Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Perils and Pitfalls of Getting a Drivers License in Thailand by The Soi Lawyer

I decided I wanted to obtain a Thai drivers license. Not because I particularly wish to risk my life driving in a city that can best be described as a demolition derby without all of those pesky rules. A nice reason to get a Thai drivers license is the fact that it provides a form of accepted ID in Thailand. For a foreigner, it is the closest thing to a Thai ID Card that we can get. For this reason, I decided to go get one. I was in for an adventure in bureaucracy and boredom.

Necessary documents for a Thai Drivers License

I won’t go into great detail about everything that was needed to obtain the Thai Driving license, but a few things that I thought were odd necessities. First, they require you to get a medical checkup before granting a Thai drivers license. This checkup consisted of a doctor looking at me, taking my blood pressure and promptly asking for 300 Baht. Then, I had to go to my Embassy and obtain a Thai residence affidavit. Basically, this form states that you are resident in Thailand. Apparently, they will also accept a work permit in its place, but as I understand it, this residence affidavit is preferred, and hence more accepted, than the work permit. After obtaining these documents, I went to the Thai Department of Transportation office with my Thai associate to navigate me through the difficult waters.

Bureaucracy at its best: Thailand Department of Transportation

The Thai DMV has to be the most bureaucratic of all offices in Thailand. There are people in this office who are literally doing nothing. The entire staff of the office could be reduced by 90%. The most humorous moment during my foray into this byzantine world was the sight of a potbellied Thai senior “officer” sitting at a desk at the back of a room filled with desks and people “working.” The Thai officer had obviously been exhausted from overwork and decided that 10:30 in the morning was a good time to fall asleep at his desk with the whole world looking on.

I went up to the counter with my Thai counterpart and the lady officer went over my documents. As usual, everything submitted was rendered unrecognizable by a barrage of stamps. We were told to wait to begin the driving test.

In Thailand, Connections Count even at the DMV

As I understand the rules, anyone applying for a license must sit through a two hour long instructional video about driving. This would be useful to all drivers, but in the case of foreigners its effectiveness is slightly diminished due to the fact that THE WHOLE MOVIE IS IN THAI WITHOUT SUBTITLES. Therefore, most foreigners use this time to nap or catch up on some reading. Luckily for me, my Thai counterpart has a connection in this office and we got the 2 hour movie requirement waived. However, this did not excuse me from the other “tests” necessary for a Thai drivers license.

Running the Gauntlet: Reaction Tests for a Thai Drivers License

The Thais make you do a bunch of tests before granting this license. Some are relatively simple, like testing for color blindness, but others are really annoying. One is the gas to break test, this test has a red and green light and when the green turns to red, then the subject must go from pressing the gas to pressing the break as quickly as possible. I was lucky in that I quickly got through most of the testing. Another foreigner who decided that it didn’t matter how he dressed when going to the DMV, was not so lucky. Thais place a great deal of emphasis on appearance and this seems to go double for Thai bureaucrats. If a foreigner goes to a Thai government office in shorts and T-shirt, then he will likely receive short shrift from the officers. In the case of another foreigner seeking his license that day, the tests for would-be drivers had turned into something similar to American Gladiators.

Especially difficult to watch was the test where they test to see if one can discriminate colors through peripheral vision. They make the subject stare straight ahead and then flash different colors at the sides of the eyes to see if the colors can be discerned. In this case the foreigner I was testing with failed. Not so much based upon inability, but from the fact that the officer was not impressed by his appearance. First she would only explain in Thai. Since I had already been briefed on the procedure by my Thai lawyer counterpart, I knew what was coming. The officer just snapped at him in Thai until I explained and then she promptly said in perfect English, “Yes, designate the color you see.” Obviously the screeching in Thai was a deterrence tactic because I would come to find that the woman’s English was perfect when speaking to me, but she only spoke in Thai to him.

Then Comes the Wait…

After all of this craziness (the other foreigner was sent home and told to return the next day). I kind of felt bad for him, but part of me thought it was a bit ridiculous not to at least throw on a pair of pants before going to deal with a government office.

