Categories: Chiang MaiThailand

A Little Expat Living… Cost of Living in Chiang Mai, Thailand (2018)

So you’re researching how much your life will cost elsewhere in the world and you’re thinking about moving to Thailand. There’s a lot of information to sort through now. When I moved to Chiang Mai in 2011, the city was a very different place for expats (digital nomads were scarce but retirees aplenty), and information was nonexistent about what it would actually cost to live there.

This post was essentially the first online Thailand cost of living breakdown, sharing the nitty gritty details of what your money buys in Thailand, what costs more than back home, and how your own goals might align to moving somewhere in the country (digital nomads and retirees tend to choose a handful of key hotspots around the country). Since it’s hard to know what is hyperbole in these types of guides, and how your mileage will vary, this guide — and all of my guides to the cost of living around the world — thoroughly cover factors that move the needle on helping you decide if Thailand is the right place to call your future home. This post demystifies the cost of living in Thailand, as well as covers a range of opinions on what it costs to live in the different areas.

Let’s talk in general about why Chiang Mai and other Thai cities are among the most popular hotspots right now. It comes down to the low cost of living paired with culture and amazing food. These three factors alone contribute to the massive number of retirees who have known about Thailand for years — it’s no secret to them that your money goes far here. But when I arrived in 2011, the term “digital nomad” was in its infancy. A handful of travel bloggers decided to hang out in Chiang Mai for a season, we loved all three of those factors, and so we came back the next season, and then many just moved there permanently. Since then, (and really since I wrote this post, which went viral and was featured on the BBC, among other outlets) Chiang Mai lured other digital nomads with a low cost of living, the promise of good wifi, and a community of others who work remotely. Within a couple of years, Chiang Mai and Ho Chi Minh City became the hotspots in Southeast Asia for entrepreneurs keen on low living costs so they could build and launch businesses.

In 2011, my baseline cost of living for Chiang Mai came in at $485 (excluding visas and annual insurance) Adjusted for 2018, as you’ll see below, many digital nomads live on a $600 a month, retirees often buy a condo outright and then have similar baseline costs of $600 to $1200 for retirees, accounting for healthcare and other expenses. I’ve paid rent in both Orlando and Los Angeles, and my Thailand living costs averaged a third of my previous U.S. living expenses.

As with many places, there is a trade off in some areas. Political instability, road conditions, and smog are just a few of the downsides — we’ll cover how those affect where in Thailand you might want to live. Although I am surely in the digital nomad category, I’ve included many links and resources to help those at any stage of their lives. Retirees with a monthly social security check more easily secure long-term visas. Cities and towns across Thailand not only have different costs of living, but the profile of the communities differs, too. Thailand offers a huge, varied, and vibrant expat community. We’ll cover it all, plus your quality of life, what you money buys, and how to know if moving here is right for you.

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Why Thailand?

When I moved to Chiang Mai in 2011, I had this suspicion that I could maintain a fun and full life without obsessing about my expenses. To make this travel life work, I needed to lower my cost of living to keep in line with my online income. I was building my marketing consulting work and also paying off student loans and medical debt, so I had prioritized becoming debt-free within two years. Although I could have moved back to my hometown in Florida and likely save some costs by pinching pennies, living as a poor person in Florida is not an awesome life — I did that for 20+ years. Frankly, the best way for me to not go further into debt was to stay outside of the US. If you’re a digital nomad on a tight budget, or a retiree with a fixed social security check, you understand the core desire for a low cost of living even if your circumstances differ.

So I moved to Thailand, talked to others, and discovered everyone’s core motivations for moving there came down to a few key areas. Medical care can be a major motivating factor. Thailand offers the best hospitals in Southeast Asia, checkups are affordable, and dental care is on par with the U.S. When you move to Thailand, you don’t live in fear of getting sick and burying yourself under medical debt — Thai health insurance is moderately priced and it works. If you’re looking for a place that can support any of your current or future health issues, it’s a compelling factor.

