Indonesia has a lot to offer expats, including beautiful white beaches, warm tropical weather and an array of exciting local cuisine. While the capital, Jakarta, and the island of Bali are where most expats head, there are well over 17,000 islands to explore across the archipelago.
The tropical islands that make up Indonesia offer exciting work opportunities for those with the right skills and can be an excellent place to retire. Those who love to travel will enjoy Indonesia’s position as a base for visiting some of Southeast Asia’s most vibrant destinations like Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia. Australia is also just a short flight away.
This guide contains information on all aspects of life in Indonesia, from culture and climate to business, banking, and more.
Nationals of a number of countries may visit Indonesia for up to 30 days visa-free. However, those from countries not on the visa-free list will either have to obtain a visa at the border or apply for one in advance of their trip.
Expats intending a longer stay to take up work in Indonesia face a somewhat trickier process. First, they’ll need to secure a job so that they have an employer to act as a guarantor for the visa application. Before entering the country, a limited stay or semi-permanent residence visa (known as a VITAS) is needed.
Once in Indonesia, the VITAS is converted to a KITAS, which is a temporary residence permit that will need to be renewed periodically. After three consecutive years of living in Indonesia, expats can apply for a permanent residency permit (KITAP), which is renewable once every five years.
Expats in Indonesia usually rent rather than buy accommodation. The type of housing available mostly depends on where one plans to live. In big cities like Jakarta, apartments are most common and often come furnished. Luxury serviced apartments are particularly popular with expats because they offer Western-style living with plenty of amenities.
In smaller outlying islands, houses are the norm, either in the form of townhouses or freestanding properties. Western-style complexes are also available and usually come with shared facilities like pools, clubhouses and tennis courts.
The best way to find accommodation is to use a real estate agent, preferably one who’s worked with expats before. An agent can recommend areas of the city and should be able to help bridge any communication gaps.
A standard lease in Indonesia is two or three years long, with rent paid upfront for either the entire lease period or, in rare cases, advance of one year at a time. Deposits are usually the equivalent of one month’s rent and utilities are typically not included in the rental cost.
Indonesia has one of the world’s largest education sectors. Despite this, the quality of public schools is generally low, and teaching is entirely in Indonesian, so expat parents often prefer to avoid them. Parents that do decide to send their children to a local public school will have two choices: national schools, which teach Indonesia’s national curriculum, and “national plus” schools, which go beyond the national curriculum’s requirements. Some “national plus” schools teach partly in English.
International schools are a good alternative to Indonesia’s local schools, and luckily there are plenty to choose from. Children at these schools can continue with their home curriculum (or pursue another internationally recognized curriculum), often in their home language. There’s a range of international schools in Indonesia, most of which are based in the major cities of Jakarta, Bandung and Surabaya.
These teach various curricula, including British, American and the International Baccalaureate. Although these schools offer a good standard of education, they’re often expensive and the demand for seats can outstrip the availability of spaces, so it’s best to apply as far in advance as possible.
The weather in Indonesia stays humid and hot throughout the year, never straying far from the 82°F (28°C) mark. Though temperature doesn’t change much from month to month, the seasons are marked by rainfall, with the dry season being from June to September and the wet season from December to March.
The latter can bring monsoons and tropical storms to the region, while the dry season is generally considered the best time of the year in Indonesia.  The warm waters and sunny days offer the perfect opportunity to enjoy the region’s many islands and beaches.
Though freedom of religion is enshrined in Indonesia’s constitution, more than 80% of the population is Muslim. As a result, Indonesian culture is conservative. Locals are often soft-spoken but usually very friendly, so it should be relatively easy to make local friends.
There are an estimated 700 languages spoken throughout Indonesia, dozens of which are in danger of dying out. The official language is Indonesian, a variant of Malay also known as Bahasa Indonesia. While this is the general language of commerce, media and education, Javanese is more widely spoken as a first language. In some tourist areas, like Jakarta, English is more common but proficiency may be limited. If expats want to integrate into Indonesian society, they’ll likely need to learn a local language.
Foodies moving to Indonesia are in for a treat. The diversity of the country has resulted in a rich mix of flavors, and eating is a multisensory experience in Indonesia. Much of the cuisine is centered on rice, the country’s staple food. Some of the best-loved traditional Indonesian dishes are satay, rending and nasi goring.
Those craving Western-style fast food will find plenty of familiar international chains in Indonesia.
Expats dining in Indonesia may be surprised when they’re given only a fork and spoon to eat with – this is common, and in traditional Muslim restaurants, there may be no utensils at all. Eat only with the right hand, as the left hand is considered dirty in the Islamic culture.
As Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country, drinking alcohol is something of a taboo. For Muslims, religious beliefs don’t permit alcohol consumption and the government also imposes high taxes on alcohol to deter drinking in general.
Although Islam is the dominant religion in Indonesia, the country’s calendar of public holidays is relatively mixed, with Christian holidays incorporated as well.
During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast worldwide. It’s polite to refrain from eating around those who are fasting. If invited, Western expats should take the opportunity to join Muslim friends or colleagues for the breaking of the fast after sunset, where a delicious feast is served.
