The first currency to be officially used throughout the Indonesian archipelago was, no surprise, introduced by the Dutch during Indonesia’s colonial era. The Dutch gulden was used from 1610 to 1817 before Dutch officials issued the nation’s own distinctive currency called the Dutch Indies Gulden.
The name ‘rupiah’ was first used during Japanese colonisation at the break of WWII, and the currency was called the Dutch Indies rupiah. After the war, the Javasche Bank changed it to Javanese Rupiah.
Just like the name ‘Indonesia’ was somewhat derived from ‘India’ (Indonesia roughly means the Indian archipelago), the name for the currency ‘rupiah’ stems from the same word and language that also begot ‘rupee’. The Mongolian word of ‘rupia’ means silver or perak in Indonesian, which later transforms into ‘rupiah’ in accordance to local dialect.
Post-independence, the Indonesian government took over to regulate its own currency, at first called ORI (Oeang Republik Indonesia). During that time, it was hard to bring everyone together and get different localities from across the archipelago to get on board with one unifying currency. So many local authorities began to issue their own currency, creating different variations and disorganisation in the currency system.
It’s wasn’t until 1949, four years after independence, that the sprawling nation of Indonesia agreed on rupiah as the only official currency of the country.
Until today, rupiah remains the only usable currency in Indonesia, even in massive foreign tourist attractions such as Bali. Indonesia is considered the biggest economy in Southeast Asia, and the exchange rate from Indonesian rupiah to US dollar is mainly influenced by investor activities and global economy. The exchange rate fluctuation is currently at around 13,000-14,000 rupiah per $1.
The latest emission of rupiah notes was in 2016. Typically, the banknotes will feature national heroes on one side and either natural or cultural heritage on the other. The newest series mixes popular sights with traditional dance on the reverse side of the bill. The bills are made of cotton fiber instead of paper, to ensure flexibility and durability. All bills have the same size, with different colors. At this moment, both the 2016 series and the older emission of the early 2000s are in circulation and still valid for transactional use.
Sometimes it’s tricky getting a sense of money in Indonesia because of the high numerals. It’s not unheard of for foreign tourists to tip their drivers or guides Rp 1,000 or Rp 2,000, which are two of the smallest bills, thinking it’s a lot of money while actually, it’s really just roughly 10 cents in US money.
This is a mere pittance. It can hardly get you anything, mostly just used for change when necessary. Also, this bill has largely been replaced with coins.
This is a typical parking fee in shops or public places that do not use the modern ticket parking system. Just hand the money to the parking operator when you’re driving away from the place.
A 5,000 bill will get you a medium bottled water or a couple of traditional snacks from the market. This note will also be enough to pay the fare for most minivan buses or intercity bus routes.
10,000 rupiah will likely to get you a simple breakfast in humble warungs, especially those in villages or more rural areas.
Not enough for a cafe scene yet, but for 20,000 you can get a bountiful breakfast at warungs or traditional restaurants. Or you can get one or two pieces of simple handcraft or souvenirs in the market.
50,000 will be enough to put food and drink on your table if you don’t mind dining in a humble local restaurant, or a cup of coffee and light bites if you prefer the cafe. The typical cost for a movie ticket in Indonesia starts from Rp 35,000, but to get a drink and popcorn with it you’d have to let go of another bill. 50,000 is also enough to get a bottle of cold beer to beat the tropical heat.
This is the country’s biggest banknote, but if you want to rent a car for the day or book a simple hotel, you’d still need a couple of these. 100,000 alone can get you a nice meal in a nice restaurant, and probably be enough for a night at a simple hostel.
While most modern establishments now receive payments via debit or credit card, always have cash on you, for when you want to try dining in warungs, buy souvenirs from traditional shops, or simply buy beers from small vendors by the beach. It’s also best to make sure you have smaller bills (Rp 20,000 and under) to pay for things like bus fare or parking fee. We’ve seen too many foreign tourists just mindlessly take out their 100,000 bills for everything, including for a Rp 5,000 bottled water, and it’s just not practical, both for you or the sellers.
Perhaps you’ve heard that you can get anything for almost half of the original asking price if you bargain hard enough. That may be true in some cases, but you have to be discreet in determining if bargaining is appropriate in a certain place.
Most vendors in traditional markets, for example, intentionally set a higher price and let you haggle. The trick is to first ask a little more than half the asking price, and when the seller says no, up the price a touch. But in more established stores, especially when prices are written on the tag or even on the racks or walls, do not embarrass yourself in trying to haggle for a better price.
In touristy towns like Bali or Jogja, you can get basically the same souvenir, food, or goods, in many different places. Shops in tourist destinations tend to charge more than souvenir centers in town, so if you want to get the cheapest ones, don’t wait until you get to the beach to buy that batik dress or cool pair of sunglasses.