13 tips for studying in Indonesia as a foreigner

Indonesia is a breathtaking country made up of thousands of islands, a stunning 17,500 of them! This culturally diverse corner of South-East Asia has become a popular tourist destination now that travellers have discovered its vibrant culture of art, music, dance and storytelling. 

However, it’s not just for tourists. More and more expats have moved to Indonesia to explore its beauty and to teach English and work or study. If you are planning to study in Indonesia, here are 13 tips to get you started.

1. Keep up to date with your visa

To study in Indonesia, you will need to be accepted into an Indonesian university and gain a letter of acceptance. Then you need to:

  • Apply for a Study Permit from the Ministry of Education
  • Apply for an entry visa (VITAS) from the Indonesian embassy in your country
  • Once you get in country you will need to change your VITAS to a KITAS (limited stay permit) at the Immigration Department 
  • Get a Certificate of Police Registration Card

Unfortunately, there is no one application for a student visa as all these things make up the visa. 

How long does a student visa last? The answer to that question is based on the length of your courses. You may need to renew it several times over the duration of your stay.

2. Start classes as soon as you arrive

This might seem counter intuitive, as most people like to settle in before starting classes. However, if you don’t know how to speak Indonesian then it can be hard to settle in without having lecturers or tutors who can answer your questions. 

3. Board with locals 

Shared housing may seem daunting but it will help you get to know others in a relatively short space of time. There are a number of options for this in most Indonesian cities. Bed sitting is the most popular with singles. A bed sitter is basically a small studio apartment with a kitchenette, sometimes at the back of someone’s house. 

Most universities also have an option to board on campus, or they can arrange for you to board with a local family or other singles from the university. Another plus for shared housing is that food is often included, so in your first few weeks you won’t have to navigate the bustling markets and you can learn to cook with new ingredients when you feel up to the challenge. 

Keep in mind it’s rare for an Indonesian single to live alone, so if you have a house to yourself then you will probably be asked “Aren’t you scared to live alone?” or “Why do you need all that space to yourself?”

4. Learn culture and go with the flow

When researching Indonesia, most of the information you’ll find will be related to life on the island of Java. However, Indonesian culture varies from island to island so it’s worth bearing that in mind when you first arrive. That being said, Indonesia bears similarities with its Asian neighbours, such as valuing hospitality and harmony. People will likely be courteous and indirect even if they disagree with what you are saying. Face is also a strong value that indicates a person’s reputation and honour, and people tend to act conservatively to avoid doing something inappropriate that will make them lose face. 

Indonesia is also collectivistic, as opposed to individualistic, which mean people see themselves predominately as a member of a group rather than an autonomous individual. This means people will often go with the group consensus, even if it’s in conflict with their own wishes. 

5. Understand what drains you 

When you’re in a new place, your brain works overtime to process all the unfamiliar things that you come across. And when things are familiar, your brain gets a break…kind of like when people drive on autopilot they won’t even remember the drive because it’s so familiar. 

You may think you’re taking a break when you’re hanging out with local friends or taking in the sights, but be don’t be discouraged if you get worn out from even ‘relaxing’ things. Especially if you don’t understand Indonesian, then it’ll require 100% of your attention just to understand what’s going on around you. 

6. Be prepared for questions

It’s normal to be asked personal questions in Indonesia. People are curious and want to get to know you. If you’re single, then locals may ask why you aren’t married or what you are doing studying so far away from family. And if you’re married without kids, then it’s common to be asked why you don’t have kids and to be given fertility advice. 

7. Make local friends 

Making local friends is a game changer. You experience in Indonesia will be all the richer for it as it’s locals who have an intimate understanding of the culture. Although it’s great to have expat friends, local friends will be able to introduce you to the reality of everyday life.

8. Ask what’s normal 

To get the most out of your time in Indonesia, ask a local what is normal. Expectations of dress codes, alcohol consumption and what is considered appropriate behaviour varies and life in the city is very different to life in a rural village. 

If you are from a Western country, there are plenty of different customs to get used to. For example, asking for your phone number is common when first meeting someone and in no way suggests romantic intent. People will want to take your photo and you may be called “Mr” even if you are a woman!

9. Learn Bahasa Indonesian

Indonesia is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world with over 580 languages and dialects.

However, 94% of the population speaks Indonesian, so if you want to communicate with locals, your best bet is to learn Indonesian. Not only will it help you communicate with locals, it will also mean you won’t be as susceptible to scams as you learn realistic prices for things. 

10. Explore the beautiful scenery the country has to offer 

In amongst your studies don’t forget to make time to explore the beautiful scenery. 

Indonesia has numerous high mountains, many of which are still active, like the popular climbing destination Mount Semeru. It is also home to tropical jungles and rainforests and national parks, such as Tanjung Putting National Park, which is one of the world’s natural wonders and home to endangered orangutans. 

If you are interested in diving, visiting Raja Ampat is a must. It’s one of the most popular diving destinations in Indonesia. (And by the way, the archipelago is home to as much as 75% of the world’s coral species).

11. Try local cuisine 

Indonesian cuisine is often based around rice, the national dish being nasi goreng (basically ‘fried rice’). Rice is served even for breakfast and dessert. Often the intense flavour of the food comes from mixing very sweet and sour ingredients together, like the sweet soy sauce called kecap manis which is in many dishes and often mixed with limes or tamarinds. 

12. Enjoy the low cost of living

Compared to Western countries, the cost of living in Indonesia is low. A single person’s budget per month (without rent) is roughly $430 USD per month. 

If you are coming from a Western country, your money will stretch far with a meal at an inexpensive restaurant priced at roughly $1.60 USD. Monthly transport costs are roughly $10 USD and a one-bedroom apartment in the city centre is roughly $270 USD a month. 

Tuition fees vary from university to university, but the average cost is between $2000 and $6000 USD per year for international students. 

How do you support yourself as a foreign student in Indonesia?

You can’t work on a student visa in Indonesia, so you will need to have either savings or a form of foreign or passive income. 

13. Be respectful of those with a different religion

Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim community with 88 percent identifying themselves as Muslims. 

The Indonesian Constitution gives freedom of religion and this seems to have filtered through to street level with expats reporting a feeling of tolerance and acceptance in general. 

Indonesia is a shame-based culture (as opposed to the Western guilt-based culture). This means that respect is very important.

How do you show respect in Indonesia? 

There are several things you can do to be respectful of predominately Muslim values at an Indonesian university.

  • Avoid wearing revealing clothing
    Local women wear long skirts and pants with a loose-fitting top and men wear long pants even in the heat. A plus with this dress code is that you will be protected from the sun. 
  • Check before you drink alcohol
    Drinking alcohol is frowned upon by Muslim community in Indonesia and even banned in some public spaces. Even if it is allowed in your area, it’s probably best to avoid drinking alcohol around local students to avoid offense. 
  • Learn basic etiquette 
    There are a few do’s and don’ts you can easily learn to show respect, like removing shoes before entering a house, passing food with your right hand and (if you are a woman) wearing a head scarf when visiting a mosque.

Studying in Indonesia will be a culturally rich experience and we hope these tips help you get the most out of your stay. If you can be adventurous, respectful and open to questions and the local way of doing things, then you will be embraced with open arms.

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