21 Things to Know Before Moving to Bali
Moving to Bali is easy enough. Making expat life work is harder. Here’s a few things you really should know before you move to Bali.
1: “How Much Does It Cost to Live in Bali?” Well, That Depends.
The million dollar question for anyone moving to Bali is: “How much does it cost to live in Bali?”, a query roughly equivalent in value and focus to “How long is a piece of string?”
A couple could rent a kos, the bedsit-type apartments the majority of Balinese live in, for 500,000 rupiah (under $50) a month, plus a motorbike for another 500,000; or they could spend millions on an ocean-view megavilla, and run multiple cars and drivers. A solo chap could spend hundreds on fine dining, imported wines and expensive women or eat from local warungs for under a dollar. Families can shop at local markets for rice and veggies and put their kids in the local Indonesian primary, or head to delis for imported charcuterie and cheese and drop tens of thousands of dollars on a top-end international school.
Bottom line? There is no fixed answer, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying, but you’re pretty much guaranteed to spend more money than you thought you would. Sorry. Have a sunrise picture.
2: Road Signs Run Perpendicular to Streets
Everyone gets lost in Bali, all the time. Roads change name apparently at random, often indicated only by the small print at the bottom of shop signs, then change back again; street numbers perform bizarre leaps – 5, 17, 35, 999x, 73; roads are routinely closed for ceremonies; signage is limited; Apple and Google maps are a waste of space; even the Periplus print map has its moments; and a typical Balinese direction goes, “Straight, straight, straight then left at the banyan tree.”
Where there are street signs, however, they run perpendicular to the road they are naming, rather than parallel to it as in Anglo cultures. Unless someone’s run into them, obv.
3: Rentals are Paid Upfront
Whether you’re renting for one year, three years, 20 years, or 50 years, the money is paid upfront. All of it. You might be able to finagle X amount upfront followed by Y in three months, or, for longer leases, taper a 30-year payment over three years, but if you take a property for a year, you pay for the year upfront. If you take land for 20 years, you pay two decades cash down.
There are some monthly rentals – apart from kos, usually small tourist cottages or expat-operated villas – but you typically pay up to 50% over the yearly market price for the privilege, or more in high season. Not sure where to live? Agoda.com has good deals on guesthouses to stay in while you’re checking out areas, or you could sign up with AirBNB.
4: Booze Is Really Expensive
Bintang beer is cheap, at around IDR25,000 (US$2) for 660ml in a store. Swingeing import taxes mean that wines, spirits and liqueurs cost four to five times what they would back home: rough wine produced on Bali from Australian grape must starts at around IDR160,000 (US$13) in a shop, while imported South African, Chilean or Australian wines cost double that.
5: Visas Are Fiddly
One plus side of Bali? There is currently no official limit to the number of times you can enter Bali on a tourist visa. That said, in October 2015 an advisory recommended restricting entry for people with more than one tourist visa in their passports. While this has apparently been rescinded, there is an ongoing immigration clampdown on foreigners who are illegally employed in Bali, particularly in the tourism field.
As of July 2015, many nationalities (currently excluding Australians) can now enter the country without paying for a tourist visa. One catch? You only get 30 days, can’t extend, and have to both enter and leave through specific airports – one of which is Bali. Full details here. As of November 2015, you could still choose to ask for the old tourist visa on arrival at the airport. This costs US$35, lasts 30 days, and can be extended for another 30 days for IDR355,000 (US$26) independently, or from IDR600,000 (US$37) using an agent. You need to leave the country at the end of those 60 days (the old departure tax is now included in tickets).
Other options, for which you need to apply overseas, include the longer tourist visa, which lasts for 60 days (note that the Kuala Lumpur embassy no longer issues this), and which agents on Bali can extend twice, for 30 days each, and the social-cultural (sosial-budaya) visa, which provides an initial 60-day stay plus up to four 30-day extensions (we’ve heard the Kuala Lumpur embassy will only issue 30-day sosial-budaya visas). You need a local sponsor for the social-cultural visa.
