A Little Expat Living… Cost of Living Breakdown in Thailand

thailand livingIf this were a tell-all book then this would be the point where you gasp in shock and awe – she’s going to lay it all out on the line for the bare minimum of what it costs to live as an expat in Thailand? Really and truly?

Okay, perhaps it’s not quite that exciting, but, even my mother last week on the telephone couldn’t help but dig for the nitty-gritty details on how much I pay to live in Thailand. As a traveler, I’ve always heard that it’s so incredibly cheap to expat yourself in the developing world—and it’s true, it’s cheap!

I’ve paid rent in both Orlando and Los Angeles, and my Thailand living costs have averaged at least one third of my previous U.S. living expenses.

Let’s first look at the hard costs, then I’ll go into what each element translates into in terms of what I get for that price! (All prices in USD). At the end of this post I share a huge list of resources for getting started in Chiang Mai—either visiting or living. This post was written in 2011 but updated as of August 2015.

Decorative entrance to a temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Total Cost for a Month Living in Chiang Mai, Thailand

These are my baseline costs, or rather more fixed monthly expenses. This is used as a minimum — add your own lifestyle on top of it.

Thailand Living ExpensesNot included in this price are the visa runs you’ll need if you’re on a tourist visa. Even with the double entry visa, border runs are necessary every 60/90-ish days.

The border runs add to the spice of living here though! Chiang Mai is a great launching point to other areas in Asia for in-depth explorations of Burma (Myanmar)Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore and other quick flights and bus rides around Southeast Asia. Factor in a quick one-day border run costs about 1300 baht (700b transportation to the border and 500b for a short-term Burmese visa).

The international flights bracketing my stay in Thailand were roughly $800 each way, so factor that into my “fixed” costs as well.

Then you have the cost of just unexpected life. I’ve had some medical check-ups, my computer cord broke and had to be replaced, toiletries and that type of thing. My medical expenses are under $100 for women checkups and basic blood work and I pay that at Thai hospitals and out of my pocket (and I pay about US$600 per year for annual travel insurance with emergency). These occasional and personal expenses are not included, just the base-line rock bottom costs.  :-)

**Alternatively, before you get too far into what this buys, consider that my friends also living here shared their Chiang Mai cost of living for two people living a bit more luxuriously than my budget. They spent under $1500 per month (jointly) and had a beautiful apartment and full kitchen, and also don’t party/drink too much.

**The cost of living, and food-related costs in particular, have risen in the past few years (around the world, but also in Thailand). As of 2015, I would factor in another $100 per month to your baseline costs for the food rise and the fact that Chiang Mai is becoming increasingly popular so there is more competition for the budget expat flats.

So, what the heck do I get for that much money?

Glad you asked. Now we’ll take a look at the value for living there and what precisely I buy:)

Meet My Lovely Little House

Rental house in Chiang Mai, Thailand

The roughly $160 a month pays for my portion of a two bedroom house in the heart of Chiang Mai, within the moat of the downtown inner city (and the $15 maid was provided by my landlord and not optional). I share the house with a roomie and fellow blogger, Jodi of the Legal Nomads food and travel blog, and we jointly pay 10,000 baht (currently 30 baht to the USD) monthly for the house and wifi.

And the house is modern; I had to assure my mother of this. The house has tiled floors, one and a half baths, a tiny kitchen (no stove, those are very rare in Thai houses), a sturdy dining room table perfect for working, and a comfy living room.

Studio apartments run the gamut between 3,500 and 8,000 baht a month. Most offer wifi and on this front, Chiang Mai is a solid choice. Internet is better than many places, but can wildly fluctuate throughout the day (my house has super speedy internet in the am, but not so much in the evening when everyone watches TV and thus slows the cable internet down to a crawl).

UPDATEI returned to Chiang Mai in 2012, after leaving the house mentioned, and lived in a 5,500 baht one-bedroom with a tiny kitchen and inside the moat. In 2015, you can still generally find a very good deal in the range of $150 to $250 for a budget apartment without A/C. 