New Year’s Day – 1 January
Chinese New Year – January/February
Balinese New Year – First new moon of March
Good Friday – April/March
Ascension of the Prophet – 27 Rajab*
Labor Day – 1 May
Buddha’s Birthday – May
Ascension Day of Jesus Christ – May
Pancasila Day – 1 June
Eid al-Fitr – 1 Shawwal*
Independence Day – 17 August
Eid al-Adha – 10 Dhul Hijja*
Islamic New Year – 1 Muharram*
Prophet’s Birthday - Rabi' al-awwal 12 or 17*
Christmas Day – 25 December
*Dates according to the Muslim calendar
The vast size of Indonesia makes it difficult to generalize the availability, dependability and quality of telecommunications services. Telkom Indonesia, the majority of which is owned by the state, is at the forefront of the telecoms industry, providing cellphone, internet and cable television services. There are also a number of smaller competing companies.
Landlines are still used in Indonesia for phone calls as well as internet access. If a house or apartment doesn’t come with a telephone line, expats should enquire with Telkom Indonesia about having one installed.
Mobile phones (known locally as “hand phones”) are becoming increasingly popular. Reception for cellphones can be patchy in rural areas, though. XL, Indosat and Telkomsel are popular mobile service providers, and there are several other smaller providers on the market, too.
Though broadband is becoming more common, many internet users in Indonesia still use dial-up. Around half of Indonesia’s population has internet access. As the country is made up of thousands of islands – some large and others very small – the availability and speed of the internet can differ greatly from place to place. Generally, larger cities will have better infrastructure and more reliable internet service than outlying islands.
Pos Indonesia is owned by the state and manages the postal service across the archipelago. Though the company once had a reputation for slow delivery and losing parcels, their quality of service has improved greatly over the last few years. But for particularly important packages (especially those sent internationally) it’s best to use one of the international postal services available, such as DHL or FedEx.
Indonesia has a steadily growing economy and is a G20 country – a group of major world economies. Most of the archipelago’s GDP comes from agriculture, but other thriving industries include the service sector, mining, electronics and tourism. There are also opportunities for teaching English. It might be difficult for expats looking for work in Indonesia to find a job, though, due to strict visa requirements. For this reason, expats planning to emigrate should rather secure a job beforehand.
Income tax is charged progressively, though the amount differs by region. For instance, salaries in Jakarta are taxed on a sliding scale of 10% to 40%, depending on the size of one’s salary. Those present in Indonesia for at least 183 days in any 12-month period are classified as residents for tax purposes.
Retiring in Indonesia is an appealing prospect for lovers of sun, sand and sea, with Bali being an especially popular retirement destination. For those intending to retire, a special visa is available. Only certain nationalities are eligible for the Indonesian retirement visa, and applicants must be at least 55 years old. They must also have adequate health and life insurance. Working while on a retirement visa isn’t allowed.
Indonesia’s growing economy offers plenty of business opportunities for entrepreneurial expats. The center of business is Jakarta, though Surabaya and Bandung are also notable business hubs.
Though Indonesia is an exciting place to do business, there are certain drawbacks, one of which is the seemingly endless bureaucracy. Regulations often change, and it isn’t always easy to keep track.
Indonesian business people often speak English, especially in Jakarta. There are exceptions, though, so it can be useful to have an interpreter on hand or learn some key phrases in Indonesian. Being able to at least greet in Indonesian is a good way of showing respect for locals.
Dress is conservative – suits are a good option, and women should take particular care to dress neatly and not expose too much skin.
Expats will notice that Indonesians are friendly people and enjoy hosting guests. Harmony is important in relationships with Indonesians, in business or otherwise. To this end, it’s vital to understand the concept of "saving face", which involves respecting the reputation and honor of others by not shaming them in public.
It can take several meetings for decisions to be made as Indonesians like to build a relationship with business partners first. Expats should always exude a calm demeanor and it’s vital to speak politely and respectfully during meetings. Trying to go for a “hard sell” or putting on pressure will likely jeopardize the chance of doing business.
That said, the emphasis on harmony in relationships makes doing business in Indonesia a pleasant experience overall, and the dynamic and growing economy is ripe for investment.
The various public transport systems in Indonesia complement each other and are well-connected, but can sometimes be slow. Most expats prefer to use either their own car or they get around using taxis.
Apart from taxi cabs in the form of cars, other taxi options include cycle rickshaws (becak), autorickshaws (bajaj) and motorcycle taxis (obeks) – but these are often dangerous and aren’t recommended.
Buses come in various forms, and those living in Jakarta will have access to the city’s bus rapid transport system. Throughout Indonesia, expats will also see minibuses, known locally as angkut. They tend to be operated on a shared basis, so it’s not uncommon to wait around as the minibus slowly fills up.
For long-distance travel, trains can be used in some cases – otherwise, domestic flights or ferries are the way to go. It’s also possible to hop over to nearby countries like Singapore and Malaysia via a short flight or ferry trip.
The official currency is the Indonesian rupiah (IDR), which is subdivided in 100 sen. Sen have become obsolete due to inflation. The rupiah is commonly referred to as “perak” by locals.
Money is available in the following denominations:
Managing finances in Indonesia can take some time to progress. There are reputable local banks available, though expats who already have an account with an international bank might prefer to simply maintain that account rather than open a new one.
Expats will need their passport, residence permit and proof of address to open an account. Staff at most banks should be able to speak English, though the websites of some local banks are only available in Indonesian.
The cost of living in Indonesia is low in some respects and very high in others. The biggest expenses for expats are likely to be accommodation, healthcare and, if sending children to international schools, tuition. Meanwhile, expats can save on the grocery bill by shopping at markets, and domestic help is an affordable luxury.
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