Laws in Thailand: How to Stay Out of Jail

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What travelers need to know about drug laws, the legal drinking age, visa restrictions and the Thai royal family.


Photo © iStock/tobiasjo

Thailand has long attracted hedonistic travelers, but don’t make the mistake of thinking “anything goes” in the Land of Smiles. Behave with the same caution and respect you show back home and you’ll avoid trouble.

Respect the Thai royal family

In many Western countries, it’s normal for people to make fun of, or criticize national figureheads, even royalty. Thailand, however, has extremely strict laws called lese-majeste, under which people can receive long prison sentences for insulting its monarchy.

Like the UK, Japan, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands, to name a few, Thailand is a constitutional monarchy. This means it has a Government, but it’s head of State is a royal figure. In Thailand’s case, that is King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

Lese-majeste complaints can be filed by anyone, against anyone, and are always investigated by the police.

While it is rare for tourists to be face lese-majeste charges, it can happen. So do not, in any circumstances, say anything negative about Thailand’s monarchy while you’re in the country. Also, do not write anything derogatory about the Thai Royal family online. It’s better to avoid mentioning them altogether.

There will also probably be times during your trip to Thailand that you’ll need to stand to attention as a mark of respect to the nation and, by extension, to its royal family. In urban areas, at 8am and 6pm every day, you’ll hear loud speakers playing the Thai national anthem. Follow the lead of locals, stop whatever you’re doing, and stand still and silent until the song finishes.

Another version of this occurs before movies at Thai cinemas. Just before a film begins a video is shown celebrating the Thai Royal family, during which the audience will stand quietly. Do as they do to avoid causing offence and potentially landing yourself in trouble.

Always carry your passport in Thailand

Thai authorities recommend tourists and foreign ex-pats carry their passports with them at all times while in Thailand. If you are comfortable doing that, then go ahead. Many tourists, however, are justifiably worried that constantly having their single most important document on their person greatly heightens the risk of it being lost or stolen.

I won’t advise against something that is law. Just make sure, at a minimum, you carry a clear, printed photocopy of your passport photo page, your Thai VISA page, and of your Thai entry stamp. Also keep photos of these pages in your phone. It is very rare for tourists to be asked by Thai police to show their passports. But if this does occur, then at least producing a photocopy and phone photo of your passport will help greatly.

Avoid illegal drugs in Thailand

It can be a life-altering mistake to ignore Thailand’s stringent drug laws. You could face a long imprisonment if found in possession of cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, LSD, opium, amphetamines, benzodiazepines, ketamine or magic mushrooms (among others).

And don’t be fooled by worldwide headlines about Thailand legalizing cannabis in early 2022 – smoking marijuana can still land you in a Thai jail. In 2018, Thailand became the first country in SouthEast Asia to legalize medical marijuana, and then in 2022, to an extent, it removed cannabis from its list of illegal drugs. I use that qualifier because it actually only legalized cannabis that contains less than 0.2% (by weight) of THC, which is the psychoactive compound in marijuana that has an intoxicating effect.

But cannabis smoked or eaten for recreational purposes normally has a much higher THC percentage than that. Thailand, then, has essentially legalized weak forms of cannabis that won’t get you high. So if you decide to buy marijuana while on holiday in Thailand, you’d better be certain it contains only the lawful amount of THC. And how can you possibly know that? Just forget about recreational drugs while in Thailand, where there’s many legal ways to find joy.

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Thailand's legal drinking age is 20

In Europe, the legal drinking age ranges from as young as 16 up to 18 years old, while in Australia, New Zealand and parts of Canada it is 18. In Thailand, you have to be 20 years old to legally buy alcohol. This may surprise some readers, as many teenage tourists drink alcohol while partying in Thailand.

No matter what other tourists tell you about the leniency regarding underage tourists and alcohol, the Thai law is the Thai law. And Thai police have publicly stated they’re cracking down on underage drinking more than ever since the Pandemic began.

Don't overstay your visa in Thailand

Especially for backpackers slowly traveling around Asia, the desire to remain in Thailand for several months can be strong. And the same way you may hear it’s easy to get away with smoking weed, underage drinking, or not carrying any evidence of your passport, fellow travelers may convince you overstaying your Thai visa isn’t a big deal. “You’ll just get a small fine,” they may say.

To an extent, they’re right. If you remain in Thailand beyond the date permitted on your visa you’ll be fined 500 baht (USD $15) for each day you have overstayed up to a maximum of 20,000 baht ($600). I have met travellers who preferred to pay that maximum fine rather than face the hassle of renewing their visa.

