Updated: Jul 16, 2022
Not going to lie... getting to Thailand during a pandemic is NOT easy. COVID crushed the tourism industry which so many Thai rely on for income. The government opened The Sandbox program in the fall of 2021. The program keeps changing as COVID evolves and mutates. You have to stay at an SHA-approved accommodation on one of the islands for a certain amount of time and then you can move around the country. I chose the 7 days Phuket Sandbox program. When I first bought my plane ticket, I also needed a COE (certificate of entry) to travel to Thailand, but that was switched to the Thailand Pass system as of November 1, 2021.
So, for the Thailand Pass I had to submit proof of my 2 vaccinations (plus the booster), a confirmation letter of a 7-day reservation at an SHA-approved hotel, and proof of purchase of Thai medical coverage for COVID for the duration of my planned stay and several other hoops like passport info, etc. The new system opened on 11-1-21 and my flight was set for 11-10-21. Two days before departure, I finally received the email that my Thailand pass was approved. You also have to download an app that tracks your location while in Thailand called Morchana and assesses your COVID exposure risk. Who knew the QR code would make such a comeback in 2021?!
A negative COVID test 72 hours before departure is required and once you land in Thailand, you get another COVID test at the airport from medical personnel in glass boxes that swab you with gloves attached to their box. From there you need pre-arranged transport to your SHA-approved accommodation and have to stay in your room until you receive an email from the airport that your test is negative. You have to stay at the same hotel for 7 days but are free to travel around whatever island you are on. On day 7, you take a home PCR test in your hotel room, and once you show the hotel that negative result, you get a sandbox entry letter that allows you to travel freely to other places (of course monitored by the app for exposure risk). Confused yet? Yeah, not easy to navigate.
As far as visas, from the US you get a 30-day arrival visa which you can extend an additional 30 days at any immigration office. Costs and permission status seemed to vary from town to town. I extended my first time in Patong, Phuket and it was super easy! No lines and nice immigration officers. There was also a 60-day Covid extension visa which I got at the immigration office in Krabi. Again, no lines, and officers were more than happy to help and take my money. I attempted another 60-day extension in Koh Phangan and after waiting in 5 different lines for over 3 hours, I was told I have to leave the country on March 11th. I tried again in Koh Tao and the immigration officer told me he would grant the additional 60-day COVID extension the week before my last one expired. Unfortunately, I had to come back to the US to take care of some things at home, but I could have potentially stayed 6 months instead of 4 months.
The Sandbox program is controversial with changing statistics and regulations. The government has since tried other versions of the Sandbox program for shorter durations. A Test and Go program was scraped for a while after Omnicron hit in late November, but restarted on February 1, 2022. Overall, getting to Thailand and the Sandbox program was a pain in the ass, but was it worth it? Absolutely!