I Get A Driving License!

“When is it acceptable to leave the scene of an accident?” the question asks.

“A) When you have been involved in a fatal accident and your life is in danger from the victim’s friends you run away fast but report to the police immediately

B) You must stay at the scene and give first aid

C) You must leave the scene at once before the police catch you.”

Helpfully, the correct answer is circled for me.

It is A . . .

I spent more of a day than I would have liked acquiring an Indonesian driving license. After my run-in with the traffic cops, and as the proud owner of a secondhand Honda Vario in a particularly heinous colour pattern, I figured I should get some sort of legal authority before driving through god knows how many islands to Papua.

A mission which brings us to the car police HQ, or Poltabes, a warren of buildings, cold drink shops and satay outlets about the size of a decent-sized city hospital. It’s in Denpasar, where I can apparently also purchase panniers for our mean machine.

The irony of driving a motorbike to the police station to buy a license is not lost on me.

In fact, I am mildly surprised that no enterprising soul has set up a checkpoint to fleece us unlicensed drivers as we arrive.

Quite why I thought I’d be able to achieve anything else in a day that involved Indonesian bureaucracy, I do not know.

The Indonesian government is the nation’s largest employer. So, as in many developing countries, the purpose of most government offices is not efficiency, not productivity, but maximum headcount.

Even islands with a population of a few thousand that see five or six foreigners a year often have their own tourist office, staffed by ten people doing, it appears, absolutely nothing.

No computers. No brochures. One phone and five desks between ten people. But some lovely uniforms.

In the more remote parts of East Indonesia — Morotai island springs to mind for some reasons, the tourist office are, collectively, so excited to see an actual tourist that they can be quite worryingly insistent that you “register” with them.

Once you are over the shock of yet another man in uniform insisting you fill in paperwork, they might even send out a staff member to escort you around.

The police force? Well, after decades of dictatorships, the Indo police force is a behemoth, particularly its secret division. (We made friends with the charming and ambitious head of the North Halmahera secret police after failing to fill in a pink form at our guesthouse and spending too much time in the internet cafe.)

I mean, seriously, what is the government to do? Make them all redundant?

As I weave through to the fourth motorbike parking lot at Poltabes, I wonder, idly, quite how many of these vehicles have been driven here by unlicensed drivers.

A license is technically compulsory in Indonesia but since it’s cheaper just to pay a bribe when you get stopped, and, even as a (de facto) wealthy foreigner, you only get stopped with good reason, many locals don’t bother.

“I am here to buy a license,” I explain. (Indonesian licenses, god help us, are valid in Australia and all over Asia.)

My interlocutor speaks good enough English to grin wryly at my choice of verb. “Buy,” he says. “Yeah.”

He directs me up some stairs, where a charming chap explains that, because I am on a tourist visa, I can only get a license for one month at a time.

The license does, however, include insurance, an item which I am keen to have. And since I have to extend my visa every month, I figure I might as well do the license while I’m about it.

A bunch of Balinese locals, outnumbered by the police supervising them, are poring over what appears to be a multiple choice theory test on computers.

This is cause for concern.

I had understood that the test element of the license was optional. But then I had also understood I could get a license for one year.

I go to the photocopying office and copy my passport.

I wait a while, then fill out eye-bleeding quantities of forms for a nice chap who compliments me on my muscles and asks if I work out.

“You don’t have an address in Denpasar?” he asks.

“Err, no,” I say. “We’re in Ubud.”

“You need an address in Denpasar,” he says. “Don’t worry! I’ll help you.”

He pulls out one of those pink slips you have to fill in when you register at a guesthouse. I forge it for him.

In among my paperwork is a theory test, imperfectly rendered into English then badly photocopied, with the correct answers circled.

“When the lights start flashing yellow do you: A) Sped up because the light may turn red B) continue normal or C) slow and then stop.”

The correct answer?


I figure I’d better get memorising.

We spend an unconscionable amount of time in the office. There are six officers in the room, but only one of them has the capacity to fill in paperwork and he has three sets to finish.

The other five take it in turns to make a fuss of Z, describing him as beautiful and suchlike, attentions which he takes with about as much grace as Stewie from Family Guy, while one of them patrols the computers like an exam-hall monitor.

Meanwhile, as paperwork man engages me in banter, I realise that I am now at the age when attentions one would have scorned with feminist vigour in one’s youth now count as simply a good thing full stop. Look! I have a pulse!!

