How to Live, Work, or Volunteer in Bali

Guest Author Katie Doyle in Ubud, Bali. Image Copyright Katie Doyle

Located in Indonesia, Bali is just over ten thousand miles from the United States. With the chaotic net of connecting flights, a trip to Bali will usually amount to thirty hours of travel time. That's a long way to go, yet the island has lured tourists from America, as well as many other countries, year after year.

There's a reason why so many people come, and why some never leave - or at least choose to extend their stay.

It can be difficult to depart the tropical island, but with complicated immigration laws and strict work restrictions, staying can be even harder.

Here's a look at my month-long experience in Bali, including tips on living and working in the Island of the Gods.

Arriving in Bali

Most major international airports seem disconnected from their namesake cities, neutral territories that feel universal rather than unique. Moving walkways whisk passengers to their terminal as fluorescent lights flicker overhead; travelers fight silent warfare over chargers and outlets; air conditioning defuses any hint of a local aroma.

The Ngurah Rai International Airport in Bali, however, stands apart. Ngurah Rai is much like Bali itself: a tentative balance between Indonesian culture and Western convenience, the same dynamic that has attracted so many visitors to the island in recent years.

Stepping off the airplane, which had cruised from Hong Kong, a first breath revealed the air was perfumed with Hindu incense.

Scents of sandalwood, ylang-ylang, and jasmine hung heavy in the humid air.

Like in the rest of Bali, small square baskets, woven from palm leaves and filled with flowers, biscuits, sometimes even coins and cigarettes, were laid out all around the airport. These offerings are everywhere on the island, from sidewalks to shops to restaurants, to the currency exchange desk at the airport.

The offerings are believed to placate the demon spirits that frequent the physical world.

The airport’s design itself also reflects the architecture of the Hindu temples that have made Bali a spiritual place for some. Others come to lose themselves in the sea and surf, or in the raucous “discotheques” of Kuta, the island’s party capital.

Nearly four million tourists visit each year for many different reasons and from many countries - Australia, China, and Japan for the win, place, and show—but despite their differing backgrounds, there’s no question as to why so many people want to stay.

The summer months see seamless sunshine, and although the winter brings bouts of rain, the warm weather provides an escape from the harsh temperatures of the Northern Hemisphere. Combine balmy temperatures with lush landscapes and a low cost of living, and that two-week holiday can easily double itself into one month, then two, then three. However, despite the ease of living here, living long-term and working in Bali isn’t an easy feat.

Working in Bali

The maze of employment regulations in Bali is a complicated one, and as a Westerner, it can be difficult to navigate the twisting chambers of Indonesia’s bureaucratic immigration laws.

Although Bali has been recognized as an expat’s paradise, many of these people set up export businesses or opened bars or restaurants, thus requiring a long-term commitment. The saying goes that it’s possible to make a “small fortune” in this way, enough money to live well in Bali due to the inequality in international currency. One US dollar nets about 13,000 Rupiah, and a decent dinner out amounts to just five or ten bucks.

As challenging as it can be to open a legitimate business in Bali, the process of finding short-term work can be even harder. Although the island’s main source of income is tourism, the vast majority of hospitality employees are Indonesian.

I visited several Western hotels, and I spotted just one foreigner, an Australian man, working at the Sheraton in Kuta. Although larger hotels do occasionally hire international employees for management positions, it’s usually through an internal placement process that is closed to public applications.

The situation in restaurants and bars is similar. I spotted just one foreigner working at a village restaurant, but as it turns out, he was an American man who happened to be dating the daughter of the Indonesian family that owned the place.

Bali, however, has become a destination for location-independent travelers who can work from anywhere with an Internet connection. Many cafes offer WiFi, but, it can be difficult to find a dependable connection. Some people staying long-term choose to purchase an Internet SIM card from their villas or bungalows, but the 3G connection can be temperamental, especially frustrating at peak hours.

Co-Working Spaces in Bali

As a result, Hubud, a co-working space in Ubud, the epicenter of Balinese culture and famous for its rolling rice terraces, has become something of a digital oasis within a natural one. The twenty-four-hour hub boasts Bali’s fastest Internet, for a monthly fee ranging from $20 to $250 per month, depending on the membership level.

Hubud serves a community of graphic designers, software developers, copywriters, customer service representatives, online marketers and freelancers who have set up shop in the bamboo building that is bordered by rice paddies and sits adjacent to Ubud’s famous Monkey Forest.

Volunteering in Bali

For those planning to visit Bali without the expectation of an income, interning or volunteering is another option. Bali Internships is a legitimate organization that places interns in a variety of placements – from sustainability operations at a local NGO to graphic design for a surf school – and provides accommodation and logistical assistance, as well.

There are many volunteer programs set up in Bali, too, though they tend to charge a fee for accommodation and transport. Opportunities range from working with underprivileged children, like at the Bumi Sehat Foundation to teach English, with the volunteer-run Travel to Teach organization,or working on an organic farm. Idealist is a good search engine to find legitimate volunteering opportunities.

Visas in Bali

If you’re planning a trip to Bali, it’s important to make sure your visa situation is set straight. The most basic visa option is the 30-day, “Visa on Arrival” visas for visiting tourists, although this restricts employment within the country and requires a $25 USD entry fee. Volunteers need a Social-Cultural visa, which you must apply for before your trip and which is valid for 60 days.

Once the visa expires, it’s possible to extend your visa in order to stay longer. It’s best to do this through an agency, like Highway Bali Consulting Services, which can secure an extension, in addition to providing expert advice on business, work, and retirement visas. Although you’ll have to pay a fee, going through a visa agency is generally the most convenient way of securing your stay.

What to Expect

Bali is distinct in that it is a developing country with many, though not all, of the modern luxuries Westerners are accustomed to.  In more urban areas like Ubud, Seminyak, and Kuta, a solid majority of cafes and restaurants offer free WiFi to their patrons, though the connection can be temperamental. It isn’t difficult to find accommodation with air conditioning, and corner pharmacies offer most of the toiletries a tourist might need. However, foreigners must drink bottled water and the plumbing systems can hardly handle flushed toilet paper.

Despite the country’s technological development, it is still very much a developing country. Stray dogs roam freely and in some parts, monkeys do too. On my ride from the airport to the bungalow I lived in, I glimpsed an elderly, hunched Indonesian man walking a one-thousand-pound hog down the street on a rope leash. On my way back from Seminyak to Ubud, I saw a little girl drop her pants right off the side of the road to go the bathroom. In Kuta, a tattooed boy, barely ten years old, wrote obscenities in the sand while harassing tourists to buy his trinkets.

But, given the tourist-oriented atmosphere, with common sense Bali is a safe and pleasant place to visit, retaining much of its authenticity while still welcoming visitors from abroad.