After the gauntlet had been run, the real test of will had begun: the seemingly interminable wait. My Thai counterpart and I waited in line for approximately 1 and a half hours to get a picture taken and the actual license printed. In their defense, this was not due to the Thai officer’s slow speed, but to the long line of people getting licenses. Total monetary cost: 105 baht. Total Cost in time and annoyance: incalculable. At least now I can drive if I need to and fly domestically without needing my passport so it wasn’t a total waste of time.

If anyone is interested in obtaining their Thai drivers license let me know. After having gone through this personally, my Thai staff and I can help streamline the process for others.

Related Posts from the past:

49 Responses to “Perils and Pitfalls of Getting a Drivers License in Thailand by The Soi Lawyer”

  1. I PhukitMar 18th, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    At which point in the drivers test did they check for your ability to:
    a) carefully navigate driving the wrong way down the road
    b) proceed slowly and carefully through red lights across intersections
    c) Tow a non functioning motorbike by having your friend with his functioning motorbike push it with his foot from behind
    d) accommodate at least 5 other adults and/or kids and at least on pet on the same motorbike
    e) negotiate with a Thai on a payout you have to make after he hits you!
    View all comments by I Phukit

  2. bkk22Mar 18th, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    You can fly domestically on your home country licence. Just tell them your passport is with the Labour Department.

    To play devils’s advocate here: DMV’s (at least in the States) are not much better or maybe worse than here. Any the employees in the DMV’s back home are usually not that fun to look at.
    View all comments by bkk22

  3. Indu WangZiMar 18th, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    Well, BBK’s axiom of wearing high-quality fabrics again proves true…

    Gotta wonder if wearing a collared shirt and slacks made of high-quality fabric is ever a bad decision in Thailand
    View all comments by Indu WangZi

  4. bobonzoMar 18th, 2009 at 12:30 pm


    As a non-resident, am I not allowed to drive on a Int’l Driver’s License or my home country license ?

    I realize of course that laws are up to the discretion of whatever policeman that pulls me up….but do you know the actual law ?
    View all comments by bobonzo

  5. MSBMar 18th, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    When I got my license about 8 years ago I don’t recall doing any tests. My secretary got the forms and I had to go up and sign something. Maybe a purple persuader or two was handed over.

    When your one year license expires you get a 5 year one.

    The new credit card like license are much better then the old laminated ones. But they were good at coke cutting!
    View all comments by MSB

  6. wrecksMar 18th, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    On the same theme, but a little different if I may be indulged.

    I had a home made box trailer of tools and assorted bits and pieces of life shipped to Thailand. Do not ask why one would be moved to such a thick head act, but I was.

    The cost of freight was au$650.00, pretty good I thought.

    I then consulted Mr Google and found a shipping handler to handle the paper work etc in BKK. Notice arrived from the shipping company the trailer had landed. I went to the shipping handler to discuss what needed to be done.

    Armed with my trusty Issan translator (wife to be) I handed over the inventory and I was presented with the untold joyous news that the fees and taxes to release the trailer would be @ au$800.00

    As you can imagine, I respectfully declined their offer.

    I set the wife to be into gear and had her make the appropriate noises at the government import office. There was a striking resonance when the soi-lawyer mentioned the rows of desks occupied by unoccupied office workers. Here was the same. After about 2 hours, we were beckoned and advised that we would have to go to another office on the other side of BKK. It was closed by the time we got there.

    So wife to be sets out next day, on her own, to deal with this paperwork. I went North to Udon Thani. Lucky me.

