Thinking of Borneo conjures up images of vast rainforests, pristine nature, and thousands of different plant and animal species. Moreover, the island is considered one of the most biodiverse regions in the world.
However, it may be difficult for the average digital nomad to navigate Borneo’s unique political situation and its implications — but worry not!
I have done my due diligence and, in this article, I’ll talk about each part of the island separately, so you can get a clear picture of life for every unique region. Hopefully, by the end, you’ll have a definitive answer to the question “How is Borneo for digital nomads”.
Borneo for Digital Nomads at a Glance
- Diverse, vast island that has a lot to offer.
- Multicultural cuisine.
- Amazing internet speeds and stability in select regions.
- Laws and living conditions vary greatly depending on the political region of the island.
An Introduction to Borneo
Borneo is the largest island in Asia and the third-largest in the world. Politically, it’s divided into three countries — Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia. Around 73% of the island is considered Indonesian territory, while East Malaysia (Sabah, Sarawak, and Labuan) makes up around 26%. Brunei is a sovereign state, which comprises 1% of the island.
Borneo is also home to a 140 million-year-old rainforest, the oldest one in the world.
Thanks to its geographical location, Borneo’s cultural life is quite diverse. So, you’ll be able to try a lot of dishes, view multiple histories and your experiences will vary depending on where you stay.
Connectivity in Borneo
As Borneo is split up into three parts, the connectivity will be different, depending on the region you’re in. To help you navigate through all of this, I’ll talk about the internet speeds in the largest parts of the Island (Malaysia and Indonesia).
WiFi in Borneo
In Indonesian Borneo, the situation definitely plays into the whole Southeast Asia has horrible internet stereotypes. As of July 2021, the average WiFi speeds were 25.58 Mbps and 14.74 Mbps for download and upload respectively. Here, free WiFi connections are mostly available in select hotels, restaurants, and cafes in larger cities.
However, Malaysia is a different story entirely. The country ranks third for internet speeds in entire Southeast Asia, with download speeds of 100.94 Mbps and 53.41 Mbps for upload. Here, WiFi is typically easily accessible and cheap. Additionally, the Sabah state capital Kota Kinabalu even offers free broadband or WiFi service.
Overall, you should be able to get access to a decent connection whatever part of the island you’re in, but your internet experience will likely be better in the Malaysian region.
4G and Mobile in Borneo
In July 2021, Indonesia ranked 110th in the world for the fastest mobile internet speeds. With download speeds of 21.35 Mbps and uploads of 12.29 Mbps, there’s definitely some room for growth. So, if you’re staying in Kalimantan, you can expect mostly reliable service, with below-average speeds.
On the other hand, if you set up a base in Sarawak or Sabah, you can enjoy higher internet speeds on your mobile devices. Moreover, as of July 2021, the average download for mobile was 28.02 Mbps, while upload sits at a firm 10.70 Mbps.
Mobile Internet Providers
In Malaysia, XOX, Celcom, and Digi are the most popular mobile internet providers for both expats and the local population. Depending on the company, you can get 10GBs for as little as $12 a month, with no upfront costs. For more information, I recommend checking out this link.
On the other hand, if you’re in Indonesian Borneo, you should be able to choose from one of the main providers for your 4G internet:
- XL Axiata
Depending on the provider, you can expect to pay around $6 for 1GB of internet, and even as little as $8 for 13GB.
Visas and Documentation for Borneo
No matter which Borneo state you choose to stay in, there is some documentation that you’ll have to present beforehand, such as:
- Valid passport.
- Confirmed return ticket and NOC letter from company or sponsor.
- Letter of employment (if employed).
These are just some of the requirements, and you can check out the full list here. Also, to err on the side of caution, it may be best to contact your local embassy before the trip.
Fortunately, the Malaysian visa policy is pretty straight-forward, and you can apply for one of three visas, depending on your intentions:
- Single Entry.
- Multiple Entries.
Transit visas are issued to those who are only using Malaysia as a gateway country on their travels. However, with a single-entry visa, you’ll be able to stay in Sabah or Sarawak for up to three months, without leaving the country.
A multiple entry visa, on the other hand, is mostly issued to those coming for business or government matters. With it, you’ll be able to come and go for up to 12 months, but keep in mind that you can’t stay for more than 30 days at a time. For more information about the multiple entry visa, you can check out this link.
Note: Keep in mind that some nationals have to bring a yellow fever vaccination certificate when applying for a Malaysian visa.
If you decide to work remotely from Borneo, or at least its Indonesian area, you can apply for one of the following visas:
- Tourist visa.
- Business/social visit visa.
- Limited stay visa.
- Transit visa.
Just like Malaysia, Indonesia allows you to apply for a transit visa, if en route. For a slightly longer period of time (60 days), you can look into getting a tourist visa. However, keep in mind that with it, you won’t be able to access restricted regions (Aceh, Maluk, and Papua).
If you want to stay longer you could apply for a business visa, but you’ll need to provide an invitation letter from your employer (among other things). Additionally, if you have an acquaintance here, they could sponsor you and help you stay in the country.
Finally, some digital nomads may be eligible for the limited stay visa, which is valid for up to two years.
For more information about Indonesian visas, you can check out this link.
As the moment of writing this article (September 2021), Indonesia has blocked entry to the country to most people — until further notice. Some are exempt from travel restrictions, as long as they haven’t stayed in India in the past two weeks. For more information, you can check out Indonesia’s official guide.
Where Digital Nomads Live & Work in Borneo
Truth be told, when visiting Borneo, most digital nomads tend to stay in Malaysia and its larger cities. This mostly has to do with the fact that there are larger DN communities here, and the infrastructure has somewhat caught up to the movement.
However, I’ll give my recommendation for where to stay in Indonesian Kalimantan as well.
