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Life on Bali: Insights and experiences of expatriates

Guest contribution by Julia Starkey

Around a quarter million Germans emigrate annually, a trend that is increasing. One favored destination is the Indonesian paradise island of Bali. But what draws so many expatriates to this 5,780 square kilometer gem in the Indian Ocean?

While stunning beaches can be found in the Maldives, Mediterranean, and Caribbean, I spoke with several expatriates for this article to uncover their motivations, experiences, and insights.

Why do people emigrate to Bali?

Bali's allure is evident at first glance: picturesque rice terraces, breathtaking beaches, and exotic temples paint a vivid picture. Its subtropical climate ensures warmth and sunshine year-round. However, Bali isn't unique in offering these attractions.

What sets Bali apart is its ease of transition for expatriates. What started as a planned two-month trip for my daughter and me has evolved into seven years on this Indonesian island. Bali provides numerous long-term visa options and boasts excellent infrastructure – from high-speed internet and international schools to convenient global connectivity. It offers a diverse range of advantages for those looking to relocate.

Yet beyond these practicalities lie the personal stories that captivate me. In conversations with various expatriates, I've discovered remarkable parallels.

"I came to Bali in search of change. Initially a spontaneous visit, the energy of this place has anchored me here," reflects Markus, a free-spirited artist from Austria.

The desire for significant change was a common thread among all expatriates. For some, the political climate in Germany, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, felt too precarious. They felt threatened by the public discourse surrounding vaccine and mask refusals, prompting them to leave the country. Others were dissatisfied with work conditions and tax burdens. Weather also played a role for many.

Interestingly, three-quarters of those surveyed had not initially planned to move to Bali. They ended up staying for various reasons. Some spontaneously fell in love with the energy of a particular place or with someone. Matters of the heart led them to relocate to the island.

What I find particularly intriguing is that those who followed their hearts have all lived on the island for a significant period. In contrast, many other expats eventually leave Bali. This raises the question of whether those who choose Bali based on heartfelt reasons tend to stay longer.

 WELTWEIT AdobeStock 238119402© olezzo, AdobeStock

How do expatriates finance their lives on Bali?

People moving to Bali finance their life in paradise through various means.

"At first, I worked online, but currently I'm living off savings since becoming a mom last year. Right now, I'm in the process of setting up a local business," says social media expert Sonja.

Some use their savings, while others rely on their pensions. In my opinion, the majority have some form of income source. There are two main categories: working locally in Bali and engaging in digital nomad activities.

Working on Bali

Foreigners interested in working on Bali must obtain the appropriate visa, whether for self-employment or employment with a company. Navigating the visa process can be complex, so it's best to seek guidance from a reputable agency for personalized advice. It's crucial to choose a trustworthy provider to avoid potential visa fraud, which could result in immediate deportation if discovered.

For foreigners, securing typical jobs like waitstaff or taxi drivers is prohibited unless no local candidates are available for the role. However, those with specialized skills or proficiency in languages such as German for teaching positions may find viable employment opportunities.

Digital Nomadism in Indonesia

Many travelers and expatriates work as digital nomads on Bali. This means they live locally but work online, typically for clients or companies abroad. In principle, working on Bali without the proper permission is prohibited. Those working for overseas companies operate in a gray area. Currently, there is no specific digital nomad visa, as seen in other countries. Most digital nomads either obtain a work permit or stay on a social or visitor visa while working remotely.

How do expatriates live on Bali?

One of the greatest benefits for expatriates on the island is its diverse housing options. Bali offers rental accommodations to suit every budget, from modest rooms to luxurious villas complete with pools and household staff. Many homes come fully furnished, providing everything from furniture to kitchenware, towels, bedding, and curtains. Most expatriates initially opt for rental properties, with the flexibility of both monthly and annual leases, although formal contracts are less common for monthly rentals.

For foreigners, purchasing property directly is a complex process. One approach is establishing a company, which can own land under recent regulations. Alternatively, many immigrants engage in long-term leases with locals, typically lasting 20 or 30 years with options for renewal.

A potential risk when buying property or entering into long-term leases is uncertain ownership rights. Issues may arise where local partners lack legal ownership. Prospective property buyers in Bali are strongly advised to seek professional guidance and legal support to navigate contract negotiations and ensure clear ownership rights.

How are relationships with the locals?

Balinese people are renowned for their warmth, honesty, respectfulness, and reserved demeanor. Walking or driving through the streets, you're greeted with smiles everywhere. Locals are known for their hospitality and openness, readily inviting strangers into their families. It's not uncommon to find yourself suddenly dressed in a sarong and kebaya at a temple.

