Thai Massage legal aspects
There are many therapists, especially in the US, who passionately argue for licencing. However this article is not about opinions and preferences, but strictly about facts and the legal side of massage in various parts of the world.
We are often asked by our students if our Thai Massage certificates give them the right to practice massage.
Certification versus licencing
The first thing we need to understand is that there there is a difference between certification and licencing.
Certification means that someone, like a qualified individual teacher or a massage school, certifies all or part of the following:
- You are qualified to practice Thai Massage
- You possess the necessary skills
- You have had a certain amount of training
Certification is only about qualification, skills and training. It does not automatically give you the legal right to practice Thai Massage or any massage.
This brings us to our next topic: Licensing. This is what gives you the legal right to practice massage, IF your jurisdiction has licencing laws (not all do). A licence is generally issued by a legal entity like a state licensing board, for example.
In the US most states have licensing requirements for massage therapists. However at the time of this writing, April 2017, there are still some states which do not have licensing requirements for massage.
They are Vermont, Minnesota, Kansas, and Wyoming. Alaska is just switching over to a licencing system but doesn’t have strict training requirements yet, and California has a sometimes confusing mix of voluntary certification with a bunch of local regulations.
All those laws can and do change.
State laws versus local rules
Mind you, we are talking about laws on the state level. However it is possible that in some of those no-licence states smaller jurisdictions, like counties or cities, have their own licensing laws on a local level.
So just because a state does not have a licensing requirement for massage therapists does not necessarily give you the right to practice massage everywhere in the state without some kind of licence. So find out about local laws, not just about state laws.
To sum it up:
- Certification means you are qualified to practice massage
- Licensing (if required) gives you the legal right to practice massage.
Certification is generally a prerequisite for licensing. In other words, you generally won’t be able to get a massage licence without a certificate that proves that you have had training.
So in most cases you need both, the certificate and the licence.
Special rules for Thai Massage
In the case of Thai Massage, the licensing requirements are not necessarily the same as for “normal” massage like Swedish massage.
Why not? It depends on how massage is defined. Thai Massage is quite different from table massage since it is done fully dressed, and it involves yoga-like manipulations which do not exist in typical table massage.
To illustrate this, let’s look at the massage definition of the state of Massachusetts. Here is an excerpt from the actual law (as of 2017):
Massachusetts Massage Law (If you want to read the entire law, click on the link)
“Nothing in this section shall prevent or restrict the practice of a person who uses touch, words or directed movement to deepen awareness of patterns of movement in the body, or the affectation of the human energy system or acupoints or Qi meridians of the human body while engaged within the scope of practice of a profession with established standards and ethics, but such services shall not be designated or implied to be massage or massage therapy.
Such practices shall include, but not be limited to, the Feldenkrais Method; Reflexology; The Trager Approach; Ayurvedic Therapies, Rolf Structural Integration, Polarity or Polarity Therapy; Polarity Therapy Bodywork; Asian Bodywork Therapy that does not constitute massage as defined in this chapter; Acupressure; Jin Shin Do; Qi Gong; Tui Na; Shiatsu; Body-Mind Centering and Reiki. These exempt practitioners may use the terms ”bodywork”, ”bodyworker” and ”bodywork therapist” in their promotional literature.“
Not all body work counts as massage
As you can see, as per this definition Asian bodywork is not necessarily considered a massage. This means that although the state of Massachusetts has a licencing requirement for massage, Thai Massage practitioners may not need a licence.
The difference can be how you describe what you are doing. In many jurisdictions you need a licence if you call yourself a massage therapist.
However if you practice a type of body work which is significantly different from “normal” massage, you can call it something else like “Thai body work”, or “Thai Yoga therapy”, or “assisted yoga”, or something along those lines, as long as you don’t use the word “massage”.
This is what the state of Massachusetts tells you to do in the actual law. So you are not skirting the law or hiding from the law, you are following the law.
Massage laws and abuses of them
At this point there will be some licensed therapists who will cry foul and worry that this leaves a backdoor for unqualified persons to do low quality or even risky work on unsuspecting clients.
Let’s be clear about one thing. There will always be people who abuse the system, who are looking for shortcuts and who try to take advantage of loopholes.