There’s also the culture. Thai culture is lived out in the open at the markets and in the many celebrations that take place throughout the year. It’s a vibrant culture and a fun one to access as an expat instead of a passing tourist. There is so much underneath the culture that is impossible to see on a two-week trip of the country’s “best of” highlights. That culture extends into the truly exceptional culinary traditions (you will eat your face off!), but also the sheer number of international influences (you can still find sushi and decent Mexican in the bigger cities!).

The expat community is another compelling reason to consider Thailand. More than many places I’ve lived over the years, including Mexico and Spain, Thailand has a truly unique range of expats. The community is huge and varies in each region, which means most expats can find something to love and a place they’ll enjoy calling their new home. In some places you find the community is retirees hoping to stretch their nest-egg and enjoy the twilight years, while elsewhere are concentrated packs of digital nomads looking to bootstrap a business from Southeast Asia. And within both of those communities is any and everything in between — some living there for the culture or the food, and some for shadier reasons that I won’t get into. It’s a big mix.

For me, I chose to live in Thailand for two years because it fulfilled many of my long-term goals. I lived a more minimalist life (I am a huge fan of the tiny house movement), but it was not sparse. I love beauty and spending money on things I valued. I lived in a Thai neighborhood, I volunteered locally, and I ate locally, I made friends widely in the expat and Thai communities, and I spent my days working when I needed to, but not slavishly tied to my computer in a bid to constantly make more money. Living in Thailand allowed me to enjoy a slower life alongside with some of my now closest fiends.

Visas: 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. If you’ve retired in Thailand, you don’t have to run to the border. And some friends have student visas for studying Thai, and they also don’t do visa runs.

 

What Does It Cost to Live in Thailand?

Living in Thailand comes down to two things: your baseline costs (fixed monthly expenses), and your personal lifestyle, which you add onto the top of those costs. Foreigners will have baseline living costs of USD $600 minimum. That’s in a place like Chiang Mai, and it will cost more to live in the Thai island, Bangkok, or retiree hotspots. This figure is used as a minimum these estimates do not include 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. Retirees will have their own specific minimum social security and living income they need to prove before they will receive the retiree visa. This number includes eating a fair amount of Thai food, choosing a smaller apartment, and things like that — it’s about the minimum base average you could reasonably expect to maintain long-term and I find that it’s mostly digital nomads wiling to live on this figure. Retired expats report minimum monthly expenses above USD $1000 when accounting for different modes of transportation, healthcare costs, food, etc.

Minimum Cost Living in Thailand in 2018: USD $600

Monthly Expense Minimum Cost (USD$)
Rent & Internet $200
Electricity & Water $30
Maid $15
Food  $175
Scooter & Gas $100
Evenings Out $75
     Total  $595

Chiang Mai, Thailand  —  USD $600 to $1800 per person
The table bears out my own minimum expenses to show how I lived on $600 USD each month in Chiang Mai (adjusted to 2018 dollars). Since I was not yet old enough to qualify for the income-based retiree visa, I did the the tourist visas and the border runs mentioned in the quick facts section above. The international flights bracketing my stay in Thailand were roughly $800 each way, so factor that into my “fixed” costs. If you are on a tight budget then you need to consider if and how often you will return to your home country. Another digital nomad detailed exactly what life looks like on $600 a month, with an expense breakdown, too.

When you look at other budgets, understand that everyone includes different things that they prioritize in their lives. I wanted to provide the minimum so others could actually see the baseline they could then stack on top of that cost of living their own priorities, business expenses, etc. I paid more than the $600 if you average in things I pay for annually, like the US$600 per year expense for my annual travel insurance. Really basic medical check-ups are included in my monthly fee because they came to under $100 for women checkups and basic blood work across my many months living there. If you will need to obtain Thai health insurance, this expat breaks down that process.