Yet, in my experience, these interactions with locals can be somewhat complex due to cultural misunderstandings.

"It's not easy to build real friendships. The locals often keep to themselves," says Tom, a father from Munich.

Interacting with Balinese people often feels very intense. It's easy to strike up a conversation with them, and intimate discussions can happen relatively quickly, similar to those we usually have only with close friends. This is why many expatriates often confuse regular contact with friendship, leading to moments of disappointment. While in our culture, friendship holds a comparable or even higher status than family, in Bali, family always comes first.

As a result, while deep exchanges are possible, close friendships akin to those in the Western world are rare.

True integration is also challenging. Religion and tradition play a fundamental role in Bali, shaping every aspect of life. Simply because we come from different cultures, genuine integration is difficult. However, I'm also cautious about the concept of integration. Foreigners are welcomed here as long as they adhere to certain basic rules. No one expects us to adopt the culture completely, but respectful behavior is crucial and appropriate.

How has Bali changed in recent years?

All expatriates I interviewed for this article describe the same changes. There has been extensive construction for years, with jungle and rice fields giving way to new hotels and villas. While infrastructure has been improved in many parts of the island, traffic has also significantly increased, leading to daily gridlocks.

Especially since the success of the book and movie "Eat, Pray, Love," the island has changed. Elizabeth Gilbert's work triggered a massive influx of tourists that continues to this day, impacting price developments as well. Particularly since the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, prices in popular tourist destinations have skyrocketed.

But it's not just the landscape and pricing that have transformed. Even the locals appear to be undergoing a change. One of the expatriates interviewed, who has known the island since 1992, observes that locals have "become heavier" and have little sense of healthy eating.

WELTWEIT AdobeStock 422246645© Tropical studio, AdobeStock

Pros and Cons of Living in Bali

Bali enchants expatriates with its unique atmosphere, vibrant energy, and stunning natural beauty. The island boasts a rich cultural tapestry woven with daily spiritual rituals and the warm hospitality of its people. Its subtropical climate offers a comfortable lifestyle, complemented by easy access to the sea and diverse leisure activities like surfing and hiking. Moreover, the availability of simple, fresh, and affordable meals adds to the overall quality of life.

"Navigating the local culture can be challenging, given the numerous ceremonies and traditions," remarks Sonja.

However, alongside these positives, life in Bali also presents challenges. Adapting to a different culture and language can be daunting, as can acclimating to the high humidity and occasional encounters with corruption. The constantly evolving visa regulations and bureaucratic obstacles contribute to stress levels. The island's rapid development and influx of tourists have led to increased traffic congestion and urbanization, which many expatriates find overwhelming. Furthermore, forming and maintaining deep social connections often proves more intricate than anticipated, making social integration a gradual process.

5 Tips for Potential Expatriates

Based on interviews and my own experiences, I want to offer the following advice to anyone considering immigrating to Bali:

  1. Spend a trial period in Bali: "First spend some time on vacation or a trial year in Bali, and then decide if you really want to immigrate," recommends not only Tom. It's definitely helpful to become personally familiar with local conditions and decide if permanent life on the island truly matches your expectations.
  2. Stay flexible: Fixed plans often don't lead to happiness. Especially at the beginning, it's better to remain flexible with housing and life planning. This way, you can more easily change location, job, or children's school if things don't work out.
  3. Respect language and culture: It's important to at least learn the local language basics and familiarize yourself with cultural norms and values. This shows respect and promotes quicker acceptance.
  4. Review visa conditions carefully: It's essential to thoroughly research the different visa options and understand their conditions. This is crucial for avoiding legal issues.
  5. Build relationships with locals: Many expatriates recommend actively fostering relationships with locals. While deep friendships may be rare, good acquaintances are important. Balinese people who are friendly will always help in times of need and offer their support. Additionally, through these relationships, you'll gain a better understanding of the island's culture and peculiarities.

Bali offers an enticing blend of exotic culture, breathtaking nature, modern infrastructure, and a warm-hearted community. Of course, there are challenges, but for me, the positive factors far outweigh the negatives.

About Julia Starkey

Julia Starkey holds a degree in business administration and is a certified travel agent. She has been a digital nomad for many years and now works, among other roles, as a freelance and independent writer. In this capacity, she primarily creates SEO-optimized content for family websites. She currently lives in Bali with her daughter.

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This article is from the 3/2024 issue of the magazine "Life Abroad".

The magazine is published four times a year free of charge with many informative articles on foreign topics.

It is published by the BDAE, the expert for protection abroad.