed a headstart.

Here’s where it got confusing.

We decided to book my hotel reservation first, as you can’t even apply for the COE without it. I’d initially planned to hotel hop around the island, but travelers must stay in the same hotel for the first seven days under the Sandbox program. We also found out that Sandbox travelers have to stay at a “SHA+ (Safety and Health Administration Plus)” approved property and pocket the cost of a COVID-19 test taken upon arrival.

I submitted my application, which included my hotel reservation, and quickly received a message saying that it would be pre-approved within three working days. So I was pretty surprised when I received another email with a rejection note. The Thai government kicked my application back to me with a message requiring proof of an entry and departure flight — but I was allowed to submit my application without it, which was confusing.

After uploading my flight information, I received an automated email from the government saying that my application had been pre-approved. The next day, I received another email, this time saying that my application had been “confirmed.” But I was unclear what the difference was between the two statuses.

My application was then — frustratingly — rejected, with an automated message indicating that the hotel needed to provide a unique QR code. And, by this point, the application process was starting to feel like a game of “whack-a-mole.”

Calls to the Thai Consulate in New York went unanswered, and it took two calls to my hotel in Phuket to finally get the required QR code needed to complete my application. I resubmitted my application with bated breath, hoping that it was correct. A short time later, my Certificate of Entry (COE) was finally approved — just 36 hours before departure.

If I had to re-do the process, I’d plan the trip further in advance. After starting the COE, travelers have 15 days to finish the application. If you submit the application incorrectly or you’re missing documentation, the consulate or embassy will reject your application, so the “Sandbox” program might not be the best travel option if you like to plan trips at the last minute.

Is it worth it?

Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand. Photo by hung Chung Chih/Shutterstock

The Bangkok Post opined that travelers in the Sandbox program wouldn’t experience the “Phuket of old.” Instead, it said, they’ll “met with draconian rules, restrictions and closed shops.”

Even after my application debacle, I wonder: Is not going back to the old, necessarily, a bad thing?

Traveling during the pandemic means being accustomed to (ever-changing) rules. I visited Turks and Caicos in June, and that country had pretty strict entry requirements. I’m OK with more stringent regulations because they, in theory, are meant to protect local residents. It’s not lost on me that just 4% of Thais are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, either.

More rules aren’t the problem but if Thailand hopes to have a successful tourism program, it could certainly stand to streamline its application process.

Featured photo by deniscostille/Getty Images

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