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, storytelling and craft, and offers a rich and varied lifestyle for expats.

Nevertheless, as exciting and exotic as the country is, there are still some downsides 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 the city. 

Despite alcohol being very expensive, it’s not prohibited and there are many popular bars and clubs to choose from. There are plenty of excellent places to eat and drink, or relax with a coffee. Indonesian food is excellent and varied enough to cater to everyone’s dietary needs. If expats finding themselves craving Western fast food, there are the usual American fast food joints dotted around most cities and international food is available in all the major tourist spots.

- 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 prevalent in Indonesia. 

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 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 more 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. If choosing to live in an expat area be prepared to pay a lot more than if living amongst the locals. 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: Decent healthcare

Most minor medical emergencies can be handled from within 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 usually cheaper than what one would expect to pay in the West. 

- CON: Poor sanitation

Stomach bugs are a part of life in Indonesia and are easily contracted by expats. 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 expats should try not to eat the street food, however tempting it may look or smell. 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: Affordable taxis

Taxis are abundant and ridiculously cheap when compared to the West, and if tipped 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 well worth the cost 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. 

- CON: Traffic congestion

One of the greatest disadvantages of living in Jakarta is the traffic. With over 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. Motorcycle taxis known as ojeks are good, but not always ideal if it’s pouring with rain or if one has shopping bags to carry.

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 or cable is easily installed and not expensive. To hire household help of any kind, be it household staff, a gardener, driver or nanny, the cost 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 European prices.

Shopping for food in the supermarkets, especially Western-styled ones, 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 will need to be accounted for in the budget.