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Want to drive in Thailand? Then get a license so you can be a driver. You can get a motorbike or a car license in Thailand. Just head to the Department of Land Transport with a medical certificate and a residence certificate and you'll be cruising around Bangkok and beyond.  

Driving/Driver's License In Thailand
The insiders' way to get around

"British driver's licenses may be valid longer; American licenses, more professional looking; international licenses, more practical.  But no other license is going to let your strut around the Kingdom as an insider like a good old fashioned Thai driver's license.  "  Doug Knell, Doug's Republic

Some people like to collect stamps or baseball cards.  I collect driver's licenses.

I won't get into the whys and hows of me procuring a number of different licenses. Yet in my possession, all of which have allowed me to drive a car or motorbike in Thailand, are a British license (validity: 10 years), an American license (validity: 4 years), an international driving permit (validity: 10 years), and now, a Thai driver's license (validity: 1 year for the initial year, then 5 years thereafter).

For my first six years in Thailand, I drove predominantly with the British license. It's a standard European Union type of license, easy to read, with a validity to straddle the decades. Thai cops and rental outlets didn't seem to mind me driving around with a foreign license as long as it was in English.

In Thailand, you might well be able to get away with driving with any license. My wife has a Korean driver's license. Not a single word on the license is in English apart from the word "driver's license." Nonetheless, she's been able to rent a motorbike with it. Some speculate that even a library card might cut it.  

driver's license Thailand

It's official.  Doug is cool.

So why then did I bother, after six years in Thailand, to finally get a Thai driver's license?  

driving in ThailandI don't treat my Thai driver's licenses (I have two -- one for a motorbike, one for a car) -- as driver's licenses most of the time.  To me they're like a Thailand identity card I can never possess without Thai citizenship.  When you check into a Thai hotel as a foreigner, the receptionist always wants to see your passport.  But when you're living in Thailand, why would you carry your passport around with you at all times? Technically, you're supposed to have it on your night and day. The Thai driver's license fills that void.

When you rent a motorbike, more often than not, the rental outlet wants to keep your passport as a deposit. This requirement is usually voided if you rent often from the same proprietor. In some instances, I've been able to convince the rental outlet to accept one passport in exchange for several bikes. Still, one sacred passport remains behind.  I've found to my great pleasure that rental outlets will accept a Thai driver's license as a deposit instead. I leave my car license as a deposit and drive around with the motorcycle license.  When you rent a car, a passport is not required as a deposit.  The car rental company will just demand you have a credit card with about USD 1,000 spare on it so that they can capture this amount until the car is returned. 

A Thai license can be used like a discount card for Thai national parks. See, there are two rates over here. One rate for locals, and another rate for foreigners. Too @*$@)(* bad the foreign rate is ten times the local one. Flash a Thai driver's license with a smile and the local rate becomes yours for the taking. 

How To Score A Thai Driver's License

The bad news is that probably won't be able to get one.   These little goodies are exclusive.  You need to possess the street smarts and charm if you expect Thai governmental authorities to hand you over one of these.  Stop taking me so seriously! I'm exaggerating about the charm and smarts.  Still, don't count on being able to automatically snag one of these luscious treats like you'd pick up a new SIM card. 

residence certificateI haven't been completely clean with you. One reason it took me six years to get the licenses is because I wasn't eligible to apply for them. For my first four years in Thailand, I came and went on a tourist visa, although it was obvious to any immigration official who cared that I was living here.  Tourist visa holders cannot apply.   

You've got to have a non immigrant visa. Already have one?  Good for you.   Now you have two options to accomplish the first step.  Option 1:  Visit any Thai immigration office and show the authorities your rental contract or housing deed or some other document which can prove where you reside in Thailand.  There is no cost for this service.  This address will appear on the back of your future Thai licenses.  The immigration office I visited in Bangkok didn't bother asking me for proof of residence.   Option 2:  Visit your embassy, not so convenient if you don't live in Bangkok.  Your embassy will authorize some kind of form, usually for a rip-off fee, which the Department of Land Transport actually accepts.   The U.S. form reads: "Before  me, Vice Consul of the United States of America in an for Bangkok Metropolis, Thailand, duly commissioned and qualified, personally appeared [AMERICAN SUCKER WHO PAYS THE FEE, HEREAFTER REFERRED TO AS SUCKER] who being duly sworn, deposes, and says:  1. I, [SUCKER], was born on ..." and the citizen lists his birth date, city, state, country, passport details, employer, and resident address.  Suckers pay $50 for this service.   As far as I know, neither the U.S. Embassy nor any other embassy wastes the effort verifying that you really live at the address you state.  With how profligate embassies are with taxpayer funds, wasting money on address verification might be something embassy officials can consider in the future.  If you're an American reader, petition your senator or congressman (who will ignore you anyway) to consider wasting more money on senseless tasks nobody cares about.

