Working in Indonesia as an expat

Exotic green parrot with a weird and creepy tiger head

© The Shortlisted

These days, more and more accomplished professionals and digital nomads from countries like Italy, France the UK and the US have been thinking about working abroad in countries such as New Zealand or Indonesia as foreigners or expats.
Many also end up finding their graduate dream job in Asia.

There are some good job opportunities in Indonesia for English-speaking expats, mostly for English teachers (TEFL teachers and others), but, in addition to learn how to arrange their own visas and work permits, foreigners will also have to learn how to live in a new culture.

The first point you absolutely need to get as you move to Indonesia is that – unlike what you were perhaps used to in other countries – you are not going to find a defined set of cultural codes and rules here.
Indonesia is a huge (and when I say huge, I really mean it) archipelago composed of over 17,000 islands; not all of them are inhabited – but those that are, welcome over 350 different ethnic groups speaking more than 700 languages and dialects.

In Indonesia, you can expect immense skyscrapers hosting top-class shopping malls where the AC would embarrass a penguin, and, very close to these, remote islands without electricity facilities or running water.

Although you will likely to be working in a micro-culture, depending on where you will be based, you should always keep in mind that:

Democracy is still a relatively new concept in Indonesia.
Diversity within the country is massive.
● The recent stark economic growth has led to a lot of cultural and social contradictions and inequalities.

Hence, you will need to be extremely patient and you should never expect things to be the way they are elsewhere!
After living in Indonesia for years, meeting dozens of expats working in different industries and capacities everywhere in the country, I have put together 10 golden rules to work (and survive!) in Indonesia that have worked for all of them: chances are that they’ll work for you, too.

How to survive and work in Indonesia for expats: 10 rules and tips

1: Hierarchy

  • In Indonesia, workplace hierarchy is just as important as tidiness is in Germany, so always know where your place is and act accordingly.

2: The group always comes first

  • The group really does come first. Never either praise or blame an individual: always refer to their team or group.

3: Be cheerful

  • Indonesians look happy and cheerful most of the time, so maintaining a cold-hearted attitude is not recommended. Always smile.

4: Don’t be intrusive

  • If you are the boss, don’t try to bond with your employees all the time and at all costs. While a bit of interest in their personal life is appreciated, too much intrusion is not recommended. Be up for an informal chat when you arrive at work, but don’t ask them to go out for lunch together every single day.

5: But get social!

  • At the same time, don’t underestimate the importance of socialisation, as this is vital for Indonesians. From time to time, invite your colleagues out for lunch, organise a stress-free friendly gathering at your place for special occasions, and so on. They’ll appreciate your effort, you will have fun together, and the whole working environment will benefit from some little out-of-the-office team building activities.

6: How to give working instructions

  • Be clear and concise in giving out working instructions as Indonesians don’t feel at ease with vague and unclear directives or unwanted involvement into management decisions.
  • If in doubt when managing a team, it’s preferable to give orders like Sheldon Cooper would do, rather than asking for the employees’ opinions.

7: Gifts, presents & co.

  • I can’t stress enough how important this is. You are likely to receive a gift after participating in each and every celebration, event, conference, dinner, classical concert and so. The freebie can be a bag filled with something, from toothpaste to block notes – or you may also be given some art & craft specially made for the occasion.
  • Gifts, presents and offers play a huge role into Indonesian culture, and you should never return empty-handed from a trip abroad: a little present, preferably something to eat from the place you have visited, will be extremely appreciated.
  • Likewise, try not to forget about birthdays and other special occasions, and regularly offer to bring something when you are invited to a party.

8: The issue

  • Traffic jams are a severe issue in most cities and towns in Indonesia, and road traffic certainly is the issue in Jakarta, so don’t expect punctuality from your colleagues, clients and business partners.
  • Moreover, a lot of Indonesians have at least two different jobs, so they may be juggling between things and tasks all day long.
  • If you’re the boss, find a healthy personal balance between being demanding and letting things go.

9: WhatsApp or die!

  • If you work in Indonesia and don’t have a WhatsApp account yet, get one immediately! Rather than Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat, WhatsApp is the must to communicate effectively in Indonesia.
  • Indonesians prefer WhatsApp over phone calling or talking in person, and you will spot them using the app everywhere, at any time, including when waiting at traffic lights.

10: The importance of pictures

  • Indonesians adore pictures: never ever underestimate the importance of pictures. Locals especially love taking photos with bules  (foreigner people) and expect to be invited to take part in the photo-shoot more often than not.
  • They also lose no occasions for taking group pictures in any location: be a part of that click, and they’ll love you! And after a little while, you will probably want to make sure that you don’t forget your camera too, so you can WhatsApp them stuff on your way home!

★ Want to be an expat but Indonesia is not quite for you? Read our tips on how to find a job in New Zealand and how to (not) find work in France if you’re not French

About The Author

Founder at

Claudia Landini is a cross-cultural trainer and career coach. She has lived in ten countries over five continents, and created over a decade ago. Since then, she has been writing about expat life abroad while helping expat women to have rich and meaningful experiences.