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A Practical Guide to the Way of Life in Indonesia

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Life in Indonesia

  • Indonesia has been subject to colonialism from the 16th to the 20th century; the official language is Bahasa and the predominant religion is Islam.
  • Its capital, Jakarta, is overcrowded and hectic, but the country offers many cultural and natural highlights, such as the island of Bali.
  • Traveling by plane is the easiest way to get around; in cities trains, buses, and taxis are a good means of transport.
  • There are different visas for various needs and/or occasions.

With a population of over 259 million, Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world. If you are planning on relocating to Indonesia, you will be living on the world’s largest archipelago, consisting of 17,508 or even 18,307 islands, depending on who you ask.

Only a third of the islands are inhabited, and scientists predict that about 1,500 of them will disappear by 2050. Because of their multitude, these islands have much to offer in the way of diversity. This does not only concern local flora and fauna, but also includes Indonesia’s fascinating cultural history.

Indonesia: A History Marked by Colonialism

The first human being living in Indonesia was¬†Homo erectus¬†or ‚ÄúJava Man‚ÄĚ, as he is colloquially called. This fact places the origins of human life on the archipelago at about half a million years ago. As you can imagine, much has happened and changed since.

Life in Indonesia has been influenced by a very turbulent colonial history. It became popular among European colonialists during the 16th century, when the desire for spices was at its strongest. At that time, the native people of Indonesia met the onslaught of Portuguese rule and then, following close behind in the 17th century, came the Dutch.

The Dutch briefly lost the colony to the British following the bankruptcy of the Dutch East India Company, but regained control in 1816 and held it until the late 1940s. The Indonesians endured a long period of difficulty, as their subjugation under successive colonial empires was brutal. In the 20th century, the Indonesian population began to tactically fight for their independence, which was realized in 1949, when the Netherlands finally recognized Indonesia’s sovereignty.

In order to unify the great ethnic diversity in the country, the founding fathers of the modern state created a republic government. A brief attempt was made at a federal republic, but in 1949 it was decided that Indonesia was to be known as ‚ÄúThe Unified Republic of Indonesia‚ÄĚ. There are 34 provinces, which are each headed by a governor. The provinces are further subdivided into regencies and cities. The current president of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, has been in office since July 2014.

A Cauldron of Languages and Cultures

As an expat living in Indonesia, you will be living in a melting pot. The official language is Bahasa Indonesian, modified from Malay, yet a multitude of other languages and dialects can be heard as well. Other languages you might come across in Indonesia due to its colonial past are English and, to a lesser extent, Dutch.

Indonesia is home to hundreds of local languages and dialects. The most widely spoken of these is Javanese, which is also the name of the largest ethnic group in the country. The majority of Indonesians are Muslim (87.2%), with a small number of Protestants (7%), Catholics (2.9%), Hindus (1.7%), and others joining the ranks.

As mentioned previously, there are over 259 million people living in Indonesia on an area of over 1.9 million square kilometers. The largest city is its capital on Java, Jakarta, housing 10.1 million inhabitants as reported in the official 2011 census. Found on the same island, the second largest city, Surabaya, has 2.8 million people, while Bandung on Java and Medan on Sumatra follow close behind, with 2.4 and 2.1 million respectively.

Destinations and Transportation in Indonesia

Choosing the Right Place to Live

In a country with almost two million square kilometers and over 17,000 islands, it can be quite difficult to choose where to settle down as an expat. The largest islands in Indonesia, and those best known among tourists and expats alike, are Java and Sumatra. Both islands offer a host of different opportunities for leisure activities and everyday life.

The Capital Jakarta: Populous, Frenetic, and Alive

The capital city, Jakarta, is located on the northwestern shores of Java. With a population of over 10 million people, you can imagine how crowded and hectic it is. Yet Jakarta also offers a lot of cultural and natural highlights.

It is both the economic and political capital of Indonesia. As such, it has attracted a huge number of Indonesians from other parts of the country, who have brought along a rich variety of customs, foods, and languages. For the art aficionados, Jakarta offers many museums and performing arts centers, as well as some prestigious international festivals.

Bali: The Island of Hindu Culture, Beaches, and Tourism

The island of Bali is one of the top tourist destinations in the world and probably offers more in the way of outdoor activities and sightseeing than Jakarta. With a very large Hindu population, Bali mixes local traditions and culture with Hindu beliefs.

Bali boasts Indonesia’s most famous white sand beaches and its most intricate temples. Many expats in Bali live in either its capital city of Denpasar or in one of the exquisite beach towns. Due to the fact that Bali’s main economic resource is tourism, the island primarily offers job opportunities in this industry. Therefore, it is mainly an island for the hoteliers and restaurant owners, or the retired.