That is a big mistake for two reasons. Firstly, if you are caught by police while wandering around Thailand overstaying your visa (as opposed to at the airport as you depart), you can potentially face more serious penalties, including a ban from re-entering Thailand for a period of time.

Secondly, if you overstay your Thai visa by between 90 days and one year, you face a one-year ban from re-entering Thailand, and will find it more difficult to get Thai visas in the future. The penalties increase for overstays of more than one year (three-year ban), more than three years (five-year ban) and more than five years (10-year ban)

A true travel insurance claim story

Here's a tip: Never pat a monkey, even if it's on a leash: they can be vicious. I was out wandering with a friend on Haad Rin Beach, Koh Phangan Island, when we ran into a local walking his pet monkey. My friend bent over and patted the monkey and the local kindly let her hold it. Nestled in her arms, it seemed so sweet. Then I reached out to pat it and it bit me on the thumb, breaking the skin.

How World Nomads helped? Medical expenses for treatment, including rabies vaccinations and antibiotics.
Nomad Traveler,
in Thailand

Cover your monkey business

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  • Nikko said

    Here are some laws that are missing:
    - helmet. In the main tourist venues, always wear a helmet or you will be fined 200 to 400 baht everyday and for your passenger as well.
    - take your driving license with you when you ride a scooter, it is 200 baht more.
    - do not take a scooter >125 or you will be fined 200 more.
    - do not rent a jetski in Pattaya or Pattong. Do not ask question just don't... it is a mafia working with police, you will loose a lot of money.
    - do not follow the taxis who propose you to bring you in a government owned jewelry... it is a scam, and even if the place is looking great, everything is over priced by +100% or is fake.
    - do not buy rubies, emeralds etc... unless it is in a reputable place and with a certificates. Most jewelry are selling both faked and real ones, the real ones are double the price of the fake ones, and have a certificate.
    - buy only gold in the official Goldsmith (red shops everywhere in Thailand). Do not buy more gold than you can wear, it is illegal to export Gold, so this gold will not leave Thailand and will be kept by at the airport...
    - never never let a Ladyboy or a lady hug you for no reason in the street. They are looking for your money in your bag and you back pocket. They are professional and well trained, you will feel nothing, and they will take only the bills.

  • Nomadictraveler said

    I rode a great deal and have seen tourists riding with no shirt on a motorbike. No issues.

    As far as not giving out your passport when renting a motorbike, good luck with that. Even a lady i am seeing who owns a fruit stand and two motorbikes wouldn't settle on a copy and deposit. I've been all over thailand and probably rented 13 motorbikes. Only one place in chiang mai didnt require holding my passport. Do you blame them?

    • Paul said

      In Koh Samui it wasn't much of a problem - maybe because you're not leaving unnoticed there? In Chiang Mai it took quite some convincing to let them settle for a cash deposit. In Phuket I couldn't rent anything without handing over my passport.

    • Thailand said

      I don't rent much because I own my bikes, but you can definitely find places to rent with no passport.

  • Claudio Machado Jr said

    Thailand is my favorite place on earth. It's not an 'odd' country nor has 'odd' laws. If you act like a normal human being and be respectable, you won't get in trouble. The problem is when foreigners decide to 'go crazy', just because they think they are in an 'exotic' country.
    By the way, if you litter a place like Thailand, you deserve indeed to spend some time in jail.

  • Tony said

    Its also worth mentioning here that gambling is also totally illegal in Thailand. other than the state run lottery and some horse racing events.

    Gambling is strictly prohibitied.

  • KK said

    The underwear law is misinterpreted. Nowhere in the penal law (translation is here: does it mention about not wearing any undergarments. It only states that you cannot appear in public wearing nothing else but just your undergarments.

  • Glen said

    Be carefull watching porn is also ilegal watching porn on the internet will put you in jail also pornography on your phone believe me be allowed guy's never watch it.

  • socrates said

    Watching porn on internet is illegal by thai authorities? This is the most stupid and hypocritical law by the Thai. In certain areas very very young girls are prostitutes and the law seems to close their eyes on such brothels, but if you do porn on the net, you can get busted? Crazy country...

  • scary said

    When I read all the issues to "be on guard" in Thailand, I guess that I will travel elsewhere!....Thailand used to be a paradise with great people - but currently the Thai people seen to consider the tourist or expat, as another "farang", only good to shell out his cash......such attitudes make tourism and expats relocate and their numbers will drastically fall in Thailand, with the sources or revenue.