And the Food that Fills Mah Belly

Omelet pad-thai from street food vendor at Chaing Mai's Sunday Night Market.Table-top spice jars and sauces in Thailand.


Latte art on my dark chocolate latte from a chocolate shop in Chiang Mai.

I regularly chow down on pad thai and pad see ew from the street stalls around town for about 30 baht a meal (a buck!). I add a fresh fruit smoothie to that for a mere 20 baht and call it a meal – totaling out most nights at less than US $2 for fresh, made to order Thai food from smiling street food vendors.

The occasional Western meal jacks the weekly food costs up quite a bit; a thin crust pizza from a farang restaurant sets me back at least 200 baht. I mostly eat Thai food … but I must confess, coffee is a daily habit and ice cream is a weekly addiction. iBerry, a trendy ice cream shop more fitting on a chic corner of Los Angeles than a side-street in Chiang Mai, shakes things up with tangy tamarind sorbet, a spicy roselle, and a cooler full of other flavors. Always different, always worthy of my undying affection.

Update: Food costs across the city rise over time; between 2011-2012 food costs rose about 10 baht per local dish. That is a bit more now. Factor in $50 for general increases as a baseline cost, and adjust more if you have a different standard of living.

My Sleek Ride: Renting a Bike in Chiang Mai

Motorbike in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai’s small enough to either walk, push bike, or take local song thaews around town, but I prefer a scooter. The rental was cheap enough and zipping around town makes me feel that much more like a local.

Plus, the local Thais burst into giggles when I ride up to the night markets with my roomie on the back. It’s easier for us to take one bike when we’re hitting up the same spots, so we ride Thai-style, with two farang on one bike. And they love us for it.

Update: Costs on motorbike rentals went up $40 more per month as of 2015; still cheaper if you rent from a local though, instead of a shop. And way cheaper if you sign a longer contract. The best rates come when you rent for six months to a year.

Chiang Mai Style Evenings Out

St. Paddy's Day in Chiang Mai at the UN Irish Pub

St. Paddy’s Day in Chiang Mai at the UN Irish Pub with Paddy and Jodi

Chiang Mai’s not lacking in choices for evenings out on the town (though I use that loosely, there’s nothing too wild here). But between the karaoke, dance clubs, quiet rooftop bars, and bowling, there is fun to be had in Chiang Mai!

I’m not a party animal, so those who are will definitely find this portion of expenses quite a bit higher if they really like to get their groove on regularly. In fact, add at least $100 per month if you go out 2+ times per week and drink.

Quality of Life in Thailand

Part of why I moved to Chiang Mai was because I had this suspicion that I could maintain a fun and full life, without all the worrying about expenses if I lowered my cost of living. I’m still building up an online income for myself and paying off one last small piece of debt. The best way for me to not go further into debt is, frankly, to stay outside of the US.

The sad fact is, even living rent-free with my dad when I’m back in the US, I live in a perpetual state of fear. I don’t have US health insurance, it’s pricey and even the insurance I can get is lousy. On the flip side, Thailand has great hospitals, checkups are cheap, dental care is cheap and on par with the US, and I don’t live in fear of getting sick and being buried under decades of medical debt.

Many of my long-term goals are fulfilled through living here and continuing my travels and volunteering. I live in the Thai area of town, volunteer locally with Thais, and eat locally, so I have access to immersion in a foreign language (though don’t even ask about my Thai … it’s not going well), and the politics, values, and culture here is a window into something different than what I had for the first 27 years of my life.

