100 Tips for Living in Malaysia

After living in Malaysia for more than a year, I thought the time has come to write an article about tips for living in Malaysia as a foreigner. These are things that stood out to me as an American when coming to live in Malaysia.

(Click the link below if you would prefer to watch a video with the same information: 100 Tips For Living in Malaysia)

  1. Food is an important part of Malaysian culture. If you attend any kind of event or social activity, there will probably be food involved.
  2. Malaysians are friendly toward foreigners. We have never come across a Malaysian who was unfriendly toward us, and they are so willing to assist if you need directions or help with something.
  3. Malaysia is a left-driving country. This takes some getting used to if you’re from a right-driving country, even if you aren’t driving yourself.
  4. Mattresses tend to be firm. My wife loves this, she prefers a firm mattress. But, if you find your mattress to be too firm you can buy a mattress topper to make it softer.
  5. English is widely spoken by Malaysians. We’ve had no problems communicating here, levels of proficiency vary by area, but almost everyone speaks at least a basic level of English.
  6. Malaysia is a more developed country than many of its neighbors. In general Malaysia is very modern and has great infrastructure. It is definitely not a third world country.
  7. Pedestrians do not have the right of way. Be careful when you are crossing the street, you never know when a car could zip around a corner. And the drivers might not slow down for you.
  8. Don’t wear shoes inside the house. This might be one of our most important tips for living in Malaysia. Leave your shoes outside when you are entering a house, a temple, a mosque, and sometimes smaller family-run businesses.
  9. Malaysia is a multicultural country. In Malaysia you will find a mixture of ethnicities, including the Malay, people of Chinese descent, people of Indian descent, and many other ethnicities as well.
  10. Food courts are common. These food courts usually have a variety of stalls and types of food, and the seating areas are usually outdoors.
  11. Malaysia has religious diversity. There are many different religions here in Malaysia. Islam is probably the most common. There are mosques, churches, and temples throughout the country.
  12. It’s common to wash your hands before eating. There’s usually a sink in the eating area when eating out so that it’s not necessary to go to the toilet just to wash your hands.
  13. The Malaysia currency is ringgit. Bills come in 1, 5, 10, 20, 50 and sometimes 100 notes.
  14. Free soda refills at restaurants is rare. Some restaurants do have free refills, but it’s not as common as it is back home. (And sorry America, I just have to say that’s part of the reason we are so unhealthy, just my two cents there).
  15. Motorcycles are common. Scooters and motorcycles are a very common way people get around their city, they are cheaper and use less gasoline than cars.
  16. Malaysians often eat with their fingers. And this is even for eating things like rice. But forks, spoons and chopsticks are available when eating out too.
  17. Be prepared for noise. We personally haven’t experienced big problems with noisy situations. But this is something foreigners mention, sometimes it’s construction noise, sometimes traffic or other types of loud noise.
  18. Bargaining is not common. Prices are generally set, and negotiating is not typical. I don’t feel like I’m getting ripped off because I’m a foreigner. For example, I lost the snorkel mask that I rented, I could have easily been overcharged for the replacement. But I was asked to pay a fair price, and appreciate the honestly.
  19. Tourist attractions sometimes cost more for foreigners. Now I just said a second ago that I don’t feel like I get ripped off as a foreigner, right? But even though the prices are higher, they are set and fair.
  20. Dish washers, ovens, and clothes dryers are not as common. We did have one apartment with a clothes dryer and an oven, but they aren’t common. You can buy stand-alone ovens if you really want one.
  21. Public transportation is good. This is another of our most important tips for living in Malaysia. It is much easier to live in Malaysia without owning a car than it is in the United States. Buses and trains run both within cities and also between cities.
  22. Most showers have instant hot water boxes. Instead of having a big hot water tank for an entire apartment, each individual shower usually has an on-demand hot water system.
  23. Many local banks don’t charge ATM fees. You could still get charged by your home bank if you’re using a foreign card. But depending on the bank, you may not be charged on the Malaysian side of the transaction.
  24. Internet shopping is easy. The two main websites for internet shopping are Shopee and Lazada. Delivery times are fast if the product is coming from within Malaysia, and we like that you can pay for your order with cash at 7-11.
  25. Internet service is generally reliable. Occasional internet downtime does happen, but in our experience internet is usually fast and dependable.
  26. Currency exchange rates can fluctuate. Just something to be aware of, for example during the past year the rate to the US dollar varied by as much as 10%.
  27. Alcohol can be expensive. We don’t generally drink alcohol, but if you do budget accordingly. Langkawi is duty free on alcohol if that helps.
  28. Windows and doors sometimes have security bars. Malaysia is generally very safe, but for extra security you will see these bars. It also allows you to keep the windows and doors open to let in some fresh air.
