Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok became Thailand's primary gateway after taking the reigns (and BKK airport code) from the aging Don Mueang International Airport in 2006.
Bangkok's big airport stays busy. In 2016, Bangkok was again the most visited city in the world, and many of those 21 million international visitors came through Suvarnabhumi Airport.
With an ever-growing volume of travelers, the sprawling, 8,000-acre airport manages to serve its function, even adding a metallic touch of stylish architecture.
How to Pronounce Bangkok's Airport
First things first. The way locals pronounce "Suvarnabhumi" is "sue-wahn-ah-poom." The "i" is silent at the end. The word comes from Sanskrit for "Land of Gold."
Suvarnabhumi Airport Layout
- Level 1: Transportation
- Level 2: Arrivals
- Level 3: Transfers, Shops, and Restaurants
- Level 4: Departures
Facing the entrance, the left side of the airport serves domestic departures; the right side is for international departures.
Arrivals Immigration Section
After arrival, the first and longest queue that you’ll encounter will undoubtedly be immigration to get officially stamped into Thailand.
Go straight there and get in line! Don't dawdle after getting off the plane, and postpone bathroom breaks if you can. The wait at immigration can sometimes be an hour or more depending on the time your flight lands.
Tip: There are actually two separate immigration sections. If one looks excessively busy, keep walking to the next one.
Have your arrival and departure cards — two cards that should have been handed out on the plane — completed entirely, both front and back. If you didn’t receive arrival and departure cards, you’ll find them on tables near the start of the immigration queue. Having a folded, damaged, or incomplete arrival card is a sure way to get on the bad side of immigration officials!
Some tips for getting through immigration smoothly:
- Don’t use cell phones or take photos.
- Remove your hat and sunglasses.
- Present your passport already turned to the page containing your visa, if you have one.
- Smile, answer any questions with simple answers, and face the camera.
To avoid hassle later, keep your departure card in your passport for when you exit Thailand.
Baggage claim is located directly behind the stretch of immigration counters in Suvarnabhumi Airport. After the lengthy wait to be stamped in, your bags will probably already be waiting on or near the baggage carousel. Flight numbers are matched to the appropriate carousel numbers on big screens.
There are some currency exchange kiosks dotted around the luggage claim area. Although you will get a better rate by waiting to use the ATMs located beyond customs, Thailand's ATM fees have climbed year after year.
Tip: To compare kiosk rates with the current exchange rate, Google "1 USD in THB."
Unless you have something to declare, and you shouldn’t, simply pass through the green channel at the customs checkpoint. Sometimes travelers are randomly pulled to have their luggage screened by the machine.
Once you pass through customs, you won’t be allowed to reenter the "passenger" side of the airport again.
Getting Local Currency
Now that you have officially entered Thailand, you’re going to need some local currency, the colorful Thai baht.
Assuming your bank doesn't add on unreasonable fees, using local ATMs will give you a better rate than exchanging actual currency. There is a concession: ATM fees are around US $6 per transaction. For this reason, take out the maximum amount allowed.
Tip: Your next transaction will probably be paying a driver who may not have much change. Do yourself a favor by requesting baht in an odd amount to receive a few smaller-denomination banknotes. If you simply request 6,000 baht, you’ll receive six 1,000-baht notes that may be difficult to break. Instead, ask for 5,900 baht to receive a mix of smaller denominations. In a pinch, go break one of your 1,000-baht banknotes by buying something from one of the minimarts on Level 3.
The "Left Luggage" storage area in Suvarnabhumi Airport is on the second floor in Departures on the back wall near check-in aisle "Q." The cost is 100 baht per item per day.
For longer terms, consider checking with the AIRPORTELs kioks on Floor B (same as the trains) — look for a black box with yellow stripe and counter. The daily price is the same as the Left Luggage room (100 baht per day), however, they offer additional perks such as free delivery after three days and rate discounts after seven days.
Decide If You Want a Phone SIM
If traveling with an "unlocked" GSM-capable smartphone, you can go ahead and pick up a Thai SIM card at one of the kiosks located near the ATMs.
The big phone networks such as AIS offer week-long, unlimited-data plans that cater to short-term visitors. Alternatively, you can simply purchase a prepaid SIM without an accompanying plan and add credit to it as you go. Credit can be purchased at kiosks, minimarts, and other shops.
If there’s a long queue or you don’t feel like taking care of your phone needs just yet, don’t worry: you’ll find plenty of other mobile phone shops outside of the airport.
Tip: If your data plan isn't unlimited, ensure that your smartphone is configured for travel so that it doesn't waste paid credit by doing updates in the background!
Unless you're absolutely desperate after a long flight, you can safely forgo the overpriced airport food. You’ll find much better Thai food options once you get out of the airport.
The cheapest place to grab a quick meal is probably the food court on Level 1 near Gate 8 where airport employees tend to eat.
Shopping in the Airport
Unlike Kuala Lumpur's KLIA2 and Singapore's Changi Airport, Suvarnabhumi focuses more on being an airport than a mall. Aside from the usual airport duty-free options, plan to spend your baht for cheap souvenirs at MBK Center Mall or the sprawling Chatachuk Market rather than at the airport.
