Visas

Indonesia's tourist visa policy is as follows (last updated 2017):

  • Citizens of 169 countries get a free 30-day, non-extendable visa-free entry. You can enter and exit from most points - see list of ports and countries here
  • Citizens of 68 countries can purchase a $35 visa-on-arrival at most airports and seaports in Indonesia. The $35 visa is extendable.
  • Citizens of countries not eligible either for either visa-free entry permit, or for visa-on-arrival, must obtain a 60-day tourist visa, from an Indonesian embassy, prior to entering Indonesia. The cost is $50 or local equivalent. Certain countries, namely Israel, Afghanistan, Cameroon, Guinea, Liberia, Niger, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan and Somalia, require special approval and a visa application takes several months. Otherwise the process normally only takes a two or three days. The 60-day tourist visa is available to citizens of all nations, and is the preferred option for those wanting to stay between 31 and 60 days in Indonesia.
  • Those with family/friends in Indonesia have the option of obtaining a social/cultural visa. This is similar to the tourist visa, also costing $50, but it must be sponsored by an Indonesian-citizen friend or family member. If sponsored by an Indonesian spouse or parent, the social/cultural visa can be converted within Indonesia to a KITAS (temporary residence permit).The social/cultural visa is extendable, one month at a time, up to four times (total stay of six months).

The visa validity counts from the first day of arrival. Therefore, if you arrive in Indonesia on 12th July, for example, your visa will expire on 10th August. There is a daily overstay fee of 300,000rp, for staying beyond the expiry of your visa. For short overstays this is a formality (albeit increasingly expensive), however it is best not to overstay. Beyond sixty days of overstay it is a criminal matter.

The airport departure tax, formerly payable in cash, has now (for tickets bought after 9th February 2015, or 25th February 2015 for Air Asia) been included in the cost of the ticket, so you no longer need cash when leaving the airport.

Visa Extensions

The free entry permit is NON-EXTENDABLE.

This $35 visa on-arrival is extendable at an immigration office in Medan or other big city at a cost of 300,000rp. This requires two trips on separate days, one to make the application, and one to receive the passport. Arrive at immigration before noon (on a week day, not a public holiday), and wearing smart clothes (no shorts, no flip-flops). A visa agent can reduce the amount of waiting in immigration offices - expect to pay around 700,000rp (including the visa fee).

A simpler approach is to fly Medan - Penang and then back to Medan. This will cost around $60 return, and then obtain a new visa-free entry permit. If you are flying to another part of Indonesia, such as Bali, Sulawesi or Lombok, you can choose to fly from Medan to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore and then onwards to your destination within Indonesia. The cost of flying via Singapore/KL is potentially cheaper than going via Jakarta, and by leaving the country you can acquire a new free entry permit.

If you are staying more than 30 days it's a good idea to apply in advance for a 60-day tourist or social /cultural visa. This can be obtained from your local Indonesian embassy (including embassies not in your home country), the cost is $50 in theory, but local exchange rates apply. Please apply when in advance of travel. The 60-day tourist visa may be extendable, but you will require a local Indonesian sponsor (e.g., a visa agent). A social/cultural visa, with pre-existing Indonesian sponsor, will be easier to extend.

Flights

Most international visitors to Bukit Lawang begin their journey by flying to Medan's Kuala Namu airport, the closest airport to Bukit Lawang, around four hours' drive away. 

From Europe, Australia and America

There are no direct flights to Medan from outside Asia. The usual long-haul destinations are Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta (Jakarta more common from Australia). Bangkok is another option, but only has four flights per week, all early morning, so while this is a good option if you are planning to stop in Thailand, it can be difficult to find connections from Europe if you want to go non-stop.

You can book long-haul through tickets on Air Asia, Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines or Garuda. It is often, however, cheaper to book the cheapest flight to one of the four cities above, and then add a low-cost hop to Medan, whch should cost around US$100 return, from any of those four cities.

Within Asia

The main international airports served from Medan are Kuala Lumpur (and Subang), Penang and Singapore. All are served by several flights per day, each of around one hour, and Kuala Lumpur and Singapore have excellent international connections. As mentioned above, Bangkok is also served, by Air Asia, from Medan, and there are several flights a week to/from Ipoh.