In Chiang Mai, roughly $200 a month in rent pays for nice but basic digs. I shared a two bedroom house in the heart of Chiang Mai, within the moat of the downtown inner city (our $15 maid service was provided by my landlord and not optional). I shared the house with a roomie and fellow blogger, Jodi of Legal Nomads. We jointly paid 10,000 baht monthly for the house and wifi. The house had 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. It was Thai-style and a Western-style apartment runs a good deal more.

Elsewhere in Chiang Mai, studio apartments run the gamut between 3,500 and 8,000 baht a month. These work well for solo travelers looking for something nice but budget. Nearly all apartments offer wifi. The internet in Chiang Mai 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). That’s when you might need to factor in the price of a monthly co-working space subscription.

Chris and Angela are a 30-something couple living in Chiang Mai long-term. They report a lovely house rental outside of the moat with good amenities — they’ve lived there several years averages $2,624 a month for a couple. I don’t love that they included the cost of running their blog in the expenses as it’s certainly not a universal expense, but it’s interesting to note that only $456 of that figure is their rent. Their budget shows that one of the benefits of living in Chiang Mai is that your money stretches far and you can maintain a very nice life with just a bit more luxurious budget.

And if you’re really looking for comfort, you’ll pay USD $1,200 for a huge Western-style house furnished that is well-outfitted. Jubril from the Passport Heavy YouTube channel gives a tour of the house (minute 6:14), as well as what it costs to live that lifestyle in Chiang Mai.


Bangkok
Bangkok has a similar quality of accommodation, but the cost of living is higher in the big city. Karsten shares the most detailed budgets you’ll find for Bangkok, and he’s very open about sharing what it takes to maintain his life in the city. It’s a realistic look at what a 30-something expat can expect when living in Thailand’s capital. He spends on the upper range, he has a wife, but it appears that most of his expenses are solo? Although I am not sure, really, and his breakdown is unclear. He spends $2,600 a month and lives well on that much money. Of that money, about $400 per month goes toward a Western-style apartment. It’s interesting for anyone considering moving there to see how a $600 monthly budget in Chiang Mai compares to a higher budget in Bangkok — Karsten gets a lot for that much money.

On the other end, you can go bare bones in Bangkok and live in the $400 range (Mark was living on less than $300 a month in 2011), but that’s going to be tough. Even for $700 a month, you will make sacrifices in your budget that you wouldn’t if you lived in the more affordable cities like Chiang Mai. For $700, you are probably not in the expat neighborhoods and you are eating a ton of streetfood, probably not splurging on nights out at the expat bars and such, and you’re not using Uber and the like. But, you can definitely enjoy Bangkok still, grab coffees from a favorite vendor, use mototaxis or your feet to get around town, etc.

Cost of Living: USD $700 – $3,000

What’s the Quality of Life?

This section is a close look at what I get for the price of living in Chiang Mai. The quality of life will be similar in other areas of Thailand, it’s just the costs that will change. And the islands, of course, have beaches nearby and some other perks. The north, on the other hand, has mountains, hill tribe cultures, and different foods than you will find elsewhere in the country.

What Do You Get for Your Rent?

Basic and budget accommodation in Thailand means Thai-style furniture and kitchens. This is usually fine for backpackers and those really prioritizing budget over comfort, but Thai furniture is much harder and less cushioned compared to traditional Western styles. So a budget studio apartment will likely feature an incredibly firm mattress and some heavy wooden furniture. Thai accommodation also doesn’t feature kitchens like most Westerners would expect — there is often no stove and it’s pretty sparse. Places boasting a Western style kitchen on the hand usually mean it’s a remodeled kitchen with a stove, at least medium sized refrigerator, and a few other amenities.

It’s for these reasons that many expats splurge and spend a bit more for Western style apartments, especially after the first year or two of living in Thailand.

To find long-term Chiang Mai spots, consider using Chiang Mai House if you are looking for help on a long-term house rental. I also collected a list of long and short term accommodation — all places friends have stayed, I have stayed, or I have seen recommended. This is also a good post that can help you imagine what places look like at different price points, as well as some solid recommendations on buildings and areas.

