With Thailand opening its borders to the world in 2021 it becomes possible again to think about a holiday in the land of smiles. Thailand is one of the few SEA countries that is open to tourists during the COVID pandemic. However it is not as open as it seems as there are some requirements and restrictions in place. What is Phuket Sandbox? How easy is it to enter Thailand? What documents have to be prepared to travel? Is it worth going to Thailand for only a few weeks? I travelled to Thailand in October 2021 and want to share my experience.
This blogpost is based on the restrictions from September 2021. There have been some changes in October 2021 which make the entry a bit easier but for latest updates it’s always best to check with the Thai consulate in your country or the Thai embassy website. They provide the current rules and help you with the whole process. Maybe my experience helps you with your own decision – feel free to also share more information or ask questions in the comments!
About the Phuket Sandbox
Phuket is open to vaccinated and non vaccinated foreign travelers. Vaccinated travelers do not need to quarantine but stay in Phuket for at least 7 nights (Oct. 2021) and then are allowed to travel within Thailand. In my case it was 14 nights which I had to stay at a SHA+ accredited hotel in Phuket. I could leave the hotel and move around Phuket but not leave the province within that period. I also had to take regular, pre-booked PCR tests and have my temperature checked every day. This Sandbox model has been expanded to the islands Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao and will probably be extended to other provinces.
Unvaccinated travelers are required to undergo mandatory quarantine at any AQ hotel for 10 days. Find more information here. I think the regulations are a bit stricter but it’s great to have the option to come.
Required documents to travel
I started planning this journey around two months before as I had still been in the UK and wanted to have enough time to apply for my visa and also spend some time in Germany before flying out to Thailand. I think it’s best to start the whole process at least a month before the travel date as there are quite a lot of dependencies and things to book.
These were the milestones:
- Book flights
- Get a visa
- Book a certified SHA+ hotel
- Book PCR tests in Thailand
- Get an insurance which also covers COVID
- Apply for the COE
- Do a corona test at least 72 hours prior to departure
- Happy travels
1 Book flights
The flights are the requirement to even get your visa. You should have a return or at least an outward flight booked to prove that you’re planning to leave the country eventually. I usually check dates and prices on Skyscanner and then book through the airline directly. Important: If you’re doing the Phuket Sandbox programme your flight into Thailand can’t go through Bangkok or another stop in Thailand, it has to be direct to Phuket. If your transit is in another country, e.g. Singapore or UAE that is absolutely fine. I flew with Singapore Airlines but can also recommend flying with Thai Airways, Qatar Airways or Etihad.
2 Get your visa
Normally you can just get the visa on arrival when entering Thailand. COVID rules though: You need to apply for a visa before the trip. Please check whether that’s still the case! In my case (German) I had to go to the Thai embassy in Munich in person (C rules) to apply for my visa. I applied for the tourist visa (TR) which allows me to stay for two months, extension possible. It cost 35 euros and I needed to prove that I had a return flight. I was able to pick up the visa only a few days later. You can also choose to have it posted but that can take up to 2-4 weeks which in my case would’ve been too late.
3 Book a hotel
The next few steps are relevant for the certificate of entry (COE). Depending on the rules, you need to book a qualified SHA+ hotel (through Agoda for example) for the required amount of nights. After you booked and paid for the hotel you need to ask them to issue a SHABA certificate which is needed for the COE. This proves that you’re staying with the hotel for a certain number of nights. They also take care of the transport from the airport to the hotel. I stayed at the Oceanfront Beach Resort and Spa which was just perfect.
4 Book your PCR tests
I had to book three PCR tests in advance which had to be taken within the 14 days of my stay in Phuket. You can book your PCR tests through: https://www.thailandpsas.com/. Three tests were around 8.000 baht (equals around 200 euros). It’s best to keep the receipt as you also need this one for the COE.
5 Book an insurance
Always book a travel insurance if you go abroad. For the Phuket Sandbox you specifically need an insurance that covers all costs in case you’re diagnosed with COVID and covers a minimum of 100,000 USD for the duration of your stay. I can recommend booking an insurance through Hanse Merkur. I’ve always booked my long travel insurances with them. Also Dr. Walter insurance is a very helpful agency and they can also give insurance for non-Germans.
6 Apply for COE
This was probably the most important and stressful thing about the whole process. Considering I already invested around 1000 euros into flights, accommodation, visa application fees and PCR tests I really wanted this to work out. For the COE pre-approval you need: visa, flight details, COVID insurance and proof of vaccination. After approx. 3 days you upload the SHABA and PCR tests. I applied for my COE here and got it after another 3 days. I think the waiting time depends on which consulate you choose. You have to choose a consulate from the country you’re flying out (if your British for example and fly from Germany you have to choose one of the three German consulates – Berlin, Frankfurt or Munich – to process your application). I was very happy with Munich, however I heard the consulate in Frankfurt takes a while due to many many applications. I heard they receive around 600 applications a day. You don’t have to show up in person for the COE process so I think it doesn’t matter which consulate you choose. But maybe it’s best to go with the one you applied your visa at.
7 Pre departure PCR test
Last but not least you need to schedule a PCR test which is taken within 72 hours prior to your flight. The transit restrictions in Singapore required a result which is not older than 48 hours so my time schedule was a bit stricter. Always check the regulations of the transit country.
8 Happy travels
Once you got the COE, your negative PCR test result and all other documents the last important step is to print them out and show them at the check in as well as at the authorities when entering the country. Make sure you print out: COE, SHABA certificate, insurance letter, copy of passport and visa, receipt of PCR tests, negative PCR test result plus T8 form.
Once I was on the plane everything went very smooth. They first check if you have all the documents prepared and the MorChana app installed. When they check your temperature at the hotel every day the use MorChana to register it for example.
After the document check I proceeded to immigration. Outside the airport I took my first PCR test (the first one I booked in step 4 above). The team then assigned me to a taxi driver who took me to the hotel. The transport was included in the hotel price already. Until I received the result of the first PCR test I had to stay in the room. After 5-6 hours I was free to go and still couldn’t believe that I arrived in Thailand.
It still feels surreal to be back in Thailand. I left over a year ago and sometimes it almost felt impossible to even come back here (read more about my life on Koh Tao). All in all the Phuket Sandbox is a great programme to enter the country. I was amazed how well organized and smooth everything went once I arrived at the airport. Well done Thailand! The previous steps however cost a lot of money and nerves. Getting all the documents together and receiving the necessary COE and PCR result on time was a bit of a struggle. In the end everything went fine but I had moments where I doubted I would ever arrive in Thailand. You can also never really trust that they will change the regulations from one day to the other.
The way the Phuket Sandbox is now (October 2021) I would only recommend to come if you’re staying for more than 4 weeks. Otherwise I think the effort and especially insecurities and dependencies are not worth it. I heard they might change that soon though. Phuket itself is not very busy. It’s quite sad how many businesses had to close down and are left without a real perspective. The good side though: It’s a great chance to experience a quiet Thailand.