    After 3 days of frustrating bouncing between offices scattered across BKK, divorce was on the agenda. And we were not even married yet. As it turns out there are 4 offices that require interoffice stamping of documents, return visits for more stamping, associated costs of taxis and hotel accommodation, and taxes due to Lord Thaksin, the cost came to au$1470.00

    Lesson learned. Just when you think your fuckingn them, they are fucking you. The only thing I import to Thailand since then is BYO condoms and what ever lubricants one might need to facilitate easy entry. This way I can screw myself.
    View all comments by wrecks

  7. pmmpMar 18th, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    I have the same questions as bobonzo. In addition, I hear of farangs renting motorbikes and cars but I’ve never done it myself. What is legally required for that so if you get pulled over or into an accident you are covered? Thanks for the informative post btw.
    View all comments by pmmp

  8. JustinCiderMar 18th, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    SoiLawyer - good story. Do you know if you can you use a Thai drivers license to drive with in Canada or USA?
    View all comments by JustinCider

  9. The Soi LawyerMar 18th, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    Thailand does recognize the International License under the law, but I have heard of people who have been pulled over and the Thai cop either ignores it silently or says its not valid. I am a believer in getting as much documentation as one can in Thailand because you never know when they will change the rules totally and take away the right to get it. Once you already have it then its harder to take it away.

    I’ve helped a few people obtain a Thai license and many of them had international permits but got sick of the hassle. I also like having it because it really throws the Thais off when I give it to them. They do a double take a little bit sometimes.

    Odd Thai DMV quirk, the motorcycle license is separate from the car license, they give you two totally separate cards.

    As for car rental, unsure on that, but I’ll see. Interesting side note to this story: I’ve still yet to drive any conveyance in Thailand.
    View all comments by The Soi Lawyer

  10. The Soi LawyerMar 18th, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    Dunno about Thai Driving License in USA or Canada, but I bet not, unlike Thailand those countries respect the international permit uniformly
    View all comments by The Soi Lawyer

  11. RobertCMar 18th, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    JC - The thai license is as a rule of thumb not accepted anywhere where actual driving skills are required to pass a driving test. My wife who had a thai drvers license (she is thai) got her License without ever having actually got behind the wheel of a car. I beleive it MAY be possible to use a thai license while on holiday but may be subject to higher insurance through reputable car hirers.
    View all comments by RobertC

  12. martMar 18th, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    Bobonzo and pmmp - you won’t have troubles with the BIBs when driving in Thailand with an international DL. BUT you are not covered by Thai insurances and that is the big problem.

    SL - I happen to have taken the theory and driving tests for the Thai motorbike DL two weeks ago. In Bangkok too, at the DLT in Chatuchak too. I can’t relate at all with what you are describing!
    The people there are a great bunch, they are friendly and do their best to help you and guide you through the process. I have absolutely NO connexion there and everything went swiftly and smoothly. There IS an English video to watch! There is a computerized theory test in English too. Basically I had to take all the tests you described + go and get a medical certificate at a nearby clinic + watch the video + read a booklet about Thai traffic signals + take the computerized theory test + take the driving test + have the DL actually printed. I arrived at 9am and left at 4pm but took a one-hour lunch break after the video. I was amazed at how little time it took and how well organized the DLT actually is!
    You don’t necessarily need an affidavit, anything from Immigration or the Labour Department or your Embassy stating your address is completely OK. You’ve been scammed by the doctor, I paid 60 bahts for the medical certificate at a nearby clinic, motosais take you there and bring you back for 50 bahts.
    View all comments by mart

  13. OldAsiaHandMar 18th, 2009 at 2:17 pm

    For what it’s worth, when I first gave Mr. Hertz my wife’s Thai driver’s license to include her on my rental contract, they refused to accept it. Not valid in the US, they said. That was some years ago, however, and she promptly went out and got a US license to avoid running into the problem again so I don’t know what the current state of play is. Perhaps a more politically correct view of Thai licenses is in vogue now.
    View all comments by OldAsiaHand

  14. martMar 18th, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    Oh yes I forgot: I had to take the theory and driving tests because I do not have a motorbike driving licence from my home country.
    View all comments by mart

  15. solomon grundyMar 18th, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    I found that getting my licence was a piece of cake. I got a car and motorcycle licence at the same time. After 1 year I renewed both and they are valid for over 5 years ( it expires on your birthday). You can get an international driver’s permit from the same office and it can be used in America, Canada, or whatever countries honour the 1949 agreement. Both your driver’s licence and your international driving permit must be showed.
    View all comments by solomon grundy

  16. generous sponsorMar 18th, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    yeah, i’ve had the same experience as solomon. maybe soi lawyer went on a bad day, but i find the Thai DMV much easier to deal with than the one in California.