Notably, one ALA reader shared that Huay Kaew Residence is the best wheel-chair friendly accommodation in Chiang Mai (and perhaps the only).

In Bangkok, you’ll likely want to find a real estate agent once you arrive, it’s the norm and is affordable. They will help you pick a neighborhood and find something in your price range. You can also start your research using this guide to apartment hunting in Bangkok.

Tasty Local Eats


I regularly chow down on pad thai and pad see ew from the street stalls around town for about 40 baht a meal (a buck!). I add a fresh fruit smoothie to that for a mere 30 baht and call it a meal – totaling out most nights at less than US $3 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 250 baht. I mostly eat Thai food … but I 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.

Your balance of Western and local foods will greatly impact your bottom line, so consider how often you will cook your own food, eat local, and eat at expat spots.

 

Transportation

Chiang Mai’s small enough to either walk, push bike, or take local songthaews 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.

If you’re moving elsewhere in Thailand, then consider the different types of transport options. In Bangkok, you definitely won’t have to buy a motorbike. It’s easy to catch a motorcycle across town for a buck or two, and Thailand’s metro system is operates across some of the more important areas of town. When all else fails, you’ll just grab a taxi and head across town. Bangkok transport costs can, for this reason, vary a lot depending on how often you go out and need to use the various forms of transport.

Most expats in the Thai islands use personal motorbikes. Although the small beach communities are walkable, it’s often a bit further to get groceries, and you won’t likely live in the downtown areas since the beach communities have gorgeous, quiet communities spread throughout the islands.

Most expats in Thailand for more than a year buy a bike, but if you want to rent, you’ll find the best rates when you rent for six months to a year.

New Friendships & The Thai Expat Scene 


Chiang Mai has a vibrant expat scene. This is one of the key reasons I returned again in 2011 with my niece. I loved the mix of expats and locals and how accessible the entire town feels. Chiang Mai doesn’t lack choices for evenings out on the town. The city has a bit of something for any mood: karaoke, dance clubs, quiet rooftop bars, and bowling. In the years since I’ve left, there is also a much more vibrant digital nomad community, which has meant some new trendy bars to cater to them too!

It’s important to note that my entertainment budget for Chiang Mai is conservative. 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.

For the rest of Thailand, the community really differs. Bangkok has a much larger expat community. You can find expats of all ages and styles. There are communities of retirees, a startup and entrepreneurial scene, and a good number of digital nomads who want a big city feel. The Thai islands also have a contingent of expats, though I found this scene to have a much smaller community of long-term young expats. There are older expat families and retirees, and then there is a large number of short-term parties in the region for just a couple months.



Thailand offers great hospitals and an affordable life. Checkups are affordable, and dental care is on par with the US. In Thailand, I don’t live in fear of getting sick and being buried under more medical debt. It’s just nice.

I am a traveler. My stories span the globe and I’ve been traveling and expat-ing steadily since 2008. Though I no longer live in Thailand (I moved to Mexico and wrote a cost of living post about it too! Check out all my Cost of Living Guides here), I return frequently. Since my first visit, I returned to Thailand with my niece for our year of homeschooling and travel.

This page represents my research and experiences over the years. Many of my friend live similar lifestyles in the region. They live and 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. It’s a wonderful spot for socially responsible tourism. Thailand has a compelling quality of life and culture. One of my favorite parts about Chiang Mai was the ability to jet off on the weekend for trips around the region.

As a freelancer, I enjoy knowing that Thailand is a wonderful spot to live, work, and play. Below are the resources I have collected over the years to help with a move, living there, researching, etc. Updated last in May 2016.

If you’re still researching various expat spots, check out our other Cost of Living Guides for a look at what it takes to move to the world’s most popular expat spots.


