Living in Timor-Leste Living in East Timor
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Get the 'Living in Timor-Leste' eBook. It's a survival guide to living and working in the land of the rising sun. It covers everything you need to know to help you with your move, plus loads more.

What’s inside



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Find a place to live


Work culture and starting a business


Things to do when you clock off from work

Language and education

Best Tetum resources and schools


How much money you’ll need to survive


Staying healthy and keeping fit

Firsthand accounts

Experiences of expats living in East Timor


Tips to increase your safety

Messages from readers

Dave and Shirley (Timor Adventures)

Dave and Shirley (Timor Adventures)

Jason and his partner Zena both lived and worked in Timor for several years. During their time they wrote a book called “Living in East Timor” (A survival guide). The book fills a really important need about how to get things done in East Timor, when you live there you soon realise that nothing is straight forward. There are often long complicated and time consuming processes to do everything but no instructions on how to do it. This is like the “Missing manual” for East Timor. If you are thinking about living there, are living there or just want a real grass roots insight into the country then this is the book to get.



My husband and I came across it a couple of weeks back and it has been invaluable to us whilst planning things this end. Thank you! :)



I bought your book a few days ago and I absolutely love it! We aren’t moving to East Timor permanently (for now anyway!) but we spent 2 weeks in Dili and building homes in Seurtulan last year and we are headed back in a little over a week for another 2 weeks, and your book was so helpful. Two weeks is such a short time and I really wanted to make the absolute most of our time there, and all the tips you gave for moving to East Timor were helpful for our short time there. There’s just something about East Timor that gets under you skin isn’t there! We’ll keep coming back for as long as we’re able, and in the meantime, good luck and congrats on a great and helpful book! Obrigadu fali!

Samples from the eBook

For a sample of the eBook, browse through the tablet below.

Introduction chapter


So you want to live in Timor-Leste?

Really, are you sure it’s safe?
The relatively recent struggle for Timor-Leste’s independence from Indonesia played out in front of a global media machine. It’s these violent images that come to mind when many people think of Timor-Leste. As such, many tourists and expats tend to avoid Timor-Leste in preference for more well-trodden destinations in Asia like Bali, Cambodia and Vietnam. They believe these places are safer. This, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth!

Anyone who’s been to Timor-Leste will tell you that it’s a perfectly safe place. Yes, you can put yourself in unsafe situations while there, like by going to a public protest, but on the whole, Timor-Leste’s not a dangerous place. Still, tell your family and friends that you’re headed to Timor-Leste and you’ll be met with looks of admiration and fear – people truly think you’re going to a war zone. And before they realise that this is a false, you’ll reap rewards like:

  • Discovering villages that few Westerners have ever set foot in.
  • Not seeing another tourist for days when you travel just a few hours out of Dili. Fancy having white sand beaches with turquoise coloured water to yourself?
  • Being able to walk around without being harassed by people trying to sell you things (except of course when you’re standing outside one of the supermarkets – but that harassment is handy because those guys are trying to sell you stuff you need like phone credit and organic pineapples).
  • Not having to bribe corrupt police officers or officials.
  • No street walking prostitutes, beggars or drug peddlers.

Unfortunately, there are also downsides to Timor-Leste being off the tourist route like:

  • It’s an expensive place to live. Few airlines fly to Dili so with such little competition, the ones that do fly there, charge whatever they like for flights.
  • The UN’s presence with their workers hefty salaries has inflated the price of everything, especially accommodation. And even though the UN mission has ended in Timor-Leste, accommodation is still very expensive compared to other Asian countries.
  • Infrastructure is underdeveloped. Roads outside of the capital, Dili, aren’t well maintained and there are frequent black outs.
  • Slow internet has kept many businesses and people offline. This is changing, with many Timorese now using the net on their smartphones. Businesses though, have been slow to embrace the internet. You might have already experienced this, 50% of businesses you email (including hotels and banks) never even reply!

But the positives of living in Timor-Leste far outweigh the negatives. As you’ll soon discover it’s an island full of opportunity and potential. The Timorese people are engaged, excited and committed to the future of their country. I’ll never forget an email I received from a Timorese man, when signing off, under his name, the place where people usually put their job title, he wrote, “Pedro, Son of Timor-Leste”. It’s seen as the job of every son and daughter in Timor-Leste to build their country.

And it’s not just the locals who’re passionate about Timor-Leste. Expat activists who campaigned for the country when the media weren’t paying attention to the atrocities that were occurring there, along with academics who’ve dedicated years to studying and documenting Timor-Leste’s unique culture are vocal and opinionated about the future of Timor-Leste too. Just wait, it won’t be long before you’ll probably be one of those super-passionate-about-Timor people as well.

Safety hot tips

While nasty things do happen, generally for expats, Timor-Leste is a safe place. Below are some suggestions on how you can avoid any trouble.
Women need to be more cautious than men. Women should dress conservatively. When out at night, always stay with a group and never go home alone.  It’s common for women to be groped when exercising which is fun (not!). You can avoid this by only exercising outside with other people.
Again, this one is mainly for women. When riding in a taxi it’s best to sit in the back of the car. Only get in a taxi if no other passengers are in the car. When you’re getting in, make sure you’re able to get out if you need to (e.g. make sure the door works). To avoid any arguments over the price of your trip, agree on the price before you get into the car. If at any time you feel unsafe, get out of the taxi.
Road accidents
If you’re involved in a road accident, expect that, as the foreigner, you’re more likely to be at fault. After an accident a crowd will form quickly out of nowhere which can make it quite a stressful experience. Like all conflicts in Timor-Leste, road accidents need to be resolved through negotiation usually in the form of a payment to cover the cost of getting the vehicle/motorbike repaired. If you can’t negotiate yourself, find someone in the crowd who can help you. If you feel unsafe you consider going to the nearest police station to report the accident. Alternatively, you could call the police but they might take a while to get to your location or they might not even answer your phone call!
Avoid public gatherings
One good rule to stick by is: if there are going to be a lot of people at an event (e.g. a protest), don’t go!
Don’t leave your stuff lying around
Stealing of goods seems to be more opportunistic than planned. So don’t leave expensive items lying out in the open that someone might see and then decide they want to steal. Also, make sure you lock your car doors and don’t forget to use the wheel lock on your motorbike: you don’t want someone to just roll your bike away, which has happened!

