Pros and Cons of Moving to Indonesia

Indonesia’s 17,500 islands make it the world’s largest archipelago. This culturally diverse corner of Southeast Asia maintains a rich tradition of music, art, dance, story-telling and craft, and offers a rich and varied lifestyle for expats.

Nevertheless, as exciting and exotic as the country is, there are still cons to living in Indonesia. Depending on the origins of an expat, these things may be of little or no concern, but they are worth considering if thinking of settling in Indonesia.

Lifestyle in Indonesia

+ PRO: Vibrant nightlife and entertainment

The nightlife in Indonesian cities is vibrant and modern and there is a thriving music scene with bands playing almost every night of the week, so it’s not difficult to have a good time if one knows where to look for it. In Jakarta, the cultural side of life is very rich with regular art shows, music and film festivals. International rock bands and famous singers regularly perform gigs hosted in Jakarta. 

Despite alcohol being very expensive, it’s not prohibited and there are lots of good bars and clubs to choose from. There are plenty of excellent places to eat and drink, or relax with a coffee. Indonesian food, though typically spicy, is excellent and varied enough to cater for everyone’s dietary needs, be it vegan, vegetarian or carnivore. If one is craving Western fast food, there are the usual American fast food joints like Burger King, McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut. International food is available in all the major tourist spots and cities.

- CON: Conservative culture

Expats in Indonesia will find themselves having to adjust to and respect the local customs, whether cultural or religious. Indonesian society is largely Muslim and conservative. This may take some readjustment, particularly for Western expats. The dress code is more modest and conservative than what some expats may be used to. Skirts above the knee are considered indecent, and tighter control over women's attire is prevelant in Indonesia. Women do not have the same status as men, unless they have earned it through hard work.

Another thing worth bearing in mind is that Indonesia does not have the drinking culture that is found in other places, like Europe. Alcohol prices are inflated compared to most other countries. Bribery and corruption are rife, so be prepared to carry papers at all times. It is not uncommon to be stopped by police at random. 

+ PRO: Expat organisations

For expats, especially women who feel isolated from their compatriots, there are a number of well-run and established organisations, like the British Women’s Association in Jakarta, which host weekly meetings, various events and fundraisers, as well as giving informative talks about the realities of life as an expat woman in Indonesia. They offer support through their meetings and network, and can give help and advice on any number of issues that may arise. This may be especially helpful for women who are new to Indonesia and are trying to get established and settled in a country far away from their friends and family. 

There are various organisations that expats can join to volunteer if they would like to support one of the myriad charities that work in Indonesia. The very young, the elderly and the sick are particularly vulnerable.

- CON: Social inequalities and poverty

Poverty and the disparity between the rich and the poor is something that some expats might find quite shocking. Nothing can prepare expats for this, especially those coming from developed and richer nations. It’s not uncommon to see small children with babies tied to their fronts, ducking and diving through the heavy, polluted traffic, and begging in Indonesian cities. For many Indonesians, living in poverty is all that they have ever known, and there are few support systems to change this situation. 

Accommodation in Indonesia

- CON: Overcrowding

Space is at a premium in Jakarta so expect to pay a lot more if wanting a house with a garden in an expat area. Most people opt to live in apartments. Expats can be expected to pay up to two years cash in advance for rental property so they should choose wisely and do their research. If choosing to live in an expat area be prepared to pay a lot more than if living amongst the indigenous population. In major Indonesian cities, traffic can be horrific so, ideally, expats should try to live somewhere that is as close to work as possible. 

Healthcare in Indonesia

+ PRO: Healthcare

Most medical emergencies can be dealt with in Indonesia. However, for any serious emergencies, Singapore, which has world-class medical facilities, is just a two-hour flight away. Good private dentists are available and the dental costs are relatively cheaper than what one would expect to pay in the West. 

- CON: Poor sanitation

Stomach bugs are a part of life in Indonesia and something that expats can easily contract. Dengue fever is another serious problem, especially in the rainy season, and internal parasites are not uncommon. Only bottled water should be consumed, and if possible try not to eat the street food, however tempting it may smell or look. Fresh juices are sold widely from carts on the roadside in Indonesia; they are often diluted with water of dubious origin and can cause serious illness.

