This is a guide for travellers who want to volunteer in Southeast Asia. If you’re looking for a normal tourist visa, see our guide here.
Foreigners of non-ASEAN countries are not legally allowed to work in most of Southeast Asia without a valid work permit, and so ‘working’ in exchange for food and accommodation cannot be considered ‘paid work.’ All of the advice below pertains specifically to travelling as a tourist as most volunteers must enter a country only as a tourist. This is unless you have official documentation from a registered NGO which allows you to apply for a ‘special visa’ and stay for a longer period of time.
This guide was put together with the support of HelpStay – a group of people who love to combine travel with a purpose. They host an online community which connects helpers with hosts. The hosts are vetted and reviewed by the community so that helpers can find safe, secure and most importantly, a worthwhile volunteering experience. Helpers can also connect with previous volunteers to get feedback and hook up with like-minded travellers for their upcoming adventure.
Tourists can enter Brunei from 14-90 days without a visa. See this map for a list of which countries are offered which length of stay. (European and US citizens receive 90 days.) Being a small and wealthy country, with very little poverty, as well as being strict Muslim, there are very few opportunities (if any) for foreign volunteers.
Cambodia is a popular place to volunteer in Southeast Asia. As well as the country being safe and cheap to travel, it’s the people that really capture the hearts of visitors. Many backpackers visit the popular tourist destinations of Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, fall in love with the country and decide to come back to volunteer. So how can you stay longer than the 30-day visa allows?
If you plan to volunteer in Cambodia for an extended length of time, you should not apply for the regular tourist visa. Volunteering is considered ‘non-touristic’ by the government and so is not covered by the $30 USD tourist visa (Type T visa).
You should apply for an Ordinary ‘E-Class’ visa (this is not to be confused with the ‘Electronic Visa’, also nicknamed the ‘E-visa’ which will cost you $35 USD. (You cannot apply for this online and can only do so at the airport or immigration office across the border upon arrival into Cambodia.)
The ‘E’ in this case, stands for ‘employment’, however, it means any type of ‘employment’ whether it is paid or not, i.e. volunteering. The difference between the ‘Ordinary E-Type’ visa and the ‘E-Visa’ that you apply for online (phew! This gets complicated!) is that the Ordinary E-Type visa can be extended at the Immigration office indefinitely.
At the moment, there is no documentation required to apply for an E-visa upon arrival, however you may be asked to provide proof of what you are doing at a later date by the police. The E-Visa is split into four categories: EB (Business visa), EG (Searching for employment visa), ER (Retirement) and ES (Student visa).
When you go to extend your E Visa at the end of your 30-day stay, you can choose which type of visa you require. For volunteering, you will likely need the EB visa, although do check with your organization. There is also a ‘B-Class’ visa, which is also called the ‘NGO’ visa, for which only volunteers with certain NGOs registered with the government are eligible for. Ask your organization if their NGO qualifies for the visas for their volunteers.
In some cases, for example, one-year placements, even though you may not be getting paid, a work permit may be required. And, if you are working with children you may be asked to provide a ‘working with children’ clearance certificate. (This is becoming stricter in recent years as the Cambodian government tries to tighten up its laws regarding volunteering with children. (The organization should tell you this in advance and arrange any necessary paperwork for you.)
Most nationalities can stay in East Timor without a visa for up to 90 days. You can extend your visa at the Department of Immigration for a further 90 days. (The cost is $35 USD for 30-day extension or $75 USD for 30-60 days.) As most volunteers to East Timor stay less than 180 days, volunteering on a visa-free ‘tourist pass’ is not a problem. Read this and speak to your volunteer organization if you are staying longer than 90 days to see if you require a ‘business visa’.
As a tourist, most nationalities receive a 30-day visa-free entry to Indonesia. To volunteer legally for an extended amount of time in Indonesia, you must obtain a ‘Social Cultural Visa’ (Sosial Budaya), which allows foreigners to visit the country to engage in social and cultural activities. (Many NGOs will not accept you without this visa as it is illegal to engage in any activity that is work-related, even if it is unpaid work, on a regular tourist visa.) The ‘Social Cultural Visa’ is valid for 60 days and can be extended to a total of 180 days (30 days each time).
To apply for a Social Cultural Visa, you need to apply at the Indonesian Embassy in your country of residence, or in another country which is not Indonesia. You must have an Indonesian ‘sponsor’ and the following:
Sponsorship letter – from your sponsor with details about your volunteering.
Photocopy of the sponsor’s ID card.
Photocopy of the sponsor’s family register.
Photocopy of the sponsor’s bank account statements.
A photocopy of your passport.
Two passport-sized photographs.
The single entry ‘Social Cultural Visa’ is valid for 3 months from the date of issue.