East Timor or Timor-Leste?

What should you call the country, is it East Timor or Timor-Leste or Timor Lorosa’e?

Officially it’s Timor-Leste. However, if you go to other places around the world, people probably know it as East Timor. Some overseas media organisations and governments are starting to call the country Timor-Leste, but the bulk of people outside of Timor-Leste still use East Timor. I use both names. When I’m in-country, I use Timor-Leste. When I’m back home in Australia, or overseas in another country, to avoid any confusion I use East Timor. In this eBook, I’ll be using Timor-Leste (except just to confuse you, our website will remain If you’d like to learn more about which name you should use and the meanings behind each of them, please see this link (link only available to buyers of the eBook).


Majority of people- expats and locals alike- live in the capital of Timor-Leste, Dili. The city of Dili is framed by rising mountains and straddles the northern coastline of East Timor.

Relics of Timor-Leste’s former rulers are doted throughout the capital with old Portuguese cannons and even monuments that celebrate Timor-Leste’s “integration” with Indonesia still surprisingly cemented in place.

Dili is the business hub of the country having the main port and the only international airport. It’s a busy place awash with many Timorese from the rural areas of the country who’ve moved to Dili in search of that all elusive job.

The recent, relatively conflict-free years, have also seen a wave of new development spring up in the capital. Large shopping centres, hotels and government buildings now stand alongside the small cement homes that many Timorese live in. This increase in development is putting further pressure on Timor-Leste’s already stretched infrastructure. Congested traffic, slow internet and blackouts are the norm.

Western restaurants and foreign embassies make use of the spectacular water views along the coastal strip. There are also supermarkets, banks and a post office to meet the needs of foreign workers, locals and tourists. But Timor-Leste is a new country and as such: supermarkets don’t stock everything, bank queues are a nightmare and mail can take months to reach its destination.

On average, Dili is one of the hottest cities in Timor-Leste. In the dry season, the dust swirls and there’s little reprieve from the beating sun. Cooling off in the ocean might look appealing, but the lukewarm water and the threat of the being eaten by one of Dili’s resident crocodiles, mean that many people turn to hotels with swimming pools instead. In the wet season, the dirt turns into mud and the seemingly dry river beds engulf roads and low lying huts. You’ll quickly learn that it’s best to wait indoors for the rain to stop before you drive or ride home.

Ignoring the piles of rubbish, Dili is a beautiful place. If you’re ever in doubt, climb the steps to the top of the Jesus statue (Cristo Rei) located at the Eastern end of Dili and take a look at the city from above: it’s sublime. Or grab a drink at one of the bars along the coastline and sit back and take in the view.

So, have you made up your mind to trek to the basecamp of the world’s highest mountain, in one of the most amazing places you will ever visit? If your answer is “yes,” great! This section will help you to know better what to expect as well as how to prepare fully. However, if you are still in that pre-100% commitment stage (or even have some doubts about your decision to go), this chapter was written with you firmly in mind.

End of sample

packing list

Packing List

Documentation and Money

  • Passport
  • Visa (you can buy a tourist visa on arrival at the airport)
  • US dollars (for buying your entry visa at the airport. The smaller the notes the better e.g. $1, $5 and $10)
  • 2 x credit cards (not AMEX, there are plenty of ATM’s in Dili)
  • Spare passport photos to use for visa and drivers licence applications (you can have passport photos taken in Dili)
  • Emergency and security plan (see the bonus section for the template- only available to buyers of the eBook)
  • Flight tickets (including details of your exit flight, sometimes you need to prove you’re planning on leaving the country if you’re applying for longer stay visas)
  • Drivers licence
  • Vaccination card (for your reference)
  • Photocopies of all your documents (also email a scanned copy of these to yourself in case you lose them)


  • Unfitted bed sheets (beds come in all different sizes in Timor)
  • International adapters (plugs vary house-to-house)
  • Power boards with surge protectors for your own safety and to protect your electrical equipment
  • Headlamp for all the blackouts you’re bound to experience
  • Rechargeable batteries and charger
  • Towel/s (you can buy towels Dili but they are expensive and thin)
  • Mosquito net (you can buy these in Dili)
  • Earplugs to block out the morning rosters and music
  • Cheap yoghurt maker (yoghurt availability fluctuates in Dili and it can be expensive. With all the gastro you’ll get, yoghurt helps to heal your gut)

End of sample

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About the author


Zena Kells

This eBook was written by Zena Kells, a radio producer who lived and worked in Timor-Leste for over two years. This is the much-awaited second edition of the eBook which is more than double the size of the original.

Living in Timor-Leste isn’t always easy and with hardly anything online about the logistics and quirks of living in this developing country, it’s hard to know what to expect. That’s why this eBook was written, to make you move to Timor-Leste easier. It should answer all your questions + more.

Read it and you’ll not just survive, but thrive in Timor-Leste! 🙂

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