Transport in Indonesia

+ PRO: Taxis

Taxis are abundant and ridiculously cheap compared to the West, and if tipping well the driver will wait for passengers while they do their shopping. It is very uncommon for expats to drive in Jakarta and most people employ a driver. A good driver is worth it as they have knowledge of all the side streets to make travelling around more bearable. Having a driver in the West would be considered a luxury; here in Indonesia it is a part of life for most people with a stable income. 

However, it’s not uncommon for the taxi driver to get lost so it’s vital to have some knowledge of where one is heading to, with an address and ideally a map as well. Getting around anywhere in Jakarta often takes hours. Be prepared for this and factor this in, especially if one has important meetings to attend or flights to catch. It helps to be patient when travelling anywhere in Jakarta. Bicycles are not advised.

- CON: Traffic congestion

One of the greatest disadvantages of living in Jakarta is the traffic. With 12 million people using the city’s roads daily, congestion is a nightmare and traffic jams are a normal part of life. The pollution generated by the exhaust fumes hangs like an umbrella over the city and the public transport system leaves much to be desired. Overcrowded buses, which should have been sent to the scrap heap years ago, regularly break down on the roadside, causing more jams, and there is no subway or monorail system in place to help transport the thousands of commuters to and from work daily. Ojeks, which are the motorcycles that one can catch a ride on for a small fee, are good, but not perfect if it’s pouring with rain and/or one has shopping bags to carry. 

Climate in Indonesia

+ PRO: Tropical climate

The tropical climate, humidity aside, makes a refreshing change from the dull, cold, grey days that are experienced in Western winters. Daylight hours are roughly the same throughout the year with sunrise on average at 6am and sunset at 6pm. Even in the rainy season it is still very warm and showers don’t tend to last long. Due to the high temperature, it’s unheard of to ever feel cold.

- CON: Humidity

Humidity ranges from 70 to 90 percent. Humidity can be very unpleasant and can take a while to get used to. There are only two seasons in Indonesia; the wet season, which runs from November to March, and the dry season, which runs from April to October. The temperatures range from 84°F to 95°F (29°C to 35°C) all year round, which may make it uncomfortable for those that do not like heat.

Cost of living in Indonesia

+ PRO: Cheap food, communications and household help

Eating out is very cheap if alcohol is not included. Shopping for local fresh produce in the markets and warungs is fun and there are great bargains to be found. If buying locally and skipping the supermarkets, one can live very cheaply and well. 

Mobile phone tariffs are very good value and broadband and cable is easily installed and not expensive.

To hire household help of any kind, be it household staff, a gardener, driver or nanny, is considerably cheaper than in the West.

Textiles are abundant in Indonesia and considered cheap. By finding the right tailor, made-to-measure clothes become a way of life.

- CON: Expensive imported products

The cost of living really depends on where one comes from and price comparisons. In general, imported goods, whatever they are, are much more expensive than Indonesian products. Photographic equipment, clothing, art supplies and electrical goods can cost a small fortune compared with current European prices.

Shopping for food in the supermarkets, especially Western-styled ones such as Hero or Ranch Markets, can be very expensive. Electricity bills can be disproportionately high, and for people who are used to getting visits to the doctor and certain medicines for free, healthcare should be accounted for in the budget.

Lottie Nevin Our Expat Expert

I was born and raised in the UK by my Dutch mother and my English father. After leaving school I travelled extensively and lived abroad for a year before settling down and bringing up five children of my own. I have had many jobs over the years, some of which were terrible, some very interesting, but I am always at my happiest when I am making my own work as an artist. I also love design and have a small design company based in the UK.

Last year my husband was asked to help set up a new University here in Jakarta. We jumped at the opportunity to move to Indonesia and be part of such an exciting project. We now split our time between Bali and Jakarta, giving us the best of both worlds. I started writing a blog soon after we arrived. The first post is called 'Yes, we've arrived in Jakarta' and I hope that with each post that follows, I can give the reader some idea of the ups and downs and mad things that happen to us as our new life in Indonesia unfolds.