  • Icemanknobby said

    Been coming here for years, I’ve been asked for my passport on a couple of occasions for bike rental but I have always refused instead they take a copy never an issue with me

  • Ian said

    I would be very careful travelling to thailand,the amount of corruption killings and robberies and so on is gone to far and is unbelievably horrible and frightening.
    I can't understand how it is so bad and how they can get away with what goes on over there,I am well travelled and have been in a lot of countries but I have never witnessed what I have any where in the world as what I've witnessed in Thailand.
    My friend was killed there a few years back it was put down to suicide the investigation into it was terrible and his family for no answers what so ever, he was a friendly man and did not deserve what happened to him.
    The funny thing about all this is he phoned his family explaining he did not feel safe felt threatened by a member of staff in his hotel and was going to fly home the next day as he felt frightened by some body.
    What his family can't get over is they got no justice or answers as how is his wrists where marked pointing out that his hands where tied together, and there was no markings of signs that he tried to stop himself from choking as you would or anybody would obviously do while they are choking to death specially if your hands where free to do so.
    His money was also taking as his records showed he withdrew 5000 bath from his account a few hours before and there was also signs of a scuffle in the room as a few things where broken.
    This is not the first time I've heard stories like this and it won't be the last unfortunately I lost a very good friend from the corruption that covered up his death,he was a friend son father brother and one of the nicest people you could ever meet and I just keep saying why Thailand why and shame on you for letting these things happen and brushing the truths of thing under the carpet...R.I.P you will be missed for ever.

  • Social Traveler said

    I want to thank you a lot for this extensive and very informative article.

  • Rex Everything said

    This is in response to Claudio Machado Jr's comment from 5 years ago -

    I understand my reply is very...late, but when you're risking your life, and possibly your family's, one cannot gamble that for anything, especially not on the word of someone who's obviously ignorant to how "the real world" actually functions.

    His interpretation is nonsensical, and is more preaching than factual. In a country such as Thailand, penalties range from fines to a prison term, to life in prison to the death penalty for committing crimes that are wide open to interpretation. So, your penalty could differ if the arresting officer was lucky enough to get a nooner from his wife or not, or they were just having a crappy day, or you didn't have enough money for a decent bribe.

    I've been all over the world and I've seen plenty, but the worst one I saw was when a friend of mine, a foreigner teaching English in a similar asian country, was accused by his student of rape, and that ultimately cost him his life when he was murdered in prison 1 month into a 3 year stint because he'd earlier stolen drugs and money from a cell housing murderers already serving life. It didn't matter that the student was in her early 20's, the same age as him, nor did it matter that he'd been dating the student for 3 months, nor did it matter that she organised for them both to go out drinking with some of her friends and he actually chose not to drink to make sure he could take care of her after he'd seen her many times as a messy drunk, nor did it matter that her father was high up in the local police...

    It seems as though she, once again, drank too much and persuaded the guy to let her sleep in his apartment near their academy because she was too scared for her father to see her that drunk. Early the next morning she was seen leaving the teacher's apartment by some of his other students, and here's the kicker - to save face, she told her father that this guy had forced her to drink, and taken her to his place when she was drunk so he could rape her. Her father didn't know they were a couple because she was too scared to tell him, and although they'd slept together several times already, she told her father she was a virgin before this and after this "event", there was no way to prove otherwise.

    Interestingly enough, her father was the one pressing charges, and he was also in charge of the investigation. He wouldn't allow anyone to give evidence supporting my friend, not her friends who'd known they were a couple and were there when they were out, and who knew he didn't force her to drink and who also knew he wasn't drinking, only the students who saw them the next morning leaving his place, however, there were now several new witnesses who appeared from nowhere supporting her side of the story, my buddy and her friends hadn't seen them that night or anywhere else before that, either.

    Corrupt to the core. Because there wasn't a solid case, her father hired people to make a solid case. There is also the opinion that her father actually had him killed because he wasn't happy with 4 years.

    Are you willing to accept that risk based on some bozo online telling you it's all perfectly fine??

    Even if you do nothing wrong, and you're perfectly behaved, there's no telling what one can hope for in a corrupt country with corrupt law enforcement. I'm not saying Thailand is corrupt, nor its police, but I don't know they aren't, either. And, at least believing me can't get you locked up or even killed.

  • Sir Onslow said

    I concur the tragic stories of Ian and Rex Everything.

    Even if you have been married 20 years to two different Thai women, and even after 15-20 trips to Thailand, you still don't know the culture. You have to live and work there. Many Thai people are wonderful and honest, but they are oppressed by corrupt people in their local areas. In such a corrupt country it's often necessary for people to be loyal to themselves, and there is no limit to what some people will do or say. Even neutrals will stab anyone in the back for personal benefits. Live there, work there, make them jealous, make them lose face, and you will eventually understand what I mean.

