Expat Guide To Living In Malaysia

Malaysia illustration

Estimated reading time: 15 minutes

Let’s explore what it’s like living in Malaysia as an expat, how to choose a place to live, and what the country can offer in terms of healthcare, education and employment.

If you’ve travelled to Malaysia and consider it your ideal destination, you’d be joining around 90,000 UK nationals who have chosen to live in this Southeast Asian paradise.

There are many compelling reasons that Malaysia captures the hearts of so many travellers. With an astoundingly affordable cost of living, particularly when compared with neighbouring Singapore, it’s an appeal that is hard to resist.

Quality of life in the country is excellent, and while costs might be low, you’ll still find great road networks, reasonable standards of accommodation, and fast broadband just about everywhere.

Reasons To Live In Malaysia As An Expat

First, we’ll recap some of the primary reasons why many British expats choose Malaysia to retire, work, or live with their families.

  • It is cheap. If you’re earning a regular income or pension, your cash will stretch much further here than in the UK.
  • There is little crime – there is petty theft, as there is everywhere, but levels are low, and only the police carry guns.
  • Infrastructure is excellent, with low-cost mobile phone bills (around 70 ringgit or RM a month on average, which is about £13), good travel networks, and fast Wi-Fi speeds.
  • Most people speak English. There are four languages spoken primarily, but English is taught in schools.

Malaysia is a unique country, made up of multiple islands, populated with jungles, national parks and beaches that are often considered the best in the region.

One of the key perks, particularly for business owners, is travelling to countries such as Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia in just a short trip. The international airports also fly directly to London, France and China.

Visas And Residency For Expats In Malaysia

Perhaps the most popular visa programme for expats moving to Malaysia is the MM2H – which stands for My Malaysian 2nd Home.

This route is aimed at retirees or foreign nationals looking to invest in Malaysia. Visas are granted for 10 years, allow for multiple entries, and are extended to family members.

There are two different ways to qualify:

  • Applicants under 50 years old must have of at least 500,000 RM in the bank (£91,100) and earn at least 10,000 RM (£1,800) a month.
  • Applicants over 50 must have liquid assets of at least 350,000 RM (£64,000) and a monthly income also over 10,000 RM (£1,800).

Liquid assets include cash, securities, and bonds. In addition, income can consist of offshore earnings and pension income.

There are other visa routes available, including:

  • Employment passes for professionals, working in Malaysia for up to 60 months on a contract of employment. The employer must support the application and provide documentation, and the pass is only valid while you continue working for that business.
  • Dependent passes are valid for foreign nationals who have an Employment Pass and wish to apply for children under 18, partners or parents over 60 to join them.

Permanent residency in Malaysia is often the preferred choice for long-term expats in Malaysia since it is a single-citizenship country. If you apply for a passport, you sacrifice your current citizenship status in your country of origin.

To apply for permanent residency, you will need:

  • To have lived in Malaysia for at least five years.
  • A valid visa.
  • To submit a permanent residency application.
  • Sponsorship from an existing permanent resident or Malaysian citizen.

For Malaysian citizens looking to get permanent residency in the UK, look at our Tier 1 Investor Visa guide.

Best Places To Live In Malaysia

If you haven’t yet relocated to Malaysia, you’ll likely decide to rent, at least in the short term, and get a feel for the communities and lifestyles in different parts of the country.

Malaysia is a small nation, and you can drive through in around six hours. Central Malaysia is a mountainous region, starting from outside Kuala Lumpur right down to the Thai border.

The beaches and coastal lifestyle are best in Peninsular Malaysia, in both the east and west.

Most expats in Malaysia choose to live in either Penang or Kuala Lumpur, and here we’ll run through some of the best places to choose and why they remain so popular.

Penang

Has a wealth of beaches, ideal for an outdoor lifestyle, including boating, walking and swimming. The mountains are great for hiking and walking, and the Penang Botanic Garden is a popular destination for relaxation or to take in a Tai Chi class.