First step over.  Congratulate yourself.  Now you'll want to get your driving happy fingers on a medical certificate.  There ismedical certificate driving a certain format for these certificates, and although any medical clinic can weigh you, check your blood pressure, and ask if you suffer from elephantiasis or dementia, not all can issue you the results in the medical certificate format the Department of Land Transport expects. 

I tried to get a medical certificate on the cheap at the Red Cross Clinic.  They test for HIV and hepatitis, but aren't authorized to state you're breathing.  I had to go down the street to Bangkok Christian Hospital, where you can salute Jesus as you're examined, and pay $17 for the privilege of a medical doctor telling you you're alive.  I've since discovered that there are a plethora of clinics charging $3 and as a low as nothing for the same assessment. 

One fine Tuesday afternoon, I drove my motorbike over to the Department of Land Transport.  There are four branches in Bangkok, and you're supposed to go to the one nearest to where you live.  I doubt it much matters which branch you visit.  For those residing in another province, you have to visit a provincial land transport office.  You'll find out where the nearest office is soon after you arrive in a new province.  I was unable to find a succinct Thai-wide list published in English on the internet. 

The internet is full of information, a lot of it conflicting or dated.  I was convinced I'd have to fill out a few pages of Thai forms to apply.  I managed to find those Thai forms in advance online and some other good samaritan explained on his own site what each of the form entries mean.  In my knapsack was a copy of this form, already filled out by me in Thai; a copy of my main passport page; a copy of my non immigrant Thai visa; my latest entry stamp; and my entry card.  I also had a few passport photographs at the ready. 

The conventional wisdom had me thinking I'd probably be able to avoid taking the driving part of the examination based on having a valid driver's license from a recognizable country.  Would the Department of Land Transport authorities honor, say, a valid Nepalese or North Korean driver's license any less than they would a European Union or American one?  No one will go on record with that answer.  I still figured I'd be on the hook for the written test.  Signage and driving customs can differ across borders.  I wasn't overly worried if I had to take a written examination.  The test is available in a number of languages besides Thai, English among them, and you're given preparation materials in your own language.  You can rent cars and/or motorbikes for just a couple of bucks to take the driving test, if required.  

All my preparation was for naught.  Once I sussed out which desk handled Thai driver's license applications, all I had to do was pass the staff my photocopied information pages, my passport, my residence and medical certificates, and an existent driver's license.   I had brought both the American and British ones.   On the back of the British license, it clearly delineates which vehicle types I'm permitted to drive, so the transport officials selected that one as my credential guarantee.  I had to fill out no forms. 

Nor take written or driving tests.   A peripheral vision test was it.   I stuck my eyes through a view finder and had to indicate what color light was blinking on my left or right. No color perception or vision test was performed. 

Photographs aren't necessary either.  You will be seated in a chair and a digital photograph taken by the staff.  Insure your shirt isn't inside out like mine was.  A temporary one year motorbike and driving license will cost less than $10 combined.  Just before these are about to expire, you can renew them for a five-year span for less than $30.   I have a Canadian friend who forgot to renew.  Now he's driving around with his motorbike with no license, and if he decides to acquire Thai licenses again, he has to do everything from scratch.  He should stop smoking so much weed and get with the program!  

Driving In Thailand

You've got the driver's licenses, whether the cool Thai variety or a foreign one.  What's it like driving around the Kingdom?

Driving in Bangkok is like driving nowhere else in the country. Go onto YouTube and look at videos of Bangkok in the 1940's and 1950's and see Bangkok for what it was:  a collection of small villages that got swallowed up into a megalopolis without the infrastructure to match.  The late 1990's saw the launch of the Bangkok Skytrain and of mass rapid transit systems, but there still aren't many stops and those stops don't go to every nook and cranny in the city.  Compare Tokyo's and Seoul's mass rapid train systems to Bangkok's, and you'll see huge discrepancies.  Bangkok's came late and covers little by comparison.  As a result, more people buy more cars to generate more pollution for more people. 

Today's Bangkok has expressways with very inexpensive tolls by Western standards, and they can be packed like regular roadways in other countries.   You can't take expressways everywhere.  You will have to drive on regular roads, narrow roads which were designed for far fewer cars and people than live in modern-day Bangkok.  On a drive to Pattaya, it took me forty-five minutes just to get out of town.  For my day-to-day needs, I prefer to get around by motorbike, asI can weave in between the cars and actually get from point A to B faster than it would take me in a car.   Parking spaces, even for a fee, are not a foregone conclusion here unless you're visiting an upper tier shopping mall which features free basement level parking with a validated ticket.  Outside Bangkok, apart from key travel centers like Phuket City, Pattaya, and central Chiang Mai, traffic is manageable. 