I only have a mere two months left in Thailand before I continue onward, but these first three months of stationary travel have been both affordable and enlightening. You can bet I’m already plotting out when I’ll come back to this neck of the woods! :)

Update: I am a traveler rather than a stationary expat in Thailand, however, I return frequently and have lived in Chiang Mai again since I wrote this post (and I lived in Mexico and shared that cost of living here). These are truly my baseline costs and I have friends who live similar lifestyles, who live/work in the city long-term, and they live simply (and locally) on this budget. It’s about your travel style. I don’t party and I love Thai food, so it’s easy for me to eat cheaply and enjoy the many, many free local festivals that happen monthly around Northern Thailand. And I do spend more money on weekend trips around Thailand to other cities; and I spend many months of travel in neighboring countries … then I come back and settle in Chiang Mai since I am a freelancer and enjoy having a great base in Asia to work and travel from—for me, this is my Chiang Mai.

Below are all the resources I have collected over the years to help with a move, living there, researching, etc. Updated as of Aug 2015.

Quick Tips: Chiang Mai Resources for Expats, Moving, & Living Here

The Basics of Preparing to Move/Living in Thailand

Where to Stay in Chiang Mai?

Guides to Visiting/Things to Do in Chiang Mai

Other Cost of Living Posts

Misc other tips

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  • TravelingTeacher

    Thank you for this positive information about living in Chiang Mai! I have spent a few months in the Gulf of Thailand, but have never been to Chiang Mai before. I will be coming to live there very soon and will be working as an English teacher. You wouldn’t believe all the negative stuff that is out there on the ESL Teaching forums, online articles,etc. I was starting to worry! Your information has been very reassuring and helpful. Thank you so much!

    • Anonymous

      So glad this alleviated some of your concerns. The vibe up in the north if
      very, very different than the islands–but a good different in my opinion :)
      I have many expat friends living in CM right now and they are teaching
      English and really enjoying it. I’ll be back there in the late fall myself,
      so get in touch if there is anything I can do to help. Also, there is a
      Facebook group for expats in CM:
      <<Great people on there and you'll be able to meet people right away :)

      • TravelingTeacher

        Thank you so much for the FB page recommendation, it is just what I have been looking for!

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  • Thanks for posting this. I just showed this post to my husband.  It didn’t take long to convince him we should move to Thailand.  

    • Anonymous

      I love it when this post has that effect! When you guys start planning let me know and I’ll help where I can! :)


    Hello I’m a retired military member Im very interested in moving an living in Thialand. I’m collecting data on costs an quality of life. In the various areas of Thialand. Also I’m curious about the volunteering in this part of the world.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Roger, thanks for commenting, I really think CM rates high in Thailand for quality of living, and because CM is in the north, there are plenty of volunteer opportunities not only with the local Thai communities, but with Burmese refugees as well. Feel free to send me an email if there is anything else I can do to help! :)

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  • Denwalters22

    I’ve always wanted to travel after I finish my undergrad. but I’m spectacle about the costs of living and how to pay for it all, but this definitely helped. Adding Thailand to the list!

  • Meancharlie

    Waaaa thanks for the info. I just came back from bangkok last week for vacation and fell in love with thailand. Planned to stay for 2 weeks but extended one more week just because it’s AWESOME :) Plus i met a girl over there and absolutely fell in love with her. Ya, call me naive but she’s 10x better then all my ex. We’ve been talking about opening a restaurant or hostel in CM in the future. Talk about living cost ggrrrrr. I make around $70k a year and it’s not even nearly enough to support the life style here in the US sighhhhhh. BTW know how much will it cost to open a small business there in CM? restaurant, hostels, tailor shop……..building/land cost?

    • Anonymous

      The transition back home is a tough one once you’ve been to Thailand, it’s one of my favorite places :) Chiang Mai is a wonderful city and there are a a lot opportunities for expat restaurants and shops. I am not sure about the business start up costs, but I know that once you come back you will no doubt be able to find some of the local expats and they will give you candid details on the ups and downs of owning a business there! Also check expat forums and that sort of thing to find current Western business owners :) Good luck!

    • Seeker

      Ah, another farang newbie with Jasmine Fever… Do your homework grasshopper, before you turn your life upside down for someone you just met… No matter how well she treats you, now…

  • Renee

    Would love some advice. Coming for three months with my foster daughter from Ghana so she can do a course at a Thai massage school and although I have been to Thailand twice over the years, wondering what is our best option for housing. Been searching the apt/guest house sites and really want a place we can cook too. Any suggestions? I will be doing some yoga and whatever classes may take my fancy, some dental work and medical. We will do a  little traveling too. Would love to chat with you.