The Best Way to Travel Around in Indonesia

Due to the nature of Indonesia’s geography, traveling by plane may be the easiest option.  There are 186 airports with paved runways in Indonesia, making a large number of domestic flights possible each day. The Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta is Indonesia’s largest airport. Other busy international airports include Juanda International Airport, located outside of Surabaya, and Ngurah Rai International Airport, located 13 kilometers outside of Denpasar in Bali.

Due to the sudden and considerable population surge in cities such as Jakarta, Bandung, and Surabaya, the road transportation system has suffered. Despite substantial work on road and transportation infrastructure, progress is still slow.

How Public Transportation in Indonesia Works

There is no subway or street car system anywhere in Indonesia. The only forms of public transportation are trains, buses, and taxis. Although on the rise, car ownership is not as predominant in Indonesia as in other countries. However, traffic is often congested and accidents unfortunately happen quite often.

Nevertheless, whether they choose to employ a driver or drive a car themselves, expats are advised to have their own vehicle, as the little public transportation there is cannot be fully relied on.

Many Indonesians who do not have a car own a¬†tuk tuk¬†instead. During your time in Indonesia, don‚Äôt miss out on the opportunity to take a ride on one of the many traditional¬†tuk tuks, covered, motorcycle-like vehicles with several seating options ‚ÄĒ but make sure it‚Äôs in a relatively quiet and safe area rather than in Jakarta‚Äôs rush hour traffic.

Alternative Means of Transportation

Other modes of transportation include railroads and waterways. Since the country is a large archipelago, water transportation is extremely important in Indonesia, although less so for the inhabitants themselves. There are several ferry services, such as the Pelni Company (website in Bahasa Indonesian only), which charter passengers from the larger islands to more remote ones. This is the best and most comfortable alternative to cover long distances at little cost.

All rail transportation is operated by the government-run PT Kereta Api Indonesia (Bahasa Indonesian only). Most railroads are located on the islands of Java and Sumatra and connect major cities on each island. The trains accommodate several classes, from the executive, with air-conditioning and plush seats, to economy class, with wooden benches and no air-conditioning at all.

Visa Regulations for Indonesia

The First Step towards a Visa

There are several different types of visas that can be acquired for Indonesia. Most of these must be applied for preceding your arrival. Be sure to contact your nearest Indonesian embassy or consulate to ensure that you have all the proper paperwork. It is also imperative that you have a passport that is valid for at least six months after your departure to Indonesia.

Below, you will find a list containing the valid visas for shorter stays in Indonesia alongside brief explanations. For an in-depth look at work-related visas and permits, please refer to our article on Moving to Indonesia, instead. Please remember to visit the website of the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for more specific and detailed information and also note that visa fees vary depending on your country of origin.

Visas for Shorter Stays

Visitation visas are divided into the following categories:

  • Tourist visa¬†(single or multiple entries)*: Valid for stays of up to 60 days, the tourist visa requires the display of a roundtrip itinerary, a return or through ticket, a copy of your bank statement, and an application letter. Please note that for some nationalities and ports of entry, there is also a visa on arrival available (see below) or, for single-entry tourist stays of up to 30 days, you might not even need a visa. For more details on the latter, please refer to the website of the Directorate General of Immigration.
  • Business visa¬†(single or multiple entries): As its name suggests, the intention of the holder of said visa has to be to do business in Indonesia. In order to successfully receive such a visa, you require a letter of purpose from your employer. Moreover, you need a guarantee that all your expenses concerning transportation and living will be covered. The maximum length of stay is 60 days.
  • Social visit visa¬†(single or multiple entries): This visa is to be applied for either by people wishing to visit relatives or participants in a cultural exchange. Requirements include a letter of invitation from the person or organization requesting your presence, a copy of the ID card or residence permit of the principal person residing in Indonesia, and proof of a roundtrip ticket.
  • Journalist visa: Please contact your respective Indonesian embassy for more information on press passes and journalist visas. Please be sure to do so well in advance of your planned departure, i.e. at least two months.
  • Research visa¬†(single entry only): Persons interested in applying for a research visa must get the approval of both the¬†Ministry of Education, Culture, Research, and Technology¬†and the Directorate General of Immigration. The relevant contact email address is
  • Visa on Arrival (VOA):¬†As its name suggests, this visa is applied for directly at the airport upon arrival in Indonesia. It is only an option for residents of¬†certain countries, though. It is only valid for a period of 30 days, which can be extended for another 30 days upon re-application. This means that you may stay a total of 60 days in Indonesia on a VOA. However, it doesn‚Äôt qualify as a working visa and cannot be converted to any other kind of valid visa. The application for those is separate and must be made from your home country.

* Please note the following: single entry means you can enter Indonesia only once, while multiple entries allow you to enter several times during the validity period of your visa.

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