  29. The weather is hot. Be prepared for hot and humid tropical weather all year. But you can escape to the highland areas in the center of the peninsula to get a dose of pleasant temperatures.
  30. Vegetarian food is available. Malaysian food is not generally vegetarian. But you can find meatless dishes and meatless food products in the grocery stores.
  31. Malaysia’s crime rate is low. Now the word ‘low’ is relative, crime and terrorism can happen anywhere. But we feel much safer here than in the US. I don’t have to wonder if I’ll get shot at the grocery store.
  32. Smaller stores and restaurants may be closed one day per week. This is especially true of family run businesses, and which day of the week each is closed will vary.
  33. Shopping malls are abundant. In the US shopping malls are in decline and are being abandoned, but they are going strong in Malaysia.
  34. Malaysia uses a Type G electric socket. This is the same as the UK. You can buy adapters here, no problem.
  35. Beef consumption is lower. People do eat beef here, but less than in the US. The beef in Malaysia is mostly imported from Australia and priced accordingly. I don’t eat beef anymore so this doesn’t impact me personally.
  36. Healthcare is inexpensive and high quality. Now, this of course is from an American perspective. Prices in Malaysia can be a low as 10% of what they are in the US.
  37. Healthcare prices are generally set. In the US you sometimes have no idea how much a health appointment costs until it’s over and you get the bill. In Malaysia it’s much easier to find out the cost ahead of time.
  38. Medical appointments are usually widely available. In Malaysia you can usually book an appointment just a few days ahead of time, at least that has been our experience.
  39. Mid and upper range apartments have good security. There will usually be security guards and cameras in apartment complexes frequented by expats.
  40. Natural disasters are rare. Heavy rain and flooding does occur but destructive storms like hurricanes or typhoons are not a problem. And Malaysia doesn’t have a major problem with earthquakes.
  41. It can be cold on public transportation. Bring a jacket because the air conditioning can be cranked up high on trains, buses, and ferries, in our experience especially the ferries.
  42. Malay is an easier language to learn. The Malay language uses the roman alphabet, it’s not tonal, and some of the words are similar to English. Here’s the word for Restaurant, here’s the word for police, and the word for bus is on the screen there.
  43. The largest expat communities are in Kuala Lumpur and Penang. There are expats all over the country, but Penang seems to be the central area for retired expats, while KL has more of the younger, business type expats.
  44. Malaysian food is generally spicier than western food. I came to Malaysia not particularly liking spicy food, but now I’ve really grown to like it. And the word spicy can be relative, what is not spicy to a Malaysian can be spicy to a westerner.
  45. International cuisine is widely available. This is especially true in Penang and KL. You can read more about the international food in Penang at this link.
  46. We suggest filtering tap water. We personally use a portable filter, but sometimes hotels and apartments will have a filter available for you to use.
  47. Recycling varies. We’ve had trouble finding recycle bins in a few places in Malaysia, but most places have recycling bins readily available.
  48. The MM2H program is being revised. MM2H is the visa many expats use to live in Malaysia, and at the time this article is being published the program is undergoing a review and not yet available. We suggest doing a Google search to see if there is any updated information. UPDATE AUGUST 11, 2021: The new requirements for the MM2H visa have been announced. More information can be found at this link.
  49. Sabah and Sarawak have different immigration rules. These are the two states on the island of Borneo and they have some autonomy over immigration. Sarawak has completed its review of the MM2H program and you can find its requirements online.
  50. Mosquito born illnesses do occur. But there are efforts to minimize these diseases through awareness and also through mosquito fumigation.
  51. Malaysians dress more conservatively. You won’t typically see women with exposed shoulders or wearing shorts.
  52. Restaurants are either halal or non-halal. Halal restaurants won’t serve pork or alcohol, and there will usually be a sign to indicate whether or not the restaurant is halal.
  53. Supermarkets have non-halal items. These non-halal items will be in a separate area or room and will have non-Muslim cashiers.
  54. Grab taxis are widely available. Grab is Malaysia’s ride sharing company, and they are inexpensive. In Ipoh for example it was only 4 ringget or about a dollar for a short ride.
  55. Gasoline or petrol prices are reasonable. The cost of a liter of petrol is around 2 ringget at the time of this video. For Americans that’s roughly the equivalent of $2 per gallon and for Europeans roughly a half euro per liter.
  56. Malaysia has a lot of holidays. There are many state and local holidays in addition to federal holidays.
  57. Malaysia has severe penalties for drugs. So don’t bring or buy them here.
  58. International schools are widely available. If you have kids that you want to attend an international school, you will have no trouble finding one in Malaysia.
  59. It can be hard to find clothing in larger sizes. It’s not impossible, you just have to look a little harder and there might not be as much variety.
  60. Durian is often restricted. Durian is a local fruit with a very strong smell, and you will see signs banning it from elevators, buses, and hotels.