Eventually, we complete the paperwork. I pay 175,000 rupiah, a fee whose formality I am unable to determine. Nor, in fact, do I care.

“Next, you need to go to the Praktek,” my new friend says. “Then after that, Bank BRI, to pay 100,000 rupiah more, and Loket III. I will show you where.”

We follow the signs 600 metres or so to the Praktek area.

There, to my utter horror, are a bunch of teenagers taking, well –- like, doh! –- motorbike driving tests, watched by their proud parents.

Me and driving tests have history. There is something about the test process that gives me the complete fear. I failed one for being a cretin, then for the next three my clutch leg shook so badly that I was less driving than bouncing. On my fifth go, I took beta blockers, and passed.

Though not without a bay park so ropy that the off-duty instructors and examiners in the centre were (truly) running a book on whether I’d get the car in between the lines or not.

This course also looks, well, rather difficult.

I mean, not Evel Knievel difficult. It’s a sort of tight wiggle through traffic cones followed by a tight, double figure-of-eight loop around more cones and a final straight between some bars.

But not the kind of manoeuvres I have had occasion to perform.

It is, all in all, the sort of activity to practise somewhere quiet first, on a familiar bike, rather than making an initial attempt on a police bike in front of an audience of amused Indonesian coppers, having paid twenty quid for the privilege.

I fill in some more forms and we watch. One young guy is imprecise on his first go, straying too far off the course lines. On his second, they are satisfied.

A young girl is up next. From the get-go, it appears that she has not spent much, if any, time on a bike. She does manages to get it started, then accelerates loudly while braking hard in the fashion common to all bike novices.

The police are p*ssing themselves.

Z is sniggering quietly.

I? Well, I have (virtually) been there. And, I, girlfriend, I at least am feeling your pain.

Before the girl can start her test, she needs to drive the bike five metres to the course. To do this, she needs to turn it around.

But her right hand is clenched tightly over both the brake and the accelerator. When she eases off on the brake, but is still clenched on the accelerator, the bike lurches terrifyingly and she clamps down again.

After a couple of agonizing and noisy minutes, the police stop the test. She has moved about three feet in the opposite direction to the course.

The senior cop, a fatherly chap, leans over to her mother and says, “Get your daughter some lessons, ya?”

My turn next. Cripes!

I had understood it was impossible to fail an Indonesian driving test. But this chick has shown me that you can.

I am summoned to the desk.

“Am I allowed to use my feet?” I ask hopefully. (Well, I actually say “Am I allowed to clothes my feet?” but he understands what I mean.)

“You should not,” he says.

“Oh,” I say. F*ck, I think.

“You have a license in your country?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I have an English license but I lost it. License for car, not a motorbike.” (Memo to anyone planning extended travel: get an International Driving Permit and check the expiry date on your license before you leave.)

“You can drive a motorbike?”

“Yeah, but when you drive on the road you’re not doing that,” I say, making wiggly telephone wire shapes with my hands. “You’re doing this.”

I mime a biker gracefully zooming between traffic in elegant sweeps, which is how our leaden perambulations play out on the screen inside my head.

“OK,” he says. He circles some things on the latest piece of paperwork in my by-now bulging folder and signs it. “You go to Loket III.”

It appears I have just passed my motorbike practical driving test. First time!

Z is, by this point, Stewie from Family Guy. “There is no way we are going to get bike panniers, not at this rate,” he says. “This is going to take all day and we cannot be late for our own going away party. How many more offices do we have to go to, Mum?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Sorry. You should have gone to school.”

At Loket III, I queue to pay a 100,000 rupiah fee at the cashier. At the next office along, I queue to deposit my stamped paperwork.

After 45 excruciating minutes I am called to collect my paperwork which is apparently untouched but now has a lovely blue folder.

I take my spiffy new folder through to an office that has –- gasp! -– computers, on which the majority of officers are playing Spider Solitaire.

The system crashes twice as the chap logs my details. A shame, really. His Spider Solitaire was showing real potential.

Me, Z and my paperwork, to which I am beginning to feel quite attached, trail through to the next office along. Here I am thumbprinted, photographed, and made to sign a piece of paper.

Then I take my paperwork to the next window, wait a bare ten minutes and receive a bona fide Indonesian driver’s license. It appears I have passed my theory test.

I’m legal! For a month…

19 Responses

  1. Oh the joys, right? Reminds me of a time in Ecuador when I went to pick up a package my mom had sent me. Had to go on two different days, and visit four different desks in the same office to get shit signed. Also had to wait while the entire office dropped everything they were doing to get an impromptu group picture.