Resources for Moving to Thailand

The Basics of Moving to Thailand

  • Learn Thai: Thai for Beginners is the most recommended starting point as it’s a bit outdated but does the lessons well. This gives you a good head start and a paper book, which is valuable for studying, but you will need more information beyond that. You may want to hire a tutor when you arrive, or use one of the recommended online courses like ThaiPod 101 or Learn Thai from a White Guy. My niece and I took private lessons from Lah in Chiang Mai — she’s great. If you’re learning Thai for the student visa, however, you have to go through a language school.
  • Travel insurance: World Nomads is the perfect for insurance for covering your health and belongings while you’re in the transition phase of moving overseas, or visiting to scope it all out. It’s a solid company and the insurance plans are designed for extended stays. I’ve used them since 2008. You will need local insurance once you formally move to Thailand, but if you are a digital nomad not living there on a residency visa, then World Nomads is your best option. Once you’re in the country living there, you might want local insurance. This expat has a great guide to securing Thai Health insurance. You’ll also want property insurance once you’re living overseas — I’ve used Clements for many years now.
  • Handling Taxes: The Tax Book for U.S. Expats is well-priced and unique to expats and retirees filing abroad. It gives a granular look at forms, terms, and sorting out exactly how to file — good for those with complicated tax situations. More recently released, U.S. Taxes for Worldly Americans goes broader and is aimed at younger expats and digital nomads still working and handling how to earn income overseas, pay taxes, and live a nomadic life. It doesn’t explain the terms or niche situations/forms as well as the other book, but instead acts as a guide for younger expats. Depending on your situation, pick up a copy of one of these guides before you leave so that you will have a tax system in place that maximizes the opportunities to easily file.
  • Running a BusinessStartup Guide Thailand is an depth guide to starting a business in Thailand — it’s from 2014 but you’ll find that recent enough for the essentials — the series offers guides for most major other Asian countries, too. Another classic reader for business owners is How to Establish a Successful Business in Thailand, though it has no e-version so it gets minus points. And for a first-person account, Karsten shares his actual expenses here.
  • Making the Move Overseas: There are a lot of general guides for moving or retiring overseas. Getting Out: Your Guide to Leaving America is the better of the “move overseas” books — it covers the practicalities and very hands-on information you need as someone considering living anywhere outside the U.S. If you’re new all the researching, this can kick-start your process. And if you are laser focused on the retirement topic, versus moving overseas at a different state in life, this retirement guide has great advice.
  • Cost of Living Elsewhere in SEA: : In case you’re weighing the thought of Cambodia, it’s a destination that is hard to find covered online, and Move to Cambodia is one of the best resources you will find. If you’re considering Vietnam as well, the Vietnam Cost of Living Guide covers it in depth.
  • Cultural ReadingsSightseeing is a thoughtful and intriguing look at the two sides of Thailand. The one for tourists and the one plagued with economic and societal issues. If you’re interested in better understanding Thai culture before you move there, start here. The short-story format makes it an easy but compelling read.
  • What You Should Know About Smog: Jodi gives her take on what a particularly bad smog year looks like in Chiang Mai. Make sure you time your visit well since you’ll be out and about. Google now lets you easily check air quality levels right now, and use these tips to keep your lungs healthy.
  • Get Around Town: Absolutely use a Nancy Chandler map when you first move to Chiang Mai or Bangkok, the maps are amazingly detailed. And I have a thorough guide to transportation in Thailand.

  • Planning a Research Trip to Thailand?

    Where to Stay

    If you’re moving to Thailand, it’s best to arrive in and book at least a week in a guesthouse. And definitely consider just doing a reconnaissance trip to scope it all out. Before you book long-term, you’ll want to all the options in person.

    What to Do


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    Cost of Living Comparison

    Still researching the right spot to live? Our Cost of Living Guides share extensive resources or all the major expat spots around the world. These guides include thorough breakdowns of the culture, quality of life, vibe, and — importantly — budget breakdowns so you can better plan which spot in the world best meets your needs.

    If there is ever anything that I can do to help, please do reach out on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and let’s talk about how we can make your travel dream a reality. 

    This post was last updated in January 2017.

    This post was last modified on March 29, 2018, 6:20 am