    • Anonymous

      Have responded in email, but for general purposes to have the information handy, I really prefer to find a place in CM once you get there — book a guest house for several days and then do some hunting and you will find great deals :)

  • Anonymous


  • Anonymous

    Thank you for sending that link, though I am not at the retiring stage, it is helpful to have that information here. Cheers and thanks :)

  • Erumdo

    Dude. 3 months does NOT make you an expat. But a backpacker with a rental apartment. 

    • Anonymous

      Cheers and thanks for the feedback and for (not) reading so closely…lived there for five months actually (and am not really a backpacker at all so much anymore), and I am currently living here for another six months at least, in my book, that makes me an expat but you’re entitled your opinion! :)

      • Andrew Mitchell

        Sounds like Erumdo is a traveler snob. I love those people. As in “you’re doing it but you’re not doing it as well as me.” I’ve surfed in a bunch of places around the world and there are all of these foreigners (guess what, we’re all foreigners) who have declared themselves the “locals” in all of these surf spots. It’s like “oh, you should have been here ten years ago, you missed it.” OK, whatever. We’re all trying to do it the best we can. As long as you go somewhere and are respectful to the natives and their culture, then you’re doing it right.

        • ShannonOD

          There are people for whom it will always be a pissing contest and this post has brought out a bunch of them! I appreciate you sharing your own experience Andrew. The world is dynamic and changing, and if you love a spot now, right now, then that’s the time to be there–that “10 years ago” argument frustrates me too! Good luck with the surfing, I have always loved passing through the beach communities that spring up around the great surf spots. Safe travels :)

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  • Devon Johnston

    Loved reading your story. I am getting ready to retire on $1400 a month, Yikes! Can you imagine how I will live in the US on that! I’ve been making around $100k a year for the last 20 years so I am used to living well. (Would have lived less well and saved more if I had understood the reality of retirement)
    Thailand is one of the places I have admired from a distance and considered as my retirement place, but making the move without knowing anyone, it is scary, although I did read about the expat clubs there so besides you, there are plenty of English speaking folks around. I would not want to move without my daughter and grandson, which would mean she would need to find work. Things have to be considerably different there, so doubt you can answer this, but what are the chances for a home-improvement expert and artists to make money there?
    Thanks for the great articles,

    • Seeker

      Sorry to burst your bubble, but Thailand has very restrictive work permit visas rules and / or foreign business investment regulations… Your daughters best option for employment would be as an English teacher in the Thai school system, as long as she has a 4 year degree in something and a TEFL certificate…

  • Ben Pablo

    Typed in “cost of living thailand” in Google and your entry popped up as the highest-ranked non-sponsored one, and I was glad I came across it! Moving there has always been in the back of my head, and it’s mainly because of the affordability. The baht isn’t far from Philippine Peso, and I don’t make much, being only a few years fresh out of college. But I’ve been there and I like the culture, so I’m definitely going to explore the possibilities. Thank you for the details and the insights :) And feel free to ask me about anything at all if you plan to visit my country.

    • Anonymous

      Glad you happened upon the post! I know of other Filipino expats here so I think you are right, it’s comparable and doable with the exchange rates…when you’re close to moving here, let me know if you have any questions, likewise, I will definitely send you an email when I visit the Phillipines :) Cheers and good luck planning your move!

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  • Bruce Kendall

    Here is my budget when we move to Thailand in March 2012.
    But we will be living in Pattaya, on the Dark Side.The house is already paid for.Internet                                       $50

    Cable TV                                    $10

    Water (we have a pool)                $40

    Electric                                      $40

    Food                                         $250

    Truck and Gas (truck
    is paid for) $100

    Evenings out    (4
    times)             $200

    Travel    (2 times)                       $400


    Total                                        $1100If I can keep it to this I will living Phat!