An interesting option is to fly to Medan from Colombo. There are two scheduled flights per week on Mihin Lanka on Saturdays and Wednesdays, taking 3 hours. Operation may only be seasonal, from November till June. This is the shortest route from Medan to Europe. Through fares are available on Mihin Lanka's parent airline Sri Lankan Airlines. There are also fares to Jeddah on Garuda.

Within Indonesia

The main destinations from Medan are Jakarta (for flight connections to almost anywhere outside Sumatra, including Bali, Sulawesi, etc.) , Padang (for Bukittinggi and West Sumatra), Banda Aceh (for Aceh and Pulau Weh), Surabaya (for Mount Bromo and onward connections as with Java) and Gunung Sitoli (Pulau Nias). You can also fly direct to Bandung or Yogyakarta, both in Java.

Although most journeys from Medan to other islands in Indonesia will be routed via Jakarta, it's worth considering via Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, if you are planning on staying in Indonesia beyond 30 days, as the exit and re-entry will allow you to get a new visa with no hassle.

In addition a number of small airports in Aceh and North Sumatra are served from Medan by Susi Air and Wings Air, as a substitute for long bus journeys, but bear in mind that the safety record for smaller flights is poor. These include: Meulaboh, Lhoksumawe, Aek Godang, Takengon, Simeulue, Silangit, Blang Pidie, Tapak Tuan and Sibolga.

Booking tips

For booking long-haul flights, try:

  • Expedia - for international flights to Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta
  • Singapore Airlines - for long-haul flights to Medan
  • Malaysia Airlines  - for long-haul flights to Medan
  • Matrix Airfare Search - for comparing flight prices, you can search prices over a window of a month, and can choose multiple airports (e.g., you can type in BKK, SIN, KUL, CGK to compare prices to all of these airports in one search).

For booking short-haul flights, try:

  • Air Asia - Asia's busiest low-cost airline
  • Garuda Indonesia - the national airline of Indonesia
  • Lion Air - Indonesia's largest airline - please note, foreign credit cards might not be accepted
  • Utiket - flight search engine for Indonesia - you can pay with foreign credit cards
  • Tiket.com - a different flight search engine for Indonesia -  you can also pay with foreign credit cards
  • Susi Air - airline operating small planes to small destinations within Sumatra and Indonesia
  • Sky Scanner - international airline price comparison, not Indonesian-focused

North Sumatra

North Sumatra is a province in Sumatra, Indonesia's most northwesterly island. Bukit Lawang is a village in North Sumatra.

Despite its name it is not the most northerly province in Sumatra. That honour falls to Aceh, which forms the entire northern border of North Sumatra. The two provinces to the south of North Sumatra, are West Sumatra in the central west of Sumatra, and Riau, in its central east.

This map shows the location of North Sumatra. The large island to the west, part of  North Sumatra province, is Nias, culturally quite distinct from the rest of Sumatra.

About 75,000 years ago. the Toba supervolcano erupted, being the most recent supervolcano eruption in Earth's history. It is believed to have had a dramatic effect on the Earth and human history. Today Toba is a tranquil place, known as the world's largest volcanic lake, and one of the main tourist sites in North Sumatra.

Lake Toba

The indigenous populations of North Sumatra are the Batak, Nias, and Malay peoples. The 'Batak', a blanket term for a related group of distinct tribes for whom geography largely separated them from the influences of Islam in the east (from the strait of Malacca) and north (the kingdom of Aceh), came under Dutch control between the mid-19th and early 20th cenutries, long after the Dutch first established their interests in Java.

In the southern Batak lands, the early-19th century Padri war with the Minangkabau to the south, led the Mandailing Batak to convert to Islam. The other Batak tribes mostly converted to Christianity as a result of Dutch and German missionary work from the mid-19th century onwards.

'North' Sumatra is the most northern part of Sumatra, as distinguished from the long separate kingdom of Aceh, which was only finally conquered by the Dutch Indies in 1913.