Be cognizant of a few points on your driving adventures throughout Thailand:

driving In Thailand, traffic is on the left, and most of the time, unless otherwise specified, you can make a left turn on a redThailand accident light.  This won't stop motorbike drivers from driving in the opposite direction to make a convenient right turn.   It's less pressure to drive a motorbike than a car in trafficked areas because with a motorbike, you have to watch out for bigger cars to insure your wellbeing.  In a car, you have to be ever more vigilant so as to not knock over a motorbike that may daringly turn in front of you and come at you from the wrong direction. 

driving Thais aren't strict adherents to the rules.  Traffic lights are but guideposts.  If a Thai driver, particularly a motorbike driver, thinks he can make it through a red light, he'll go through one, and there are rarely policeman around to stop him or reprimand him. According to a statistic published in The Bangkok Post, only about one in four people obey the crash helmet law stating that a motorcycle driver must wear a helmet.

driving When a policeman is around, it's usually to your detriment.   Policeman in Thailand tend to be positioned at busy intersections where you have to slow down or stop.   If you have a foreign face that can't pass for a Thai, the policeman will stop you for some infraction.   How legitimate are their reasons?   Not so long ago in Hua Hin, I was driving along a curved road beneath an underpass, a road I'd traveled on literally over a thousand times before with no incident.  I noticed several policemen had stopped and pulled over a lot of other vehicles, for what reason I have no idea.  A policeman signaled for me to stop, but I pretended not to see him and drove on.  Had I stopped, I would most certainly have been given a ticket for one reason or another improvised on the spot.  Policemen in Thailand will not typically chase after you, though on one occasion a policeman did and caught up to me, and I played stupid like I hadn't seen him.   When you are stopped, you will have to show a license.  A foreign license has always done the trick for me.  The fine, for whatever I've been stopped for, is 500 baht, and the policeman demands you hand over your license as collateral until the debt is paid.   You collect your license within so many days at the nearest police station after you pay the fine.  In practice, you can slip the policeman 200 baht, about seven dollars, and walk away with your license on the spot.  When I've been short small bills, I've offered just 100 baht, and it's worked.  These police 'stings' no longer bother me.   If I were stopped for legitimate cause in the West, a ticket would be $100 or more.   These small drops in the bucket are best thought of as road taxes. 

driving Speed limits seem to be nonexistent.  Rumor has it that the limits are 80 km/hr, but I've yet to see a prominent signThailand traffic laws posting this or policemen around with speed guns to enforce such limits. This lack of a real speed limit can be dangerous.   Roads are unevenly maintained, particularly some distance outside of Bangkok.  We were driving in eastern Thailand once and, all of a sudden, the roads became potholed.  If you were driving at speeds to your heart's content and encountered a deep enough pot hole, you car could flip over or be badly damaged.  Thailand ranks 73rd out of 177 on a list of road traffic fatalities. Reckless speeding has a lot to do with it. If living life on the edge is your thing, it should be a blast driving at 150 km/hr outside Bangkok.  Have a grave plot picked out in your own country in advance. 

driving Life doesn't appear to have the same value over here as it does in the West.  An affluent Thai involved in an accident can buy his/her way out of it.  Doesn't matter if the other driver is killed or seriously injured.   I've seen Thai drivers moving at lightning speeds, weaving in and out of lanes with a derring-do that could get them killed -- and in the West, stripped of their license.    Some of these drivers must've been drunk.  Drunk driving isn't legal in Thailand, but if you have don't have policeman stringently policing the roads and performing random breathalyzer tests and inflicting penalties on enough miscreants, then drunk driving becomes something that is legal and accepted de facto.  Drive as if there are no rules but as if you want to continue being alive.

driving Have a good insurance policy.   Legally, when you renew the plates on your motorbike or car, you must prove you have insurance.  You can buy insurance at the Department of Land Transport, which is what I did when I renewed my motorbike plates for another year.  This insurance isn't very costly, under $20 for the year, so it calls into question how comprehensive this insurance is.  Does this insurance cover your damaged vehicle, the other party's vehicle should it be your fault, medical expenses for the other parties as well as yourself?   I've been told often, but have no proof, that whenever a foreigner is involved in an accident with a Thai, it's always the foreigner's fault.  This wouldn't surprise me at all.  I cannot imagine Thai experts coming to the scene of an accident and taking photographs to prove liability.   The party least familiar with the system -- that would be you -- is the one more likely to get taken on a very unpleasant ride.

Have fun and make sure your will is up to date. 


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