Due to Laos being a poor, largely rural, country that is still suffering the aftermath of the Vietnam-American War (UXOs), there are many opportunities to volunteer. To volunteer in Laos, you can enter the country on a tourist visa, which for most nationalities is valid for 30 days and costs from $20 – $42 USD depending on which country’s passport you hold. You can then extend the visa for a further $2 USD / day for 30 days. There seems to be no ‘volunteer’ visa as such and the rules are hazy about whether you can or cannot volunteer legally on the tourist visa. Speak to your organization before you travel and they should be able to help you.
Malaysia is one of the easiest countries in Southeast Asia to obtain a visa. Most nationalities receive a 90-day visa-free entry upon arrival into Malaysia and to extend this, you can simply cross the border to a nearby country and re-enter with a further 90 days. Most volunteer organizations in Malaysia do not require their volunteers to get anything more than the regular tourist visa. However, if you are volunteering for a long period, and your organization requires it, you may want to obtain a ‘special visit visa’ upon arrival into Malaysia, which is valid up to 12 months. In order to apply for the ‘special visit visa,’ you need a Malaysian sponsor.
There are many volunteer opportunities in Myanmar, in the fields of teaching, medical and environmental work. However, many registered NGOs require long-term commitments and skilled workers and short-term placements are difficult to obtain. You should be very wary of short-term placements at orphanages or schools. For short-term volunteers, we advise that you enter the country on a tourist visa, that can be obtained online before arrival. For long-term opportunities, you may be able to apply for a multiple-entry visa, but you will need to get an invitation from your organisation in advance.
Being one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, the Philippines is frequently in need of volunteers. Most nationalities receive 30-days upon arrival into the Philippines. You can extend this visa for a further 60 days at a Philippine Embassy. For formal volunteering in the Philippines, for longer than six months, you may be required to apply for a non-immigrant visa – check with your organization before you travel.
As one of the richest countries in Southeast Asia, there are very few volunteering opportunities in Singapore. All EU and US citizens receive a 90-day visa upon arrival into Singapore. If you want to volunteer for more than a few days in Singapore, the people to speak to as regards visas, work permits and passes are the ‘Ministry of Manpower’ who are very helpful and you can email them with your enquiry.
UPDATE: According to Thai law, any work carried out in Thailand (whether it is paid or unpaid) and regardless of how long, requires a work permit. Authorities have become stricter on this in recent years so we strongly recommend that you speak with your chosen volunteer organisation about getting the correct papers sorted before you travel.
Unsurprisingly, as the most popular country for tourists to visit in Southeast Asia, Thailand is also the most popular destination for volunteering. Upon arrival in Thailand (by land, sea or air) you receive a one-month Tourist Visa. Short-term volunteering is viewed as ‘eco-tourism’ for short periods i.e. (4 weeks or less). If you wish to volunteer or HelpStay longer than 4 weeks, you may wish to consider getting a visa before you leave, from your local Thai Embassy.
To formally volunteer for a longer period in Thailand, you must apply for a ‘Non-Immigrant O Visa’ at a Thai Embassy before you arrive, which is valid for 12 months. You will need the following:
Your passport with at least one empty page.
Two passport photos.
Evidence of at least $500 USD in funds.
A letter from the organisation you’ll be volunteering with asking for temporary stay for your volunteering purposes.
You can apply for a visa online to enter Vietnam for 30 days. If you plan to stay longer than this, you should apply for a visa at a Vietnamese Embassy before you travel (90-day visas are available). It is better (and cheaper) to apply for a longer visa than try to extend your short-term visa once you are in the country. Due to complicated and conflicting visa laws, most volunteer organizations simply state that you should apply for a tourist visa only, as there is no official visa for ‘volunteers’. If you are unsure, speak to your volunteer organization before you travel and they should be able to help you.
For more information on tourist visas in Southeast Asia, see our complete visa guide here.
We always advise the following: Most Volunteer Helpers enter a country using a touristvisa. Please keep in mind that HelpStay and WWoofing are NOT paid work or paid volunteering. You share your skills and time in exchange for a place to sleep and eat. No money is exchanged or is this a job. HelpStay.com is purely a shared hospitality arrangement and HelpStay members are guests of their hosts.
Of course, where a position is paid, then the correctvisa is required, which would NOT be a tourist visa. But 95% of our listed opportunities fall under the above criteria. Where a position is paid, then the correct working or volunteering visa should be acquired. In this case, please always seek advice from the relative country’s embassy before making any travel arrangements.
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Nikki Scott | Founder & Editor
Nikki is the founding editor of South East Asia Backpacker and The Backpacker Network. In her early twenties, she left her home in the North of England on a solo backpacking adventure and never returned! After six months on the road, she founded a print magazine that became legendary on the Banana Pancake Trail. The rest is history.