The east coast of Sumatra had the greatest influence from outsiders, with the Acehnese establishing kingdoms in Deli, Langkat and Serdang, all in western Sumatra. These flat, fertile lands were taken over by the Dutch in the mid-19th Century, and from about 1870 Chinese 'coolie' workers were brought in to work on the tobacco plantations. Subsequently, due to a shortage of Chinese labour, Javanese workers were imported, and they worked on plantations including tea, rubber, palm oil, tobacco and coffee. By 1929 there were 250,000 Javanese labourers in the Deli area as well as 25,000 Chinese.

Deli is now Medan, North Sumatra's largest city, and the location of its only international airport, and its ethnic makeup largely reflects its plantation history. The largest group is the Javanese, who have migrated from overpopulated Java, while the Chinese dominate the city's commercial interests. Malay, Batak and Minang people are present for current and historical economc reasons.

Land transportation

The main tourist land routes into and out of North Sumatra are:

Medan - Banda Aceh (for Pulau Weh) via Binjai - a long, uninteresting bus journey of some 12 hours, we would recommend flying. If catching the Banda Aceh - Binjai bus to/from Aceh, the nearest tourist destination would be Tangkahan, saving a couple of hours compared to travelling from Medan.

Lake Toba - Bukittinggi - another gruelling journey, this can take 16 hours. The journey back to Medan and by plane onto Padang is preferable.

Medan - Banda Aceh via Ketambe, Blangkejeren and Takengon - a more interesting road route to Banda Aceh, if you have plenty of time.

A road through Riau province also exists, but it sees very little tourist traffic, and again the road is very long.

Sea Transport

Medan-Penang

The Medan - Penang ferry, once the chief backpacker route into North Sumatra has long since been cancelled, as a result of the many flights, from 300,000rp one-way now covering this route

.

Kuala Lumpur-Medan

Several fast ferries run from Port Klang, near Kuala Lumpur, to Tanjung Balai, Asahan, four hours by bus or train from Medan. Not commonly used by tourists, this route is popular with guest workers in Malaysia. An option for those not wanting to make use of the numerous convenient flights from KL to Medan.

Singapore-Medan

A relatively straightforward option to reach Medan if there are no convenient flights is to take the fast ferry to Batam island from Singapore. http://www.batamfast.com/home/index.ashx

From Batam you can either fly to Medan, with more, cheaper flights, compared with Singapore, or take a Pelni ferry (which go from Sekupang, Batam), see below.

Jakarta-Batam-Karimun-Medan

The Pelni ship runs  from Tanjung Priok, Jakarta to Batam in about 24 hours, Batam to Belawan (Medan) via Karimun island takes a further 24 hours. Only cheap in ekonomi class, but not comfortable except in higher classes, it's an option if you don't want to fly for whatever reason. Runs once a week, leaving Jakarta Friday, arriving two days later in Medan, returning Tuesday from Medan and arriving Thursday in Jakarta. See http://www.pelni.co.id/ for schedules and pricing.

North Sumatra tourist destinations

The main tourist destinations near Medan aside from Bukit Lawang are Berastagi, a hill-station, and Danau Toba, the world's largest voclanic lake. Both Berastagi and Bukit Lawang are generally visited as a return trip from Medan, although it is possible to arrange to take a tourist bus or charter a bus between the two towns to cut out the stay in Medan. Danau Toba is a little further afield: a tourist bus/charter can be arranged from Bukit Lawang, or from Medan itself, about a five-hour journey. A slightly cheaper option is to take the local bus from Amplas bus station, Medan.

All will drop off in Tuk Tuk on the shores of Lake Toba, for a ferry across. From Lake Toba, travellers will either double back to Medan for an onward or homeward flight, take a six-hour bus journey to Sibolga, the port for Pulau Nias (which is then an 8 hour ferry journey), or continue on by bus to Bukittinggi (which offers cool air, and Danau Maninjau, another lake), a 12-hour journey (longer in slower, cheaper buses). Travelling by bus back to Medan and flying onto Padang, near to Bukittinggi, or to Gunung Sitoli (on Nias itself) would  be a slightly shorter and more comfortable journey, albeit more expensive. From Bukittinggi, most people will take the long bus journey to Java, or fly onto Jakarta.

A quicker, more costly alternative is the daily forty minute flight from Medan to Silangit, just a few minutes from Lake Toba. This is operated by Susi Air on 12-seat Cessna aircraft.