How would you like to live in a tropical paradise where a restaurant meal costs $2, a taxi ride costs $3, and a furnished apartment rents for as little as $200 per month?
For decades, the low cost of living in Thailand has made it one of the most popular destinations for anyone looking to live in a tropical climate on a budget. And while prices in this sunny “Land of Smiles” have inched up over the years, you can still live on a fraction of what you’d spend for a similar lifestyle in your home country.
But just how cheap is Thailand in 2021?
How Much Does It Cost to Live in Thailand?
Each of Thailand’s regions offers something unique to travelers and expats. From beach towns to bustling cities and cultural centers to sleepy hideaways, Thailand accommodates every lifestyle — at least as long as you like sunshine.
The overall cost of living in Thailand varies by region. But some expenses, such as cellphone bills, taxes, and visa fees, remain constant, no matter where you choose to live.
Your standard of living has the most significant impact on your cost to live in Thailand. You can choose a life of luxury for a sliver of what it costs in the United States or Europe. But if you’re willing to live like a local with a simple lifestyle, you can stretch money even further.
When comparing prices in a foreign currency, your purchasing power fluctuates with the exchange rate. Since 2018, the exchange rate has held steady in Thailand, ranging from 30 to 33 Thai baht (THB) per $1 U.S.
With the exchange rate in mind, you can compare the cost of living between your current location and Thailand. To make the comparison easier, the prices herein are converted to U.S. dollars.
Average cost-of-living figures come from Numbeo, a crowd-sourced cost-of-living database. After living in Thailand for five months, I found these averages are a good starting point, but they don’t always accurately depict how affordable each destination can be.
Since the crowd-sourced data comes primarily from expats, costs are higher than what you’d spend living like a local.
In addition to Numbeo averages, all other pricing data comes from real properties for rent on Facebook Marketplace and Airbnb.
Your expenses partially depend on how you find your rental. While accommodation-hunting on Airbnb and other booking websites is convenient, that convenience comes at a price. To find the cheapest rates, search on Facebook Marketplace or (better yet) on the ground — but don’t expect everyone to speak English.
The cost of rent in Thailand also varies dramatically from city to city — even neighborhood to neighborhood.
Bangkok and the Suburbs
As the capital and center of economic activity, Bangkok is naturally the most expensive part of the country.
Luxury apartments on Airbnb can cost more than $3,500 per month in the most desirable parts of Phrom Phong, Silom, Lumpini, and Sukhumvit, all of which make up Thailand’s financial and retail center. Penthouse apartments complete with housekeeping, a private swimming pool, and panoramic views of the big city can run $6,000 per month or more.
But there are plenty of more affordable options.
Tourists and backpackers generally rent rooms on Khaosan Road, where a decent hotel room costs $10 to $25 per night. If you’re on a shoestring budget, shared dormitories in hostels go for as little as $2 per night. Discounts for monthly rentals are also available.
In Bangkok, the average one-bedroom apartment in the city center goes for $580 per month but only costs $290 outside the city center.
One factor that influences price is the proximity to the nearest subway station. The closer it is to the subway (MRT) or Skytrain (BTS), the higher the price.
Public transport is now starting to expand into the suburbs, which can offer the best of both worlds: low rental prices with easy access to the city.
For example, the furnished studio we rented in a luxurious condominium right next to a BTS station in the suburbs costs $460 per month on Airbnb. We could have negotiated an even lower price by paying an owner directly, taking an unfurnished unit, or signing a longer contract.
It had everything we needed built into the complex, including a restaurant, mini-store, gym, infinity pool, and workspace. Since we had everything on-site, we rarely had to leave, which saved us transportation costs.
If you prefer to rent a house, you have to venture outside the city center. Neighboring Nonthaburi and Samut Prakan are technically independent cities but are really more like exurbs of Bangkok. Detached single-family houses in these regions cost as little as $200 per month.
Beach Towns Near Bangkok (Pattaya and Rayong)
A couple of hours southeast of Bangkok, the beach towns of Pattaya and Jomtien have seen aggressive growth in recent years as real estate investors continue to build high-rise condominiums in these once-sleepy fishing towns.
In fact, the 2019 Global Destination Cities Index ranked Pattaya the 15th most overnight tourist-visited city in the world. Many of those tourists have fallen in love with the sunny, relaxed lifestyle and now call Pattaya home.
Despite their popularity, the cost of living in these regions remains surprisingly low.
Pattaya is the most expensive. Its nightlife is a big draw for expats. But even there, you can find one-bedroom apartments just off the beach for less than $500 per month. And the farther you go inland, the lower the prices get.
Rayong is even cheaper, with plenty of furnished studios going for less than $200.
Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai
Chiang Mai is a small town in Northern Thailand near the border of Burma and Laos. Considered by many to be the “digital nomad capital of the world,” Chiang Mai is a hotspot for young backpackers with a thriving expat community. Its popularity is primarily due to a low cost of living, beautiful temples, and foreigner-friendly cafes, nightclubs, and hangouts.
The average rent in Chiang Mai is $430 inside the city center and $300 outside the center. That said, when I went apartment-hunting in Chiang Mai, I found prices to be even cheaper.
In the Nimmanhemin (or “Nimman”) neighborhood, prices have exploded over the past decade due to the influx of digital nomads. We walked around door-to-door asking for rates and couldn’t find any decent studio apartments under $400. But outside touristy areas, it’s not unheard of to score a furnished studio for under $125.
A less popular option is the neighboring town of Chiang Rai, home to three of the most awe-inspiring temples in Thailand. Since it’s a bit more under the radar, it can be even cheaper than Chiang Mai.
The average rent for a midrange one-bedroom apartment in the Chiang Rai city center is $240, with comparable apartments outside the city going for half that. Northeast Chiang Rai is also close to the Burmese border, which is convenient for border runs when you have to renew your visa.
In Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, or any other touristy town in Northern Thailand, prices fluctuate with the season. During “burning season” — when farmers burn their crops and pollution levels rise — rental costs plummet as foreigners flee in search of cleaner air.
Southern Beaches and Islands (Phuket, Krabi, Songkhla)
The stunning beaches surrounding Phuket and Krabi have surged in cost over the past 20 years as luxurious resorts slowly replace cheap backpacker bungalows.
The average one-bedroom apartment goes for $470 in Krabi, with similar prices in Phuket. There are also still deals on popular islands like Koh Lanta, where you can find simple one-bedroom Airbnbs for as little as $230.
That said, rents vary radically depending on the unit’s proximity to the beach, with luxurious beachfront villas fetching upward of $2,000 per month.
In Songkhla, a less popular resort town near the southern Malaysian border, you can still find bare-bones apartments on Facebook Marketplace for as little as $100 per month. You won’t be living in luxury, but you can’t go wrong for $100, especially if you spend all your time at the beach anyway.
Gulf of Thailand (Koh Samui, Koh Pha Ngan, Koh Tao)
The Gulf of Thailand is home to three of the country’s most popular islands — Koh Samui, Koh Pha Ngan, and Koh Tao. Each island has a unique vibe. And while prices have risen over the past decade, you can still find some steals.
Koh Samui is the largest and most developed of the three islands, with the average one-bedroom apartment rent ranging from $270 to $390 per month. It’s full of resorts and known as a family vacation destination, but plenty of expats also call the island home.
Koh Pha Ngan is home to the infamous Full Moon Party, an enormous beach festival held on the southwest corner of the island every month. But Koh Pha Ngan is more than just parties.
The island’s west side offers laid-back beach towns with expat communities dedicated to yoga, mindfulness, and spirituality.
It’s hard to find anything under $200 per month in Koh Pha Ngan, which would get you a rustic bungalow. For a modern furnished apartment with air conditioning and a beach view, expect to pay upward of $1,000 monthly.
Koh Tao is the smallest and least developed of the three islands, a favorite for backpackers wanting to scuba dive on a budget. Since it’s so small, most rental prices you find online are expensive Airbnbs. If you search on the ground and negotiate directly with locals, you can find rustic bungalows for under $150 per month.
Generally, the further you go from tourist destinations, the cheaper your cost of living. Rent for a basic one-bedroom place in a rural Thailand region like Isan can be as little as $50 per month.
Remember, the 2021 daily minimum wage in Thailand ranges from $10.03 to $10.77. You won’t get a Western standard of living on less than $11 per day, but if you learn to live like a local, you’d be shocked at how far your money stretches.
When renting an unfurnished apartment on a long-term contract, you’re usually responsible for paying your own utility bills.
But even many furnished accommodations exclude electricity in the price. That’s because electricity is expensive compared to rental costs, especially if you’re blasting the air conditioning all day. Some rentals even include electricity for everything except air conditioning, which they meter separately.
To make matters more complex, when property owners charge for electricity in furnished apartments, they set their own rates per kilowatt-hour. The official power tariff in 2021 is $0.11 per kilowatt-hour, but depending on how much the property owner wants to profit, you could pay anywhere from $0.12 to $0.25 per kilowatt-hour.
When comparing rental options, factor in:
- Whether they include electricity
- How much they charge for it
- How much you plan to use
It can get confusing, and we ended up creating a full-blown spreadsheet to keep everything straight. Just know that if you pay the property owner for electricity (versus paying the electric company directly), the monthly cost of your electricity bill could double depending on the rate they set.