George Town

The capital of Penang and is a metropolitan city buzzing with art galleries and eateries. The racecourse is a lively place to socialise, and there are many upscale attractions and places to meet. You’ll find some vibrant expat clubs in the city, as well as golf clubs, horse riding, day trips and social events.

Ipoh

The south of Penang, in central Malaysia and about two hours north from Kuala Lumpur. This mining town offers charming colonial architecture, a racecourse, and booming cafe culture. There is a busy market on Sundays, and many retirees, with plenty of excellent golf courses within 30 minutes drive.

Kuala Lumpur

Malaysia’s capital, and around an hour and a half by car from Malacca. These destinations are favoured by expats moving to work or looking for a city living lifestyle. There are countless expat clubs and organisations, shopping centres and art galleries.

Job Opportunities And Expat Employment

As of early 2021, Malaysia’s average salary was 79,080 RM a year (£14,400), including the value of benefits such as housing and transport passes.

Note that different roles attract different wages, and depend heavily on your professional qualifications, number of years experience, and the employer you work for.

Most of the lucrative executive level vacancies are in Kuala Lumpur or Penang. This is because Malaysia’s economy continues to grow, with many new corporations setting up homes, particularly given the striking difference in costs compared to nearby Singapore.

There are limitations on how many foreign nationals a company can employ. Businesses are only permitted to apply for an employment pass for an expat if there are no local applicants or qualified Malaysian professionals who can fill the vacancy.

Competition for the highest-paid roles can be fierce, and there isn’t any guarantee that an expat will be selected for a position.

Most of Malaysia’s employment is in the services sector, followed by oil, gas, and biotechnology.

The Malaysian government publishes a critical occupations list – these are employment areas where the local workforce is struggling to meet demand, and therefore present the best opportunities for expats looking to work.

Critical roles and the median salary include:

PositionMedian Salary RMMedian Salary GBP
Accountant79,050£14,400
Graphic Designer58,500£10,650
Electrical Engineer51,000£9,300
Civil Engineer85,000£15,500
MD or CEO295,500£53,800
HR Manager70,500£12,800
Finance Manager113,000£20,600
Sales and Marketing Manager104,000£19,000
Mechanical Engineer73,500£13,400
Business Analyst74,000£13,500
Software Engineer86,500£15,800

There are lots of recruitment sites you can visit to find out what vacancies are available, and whether the employer is accepting international applicants:

While average salaries in Malaysia are significantly lower than in the UK, it’s worth remembering that the cost of living is also around 44% lower, with rental prices 66% cheaper, so you can afford a much grander lifestyle on a much smaller wage.

The Malaysian Education System For Expat Families

One of the biggest challenges for expats relocating with children is establishing the best options for education in their country of choice.

Generally, Malaysian education is reasonably similar to Europe, and the Ministry of Education provides state facilities. However, each state and territory has a different way of managing the school system.

Children in Malaysia usually attend:

  • Preschool
  • Primary education
  • Secondary education
  • Post-secondary education

For permanent residents and citizens, schooling is free until children finish their secondary education. Many expats choose to enrol their children in private schools, but the public schools cater to foreign nationals, with most lessons taught in English or English alongside Malay.

Dual-language programmes are standard but not mandatory, so it’s wise to check what lesson structure is offered in your local schools before registering.

One of the issues is that Malaysian education culture is very much exam-focused, so attainment is generally prioritised over other areas of learning. That said, the system is evolving, and there is now greater attention paid to things like social skills, personal development and learning life skills.

There are also international schools, primarily in Kuala Lumpur. Such schools can be more costly but are sometimes chosen by expats as they replicate the curriculums and teaching styles of the child’s home nation and soften the culture shock.

Fees can get a little more expensive if you choose a private or international school, and include a variety of charges:

  • Application fees are around 500 to 1,500 RM per child (£91 – £275) – and are payable to have the application reviewed.
  • When your application is accepted, registration fees can be anything from 2,000 to 20,000 per child (£265 – £1,800).
  • Most schools require a deposit, which is usually the fee for the first term in advance and again as a deposit. You typically need to give one term’s notice, and therefore cannot reclaim this deposit.
  • Each year, the tuition fee changes depending on what grade or year your child is in, and there are additional costs such as resource fees, meal charges, expenses of a tablet or laptop, uniform costs and technology fees.