    No problem with using a work permit instead of embassy letter, and bringing an (expired) US license allowed me to avoid the driving test, written test, and other junk. Getting the five year license was even easier, and the international license (which you need in the US) took about 10 minutes (505 Baht).
    View all comments by generous sponsor

  17. side show BaldMar 18th, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    can people with just a tourist visa get the thai license? I’ve seen ads from lawyers stating you can, but maybe they’re not on the up and up.
    View all comments by side show Bald

  18. sideshowBOBMar 18th, 2009 at 3:32 pm

    I tire of all these so called side show imitators.

    anyway -

    where is this place? map anyone?

    so if I take:

    my non-expired CA DL for motorcycle and car
    work permit

    sounds like it is good to go?

    what else - the med certificate?
    View all comments by sideshowBOB

  19. martMar 18th, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    ssB - I think the law says you need a non-imm visa. Anyhow with a tourist visa you won’t get any certificate of residence, neither from your embassy (well at least not from mine) nor from Thai Immigration/Labour…
    View all comments by mart

  20. martMar 18th, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    ssB - Yes medical certificate (should NOT cost 300 bahts) and take your passport too. U don’t need pics, they take a digital picture of you on the premises.
    View all comments by mart

  21. generous sponsorMar 18th, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    the real SSB - finding the right building is probably the hardest part! You take the BTS to JJ and it’s on the right hand side (just before the BTS stop). there are at least half a dozen buildings in the Thai Motor Vehicle Ministry complex or whatever you call it. Anyway, it’s the building near the back on the right (when you’re facing the ministry from the main road) on the second floor.

    Bring your passport (copies of your photo page, visa page, most recent entry stamp and the departure card), work permit (copy every page with writing on it), cash (under 200 baht if it’s your first license, or around 650 baht for five year license), medical certificate and your CA license. Try going on a rainy day - I’ve heard they cancel driving tests those days and they don’t make you come back to retake, although having the CA license will help.
    View all comments by generous sponsor

  22. generous sponsorMar 18th, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    yeah, no need for photos, and don’t go to Bangkok Christian for your certificate - they charge 400 baht. Of course, all the above subject to change without prior notice.
    View all comments by generous sponsor

  23. martMar 18th, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    ssB - no map but very easy. MRT Chatuchak and follow the signs “Department of Land Transportation”. Once inside it’s building #4.
    View all comments by mart

  24. sideshowBOBMar 18th, 2009 at 3:49 pm

    love this blog

    going to gather all this shit up and head over there sometime soon.

    can you get the IDL at the same time or need to get the thai one first?

    I will map it once I go.

    View all comments by sideshowBOB

  25. martMar 18th, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    ssB - the 1st Thai DL you get is a provisory one and is valid one year. You have to wait until you have the 2nd one (which is valid 5 years) in order to be able to apply for an IDL.
    View all comments by mart

  26. poodleMar 18th, 2009 at 4:04 pm

    You were robbed, I paid 50 baht for a med certificate. Doctor asked if I was sick and I said no and she rubber stamped the paper. Letter from the embassy said “Mr X has informed us he lives at Toy Bar and we have no reason to believe otherwise” - an equally useless piece of paper.

    It’s very easy to get a thai driving license. You don’t need a soi lawyer, just a soi dog to translate. If you have a recognised foreign driving license (European, US, Oz etc) you don’t need to watch the video or do the written test. Just the simple physical tests. I saw a man fail the colour blind test and he was asked to wait until everyone else left. I’m assuming he just had to pay because it’s not the kind of test you can re-do.

    My five year driving license has got me laid on at least one occasion. I flashed it at security going into Bed Supper Club and a queuing girl behind me said: “Oh you live Thailand long time.” I smile back. She continued, “You have car?” Rest is history.