However in this article we are talking about the actual law, not loopholes.
Thai Massage no-licence scenarios
Many of students are highly experienced and trained yoga teachers.
They are adding Thai Massage (or Thai Yoga Massage, or Thai body work) to their repertoire.
This is a perfect fit for them since yoga and Thai Massage both share the same background and in many cases can look quite similar.
So chances are good that yoga teachers might not need a massage licence to practice Thai Massage, although it would be prudent to not call it a “massage” to avoid possible conflicts with the wording of the law.
There are other examples of professionals who can add Thai Massage to their skill set like personal trainers, Pilates instructors, Chiropractors, Physical therapists, etc.
They might just use some elements of Thai Massage which are pretty far removed from Swedish massage, like some of the stretches for example.
Those professionals may often not need a massage licence. Again they might be advised to not use the name “massage”.
Let’s summarize this. Even though states might have licencing requirements for massage, “Thai Body Work” might be excluded from those laws, as is the case in Massachusetts.
==> Read the text of the law to find out how massage is defined.
Thai Massage in other countries
Now let’s move out of the US and look at other countries. For example the UK does not have an actual massage licencing law at the time of this writing.
There are associations which issue certificates or licences, but they are not legally required documents.
The main requirement in the UK is that you can provide a certificate which is acceptable by insurance companies. If they cover you, you can practice massage legally.
You might be more accepted if you can show a document from one of those associations, but they are not legally required.
I know for a fact that some of our students have obtained insurance coverage in the UK based on our certificate, and this enabled them to practice Thai Massage in the UK.
However every insurance company in the UK has their own rules, so one might accept a certificate, and the other might not. It also depends on how you present the training that you have received. There is no one country-wide rule or system in the UK, and this can make things a little confusing.
From what I have heard, in Germany Thai Massage is also not treated in the same way as table massage and does not require a regular massage licence.
So every country has their own laws. They might be country wide, state or province wide, or they might be local laws by counties or towns. Or, there might not be specific laws, but insurance requirements instead.
At this point I need to mention that the information which I provide is not guaranteed to be correct. There is no way for me to be up to date on all massage laws in all countries.
Laws can change at any time, and there are so many different interpretations, local variances and even cultural considerations (like in Thailand) that there is no way for me to give accurate legal advice for the entire world.
Do your own research locally
This article is meant to be a useful guideline for you to do your own research. Clearly nobody could give you accurate legal details for all locations in the world.
My intent was to provide you with a road map, examples and possible scenarios.
This should go a long way in helping you to do the final research locally wherever you are living or planning to practice Thai Massage.
Practicing Thai Massage as a foreigner
Every country has laws which regulate work that is performed by foreigners. In order to do any work in a foreign country, you will need some kind of work permit which is issued by the authorities in this country. Doing Thai Massage sessions in exchange for money is definitely considered ‘work’.
Often work permits are issued only for one particular kind of job, or for one specific company. For example, in Thailand it is quite easy to get a work permit for teaching English, but it is next to impossible to get a work permit for practicing Thai Massage.
The reason is that native English speakers are badly needed, but foreign Thai Massage therapists are not needed. Just the opposite – you would be competing against the locals.
This means that you could get the highest Thai Massage certificate in Thailand, issued or endorsed by the Thai Ministry of Health, but this would not give you, as a foreigner, the right to practice Thai Massage in exchange for money in Thailand.
Are there exceptions?
We all know that in all countries there are people who skirt the law and get away with it, and enforcement of labor laws in some countries is not very strict. But the purpose of this article is to discuss what can be done legally.
I am obviously not able to be familiar with all labor laws around the world, but I amfamiliar with the laws in Thailand. You might have heard of someone who was practicing or teaching Thai Massage in Thailand without a work permit, but this doesn’t make it right or legal, and the person is at risk of being arrested and kicked out of the country.
However there can be exceptions. If you possess a particular skill in the healing arts field which is not available locally, you could be working in a foreign spa which can set you up legally as a contractor or temporary employee.
However if you are thinking of doing general Thai Massage work on your own in Thailand (or most other countries) – this is generally not possible legally.