For multiple entry visas, options are the KITAS, an expensive and hard-to-obtain residence visa which requires that you are employed, retired, in education or running a business in Bali, or the business visa. Despite the name, you can’t work on a business visa – it’s designed for people researching business opportunities. You can come and go at will, but still need to leave Indonesia at regular intervals, and if you’re in Indonesia for more than 180 days, you may need to pay tax.
Please note that Indonesian visa regulations change often. If anything’s unclear, please ask.
6: Bank Machines Eat Cards
Most Balinese ATMs spit out cash before returning your card: to retrieve the card, you have to press a key to exit, which means cards are often left in machines. Many banks will hold foreign cards at a main branch for you; at least one destroys all foreign cards found in the machine.
7: Electricity Is Complicated
Indonesian electricity is terribly democratic. If you use less, you pay less. More specifically, if you have less capacity to use electricity, you pay less per unit. That’s why villa rentals specify the electricity wattage: 7700W will enable you to run a bazillion air-conditioners, plus pool, plus electronics, plus watt-guzzling electric kettle, washing machine, water heaters, American-style fridge, at least when they’re not broken, but you will pay many, many times more per unit used than a local Balinese family running some lights, a couple of fans and a fridge. Moving from 7700W to 4400W, for example, can save well over a thousand dollars a year, though you might need to move to a gas kettle.
8: All Those Zeroes Can Get Really Confusing
A revaluation of the rupiah is on the cards over the next few years. For the moment, there are around 100 rupiah to every US cent, with the smallest coin worth 50 rupiah (sweets are given as a substitute in change) and the largest note a princely 100,000. A trip to the ATM makes one an instant millionaire – but it’s easy to slip up with a zero: if something looks super-cheap, recount. Or otherwise you’ll end up spending $40 on imported sausages which looked an absolute bloody steal at $4.
9: Your Banjar Matters
The banjar is one of the oldest social units in Bali, essentially a type of Hindu parish council: the guys in ceremonial gear you’ll see directing traffic from time to time are representatives of the banjar. Every resident in Bali pays monthly banjar fees, and may well be asked to contribute to the cost of the biggest ceremonies; the banjar police (pecalang) also administer justice (sometimes extremely rough justice) and are the first point of call in the event of burglaries etc. Needless to say, it pays to stay on good terms with your neighbours.
10: That Stuff in the Absolut Bottles? Petrol
Arak is made and sold on Bali, but the yellow murky stuff in the Absolut bottles at the roadside stands is petrol, sold to passing bikes at a small premium on the petrol station price.
11: Foreigners Cannot Own Property In Indonesia
Under Indonesian law, foreigners cannot own land or property in Indonesia, though many can and do take long leases. A popular workaround, known as the nominis system, means that an Indonesian national buys the property in their name but with a mortgage to the foreign purchaser that is never paid off – the nominis typically takes a percentage of the profits on any sale. As these agreements are intended to circumvent the law, they have never held up in court: even where the nominis is a trusted friend, his or her heirs may not feel the same way about the deal that the departed did.
12: Most Balinese Have the Same Names
Bali has a caste system, and most Balinese belong to the rice-worker caste. People from that caste are given names that match their position in the family, most of which can be used by either sex: Wayan, Putu, Gede (male) or Iluh (female) for the first-born, Made, Kadek or Nengah for the second, Nyoman or Komang for third-born, and Ketut for the fourth. Once you get to number five, the circle goes round again, so a family with eight kids is guaranteed two Ketuts. Unless they’re posh, of course.
13: Sales Tax Is Fiddly
High-end businesses will typically charge 21% – 11% tax plus 10% service – on top of their baseline prices; smaller businesses will charge less tax and no service; tiny businesses will charge no tax at all. So expect to pay at least 20% more than the headline price for any high-end meal, hotel or spa.
