Chiang Mai is the stronghold of digital nomads, expats, and long-term travelers.
In the old part of the city you will see more European/American faces than Asian. If you plan to stay for a while (one month or longer), it is advisable to rent an apartment because it will be cheaper than paying for a hostel or hotel.
Renting an apartment in Chiang Mai is very simple. You start around 9 or 10 am and just walk the typical areas. In Chiang Mai those are the highrises around the Huay Kaew Road and the Nimmanahaeminda Road. The pattern is always the same and equally simple: You find the entrance and go inside. Usually, there will be a manned desk (or several) in the entrance area. Walk up to one of the employees there and politely inquire if they have apartments available – either right away or at the desired rental date. The answer will almost always be a yes and you will be presented with a choice of available apartments. Apartments vary in amenities they provide and therefore in price. The bigger the more expensive, of course. Also, if you want the apartment to have a kitchen or kitchenette, prices will usually be a bit higher.
Some buildings offer discounts for rentals of 3 months or longer. It never hurts to ask.
Next comes the apartment viewing. This does not take long. If you liked the place, you could theoretically say yes to it immediately and go back down to the office to sign the contract. But it is in your own interest to view as many apartments as you can to compare prices and layouts. So best to just thank the employee for their time and that you may come back after you finished your apartment hunting tour.
Once you made the decision, go back to the building’s office and explain that you’ve looked at apartment so-and-so before and would now like to rent it. The contract is standardized and easy to understand, usually 1-2 pages long. You sign and put down the deposit (cash), then pay the first month’s rent (also cash). Then they will hand you the keys (if your rental begins right away).
It is possible and actually typical to find an apartment, sign the contract, and move in all in one day. That’s how it went for me.
Some things to keep in mind:
There is a high season in Chiang Mai – the European winter months. It can happen that in the high season demand for apartments is high and the popular houses/buildings are booked full. You might have to wait days or even weeks for an apartment to become available. Popular lodgings are: Pansook, Pansook 2, The Dome, the Baan Thai, Huay Kaew Residence, Huay Kaew Luxury and possibly a few more that I cannot remember right now. Many YouTube vlogger of the digital nomad variety have made videos about apartment hunting in Chiang Mai and therefore increased the demand (and the prices) for the mentioned buildings.
If you’re willing to live a little bit outside the city center, you should check out the area northwest of the moated square. Especially the residences in the Tanin Alley and the Sodsueksa Road are very nice. The buildings are fairly new and look like it on the inside. The distance to the tourist center makes for very cheap rentals.
Also remember that utilities (water and electric) have to be paid extra. They are measured in units and have to be paid at the end of every month. Depending on your usage, the sums can be as high as one third of the monthly renting price. Especially the water heater in the shower and the A/C add to the utilities cost.
Ask about internet. In some buildings the renting price includes WiFi, in others it has to be paid extra. Also ask about how many devices you can use the internet on.
Finally, look for additional amenities like laundry facilities in the building, a pool, or (covered) parking spaces because at some point you will want to rent a scooter. Make a grid to help you compare and contrast all the places you visit. Don’t forget to take notes while viewing an apartment. I can guarantee they will all bleed into one after you’ve seen a few. It’s good to have your own notes to refer to when making a decision.