    I strongly suggest never to work in a place where there is no justicial safety. It's not really about how you behave, it's more about how they behave. This makes every day a gamble, and Ian's and Rex's sad stories makes total sense to me. The young teacher dated the wrong girl in a lawless country, and it cost him his life, but there are many local men like him too. Any convict will get benefits if he attack someone on behalf of someone influential. The only path to retribution lies within the potential guilt of the former girlfriend, but now she probably believes her fathers lies about the theft in prison. Their truth is that her father was right, because the young teacher was a bad guy, who had it coming anyway. People who lie in court will never say anything, because even if they are safe, their families are not. Besides that, remorse can conveniently be erased by a few days of good deeds in a temple anyway.

    I know many people including myself who got into trouble in Thailand simply because of jealousy and dented pride. Don't pay attention to the tourists who talk about helmets, believe the stories behind those of us who left in self preservation, ended up in prison, or even died down there. This doesn't only apply to Thailand, but all countries where the justice system is compromised. When it goes wrong, it goes horribly wrong, and the worse the police can make you appear, the bigger heroes they are.

    On average 10.000 fresh teenage girls are trafficked and added to the Thai prostitution industry from Myanmar, Laos, China, Vietnam and Cambodia each year. Many of these girls are refugees from the neverending civil wars in Myanmar. Thousands more are trafficked from rural areas in Thailand. They often have to work up to 18 hours each day serving min. 10 men. 80-90 percent of all prostitute customers in Thailand are Thai men, and the Royal Thai Police and local authorities are heavily involved in this illegal industry for financial reasons. Those who exploit these young poor girls the most are the Thai police. Enough said.

  • randall said

    You Know, I have lived in Thailand for more than 10 years, I am back in Canada now, but I am moving back soon. I must say from reading all of those stories that this is the same crap that goes on in any country in the world. In all my years in Thailand I have never experienced anything like what people describe here. This is ridiculous. I mean come on people. You could get hit by a bus crossing the street at home. People like to dwell on the negatives.

    The simple fact is this, I have never had any problems like that. Why? I am a nice, respectful person who does not get involved with shady characters or criminal activities, which is in every country.

    It is one of the best countries in the world. Anybody who has a problem is doing something wrong.


  • Marisa said

    My condolences for both Ian and Rex.
    as I was born and still living in Thailand, It's such a scary place. sure there are still nice people left but It seem things gone much worse than before, News of corrupted police, corrupted official, corrupted teacher, convict who serve their time then get pardon but they don't repent and commit murder, r*pe, torture happen almost daily here that it's depressing and sickening.
    I lost hope in my own country, the bad heavily outweigh the goods here. and what goods that still there seem to gradually lessening everyday.
    many said If We can't bear to work and live here then tell us to go work, live elsewhere while scorn us as traitor and scum while they're content to let things happen as it is.

  • Marisa said

    My condolences for you too, Sir Onslow.
    I really wish for Thailand to be better, but it seem to get worse each years.
    Many of my friend here already try to learn, work and save their money as much as possible in order to escape from such cruel people. to not live in fear that one day they will turn to you and your family next.
    We really want for things to be better and try to working, living, doing charity but then we saw what happen when people rise up to ask for the government to fix things. since then more of my friends losing faith in the official and start their preparation to begin their life in other countries, gathering more information and saving their money for it.
    some of my friend already succeed in getting work Visa and got stable life in other countries and become inspiration for us.

  • Mark Gall said

    I find it very difficult to believe that some of these folks listing horrendous problems actually know of what actually occurred. I've been married to an educated Thai woman from Bangkok who I met in 2005 (and now in 2021 have been with her for over 15 years). I also lived in Thailand for over 4 years in many different places from the Malaysian border to Mai Sai at the northern border. Being retired and enjoying travel a lot, as well as knowing a number of foreigners and Thais there, I stayed for one month or more in about 20 different places around the country, and never, not once, felt that my safety (or my wife's) was in danger.
    Is it possible to have a problem in Thailand? Of course it is, but being retired from U.S. federal law enforcement, I know that the U.S. is not exactly a safe place.
    As for overall crime stats, the U.S. and Thailand both have problems. Gun crimes: The U.S. is has 6 times more than Thailand. Intentional homicide rate is virtually identical. Rapes: the U.S. has 4 times more than Thailand per same number of people.
    The bottom line is that if you compare statistics, I'll happily live in Thailand without worry.
    By the way, I also spent several years in 19 other less than first world countries in Central/South America and Asia if that makes any difference.

  • Quoc khanh said

    How do they check if we wear underwear or not?

  • Tide Swell said

    Just out of interest, I tried to complete that travel insurance application to see what sort of quote I would receive.

    I entered my true age, (70 yrs), and received a reply to the effect that I was not eligible for insurance being aged over 65 yrs.

    What the deuce is that all about?

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