East Timor has had a turbulent history. It was a Portuguese colony for hundreds of years before being annexed and occupied by Indonesia for roughly a quarter of a century. It finally gained independence in 2002. In many ways things have started to improve, but the country still faces a huge array of challenges and remains extremely poor. This is evident on any visit, whether it’s seeing the open manhole covers and sewers in Dili or the small shack-like homes in rural areas of the country.

Despite the poverty and poor infrastructure, it is an intriguing place to explore. East Timor is a country with beautiful beaches, good diving and snorkelling, and an interesting mix of cultures with Portuguese and Indonesian flavours mixed with the strong and varied local customs.


East Timor guide


A few facts about East Timor

  • Capital: Dili
  • Population: About 1.18 million
  • Currency: US dollar
  • Official Languages: Portuguese and Tetum
  • Official Script: Latin script
  • Time Zone: UTC+9
  • Calling Code: +670
  • Internet TLD: .tl
  • Drives On: Left
  • Drinking Age: None
  • Can Drink In Public: No
  • Can Drink Tap Water: No
  • Plugs/Sockets: C, E, F & I more info

Getting there

At the time of writing, there are only 2 direct flight routes to East Timor. One is from Darwin in Australia and the other is from Bali in Indonesia. You can also cross the border from West Timor, which is part of Indonesia.

Dili Airport

Visa requirements

Everyone except citizens of Schengen Area countries (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden) and Cabo Verde needs a visa to enter East Timor.

If you arrive at Dili’s airport you can buy a 30-day visa for US$30. This needs to be paid in cash and in US dollars. It is important to bring this money with you as there is no ATM until you get outside the airport.

If you plan to cross the border from Indonesia (and are not an Indonesian citizen) you will need to apply for a visa in advance. There doesn’t seem to be any issue crossing from East Timor to Indonesia.

Dili airport visa on arrival

Other tourists

According to the UN World Tourism Organisation, East Timor is the least-visited country in Asia.¹ For a certain type of person this is enough to make a visit worthwhile. It does, however, have some positive and negative aspects. It’s refreshing that there are no crowded tourist attractions and it feels like an adventurous step into the somewhat unknown. However, a lack of tourists also means a lack of tourist infrastructure, which makes it harder to get around and leads to comparatively high costs for things like accommodation.

Most of the other foreigners you will see in East Timor are people who work for aid and development agencies. A large proportion are Australians.

The reason for all the aid is that East Timor in general is a very poor country. Lots of homes still have no electricity, especially outside the capital. According to the UN Development Program, less than 40% of East Timorese people over the age of 15 are employed and nearly half of the population live below the international poverty line of US$1.90 per day.²

Jesus Backside Beach, Dili

Language barrier

East Timor has two official languages, Portuguese and Tetum, with about 20 languages and dialects in use throughout the country in total. However, Tetun Dili, a creole of the native Tetum and Portuguese is the most spoken language, especially in and around Dili. English does not seem very widely spoken beyond a few words and phrases. The exception being the staff of hostels, hotels, tour companies and others who regularly deal with foreigners.

Where I went

Dili is a good place to observe the mix of cultures in East Timor. It is an intriguing capital that sometimes has the feel of a small town. It is a city of contrasts with dusty streets and broken footpaths not far from the opulence of the Palacio do Governo.

More: Dili: East Timor’s intriguing capital

Dili's waterfront

Atauro Island can be seen in the distance from all along Dili’s waterfront. It is an interesting place with diving and snorkelling the main reasons that many people visit. It also has some nice beaches and some beautiful scenery. There are day trips to the island, but if you plan to stay longer I definitely recommend a stay at Barry’s Place, a small eco-friendly piece of paradise.

More: Barry’s Place on Atauro Island, East Timor

Atauro Island, East Timor

  1. UNWTO Tourism Highlights, 2016 Edition

  2. UNDP Human Development Reports – Timor-Leste