This explains why teaching is such a prevalent occupation for expat professionals in Malaysia – the standards at international schools are very high, and the salary for an experienced tutor can reach up to 120,000 RM a year (£21,800) which is a high salary for Malaysia.

Malaysia Expat Taxes

Malaysia is considered ‘tax-friendly, and while the rates payable depend on your retirement or employment status, they are usually lower than you’d expect to pay in the UK.

There are also several exemptions, but the three primary categories that dictate your income tax rates are:

  • Tax-residents, who live in Malaysia for over 182 days of the year, pay standard rate residential income tax, which goes up to 30% depending on your income.
  • Short-term residents staying for less than 182 days pay a 30% flat rate.
  • Retirees over the age of 55, who receive a pension scheme or live on savings interest do not need to pay income tax – provided they work less than 60 days of the year.

If you relocate to Malaysia under the MM2H visa route, you do not need to pay any tax on any income that originates overseas, including interest earned on Malaysian accounts. Otherwise, these assets are taxed at three% on cash interest.

The income tax system is progressive, and so you pay the chargeable rate for the income within that band only. The maximum income tax rate is 30%, for over 2 million RM (£364,000).

For residents in Malaysia, the tax bands on chargeable income for 2021 are as follows:

Income Band RMIncome Band GBP (Approx.)Tax Rate
Up to 5,000Up to £9111%
5,001 – 20,000£912 – £3,6503%
20,001 – 35,000£3,651 – £6,4008%
35,001 – 50,000£6,401 – £9,10013%
50,001 – 70,000£9,101 – £12,75021%
70,001 – 100,000£12,751 – £18,20024%
100,001 – 250,000£18,201 – £45,50024.5%
250,001 – 400,000£45,501 – £73,00025%
400,001 – 600,000£73,001 – £109,50026%
600,001 – 1,000,000£109,501 – £182,20028%
1,000,001 – 2,000,000£182,201 – £364,40030%

There is a sales tax, similar to VAT in the UK. This tax is charged on various goods, including medical care, education fees, books and technology. Tax-free products include food, clothes and sports equipment, but alcohol and tobacco products are taxed at 15%.

Healthcare And Safety Living In Malaysia

There are various healthcare facilities in Malaysia, from state-run hospitals to private clinics, specialists and general doctors surgeries.

Standards of medical care are considered good, but costs can be expensive. Therefore, it is vital to have sufficient international health insurance or take out a policy from a Malaysian insurer in case you need care or treatment.

You can get treatment if you are a citizen or permanent resident at zero cost or a subsidised rate, but if you are an expat on a temporary visa, you will not qualify. Public hospitals and clinics will still treat you, but there will be a cost to pay, so insurance is critical.

Make sure you get the correct expat healthcare insurance and cover while travelling or living in Malaysia.

When insured, you can decide whether you’d like to request treatment, medicines or care from a private or government hospital. There are emergency departments open 24 hours at all state hospitals and some private hospitals. You will need to either pay a deposit, provide valid credit card details, or show proof of insurance before receiving treatment.

It is always wise to consider all care you might need and ensure your insurance covers:

  • Air ambulance and repatriation if you need to return to your country of origin.
  • Full medical and dental cover.
  • Any excesses, co-pays or policy limitations.

Insurance policies are reasonably priced, and basic coverage costs around 1,650 RM (£300).

The largest hospitals in Penang and Kuala Lumpur usually offer the most modern facilities, and you can turn up at any hospital and register for treatment without needing a referral.

Average treatment costs tend to be low for simple procedures but can get expensive if you need longer-term care, stay in the hospital for treatment, or require surgery.

Malaysia is increasingly a popular cosmetic surgery destination, given the lower costs than you’ll find in many other countries, particularly the US.