Numbeo reports that the average utility bill (electricity, heating, cooling, water, and garbage) in Thailand is $68.
And choosing a cooler climate doesn’t necessarily lead to a lower air-conditioning bill. You also have to factor in pollution. Bangkok is known for its pollution, and on bad days, you won’t want dirty air circulating through your house. That means keeping the windows closed and the air on and investing in an air purifier for your home.
Similarly, during the burning season in Chiang Mai and the northern regions, the air quality reaches harmful levels, and you should keep the windows closed.
Thai food is delicious and cheap. Eating out is so affordable that most Thais build their houses without a full kitchen. That means, unless you pay for a property built specifically for Westerners or tourists, you won’t cook many meals at home.
Food costs vary by location. Touristy areas like the islands and expat hangouts generally have the highest prices. But no matter where you go, there’s usually always a food cart or small family restaurant serving tasty rice and noodle dishes for $2 or less.
Rural areas can cost much less. I once visited an orphanage on the outskirts of the small town of Chiang Rai. The founder invited us to a delicious feast at a local restaurant, and our bill came out to a shocking $0.80 per person, including drinks.
When hunting for the cheapest restaurants in town, look out for general cleanliness to avoid getting sick. If it’s packed with locals, that’s a good sign the food is safe.
Thailand is also full of vendors selling fresh fruit and fruit shakes on the streets. While in Bangkok, we bought $1 coconut shakes and a bag of $0.50 mangoes every day.
Coffee lovers in Bangkok spend an average of $2.20 per cappuccino. The average chicken breast runs $1.10 per pound if you want to cook yourself. But with such cheap and delicious restaurants, it’s often hard to justify the time spent cooking.
That said, not all food in Thailand is cheap. After living in Thailand for a while, many expats start to miss Western food. And Western food in Thailand is pricey — and underwhelming.
Many Western ingredients, like cheese, are hard to come by in Thailand. That means foods like burritos, hamburgers, and pizza are both expensive and taste funny with substituted ingredients.
Public transportation in Thailand is so cheap and convenient that owning a car is rarely necessary. Instead, most expats use motorbikes or public transit.
The average cost of a basic scooter rental varies by region, but you can usually pick one up for as little as $60 per month. You can also rent bigger motorcycles, but they cost two to five times as much, depending on the model you choose. In addition to rental fees, you have to factor in gas costs, which average $3.36 per gallon in Thailand.
When renting a motorbike, choose a model with parts made in Thailand. That way, if you crash or scratch the bike, you won’t have to pay outrageous fees to import parts from a different country. Also, record a video showing the condition of the motorbike before you rent it. Otherwise, the rental agency may try to charge you for damages you weren’t responsible for. I learned that the hard way.
You technically need an international driver’s license to ride a scooter or motorbike in Thailand. If you plan to live in the country long-term, it’s worth getting. If you’re just visiting, many tourists rent scooters without it. If the police pull you over, they give you a ticket or try to extort a bribe from you. So sticking to public transit may be best.
If scooters aren’t your forte, there are plenty of other affordable transportation options available. For example, there’s the metro system in Bangkok, moto taxis, and the famous shared red truck taxis (called “songthaews”) in other regions like Chiang Mai.
For example, when we lived in Chiang Mai, a songthaew within the city limits of Chiang Mai cost us roughly $1 per person.
Fares for Bangkok’s BTS and MRT depend on the distance you travel, ranging from $0.50 to $1.70.
If you live in a walkable neighborhood or beach town and take subways or songthaews once per day, you’re looking at $2 per day round trip, or $60 per month in transportation expenses.
On the other extreme, if you live in Bangkok and constantly take taxis across the city — which cost an average of $0.66 per mile, according to Numbeo — your transportation bill could shoot up to a couple hundred dollars.
There’s more to life than food, rent, and transportation. Thailand is famous for its nightlife, and that’s where a lot of people run into trouble.
Based on our experience, beers in most bars and nightclubs only cost $2 to $4. That said, expats and vacationers can quickly find themselves partying a bit too hard and spending even more than they do back home.
Some nightclubs have free entry, but we’ve paid up to a $15 cover. If you’re going out multiple nights per week — which can be tempting in a city that never sleeps — your monthly budget can quickly go off the rails.
If you prefer to entertain yourself with travel and exploration, you’re in luck. Thailand has 1,430 stunning islands, many of which you can access fairly cheaply.
For example, an 11-hour bus ride from Bangkok to Krabi costs less than $20. And if you buy in advance, direct local flights can be just as cheap.
Phone and Internet
In the past, one trade-off of living in Thailand was slow and unreliable Internet speeds. That’s no longer the case. In fact, fast Wi-Fi is one of the reasons expats and digital nomads choose to live in Thailand over other similarly affordable countries.
