Although a credit card is not strictly necessary for living in Thailand, some plastic makes your life a lot easier. Having a local credit card not only reduces the cost of foreign currency surcharges, you can get additional bonuses such as discounts at restaurants, hotels and on flight tickets. As a plus, bills, including electric, phone and internet, can be deducted automatically though a credit card, saving you from frequent queuing and missed bill-payments.
Get your FREE Thailand Cheat Sheet by entering your email below. The Cheat Sheet, based on our experience with living and working in Thailand for 10+ years shows you the secrets to saving thousands of dollars on rent, insurance, banking, and more.
- 1 Benefits
- 2 Applying for a Card
- 3 Loyalty Programs
- 4 Foreign Transaction Surcharges
- 5 Comparison Websites
- 6 Alternatives
- 7 Your Own Experience?
While credit card acceptance is nowadays quite wide-spread, there are specific reasons to go with a local one.
Ordering items online is easier than ever – you can even order your groceries online. That is, if you have a local credit card. Several online shops limit payment options to local cards and accounts – whether that’s due to otherwise additional costs or fraud issues though, I do not know.
If you are a frequent diner at restaurants or drive your own car, you can take advantage of a number of different cash back options that yield anywhere between 1% and 5%.
Many restaurants offer credit card specific discounts. These discounts are only valid for locally issued cards and are often based not on the type of credit card but the institution that issued them. Discounts tend to range from 5% to 20% and can be even higher in exceptional cases.
Airlines like Thai Airways and Bangkok Airways cooperate with credit card issuers, allowing you to collect points for free upgrades and flights. In addition, there are loyalty programs by department stores that provide discounts (though many don’t seem to be as profitable for users as the airline programs).
Applying for a Card
I remember one day my secretary – my very first employee – walked into the office with a giant teddy bear. She’d just gotten it for signing up at a credit card booth downstairs. When I went there to ask about a card, I was told I wasn’t eligible.
Credit cards are a tricky business for foreigners in Thailand. Even if you’re working here, you’ll find that the process tends to be harder than for locals. Things get super tricky if you’re running your own business: Just like me, you might find yourself in a situation where your employees can get a credit card, but you can’t.
In order to apply for a credit card, you need to have a work permit and show some proof of income. A number of banks ask for the work permit to be valid for another six months, and you need to show three months of salary slips; that gives you a three month window to apply for your cards.
If you don’t have a work permit, you might still be able to get a credit card if you are willing to deposit THB 100,000 to THB 200,000 in a fixed term deposit account with the bank (as a guarantee).
If you’re the owner of a company, there’s often some additional requirements in the form of company documents. In some cases, you’ll also need to show a longer employment and income history as an entrepreneur (the longest I saw was 3 years). Specific salary requirements vary from card to card. But usually, foreigners have to earn more than Thais to open up an account with the same credit card company.
My personal credit card, Citibank Royal Orchid Plus Select requires a minimum income of THB 80,000 per month for foreigners while Thais only need THB 30,000. Lately, the Citibank approval process is very quick. Many people receive a credit card within a week of submitting all documents.
For another example, UOB’s PRIVI MILES Card, requires Thais to have a minimum income of THB 70,000 per month, whereas foreigners need at least THB 120,000. This is the rule rather than the exception.
Some card companies will also have a maximum age for credit card applicants and supplementary card holders.
Lenient Card Issuers
In practice, it all depends on the bank and comes down to possibly waiting a few months before you finally get a card. Unsurprisingly, the first bank willing to provide me with a local credit card was Kasikorn Bank. The first bank to provide me with company credit cards was Bangkok Bank. Just like with bank accounts themselves, those two seem to be the easiest to deal with and two of the better choices when it comes to good exchange rates.
The actual application process is pretty straight forward: Download the form online, fill it out and send it to the card company. Some card companies will send their own messenger to pick up the documents.
I recommend dealing with the online sign-up procedures, as the in-person booths or individual bank branches tend to not be too familiar with regulations and requirements related to foreigners.
If you’re firmly established in Thailand with a decent salary, you are probably not having too many problems getting some kind of credit card. At this point, the questions change from ‘which ones can you even get’ to ‘which ones would you like to have’. A major criteria in that case are the loyalty program benefits offered by the different card issuers.
Most credit cards come with a loyalty program, and the best way to use those points is to exchange them for air miles. In Thailand, I recommend to either go with Flyerbonus, which is the frequent flyer program of Bangkok Airways (partners with Etihad, Air Berlin, Cathay Pacific and JAL, among others), or Royal Orchid Plus, which is the frequent flyer program of Thai Airways (part of the Star Alliance network).
The reason I usually go with Bangkok Airways is that roughly every other year, you can take advantage of a massive promotion. This year, they offered all routes at a 70% discount from the usual cost in miles for a limited time period. Kasikorn Bank and Krungsri feature bi-yearly promotions during which you receive a bonus of up to 50% when exchanging your points for miles. The best part? You can combine the promotions to basically increase your mileage points six-fold. It’s best to keep your credit card points (which don’t expire) and wait to exchange them until an offer of this kind rolls around. I’ve found the gold and platinum cards by Kasikorn Bank are the best cards for this.