Typical costs are as follows:

TreatmentCost of Private Treatment RMCost of Private Treatment GBPCost of State Treatment RMCost of State Treatment GBP
Hip replacement24,000 – 55,000£4,400 – £10,0008,000 – 15,000£1,450 – £2,700
Cataract surgery3,500 – 6,000£640 – £1,100100 – 540£18 – £100
Heart surgery25,000 – 80,000£4,500 – £14,5004,000£730
Kidney stone treatment9,000 – 40,000£1,650 – £7,3003,000 – 10,000£550 – £1,800
Spinal surgery40,000 – 55,000£7,300 – £10,00015,000 – 36,000£2,700 – £6,500
Chemotherapy50 – 4,000 a cycle£10 – £730 a cycle200 a treatment£36 a treatment

Driving In Malaysia As An Expat

If you’re planning to drive, you can use your British driving license, but you will also need an International Driving Permit, which you can apply for through the Post Office before you travel.

These are valid for one year and can be renewed annually. However, Malaysia only recognises the UK driving licenses for one year past the entry date, so after 12 months, you will need to convert to a Malaysian driving license.

To get a valid local license, you will need to sit a test at a Malaysian driving school – you can book this in advance and find the nearest school through the Malaysian Road Transport Department (JPJ).

If you decide to buy a car or need to sell one, you’ll need your passport endorsed. This process is available through a local notary public or via a JPJ office.

Is Malaysia an expensive place to live?

No, Malaysia is considered an affordable destination. Below are some average costs of everyday expenses, as compared to the average in the UK:

ExpenseAverage Cost RMAverage Cost GBPAverage UK Cost
Meal for two60£11£50
Litre of milk6.74£1.23£0.91
Loaf of bread3.34£0.61£0.99
Litre of fuel2.06£0.38£1.26
Monthly public transport pass100£18.20£65
Monthly utilities198£36£155
Monthly gym membership143£26£31
Monthly rent for a central one-bed apartment1,463£266£744
Monthly rent for a three-bed home1,700£309£980

Living In Malaysia FAQ

Malaysia is a sunshine paradise for expats with long, sandy beaches, a blue sea and lots of sunshine.

Above all, the standard of living is good. Still, the cost of living is low, making Malaysia a top Asia Pacific destination for 90,000 Brits and a stop-over for many contractors working in oil, gas and engineering in the region.

Do I need to speak Malay to live in Malaysia?

Not necessarily, although it would be useful. English is widely spoken, and there are four national languages, including Malay, Mandarin and Tamil.

Those three native languages are the first language of most of the population, although most business is conducted in English.

Are there jobs in Malaysia outside of Kuala Lumpur?

There are – although the most significant employers are almost all in Kuala Lumpur and the surrounding areas.

You can also find many job vacancies for foreign nationals in Johor Bahru, just north of Singapore and popular with Singaporean businesses looking for lower running costs.

What is the weather like in Malaysia?

Malaysia is a hot country, and the seasons tend not to vary much at all. The average temperature is 27 °C all year round.

January is the coolest month, although only slightly, and therefore air conditioning is essential wherever you decide to live.

Monsoon seasons in May to September and again from October to March bring heavy rains, although the tropical equatorial climate does not get any colder or reduce humidity.

Do I need to know any particular local laws before moving to Malaysia?

Generally, Malaysia is a very multicultural country and welcomes expats from around the work. In addition, all major religious festivals are public holidays.

However, there are laws against homosexuality and other rules that UK expats will need to understand:

• You can be prosecuted for indecent exposure.
• Drug laws are stringent, and you must ensure any medications are approved before arrival.
• Cross-dressing is illegal.
• Punishments for law-breaking can include capital punishment, whipping and imprisonment, so it is vital to know the local laws and customs.
• Public displays of affection are not illegal, per se, but are frowned upon.

Other Asia Guides

Make sure you read the guide on moving abroad before you decide. In addition, you can find other Asian related guides following the links below.

Below is a list of some related articles that you may find of interest.

Questions or Comments?

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