    • Anonymous

      That looks doable Bruce! And great that you have a plan in place; though I haven’t been to Pattaya, good luck! ;-)

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  • Pascal

    Hello Shannon, thanks for your great articles. Is it a good idea to move in thailand with my wife and my 3 kids? Can I find good school? How much to rent a 4 – 5 bedrooms house?

    • Anonymous

      I think it depends on what you are looking for, but there are many other expats with families living here, and numerous high quality international schools that give an excellent education. The family
      lives here and you might be able to find some inspiration on their site!

  • Brittany

    I’m so glad I stumbled across your blog! I’m also from Orlando, actually living here now. Just got back from living in Switzerland for a year, and I’m ready to head back out there!  What do you do in Thailand, job wise?

    • Anonymous

      Hi Brittany! I’m envious of that year in Europe, I would love to find a way to spend a year traveling around their affordably :) As for work here in Thailand, teaching English is probably the easiest way, but there are also a whole lot of NGOs and similar type work too. I work online, but this type of work is what many of my friends do to get visas and live here long-term! :)

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  • Bruce

    I enjoyed reading your blog.  I live on the island of Kauai in Hawaii.  We have the highest electrical rate in the nation.  Our mountain ridges receive more rain than any other place in the world.  You would think we would harness the hydro and go green but the so-called enviornmentalist fight the Hydro Power.  So we burn fossil fuel to make electricity… Go figure!  BTW my electric bill runs about $400 a month, milk is $5 a gallon, etc….

    I’m building a new home, I am way over-budget.  One of the guys working on the house is married to a girl from Thailand.  They just finished building a home in Thailand.  It is comparable to my home on Kauai.  Their home cost them $50,000, I don’t even want to tell you how much I have into my home.

    Long story short, my friend and his wife are encouraging me to sell everything and move to Thailand.

    I googled Americans living in Thailand and found your blog…

    Mahalo Nui Loa!!!
    I plan to move to Thailand,


    • Anonymous

      Hi Bruce, glad you found my site and perhaps a little bit more inspiration to perhaps move abroad, the cost of living is so much lower here than in the US it’s scarcely even comparable. That’s one of the best parts of moving abroad, keeping your quality of life, but scaling down the costs so you can enjoy your time :) There are so many other things to consider here (foreigners cannot own land directly), politics, and visas, but overall, if you can make the move work, and you like spending time in Thailand you could definitely be living for a fraction of the cost. If there is ever any questions I can answer, just shoot me an email! :)

  • Eugene

    Hey Shannon. Thanks for this post and for giving us an insight into your life in Thailand. My wife and I will be going there again on holiday next April which I just found out is the hottest time of the year. :-r

    I’m still working on convincing her to agree to sell everything and go and spend at least a few months there but she’s not biting yet. Our child (a rabbit called Coco) might not cope with the heat though so
    for now we’ll leave him with a sitter and enjoy the holiday. She’ll be happy to hear that there’s some decent coffee and ice cream in Chiang Mai though and I’ll be using this info during the next round of our negotiations.

    • Anonymous

      April is a tough time to travel here for sure, it’s baking hot and in the north, were they do crop burning the air quality can be pretty bad. But, it’s also not the high tourist season, so there is something to say about that! If you visit Chiang Mai you will be amazed by all of the Western comforts when you need them…ice cream is plentiful and coffee is often mediocre, but there are a few pretty decent spots! Let me know if there is any way I can help once you plan to come this way, I should actually be here in April :)

  • Hi Shannon!

    I know I’m this is an older post, but I have had it bookmarked for months in preparation for my own move to Chiang Mai! I’ve been here for over a week now and scored a pretty cool apartment on Nimman Road. I was wondering if you could tell me where you rented your scooter. I haven’t found any places with rates lower than 3000B. Did you have a native Thai speaker help you?