If you prefer to go with Thai Airways, there are a number of local cards that allow you to exchange points for miles.
I personally use the Citibank Royal Orchid Plus Select card which accumulates 1 mile for every THB 20 spent – the highest rate in the market per baht spent and the main reason I applied for the card. In addition, it gives me access to the Thai Airways lounge free of charge, twice a year when I’m flying with them. Keep in mind that the card comes with a yearly fee of THB 4,000 though, so if you’re not a heavy user, it probably isn’t worth it.
One of the limitations with the Citibank card is that they require expats to have a minimum salary of THB 80,000 per month. If you are on a retirement visa, you could also be approved for this card, though you’d have to make a deposit of at least THB 1,000,000 in a fixed term account.
Another option for Thai Airways is the AEON Royal Orchid Plus Platinum card. It comes with 5% cash back for restaurants and hotels. The yearly fee for the card is a bit cheaper than Citibank at THB 3,000. I personally don’t have any experience with this card, but just based on my research, it currently seems to be one of the most interesting cards if you’re looking to collect Royal Orchid Plus miles.
UOB Privi Miles
For serious spenders, UOB offers the best mileage deal with the UOB PRIVI MILES CARD: If you spend more than THB 300,000 per quarter, you’ll get 1 mile for every THB 15 spent. If you don’t meet the target, you’ll still get 1 mile for every THB 18 spent – still about 10% more than with any other card.
Aside from Citibank, Aeon and UOB, there are a handful of other credit card providers that allow you to exchange points for miles – some of them co-branded, some of them just allow you to convert their points into miles in addition to other options.
Foreign Transaction Surcharges
Foreign transaction surcharges are the hidden anti-loyalty program: The more you use the card, the more penalties you pay. For frequent travelers and people who buy a lot of items online (especially businesses), this is the single biggest cost of credit card usage (easily eclipsing any annual fee you might be paying).
Credit cards issued in Thailand usually have a ~2% surcharge when used abroad. Some cards go as low as 1%, whereas others charge as much as 2.5%. The points collected from loyalty programs rarely make up for the additional fees charged, so if you have the chance to use a local credit card for your purchases somewhere else, it’s best to go with that.
Especially if you travel a lot or place a lot of online orders, the volume based foreign transaction fees of Thai credit cards can really add up: Booked a USD 900 flight online? That’s an additional USD 23.50 fee hidden in the ‘exchange rate’ right there when paying with a typical Thai card. One trip abroad is often worth the annual fee of a foreign card already.
For non-Thai Baht purchases, you are usually better off with a foreign credit card that doesn’t charge a foreign transaction surcharge. These kind of cards are available in many countries (e.g. in Germany, you can get the 1 Plus Visa Card issued by Santander Consumer Bank). I’m not aware of any Thai cards offering this benefit though.
Of course, the reverse is true as well: If your foreign-issued credit card has a foreign transaction surcharge (sometimes it’s listed separately, other times it’s just included in the exchange rate as a so-called ‘hedging fee’), your payments in Thailand give your card issuer an additional 2.5% kickback that comes out of your own pocket.
There are comparison websites listed in our ebook that let you look up different types of credit cards and find out about their benefits in the Thai market.
Credit cards aren’t quite as essential in Thailand as in other countries. For a lot of situations, there exist workarounds that might be a bit more inconvenient but otherwise offer the same service at similar rates.
Coming from Germany, I only ever used ATMs to withdraw cash or check my account balance. In Thailand however, these machines tend to replicate a good part of the online banking features you are used to back home. In fact, using ATMs to pay other individuals and businesses is pretty much standard for a great many transactions. If you place an order with a tiny online shop in Thailand, you’ll most likely be asked to transfer the amount directly to their account, take a picture of the transfer slip, and e-mail them that.
Expats aren’t the only ones who have a hard time getting credit cards in Thailand. A significant part of the population doesn’t own any plastic either. The most common options for them is to to pay at the counter of a convenience store in cash. You can order online and then pay in cash for anything from power banks to bus tickets, and for many people in Thailand, this is the easiest and most convenient option available.
Electronic Visa Cards
Many banks issue electronic visa cards when you open a current account with them. Unlike credit cards, these don’t come with a limit and deduct directly from your current account. In addition, these are limited to online use. However, for buying from local e-commerce stores and airlines, these are often sufficient.
Several online retailers and travel companies allow you to pay with your online banking credentials. Sometimes this is even cheaper than paying by credit card (e.g. in the case of Air Asia tickets). It doesn’t quite strike me as safe as a credit card purchase, but it’s a feasible workaround if you don’t have a card and don’t keep too much cash in that account.
Your Own Experience?
If you have any experience trying to sign up for a local credit card or have some of your own tricks to share, please let me know in the comments!