In Thailand, the average price for a 60-megabits-per-second or faster Internet plan is less than $20 per month.
Prices for cellphone plans vary based on:
- Length of contract
- Amount of data
- Data speeds
Prices also depend on whether you need a data-only plan, a calling plan, or a combination of the two.
For example, with TrueMove H, you can get an unlimited data plan with a couple hundred calling minutes for less than $20 per month.
Note that many “unlimited” data plans only include a certain amount of data at maximum speed. After that, it’s throttled.
Gyms, Spas, and Self-Care
Gyms in Thailand can be surprisingly expensive.
The gym we joined in Chiang Mai cost $30 per month, three times as expensive as Planet Fitness in the U.S. Of course, our gym catered to expats, with air conditioning and well-maintained equipment. You can also find more rustic gyms for as little as $5 per month.
That said, many condos have free gyms on-site. So if it’s important to you, finding one could save you money even if it’s more expensive than another rental.
Thailand’s massage culture is world-renowned and a big part of many expats’ lives. Steeped in Buddhist traditions, Thai massage techniques have been passed down from generation to generation for centuries.
You can find massage parlors on almost every corner. While living and traveling around Thailand, most parlors we saw cost between $5 and $15 for an hour-long massage.
Cost of Health Care in Thailand
Health care in Thailand is incredibly cheap, especially coming from countries with outrageous health care costs like the U.S.
I once needed a procedure that would have cost over $25,000 in America. In Bangkok, I had it done for $1,500, including a one-night stay in a surprisingly luxurious private hospital room.
You can find hospitals with English-speaking staff in all the main tourist hubs. But if you have a complicated situation, Bangkok is the place to go.
Also, just because a hospital is more expensive or internationally recognized doesn’t necessarily mean it has the best doctor for your condition. To find a specialist, I searched for the top surgeons in Bangkok for that discipline. It turns out the best specialist in all of Asia worked out of a small private hospital — a hospital nowhere to be found on the online lists of best Bangkok hospitals for expats.
Many expats living in Thailand on a tourist visa rely on travel insurance or international health insurance for their coverage. These plans range from basic $40-per-month SafetyWing travel insurance to more comprehensive plans that cost hundreds of dollars per month. Whichever plan you choose, your premiums depend on factors like your age, the coverage you need, the country you’re from, and the insurance company you choose.
Expats with a resident visa can also buy local private insurance like Luma Health for coverage in Thailand. These plans are comparable in price to international health insurance plans, and most hospitals can bill them directly. It’s more convenient than a travel insurance policy that requires you to pay out of pocket and submit claims for reimbursement.
Lastly, if you work legally in Thailand and pay Social Security taxes, you receive free government medical insurance. If you’re used to Western standards, set your expectations appropriately. Odds are you won’t be impressed with the treatment you receive under free government insurance in a developing nation.
Thailand Visa Expenses
American tourists on short-term vacations don’t need an entry visa.
But if you plan to stay in Thailand full-time as a retiree, recurring tourist, Thai spouse, student, or business owner, you need a visa.
To keep these visas current, you must pay to renew them regularly.
For example, a single-entry education (ED) visa — which you could use to take Thai language lessons — costs $80, and you must renew it every 90 days.
The fee for a five-year retirement visa is $400. It also requires proof of an income source greater than 65,000 baht (roughly US$2,000) per month. Immigration waves the monthly income requirement if you maintain a balance of at least 800,000 baht (US$24,585) in a Thai bank account.
That said, many countries have introduced digital nomad and remote work visas in the wake of the pandemic. Thailand is in the process of creating its own remote work visa, which would eliminate much of the hassle and expense remote-working expats face.
Income Tax in Thailand
Just because you live abroad doesn’t make you exempt from income taxes. If you live in Thailand for more than 180 days (roughly six months) per year, you’re considered a resident. Residents in Thailand must pay taxes on income earned worldwide. If you are not considered a resident, you must still pay taxes on income earned in Thailand.
Thailand has progressive income tax brackets similar to those in the U.S., ranging from 0% to 35%.
Americans must also file taxes in the U.S., but you can avoid double taxation thanks to the U.S.- Thailand tax treaty, foreign earned income exclusion, and foreign tax credit.
In addition to everyday living expenses, you also have to factor in the cost of an intercontinental move and building a healthy emergency fund.
Not only do you have to buy a plane ticket across the globe, but unless you stick to renting expensive furnished spaces, you also need to buy a bed, fridge, furniture, cookware, and decorations.
That said, even though Thailand isn’t quite as cheap as it once was, it’s still one of the best places you can live on $2,000 per month or less.