    Those remote beeper things that unlock cars are also a babe magnet. Worth having one on your keyring even if you don’t own a car.

    Thai chicks are just so damn shallow … love ‘em.
    View all comments by poodle

  27. martMar 18th, 2009 at 4:04 pm
  28. poodleMar 18th, 2009 at 4:06 pm
  29. anonzoMar 18th, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    Soi Lawer,

    Did you go to the head office branch at Jatujak, or one of the other offices listed here:

    Also, I heard that they’re only open Mon-Fri. Do you know what their opening hours are?

    View all comments by anonzo

  30. ATMMar 18th, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    My USA permit expired.
    I was thinking of getting an international driver permit. Something I need for renting cars overseas.
    Then I learned I would need a Thai Permit first.
    Recently a friend was on a flight with a bigshot from Hertz or Avis. The guy said it was a good idea to go to Bangkok and get a fake one on KowSan Rd.
    Said they work fine at car rental counters.
    Over to you.
    View all comments by ATM

  31. DaywalkerMar 18th, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    SSB.. why do you need an IDL?

    I heard you can’t drive for shit.

    View all comments by Daywalker

  32. poodleMar 18th, 2009 at 4:57 pm

    A fake driving licence will work fine until you have a problem. It would invalidate your insurance if you have an accident. Not worth the risk. A Khao San road fake probably costs more than the real Thai one. If you don’t have a foreign licence you just have to do the written test (your allowed a translator) and I think clock up 10 hours with a registered driving instructor.
    View all comments by poodle

  33. I PhukitMar 18th, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    Up until about two weeks ago I had been renting a motorbike, and once in awhile a car. I never had to show anything but my passport for the rental.
    Two weeks ago I finally broke down and bought a motorbike. I handed over the cash, my passport and a local bank book for copying, and 30 min. later drove out.
    They recommended I get a certificate of residency at immigration, so two days ago, while extending my tourist visa for another 30 days, I walked upstairs, paid them 100 baht and a photo and got my residence ID.
    No Hassles
    By the way, the DMV in California has got to be somewhere very close to hell, when comparing places to go.
    View all comments by I Phukit

  34. Very Well HungMar 18th, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    I have a Thai DL but it will expire in 2 months. I forgot where the nearest clinic is to get a health cert. It was amazing that the doctor could tell I didn’t have Tuberculosis, HIV, cancer and a slew of other illness just by taking my blood pressure.

    Anyone know where that fine clinician is located?
    View all comments by Very Well Hung

  35. I PhukitMar 18th, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    oh by the way, I got the residency cert. on a 1 day expired tourist visa. (then I went downstairs to get the 30 day extension)
    View all comments by I Phukit

  36. The Soi LawyerMar 18th, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    I used the Dept of Transportation near the Phra Khanong BTS Station. I Totally got ripped off on the Medical cert. As I understand it, they do require a non-immigrant visa and the letter from Embassy in lieu of a work permit. I don’t believe a tourist visa would work.

    The foreign license gets you over the biggest hurdles down there, but that idiotic color blindness test is kind of non-negotiable
    View all comments by The Soi Lawyer

  37. generous sponsorMar 18th, 2009 at 5:24 pm

    VWH - they took your blood pressure?
    View all comments by generous sponsor

  38. martMar 18th, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    I P - Phuket is (one of) the only place(s) in Thailand where you can get a residence certificate from Immigration and even register a motorbike when you’re on a tourist visa. I’m here on a B visa and could not get a certificate of residence from Bangkok Immigration, they said they would issue them only to people who report their residence every 90 days and recommended that I ask my embassy to issue one.

    poodle - “If you don’t have a foreign licence you just have to do the written test (your allowed a translator) and I think clock up 10 hours with a registered driving instructor.”
    Bullshit! I’ve just taken theory and driving test. The theory test is translated into (bad) ENGLISH and you DON’T need to take any lessons with an instructor!
    View all comments by mart

  39. poodleMar 18th, 2009 at 5:31 pm

    Very Well Hung: Did the doc also measure your penis?
    View all comments by poodle

  40. martMar 18th, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    VWH - just tell a motosai at the DLT “clinic” and he will bring you to a place where they only ask you to give your passport and wait. No blood pressure measured, no questions asked, 2 minutes later and 60 bahts lighter you’re on the motosai driving back to the DLT.
    View all comments by mart

  41. ParaquatMar 18th, 2009 at 5:43 pm

    this site keeps cracking me up…’s surreal!