So, the following are the cities I’d recommend to all digital nomads that want to work remotely from Borneo.
Kota Kinabalu (Sabah, Malaysia)
If you’re looking for a relaxing, chilled-out place to stay – look no further than Kota Kinabalu. There are miles of clean beaches and untouched flora and fauna. Not to mention, plenty of fun activities such as scuba diving, snorkeling — and even orangutan spotting!
Additionally, KK (as it’s often referred to) is located in Northern Borneo, and it’s the capital of Sabah. Thus, you’ll have access to plenty of restaurants and cafes, most of which offer free WiFi. If you ever grow restless, you can even go on an island hopping tour.
Living in Kota Kinabalu
Sadly, there aren’t any co-living spaces in Kota Kinabalu, but accommodations tend to be pretty cheap across the board. For example, via Airbnb, you can book a two-bedroom, centrally located condo, with free WiFi, an infinity pool, and a gym for a mere $14 a night.
If this location isn’t exactly your perfect fit, you can check in to a three-bedroom condo that’s within walking distance of the beach for as little as $55 a night.
Working from Kota Kinabalu
As I mentioned, KK is commonly frequented by digital nomads. So, there’s an abundance of co-working spaces in the city. One of the most popular options for DNs is Regus, which offers a desk in the open, airy, and bright co-working space for around $130 a month. At that price, you’ll also have access to any of their 3000 locations in 120 countries.
On the other hand, the City Lounge is one of my favorites by far. The space is fun, eclectic, and there’s even a slide in the middle of the room! On a more serious note, the co-working office offers plenty of perks such as free WiFi, coffee and snacks, showers, and 24/7 CCTV. The best part is, you can get all of this and more, at the low price of $84 a month.
Kuching (Sarawak, Malaysia)
Kuching is perfect for those who are looking for a quaint place away from touristy Malaysia. Overall, the city itself is pretty small and prides itself on its unique culture, and multicultural cuisine.
Additionally, the weather is warm all year round, and you can get from one end of the city to the other on foot or by sampan (boat). Either way, if you find yourself here, you should check out the picturesque views of the Sarawak River, the golden-domed mosque, and a wide variety of 19th-century Chinese shophouses.
Living in Kuching
Like Kota Kinabalu, Kuching doesn’t offer any specific co-living spaces per se. That being said, the accommodations available via Airbnb, hotels, or hostels are pretty affordable and easy to find. Additionally, you can check out PropertyGuru or Mudah if you’re looking for a long-term rental.
The city of Kuching is pretty calm and safe overall, so you shouldn’t have any trouble wherever you stay. However, I recommend looking at listings near or inside the Waterfront area. In addition to having access to amazing views, you’ll also be situated quite close to the shops, cafes, and restaurants.
Working from Kuching
iCube Innovation offers a huge (14,000 sq. ft) office for local entrepreneurs and digital nomads alike. The co-working space prides itself on its community and is even home to an incubator center. iCube Innovation is quite cost-efficient as well, and you can book a desk for $36 a month.
Another option is The 381 Hub, a co-working space that doesn’t exactly fit the mold. It’s part of a building inside of which are a beauty studio, learning space, and restaurant & cafe. The internet is pretty speedy and reliable, and while there seems to be a lot going on there is a sense of privacy here. The costs range from $36-60 for a desk and $113-360 for an entire office.
Balikpapan (East Kalimantan, Indonesia)
Balikpapan is located on Borneo’s east coast and is this region’s financial capital, as well as the city with the largest economy. However, what draws most digital nomads who want to work remotely from Borneo here, is the fact that it’s a well-developed coastal city. Thus, there’s no shortage of beautiful, clean beaches, and there’s a huge expat community here to greet you.
The city is also famous for its well-preserved nature. Should you find yourself here, I definitely recommend checking out the natural reserve Wain River Protected Forest, home to a great number of endangered species. Moreover, if you have the time both the Wain River Reserve and Teritip(crocodile farm) are worth paying a trip to.
The only caveat is that power outages can be commonplace, in addition to water shortages during dry weather.
Living in Balikpapan
While there aren’t any co-living spaces in Balikpapan, the friendly expat communities will point you in the way of good real estate. Most of these people live on compounds that are either run by their host company or a local real estate developer.
The reason behind this is that the compounds tend to be quite safe and have a stable supply of water and power — even during outages. Depending on where you stay, you can expect to pay anywhere from $800-1800 a month.
One of the best options in my opinion is Vilabeta housing. The complex comes with its own restaurant, as well as an abundance of shopping centers and a golf course down the road.
As always, you could also look into renting an Airbnb, or checking into a hostel or hotel. Airbnb for one offers a wide range of accommodations, priced as low as $18 a night. As far as hostels go, I recommend checking out Golden Snail or Swiss-Belinn because they both have a great location and are relatively inexpensive.
Working from Balikpapan
Most of the expat population in Balikpapan tends to be there with a company, thus, there isn’t much of a need for co-working spaces. Hopefully, this will change in the near future, but for now, I’d recommend checking out the Panin Tower.
For $126 a month, you’ll get access to a beautifully furnished office, a joint kitchen, and have a gorgeous view of the Makassar Strait.
You could also take a look at this shared office space on Jl. Jendral Sudirman. The space sits at the heart of the city, and features amazing sea views with both private offices and shared desks.
How is Borneo for Digital Nomads — My Final Thoughts
As you’ve probably figured out by now, Borneo can be an amazing place for digital nomads to work and live in. The island is incredibly diverse, and truly offers a special experience that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world.
As long as you choose the area you stay in with some forethought, and follow the advice I’ve listed in this article, as well as that of other DNs — you’ll surely be able to work remotely from Borneo with ease.