If you're in a pinch for some last-minute gifts, there are a few shops in the departures area that claim good causes. Items from Sai Jai Thai are made by employees with disabilities. Mae Fah Luang sells handicrafts made by hill tribe people in Northern Thailand. The OTOP shop claims to sell goods produced by villagers.
Level 4 of Concourse D is home to the luxury brands such as Coach, Bvlgari, Mont Blanc, Tiffany & Co, and the company they keep.
Free Wi-Fi in Suvarnabhumi Airport
Free Wi-Fi is available in Thailand's six largest airports, however, registration is required. Yes, you'll receive periodic emails after you register until you unsubscribe.
Access is limited to two hours. The three legitimate SSIDs for access are as follows: @AirportTrueFreeWIFI, @AirportAISFreeWIFI, and @AirportDTACFreeWIFI. SSIDs are case sensitive. Beware of rogue access points with labels such as "FreeWiFi" that are meant to capture your data.
Suvarnabhumi Airport Hotels
Finding a quiet, comfortable spot to catch a nap before a flight is challenging inside of Suvarnabhumi. Even securing a seat is competitive as nearly 61 million annual passengers make their way through.
The Boxtel located downstairs near the Airport Link is a quirky solution for travelers in transit who need to go horizontal. A wooden sleeping chamber (it's not as scary as it sounds) costs around US $10 per hour. The common area is well done.
If you need a little — actually, a lot — more room and some luxury, the Novotel next to the airport is the best choice. Shuttles run every 10 minutes and you can check in anytime day or night for a 24-hour stay cycle.
The Miracle Transit Hotel is onsite, however, the six-hour stays are relatively pricey. Travelers on a very tight budget may be interested in YHA Bangkok Airport Hostel just four miles away. Private rooms are available.
International Departure Steps
Here is how leaving Thailand through Suvarnabhumi typically goes down:
- Your taxi will drop you at the entrance. Pay attention to the airline signs hanging above each door.
- If you need a VAT refund for goods purchased, first go to Customs to have goods inspected and receipts stamped.
- Just inside the entrance, find the lettered check-in aisle for your flight number on one of the big boards. Don't be nervous if you can't find it at first; the boards cycle through at least three languages and aren't always up to date!
- Go through the check-in process with your airline.
- Move to the end of the check-in island to wait for your checked luggage to be screened. This only takes a minute.
- Once cleared, proceed to the back wall, show your boarding pass and passport, then go up to get stamped out by immigration. Tip: have your departure card completed and in hand. Someone may have stapled it into your passport when you arrived in Thailand. Agents in a hurry have been known to tear the passport page! Go ahead and take it out for them.
- Once cleared through immigration, show any receipts at the VAT window if you are eligible for a VAT refund on purchases.
- Go through security. The usual rules apply (e.g., remove shoes and jackets, take laptop out of its bag, etc).
- Check the big board to ensure your gate hasn't changed.
- Go to your gate but don't expect to get in yet. You'll be kept outside the gate until a short while before departure.
- When the crew are ready, they'll open the metal turnstile so that passengers can descend into the gate waiting area below. You will have to show your passport and boarding pass to be allowed into the gate area, then again when boarding the plane. Keep it out and handy until in your seat.
Getting Out of the Airport
Don't accept any offers for a taxi from anyone in the baggage claim area. Instead, proceed directly to the official taxi kiosks just outside of the airport or go to the basement to get a train.
- By Taxi: Even these official queues and the way they operate tend to change as different "gangs" take control of Bangkok's airport taxi system. In 2010, armed men even seized control of the airport taxi ticketing booths! On top of what the meter says, expect to pay an airport surcharge of 50 baht along with all tolls.
- By Train: Trains take a bit longer, but they can help you miss a lot of traffic, particularly if your hotel is in the Sukhumvit area. They're also a nice alternative to dealing with taxis and are much cheaper. Follow the signs for the train to the lower level then take the City Line to the Phaya Thai station where you can transfer to the BTS Skytrain; alight at the station nearest your hotel. Note: the airport train stops running at midnight.
Tip: If going to the Khao San Road area, look for a kiosk near Gate 7 on the Public Transportation floor (same floor as the taxi queue). There you can purchase an inexpensive ticket for a bus or van directly to Khao San Road. The service stops running at 8 p.m.
Getting to Suvarnabhumi Airport
Of course, hotel shuttle is the easiest way to get back to the airport when you're ready to leave Bangkok, but there are a few other ways to get to Suvarnabhumi.
- By Taxi: Getting a taxi to the airport is straightforward, but you'll want to ensure that you find an honest driver willing to use the meter. Passengers are expected to pay the tolls on the elevated tollway, which you will probably want to use to avoid the often-gridlocked traffic.
- By Train: Take the BTS Skytrain to the Phaya Thai station, then transfer to the airport train. If coming from near the Hualamphong train station, take the MRT (subway) to the Makkasan Station then transfer to the airport train.
Getting From Suvarnabhumi Airport to Don Mueang
If you need to hop between airports, go to Level 2 and look for the free shuttle bus to Don Mueang at Door 3. The shuttle runs roughly every 30 minutes between 5 a.m. and midnight.
The airport shuttle looks more like a full-size bus than a van. Look for blue markings that say "AOT Shuttle Bus."