    Keep it up!
    View all comments by Paraquat

  42. poodleMar 18th, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    7/11: “Bullshit!” is a tad harsh.

    Ten hours is what I was told by a thai bird - Thai girls lying is new to me. But I stand corrected if that is not true. I’ve never done the theory test because I have a UK licence, I got my Thai licence four years ago and was told then that I could take a translator if I needed to do the theory (which I didn’t). I don’t know if the test was in bad English or Thai 4 years ago. Or whether I needed a bad English translator or a Thai translator.

    Just passing in information I was told - mainly to point out that getting a fake Khao San driving licence is in my opinion not a good idea.

    Bullshit in my book is purposely lying, not being wrongly informed. The exclamation mark after the word really hurt.
    View all comments by poodle

  43. martMar 18th, 2009 at 6:22 pm

    Pudel - Solly, inglit me no good!
    I did not mean it to sound that harsh, please excuse me for being a prick now and then.
    And I completely agree with you on the KSR fake licences. Kill someone in an accident while driving with such a document and you’re f*cked!
    View all comments by mart

  44. hanumanMar 18th, 2009 at 7:33 pm

    A friend of mine knew a high ranking policeman and didn’t have to take a test or go see a doctor to get a Thai DL.
    View all comments by hanuman

  45. ATMMar 18th, 2009 at 8:09 pm

    Certain windshield stickers are obtainable from high ranking types.
    Put one one your windshield and drive the wrong way down a one way street, park anywhere, run lights, no problem… and no DL necessary.
    View all comments by ATM

  46. I PhukitMar 18th, 2009 at 8:18 pm

    One thing we must all agree on:
    Whatever you need, whatever you have to do to get it, where you have to go, and docs you will need are guaranteed to change minute by minute, place to place, and person to person.

    Oh yeah I forget to say, at Immigration, when getting my residency permit, on that expired visa, I forgot my lease, so the only thing I had to prove my residency was a form they filled out for me when I bought my motorbike. That did get me a small frown from the girl working behind the counter, but I just gave her my puppy dog eyes, and it was a done deal.
    View all comments by I Phukit

  47. WarCorrespondentDaveMar 18th, 2009 at 9:36 pm

    So what is the colour blindness test about? Is it a case if identifying the different colours on the traffic lights or more complex?
    View all comments by WarCorrespondentDave

  48. DilligafNewMar 18th, 2009 at 10:12 pm

    Some general info and corrections, mostly from personal experience:

    Translations of the Thai driving laws -

    @bkk22 & bobonzo - You can drive here on your home license, but you must have an International License from your home country

    @MSB - The first license is good for 1 year. If you try to renew it before it expires, you get another 1 year. You must let it expire, then you can get a 5 year locense.

    @Soi Lawyer - If you have a valid license from your home country, you can get a Thai license without the written or driving test. The license must be in English or you need to have a translation. BTW, there are 10 different licenses issued. I have 2 - car and motorcycle.

    @RobertC - Old licenses were in Thai, and not accepted. New ones are in English and Thai.

    @Mart - Vehicle is insured, not the driver.

    All International Drivers Licences are good for only one year.

    You can get a residency certificate from the US Embassy on a 30 day tourist visa.

    Thai Immigration LEGALLY can only give residency certificates to people on 1 year continuous visas - work permit, marriage, retirement, etc. They are FREE, and are only given out for use at government offices. TIT, and actual practice varies.
    View all comments by Dilligaf


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