  61. Malaysian’s are generally patriotic. We noticed this especially around the Merdeka Day holiday, when Malaysian flags are flying everywhere.
  62. Fruit and vegetable markets sometimes have the freshest produce. We’ve had good experience shopping at these local markets, often finding inexpensive and quality items.
  63. Malaysia has many chain restaurants. You can find the American chains too, but Malaysia has it’s own restaurant chains. Secret Recipe is a mid-range type restaurant with delicious desserts. Marrybrown is fast-food chicken, Old Town White Coffee is a coffee shop. And The Chicken Rice Shop has, you guessed it, chicken rice.
  64. Credit cards are not as widely used. Many places do accept credit cards, but not everywhere. And ePay is becoming more popular too.
  65. Many buildings don’t have a 4th or 14th floor. Just like in the US where we skip the 13th floor for superstitious reasons.
  66. Nasi lemak is one of the most common Malaysian foods. This is a rice dish with anchovy sauce, cucumber and eggs. It’s so common that even McDonalds serves it.
  67. Wild monkeys live in Malaysia. We even rented one apartment where we could see two types of monkeys from the window, and sometimes they would come out of the forest and into the neighborhood.
  68. Most toilets have a bidet hose. Okay, I thought this was weird at first, but I like it now, It’s sanitary and efficient. And you can still buy toilet paper if you prefer that.
  69. Malaysia ranks high on the Global Peace Index list. It’s ranked at number 20. And since I’m American I’ll compare it to the US which is all the way down at number 121.
  70. Mr. DIY stores are everywhere. This is a store that sells all kinds of things, kitchen items, home repair, office supplies, toys, flip-flops, you name it.
  71. Drivers will sometime run a red light. Be especially careful if you’re crossing the street, a scooter could be going through the intersection even if the light is red.
  72. It’s not common to see hugging or kissing in publicYou will definitely draw attention to yourself if you are showing public displays of affection around other people.
  73. The tip is sometimes included in restaurant menu prices. If you’re not sure you can always ask, but a standard tip of 10% is quite often already built into the price.
  74. Cell phone plans are inexpensiveWe use Digi, there are a wide variety of plans to choose from, and prices are reasonable.
  75. Facebook is a great way to meet other expats. There are many Facebook groups that arrange meetups if you want to meet other expats in your area of Malaysia.
  76. Stovetops can be gas or electric. The gas for stoves is usually in a tank that will be delivered to your house or apartment. For us a tank lasted about 6 weeks and cost 30 ringget.
  77. You can drive between any two cities on peninsular Malaysia in less than one day. Even if driving from the northern most city down to the Singapore border, it can be done in a day.
  78. Sidewalks are sometimes uneven. If you are in a wheelchair or have any mobility issues, getting around could be a challenge.
  79. Peninsular Malaysia has a good train network. There are two lines, and our experience with the trains has always been punctual and comfortable.
  80. Search iProperty.com for apartments. We think this is a great website when searching for a long-term lease on an apartment.
  81. Don’t point with your index fingerI forget this and it’s not a big problem, nobody gets mad. But it is more polite to point with your thumb.
  82. Gluten free products are available in grocery stores. I’ll tell you though, my wife cannot eat gluten in the US, but she has no problems here in Malaysia. I think the wheat might be processed differently here.
  83. Wild orangutans are found only in Malaysia and Indonesia. Unfortunately their habitat is disappearing, but there are also conservation efforts to help save them from extinction.
  84. Photocopy centers are easy to find. If you don’t have a printer and need a paper copy of a document, head for a photocopy shop.
  85. It’s common to see trash and litter. Even though we do see trash quite often, we also see people cleaning it up too.
  86. Malaysia has less air pollution compared to other countries. The skies are not totally free from pollution, but compared to Thailand or India or China, Malaysia is generally looking pretty good.
  87. Our personal cost of living in Malaysia is half of what it was in the US. This is due to the strength of the US dollar. You can watch the article in this link for more about our cost of living. [Screenshot of categories from COL video.]
  88. Electronics can be expensive in Malaysia. But not always a lot more expensive than in the US, and unless you buy a massive amount of electronics it’s probably not significant.
  89. On buses, know the name of the stop where you will get off. The fare is determined by where you board and where you disembark, so be prepared to tell the driver your destination.
  90. Geckos could come into your house or apartment. If leaving the windows open or if there are cracks under the doors, be prepared for some friendly company.
  91. Laundromats are easy to find. They are inexpensive, usually have good modern machines, and easy to locate all around Malaysia.
  92. Malaysia is a good base for exploring Asia. Flights to other parts of Malaysia are plentiful and cheap. I even saw a flight from KL to The Philippines for $50.
  93. Cigarette smoking is fairly common. Probably a bit more common than in the US, but it’s not overwhelming with cigarette smoke.
  94. