Dealing with strange ‘foreign’ money in unfamiliar places can be daunting. Especially if you are a first-time visitor grappling with banknotes in unfamiliar colors with stratospherically high denominations.
I well remember my uncertainty and confusion on a first visit to Vietnam when the dong notes I received in exchange for not many Australian dollars wouldn’t fit in my pockets, let alone a wallet.
And I struggled initially to get my head around the local currencies on first visits to Mexico, Thailand, and Indonesia.
Times have changed.
Now you don’t need to carry wads of cash to travel in Indonesia – in fact, apart from some outlying rural areas, travelling with cash can be a dammed nuisance.
Like much of the rest of the world, the main islands of Indonesia have well and truly embraced digital and plastic money.
This transition has made managing your holiday spending simple – just carry a modest amount of emergency cash and obtain more local currency as needed using your debit or credit card at ATMs (more formally known as automatic telling machines or cashpoints).
None-the-less there are common sense rules to follow to make minding your money easy, ensure you don’t get ripped off and avoid potential embarrassment.
Seven rules to avoid money hassles and save when visiting Indonesia
Keep up to date on exchange rates for your currency (Go to the XE Currency Converter website on your smart phone and bookmark it or check the currency calculator on this page).
Use your debit card (or credit card) at ATMs to obtain local currency where they are available and withdraw the maximum amount the machine allows, up to around IDR3m or about AUD$300. The exchange rates are usually fair, and a larger withdrawal minimizes your fees.
Where there are no convenient ATMs go to a licensed money changer. Be prepared to haggle a little for a good rate if changing a larger amount.
Avoid using the money changers at airports or seaports – the rates offered will not be as good as you will get downtown. If you have just landed and need local money for an immediate payment look for the nearest ATM.
Avoid accepting the rates offered by the smiling folks at your hotel desk. Hotels are notorious for skimming both ways when converting currencies. Take a few minutes and go get your cash from the nearest ATM or money changer.
Avoid going to banks to change your money. It will be tedious and bureaucratic, and you will likely be ripped off on the rate. Your chances of obtaining a better rate than from the money changers will be less than the chance of a sudden solar eclipse.
Use only authorized money changers wherever possible. See below to about how you can tell who is, who isn’t and what it means.
Don’t even consider bringing travelers cheques – they are costly waste of time. Traders, money changers and even the banks don’t want them.
PRO TIP – Set a personal Rupiah benchmark
An easy way to overcome foreign currency anxiety and confusion is to take a moment to adopt a personal ‘benchmark exchange rate’.for the Rupiah.
For example, as of September 2022, an Indonesian Rp10,000 note was the equivalent of about 65 cents in US dollars and about one dollar Australian. With a benchmark like this for
your home currency it’s easy for you to quickly calculate equivalent costs.
If an item is priced at Rp70,000 you can quickly figure in your head that it’s equivalent to about US$4.50. For an Aussie it’s even easier – about $7.
This will save you the tedium of dragging out a calculator or toting up on your phone – and it means you won’t FEEL dumb.
You will find clusters of ATM machines from competing banks in bigger Indonesian shopping centres – usually in a basement level or on the ground floor – look for signs pointing the way. If you look closely you can see the sticker signage on some machines indicating which foreign cards are supported.
Plenty of ATMs in Indonesia can accept your debit/credit cards
Plenty of the world’s 3.5 million ATMs have found their way into the foyers of the banks, airports and shopping malls of Indonesian cities, towns, and even villages.
The ATMs of the bigger banks are usually linked to the Maestro, Cirrus, Visa Plus, Union Pays and other international networks, meaning you can readily withdraw funds from your account at home or obtain advances on your credit cards.
Look for signage or stickers on the machine or booth to indicate the international systems they support – no signs usually mean no international withdrawals.
The most widely accepted cards in Indonesia are VISA and Mastercard. Access for cards linked to gateways like China’s Union Pays system may be limited.
ATM Exchange rates are usually fair
Exchange rates for ATM transactions are usually at or near inter-bank rates but fees are deducted for using the machine, and your home bank also will charge a transaction fee.
Overall, what you get for your dollar, pound or Euro is unlikely to be much different to what you would receive from a traditional money changer.
The benefit is not having to worry about carrying or concealing substantial amounts of cash or haggle over the exchange rate. You can withdraw what you think you will immediately need and readily top up as you go.
However, if going to remote areas be sure to check whether ATMs are available there. Sometimes the nearest will be in a township some distance away. And when you get there, you may find they are out of cash or shut down awaiting the arrival of a maintenance technician.
On-screen instructions in both English and Indonesian
The opening touch screen on Indonesian ATM machines typically allows you to choose instructions in English or Indonesian.
But BEWARE – unlike machines in Australia and some other Western countries, Indonesian ATMs deliver the funds BEFORE giving you the option of removing your card in case you want a further transaction. Be careful to not just walk away with your cash before retrieving your card.
Look for ATM machines that dispense Rp100,000 notes. These will allow you to withdraw up to 2.5m or 3m rupiah (about AUD$250 to $300) per transaction.
ATMs dispensing Rp50,000 notes usually limit withdrawals to 1.5m. You pay the same machine service fee (deducted from your payout) regardless of the amount of your transaction, so you save by withdrawing the larger limit.
You can make multiple withdrawals, meaning the total you can withdraw will be dictated only by the daily limit of your home bank. But you pay the service fee for each transaction.
The Mandiri and BCA banks are two of Indonesia’s bigger banks with wide networks of ATM machines across Indonesia connected to the international card networks.
In booths with banks of machines, you will see them labelled Tunai, Non Tunai or Setor Tunai. Choose the TUNAI machine – it means cash withdrawals are available. The other two are for non-cash transfers, e-banking transactions, and cash deposits.
At an early opportunity change some of your Rp100,000 or Rp50,000 notes to smaller denominations (Rp5s, 10s and 20s) as some vendors (like taxi drivers or street food vendors) may find it difficult to make change if you want to pay with a Rp50,000 or Rp100,000 note.
Sometimes this may be a ‘con’ in the hope that you will tell them to forget the change (bearing in mind that RP10,000 is worth around 65 US cents). But all too often they are genuine – they do not have enough cash in small notes to make your change.
Besides, the smaller notes are also handy for tips.
Let your home bank know where you will be travelling
Make a point of letting your home bank know in advance that you will be traveling, and the countries in which you may be using your card for cash withdrawals or purchases (you can usually do so online). You also might want to consider arranging a higher daily withdrawal limit to cover emergencies.
If not notified in advance, banks can become suspicious of sudden transactions from overseas and may block your account while they investigate.
In fact, many Australian banks are making notification a requirement for travelers going overseas – when you try to use your card in a foreign country without prior notification you will find it doesn’t work. This is potentially embarrassing at best, and much worse if you do not have other access to funds.
Getting cards unblocked after the event can be tedious, requiring expensive phone calls and, sometimes, messy online paperwork.
Debit/credit card practicalities for travelling in Indonesia
Carry more than one card and keep them in different places. You will then still have access to funds if you have a problem with one card, or it is lost or stolen. Make a list of your credit card numbers and the expiry dates. Also note the access telephone numbers to reach customer support at your home bank – those 1300, 1800 and 888 free-call numbers just won’t work from foreign countries. Common-sense also dictates that you keep the list in a safe place separate from your cards.
When you purchase goods or services using a credit card in Indonesia (and in most of Southeast Asia) you will be asked to pay a surcharge (typically up to 3%). This is to offset the merchant fees charged by the bank and credit card company and is standard practice. If you don’t want to pay the surcharge, use a debit card, or withdraw the cash you expect to need from an ATM before you hit the shops.
Routinely ask whether shops or sellers accept cards BEFORE making purchases. Many Indonesian businesses are cash only. A simple ‘Bisa Bayar kartu?’ (Can pay by card?) will do.
Check also that cards from overseas banks are accepted – some Indonesian businesses and Government agencies will only accept credit or debit cards issued by an Indonesian bank. They cannot process international cards.
You will see a lot of blue 50,000 rupiah notes in Indonesia and prevailing exchange rates mean your wallet will be bulging – Pic Ahsanjaya from pexels.com
You must always pay with rupiah - it is mandatory
The Indonesian currency is the Rupiah (IDR), and the Government has strict regulations stipulating that all transactions in Indonesia MUST be in the national currency.
Your credit and debit card payments are automatically converted to rupiah but will appear in your home currency on your statement.
Traders usually will not accept payments in any other currency because they face stiff penalties should they be discovered. Contracts written in foreign currencies (or foreign languages) can be ruled invalid.
Businesses also are prohibited from advertising prices in currencies other than rupiah.
However, there is tolerance in areas like the islands of Batam and Bintan, which are next door to Singapore. Resort menus there may show prices in both Rupiah and Singapore dollars. In Bali you will see rates for hotels stated in both rupiah and US dollars.
Feeling rich in Indonesia – enjoy a momentary cheap thrill
If your home currency is dollars, British pounds, or Euros you will become an instant ‘millionaire’ the moment you convert some of your money to rupiah. Enjoy the moment.
Unfortunately, the difference is insufficient for you to make it into anyone’s rich list. But the concept is not entirely silly. At prevailing exchange rates, your Indonesian rupiah will buy you as much as three times more than your dollars, pounds or Euros can buy at home.
Economists refer to this as a purchasing power parity difference. There will be times when you will be amazed at how much you can buy with the Rupiah equivalent of your foreign money.
More than money - Indonesian notes are works of art
Banknote aficionados consider Indonesian banknotes to be among the most attractive in the world with intricate designs and shades of color. They also have strong measures to prevent counterfeiting.
The notes come in denominations of Rp1,000 (cream) Rp2,000 (grey), Rp5,000 (mainly browny orange), Rp10,000 (mauve to purple), Rp20,000 (green), Rp50,000 (blue) and Rp100,000 (red).
A special commemorative Rp75,000 note was issued in 2020 to mark Indonesia’s 75 years of independence, but it was a limited issue, and you are unlikely to see one. If you do, then grab it because they are a collectors’ item.
The colors indicated above are approximate – the notes have multiple and graduated shades of colors. There also are still older notes in circulation in different colors.
There are Rp1,000, Rp500, Rp200 and Rp100 coins. You may receive the two bigger coins in change, but the smaller denominations are not so common.
If you are due a small amount of change in a mini-market or supermarket, you will probably receive a couple of small candies in lieu. Indonesian kids think this is a great system.
You will find sophisticated money-changer shopfronts like this in the CBD areas of major Indonesian cities. Look for evidence of accreditation as ‘Authorized’ and don’t be afraid to ask for a better rate.
Money changers the best option for changing your cash to rupiah
If you arrive in Indonesia with a bundle of cash in your home currency your best option is to visit the money changers – as mentioned earlier avoid wasting your time and likely paying more by going to a bank.
Money changers operate in all but the most remote areas of Indonesia. It’s a popular business model.
You can readily and efficiently convert major international and regional foreign currencies like USD$, SGD$, AUD$, EUROS, GB Pounds, or Malaysian Ringgit, typically at fair exchange rates.
To avoid scams or fraud look for AUTHORIZED money changers who have been accredited by Bank Indonesia – the Indonesian Central Bank.
They will be in business districts or shopping centres and will have a green PVA Berizin (it means licensed money changer) prominently displayed on their window or counter.
Avoid shady unauthorized hole in the wall booths prevalent in tourist areas like Bali purporting to offer higher rates than prevailing fair exchange rates. The video below by Jason Pizzino explains why:
Check prevailing exchange rates on your phone or laptop using a service like https://www.xe.com/currencyconverter/ or use the real time calculator on this page before visiting the money changer.
The money-change rates offered will be below published rates but not unduly so. The difference is the arbitrage and represents the money changer’s profit.
Money changers will usually bargain a little if you are changing a significant amount. Remember also that unlike ATMs, there are no bank fees, meaning the effective amount you receive may be about the same as a machine withdrawal.
Expect money changers to carefully scrutinise US notes for counterfeits. Often serial numbers will be machine checked. Some older or crumpled notes may be rejected.
You will be offered a lower rate for lower denomination notes and coincs are not accerpted.
IN SUMMARY ...
Follow the common-sense rules outlined above and you will not have any problems handling and managing your money in Indonesia.
Forget about carrying wads of cash – just make sure your credit or debit card limits are in order (preferably Visa or Mastercard) and secured and your bank has been notified of your travel plans. Then use ATMs to top up what you need as you go.
It’s wise to not be relying on a single card – have a back-up somewhere other than in your wallet.
If you do need to change cash for local currency, then use authorized money changers in business centers – the banks will waste your time and probably cost you more.
Spend some moments to establish a mental ‘benchmark exchange rate’ in your mind so that you can easily and quickly calculate approximate price equivalents in your home currency in your head.
Enjoy your spending. You will be pleasantly surprised at how far your money will go. What’s more, the local people you buy from will truly appreciate your custom.
NOTE: Some content in the above article was published previously in our sister site travellingindonesia.net