14: Nobody Wants That Pet You Just Acquired
Most rural Balinese don’t have the money to sterilise their dogs, so female puppies tend to be abandoned, leaving a glut of cute animals for foreigners to pick from. But because of rabies, dogs can’t leave Bali legally, so a lot of cute abandoned puppies end up being less cute abandoned dogs when their owner decides they’ve had enough of paradise. If your Bali dream is not complete without a pet, pick up a grown one from a departing expat. There’s a gadzillion going around, and its cute factor won’t deteriorate while you own it.
15: Pricing Is Random
Pricing in Bali, on everything from houses to petrol to food in the market, is driven less by Keynesian economics than by gossip and perception. If someone builds a fancy-schmancy gigantic 3-bedroom villa with an ocean view in A.N. Other village and rents it for 250 million, that becomes the rate for the myriad mini 3-bedroom villas that will pop up in its wake in A.N. Other village. If the petrol price goes up, prices of food in the market will go up, usually by the same amount. Food gets more expensive around Idul Fitri, not only because of the enormous evening feasts (iftar) but because Muslims are saving up money to return home. Oh, yeah, and neighbouring shops will sell identical items at wildly varying prices.
16: Right of Way Is Not Really a Thing
The Balinese driving style is fluid, instinctual and initially quite alarming, and the roads are way too small to fit everything in. That means you’re expected to move over when something comes towards you, regardless of whose lane it is; evasive action is a regular part of driving, rather than some special event; oh, and folk routinely pull out without looking.
17: There Are Loads of International Schools on Bali
There is a large expat community on Bali, and so there are tonnes of international schools, spanning the gamut from Asian academic to Euro-hippie. A few to get started with? Montessori, Pelangi, Green School, Dyatmika, Gandhi, CHIS, Canggu Community School, Bali Island School, the Australian Independent School… Which one you pick will depend on your (and your kids’) educational philosophy and goals, where you want to live, what you want to pay, and more. Prices range from $3000 per year for a littlie in a cheap school to over $20k per year for a 17 or 18 year old in an expensive school.
18: Cockerels Are a Killer
I can, personally, snooze through even the most vigorous call to prayer, and any number of all-night temple ceremonies, but cockerels are a sleep-killer – particularly on Bali, where some are farmed for the theoretically illegal cockfights that happen all around the island all the bloody time. An especially vigorous cockerel competition can set the neighbourhood dogs off in an absolutely rip-roaring dawn chorus. When leasing a property, do check for cockerels in the vicinity. You’re welcome.
19: You Need Insurance
Possessions insurance comes expensive in Bali, where the winning combination of open villas (yep, that’s right! You can’t lock some of these suckers…) and surrounding poverty makes for a level of burglaries that’s possibly as high as London – many expats opt for one or more of safe, dog and paid security staff. There are a range of expat-oriented medical plans from emergency medical and medevac only through to full dental and health care. WorldNomads allows you to set your home country as anywhere you are entitled to medical treatment, and covers adventure sports which many conventional insurers do not, so can work both as travel insurance and health insurance.
20: The Sea Deserves Respect
Bali has great surf, fantastic diving – and the strong currents, including rip currents, that go with both of those. Very few beaches have lifeguards, although surfers will assist in impromptu rescues, and folk get washed away all the time. Some rip currents in Bali are too strong to swim across – the key thing is to stay calm, visible (by raising an arm) and afloat until the rip weakens enough for you to swim across it and back towards shore, or someone comes to rescue you.
21: That Restaurant You’re Going to Open? Don’t.
Restaurants on Bali open and close at a rate that’s frankly dizzying. Legalities are a minefield; margins at most price points are low; rents are high, particularly for foreigners who don’t know the market; competition is legion; and running a hospitality business is insanely hard work. Scores of expats with no hospitality experience open restaurants every year, pursuing their retirement dream: very few will ever make a living. See also: spas, hotels, bars, yoga joints.
And… I think that’s it, for now at least.
Looking to learn more about life in Indonesia? Click here for the nine best books about Indonesia.
Anything to add? Stuff you wished you’d known? Or stuff you’d like to know? Drop me a comment, and let me know.