    Thanks so much, 

    • Anonymous

      Nimman is such a great area, very lively and some of my favorite restaurants are over there! Will send you a message about the bikes :)

    • Skycop15

      Scooter rentals are everywhere, around 200 baht. You give up your passport until return, get insurance please. Good luck you can get hurt and or killed! Thai’s do not stop!

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  • Jimskid

    hi there, ive done homework about working in thialand but ive seen nothing of the legality of an expat working in Thailand.  once i start the journey, what is a good staging area, maybe with a cheap pensione or youth hostel?
    thank you so much for your help
    jim, dallas texas

    • Anonymous

      That’s a tough one Jimskid, it is completely illegal to work here in Thailand without a visa, so I can’t really recommend you do that, but yes, some hostels might let you exchange accommodation for work if you ask around. That being said, there are a lot of teaching English jobs here, and you could take a contract and save up money, and then leave, not sure what your travel plans look like, but there is definitely work to be found (both legit and not) all over SEA for backpackers simply asking around :)

      • Jimskid

        it was so nice to get a fast response, thank you

  • Jthieme23

    Hi Shannon. im actually looking into teaching ESL in Thailand in the next few months. I was wondering about Health insurance there. I have Insurance here till June and then I have nothing, but after that Id have to figure something out. If my job doesnt offer it can i get insurance there?

  • Anonymous

    What a generous spirit you are! I have enjoyed reading your blog and it is one of the first ones that piqued my interest in Chiang Mai. Reading about your adventures has been really inspiring. I have a question for you related to visa expenses; my husband is a telecommuter and we have decided to take a “personal development year” in Thailand. My husband will work remotely and I will be finishing a novel and perhaps volunteering. My question: If we want to stay in Thailand for a year or so, is it advisable to sign a year lease on a house or apt?  If so, what expenses can we expect to incur over a year to keep a valid Visa? I have been searching online, but haven’t found the answer to the question “What is the least amount of visa related expenses we would incur in order to stay in Chiang Mai for a year?” Thank you in advance for your time.. I know you are busy with your niece. ;-)  Would love to meet you and your niece when we get there.
    Peace out,
    P.S.  I also really resonate to your Joseph Campbell quite..

    • Anonymous

      Hi Loree! Thanks for getting in touch and congrats on the move to Thailand, I am pretty partial to the country :)

      As for visas, that is one of the trickier parts of staying for a year. You will have really just a couple options since I don’t think you’re at retirement age yet (totally different visas!).

      The double entry visa: Gives you two entries, each on 60 days and each entry can be extended by 30 days…so this is about 6 months. Then you would have to leave and get a second double entry visa. With this visa, you have to leave the country every 90 days and at least cross a border. All told about 6,000 baht to buy it and then cross a nearby border). (Apply for your first double entry from home!)

      The second kind is a year visa but it’s multi entry (so you can come in and leave as many times as you want) and you get 90 days each time. I haven’t done this one, but friends have and it’s the ideal between the two. Call your closest Thai consulate and see if they would issue this one…it’s worth the fees.

      Also, for some more living here type posts and help: This family has some great resources.
      And as for the house, renting a house can be cheaper, but there are allll
      kinds of apts here in Chiang Mai, and just a bit outside the moat you can
      get a pretty great house for the same as an apt in the city, so it really
      depends on what you want (check out the link above, they also have a
      housing post!). Consider, if you do a apt and commit to 6 months, then you
      can easily get out of it if you decide to try out living elsewhere in

      Cheers and good luck on the move, if you’re here in the next few months we
      can definitely meet up! :)

      • Anonymous

        THANK YOU Shannon!  Soooo helpful!! I look forward to reading about your latest adventures.

  • “The best way for me to not go further into debt is, frankly, to stay outside of the US.”

    Sad, but true! I’m seriously thinking to live there with my 2 little girls and My wife!
    Thanks for sharing!

    • Anonymous

      I couldn’t agree more! It’s gotten so that even a modest income puts you at the poverty level, whereas you can live a really nice life over here in Thailand for that amount. Good luck with the planning! :)