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I'm considering renting a motorcycle in Thailand, and the terms on the rental company's website state they will hold my passport for the duration of the rental. While I do not intend to leave the country, I don't like the idea of leaving my passport behind. Authorities may want to see my passport, such as a hotel clerk or a traffic policeman.

Is it legal for a business in Thailand to hold my passport for any reason?

What are my options if I don't want to give them my passport? This question suggests trying to convince the business to accept a photocopy of my passport. Has anyone had success with this approach? Would leaving a larger deposit or perhaps my credit card suffice?

I'm planning to rent for one or two days only.

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5 Answers 5

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Of course it's legal to ask for anything. It's up to you whether you give it up.

Ultimately, they want to get their bike back and in working condition and to be paid for the rental and any damage. A passport is one of the only things a foreign tourist will value enough to ensure adherence to the agreement. On the flip side, the proprietor wants to make the deal; moreover, in Thailand as elsewhere, there is a cultural resistance to making impositions on guests. I have never refused to hand over my passport in Thailand, though I have done so successfully in Vietnam and Laos, so this is what I would advise:

When you decline, do so politely and indirectly, e.g. "I am planning to stay at ABC hotel in XYZ city, and I will need my passport to check in," or "I am not supposed to give my passport because it is the property of my government" [technically true]. You want to give the sense that you are refusing not because you do not trust the proprietor, but because you are scrupulous about following rules and norms.

Then, you'll need collateral:

  • Money. Large outfits may accept a credit card or cash deposit. This is the standard in North America and Europe, but I do not think it is common in Thailand.

  • Your availability. Your hotel or hostel may have agreements with vendors, and their reference may be good enough to serve as a letter of introduction, or at least assurance that you will be returning to the area. This is where a photocopy of your passport and visa can sometimes work, as it would be a way, in theory, of tracking you down institutionally if you skip the bill.

  • Your honor. I got to know the motorcycle rental guy in the village I was staying in for a few days, and gained his trust. I told him details of a trip I wanted to do and instead of referring me to his friend the taxi driver (as usually happens), he let me rent a motorcycle for the day in good faith.

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1  
Thanks, an insightful answer. Particularly the bit about refusing because of a desire to follow rules. –  Mike Mazur Feb 9 '12 at 23:45
    
not just "technically true", but utterly true. Dutch passports at least state explicitly that it's illegal to hand them over to anyone except when there is a legal obligation to do so. –  jwenting Feb 12 '12 at 8:10
    
Other forms of ID can sometimes be collateral as well. National ID card, drivers' license (for bicycles only, obviously) etc. Thais are remarkably flexible. –  dbkk Feb 13 '12 at 17:13
    
-1. The answer is wrong. Your passport is property of the government, and its main purpose it to facilitate border crossing and proof of your identity. Since it is not your property you legally not allowed to transfer possession to some one else then the bearer. –  andra Feb 21 '13 at 12:13
    
Incidentally, it's obviously not legal to ask for “anything” (drugs? sex? an organ?) so asking if it is legal to ask for X in country Y really does make sense. –  Relaxed Sep 12 '13 at 6:52

The answers above are not only generic, but inaccurate for Thailand.

First and most important question is whether you are actually renting a motorcycle ("big bike") or a scooter ("motorbike").

For scooters, you can always leave a copy of your passport. It is not an issue anywhere.

But for motorcycles, you pretty much have to leave your passport. There is no place that rents "big bikes" in Thailand that does not require this. I think I've read somewhere that someone was able to get around this by leaving a huge security deposit (close to value of the bike) but this is how things operate in Thailand. Right or wrong, this is how it is.

Lastly, some areas are known to rent bikes with questionable paperwork. If you are renting ER-6 from Chiang Mai, it's no problem. But you will not be renting a completely legit Yamaha R1 from Pattaya/Phuket for 700 baht/day. (Logic prevails: R1 costs ~$30,000 usd in Thailand. There is a reason why they are renting it for $23/day.)

PS. Yes, you could get in trouble if you are stopped by police with no passport. Usually, they will be satisfied with a copy of passport and visa, or a phone call to your rental agency, or a small bribe... but technically speaking, it could be a problem.

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I'm planning on renting a 250, which I don't really consider a big bike, but it's not a scooter either. Where does that fall in your categorization? –  Mike Mazur Feb 11 '12 at 0:09
    
I'd rather get in trouble with the rental company for them making illegal demand than with the police... In fact if a rental company demanded my passport I'd probably call the police because I would assume they're trying to steal it... –  jwenting Feb 12 '12 at 8:12
    
IF it's Ninja 250 or CBR 250, it will definitely be treated as a 'big bike'. These bikes are very expensive in Thailand. If it's D-tracker, it may fall under the scooter rules. I'm not sure. –  Witold Feb 12 '12 at 23:41
    
Keep in mind that in most countries, your passport is not actually yours. It is your governments' property. If a rental place gives you trouble and doesn't want to give you the passport back, contact your embassy. They will want their property back. The whole passport issue is a problem not because rental places are not legit - they are overwhelmingly very legit - but because their government requires you to keep passport with you at ALL times. –  Witold Feb 12 '12 at 23:42
    
Thanks @Witold for the answers and further comments. Very helpful. –  Mike Mazur Feb 16 '12 at 13:57

By law, it is illegal for businesses in Thailand to hold foreigners' passports in exchange for renting them scooters, motorcycles, jet skis or anything else. Under current legislation (Feb. 2013) any Thai business found in possession of a foreign passport will be prosecuted as technically the passport is the property of the government of the country who issued it. In addition, it is Thai law that foreigners carry their passports with them at all times so leaving your passport with a rental agency leaves you (and them) in a situation you could both be prosecuted for.

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how do I prove them it's illegal? –  Alex Nov 12 '13 at 8:55

There are plenty of motor cycle hire places in Thailand, when I say plenty, I mean hundreds and thousands of them. Don't book online, just find one when you are there, it will be cheaper and it will allow you to check out the motor bikes before hiring it.

If you are ever asked to leave your passport, simply say that you need it to exchange traveler's cheques at the bank - they would always rather make the sale than lose it over this.

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Most places will accept a photocopy along with a security deposit - same with cars. Just need to say you need to do a visa run and need the passport. I live here in Thailand and have never had a problerm renting anything from Honda Dreams to trucks. Just make sure you check it before you ride (as there are plenty of damage-scams about) and also pay more for the insurance (and read it - it will/should be in English).

In Chiang Mai I always go to POP to hire bikes (sometimes cars too - but there are better places for them) - there are several POP's in the city (it's like a franchise), but I always use the one next to Spotlight (gogo bar on the moat) just before Thaipae Gate (down a bit from Miguels burgers, before you get to Loi Kroh where the bars are mostly situated). They do Dreams, D-Trackers, ERN6's and Kwak8's. 800's cost a cool 1,000 per day (local prices - may be higher for tourists) - the price of a car rental. Usually deposit is 5,000 Baht (they staple it to the photocopy and the paperwork that shows previous damage etc that you sign). Pop vehicles are fully insured - they advertise the fact. And no, other than being a time-to-time customer, I am not affiliated. When my car was off the road (awaiting a new engine which took several months) I had both cars and bikes off them of varying terms - there's a daily, weekly and monthly rate.

//Edit: Just to add: On the photocopy, write clearly "For rental purposes only" and sign it - there ahve been rare occurances where these are have been used for other purposes (such as getting loanshark loans)! Possibly an urban myth, but advisable anyway.

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