    All that was in the package from my mom was my favorite potato chips and gum. The entire office laughed when they opened it and saw what was inside. 🙂

    • Theodora says:

      Yeah. I’m doing a visa extension today. It is, naturally, going to take all of today plus a second visit in a week. Not as bad as Bali. A 30 day extension required three visits on three separate days — four in our case, because they had omitted to tell me Z needed to come to the last one. I always get a warm feeling during the wildly inappropriate group photo, though. Just because it wouldn’t happen at home.

  2. cripes, t – what a HUGE mess. i am HOPING that the next month’s venture will be less time-consuming. z is a model of patience.

    • Theodora says:

      Yes, Jessie. I have it, at least. Wondering whether I should have offered bakhsheesh for a one year extension, but there were a lot of people there and it didn’t appear to be on the cards. Might try for a year next time around. In the throes of visa-ing at the mo. Always a pleasure.

  3. Nicole says:

    Yikes, there’s not much space between those cones. Did you actually have to weave through them? Photos and fingerprints: that’s big time. 😉

    • Theodora says:

      No, thank God. Because I would have soooo fallen off, or put my feet down. Weaving between cars, yes, all the time. But those things were barely a bike-length apart (if that).

  4. Andrew says:

    they put the cone like that so the one who didn’t bribe won’t pass until they paid the police lol…..

    • Theodora says:

      I did see one guy pass. But, yeah, I figure my 175,000 paid not at the cashier was a semi-official foreigner tax/bribe. For which I am truly grateful. Though I am going to practise in case when I need to renew next month they don’t have a briby system in place.

  5. Roy says:

    Sounds like a huge hassle! But congrats on being legal 🙂

    • Theodora says:

      Yes! Looks like they check your license at every ferry between the islands, so I’m glad I’m legal and intend to stay so…

  6. Seniors Travel Insurance Guy says:

    Oh I remember my last driving test…and I took two times to pass. I hadn’t studied and assumed I would be ok since I have been driving for decades. Nope!! Tricky questions got me. Thanks for the story, enjoyed your post.

  7. jim says:

    So true what you say about beaurocratic systems in developing countries designed to justify the neccessary existence of everyone for the least amount of actually completing anything…unles you pay ‘ speed money’..

  8. Justin Masters says:

    Do I need to have a valid drivers license in America or will my state ID work?

    • Theodora says:

      They don’t care which overseas driving license you have. If you want to drive without taking the Indonesian test, you need to have an International Driving Permit, for which you will need a full US license, and you’ll need to apply for that in the US. You can take the Indonesian test without any driver’s license from anywhere, though I really wouldn’t recommend Indonesia as a place to learn to drive — there’s a lot of traffic and much of it doesn’t follow what rules of the road there are, plus there isn’t insurance as recognised elsewhere, so you’ll be liable for any damage caused in any accident, no matter whose “fault” it was.

  9. Joe says:

    Hi, I will be in Bali early next year for over a month. I will only have my provisional driving license in Australia and no motorbike license, as I will be 18 at the time. Provisional meaning first license to drive after learners permit.
    Are you able to email me so I could talk about the process? Thanks. 🙂

    • Theodora says:

      Hi Joe,

      First up, I’d take a pre-learner course in Australia so that you are familiar with how a bike works and the basics at a minimum — I believe under Aussie law you’re too young to get a motorbike license? Bali’s roads are congested and hectic with varying surfacing, and it’s really not a great place to learn to ride a motorbike. On the plus side, you drive on the left. On the down side, you’ll find traffic the polar opposite of Australian traffic.

      In Bali only, citizens of other nations can get a one-month Indonesian license — after the month is up, you’ll need to repeat the process. It’s pretty simple, if time-consuming: go to Poltabes in Denpasar and follow the instructions people will give you. You’ll need to do some relatively simple road manoeuvres and hand over the required fees. Also check that your travel insurance will cover you when driving a bike on a license that’s not your home license.

      Please do let me know if you have more questions. I tend to prefer to discuss things in the comments sections rather than over email, as then info’s there for others to use…


  10. Stephanie says:

    I’ve heard that in Indonesia an accident is always the foreigners fault. This is on the basis that if the foreigner hadn’t been there, the accident would never have happened. Gotta love Indonesia!!! I’ve always got away with just a simple International driving licence in Indonesia, even when it was expired by over 2 years. With a smile, of course 🙂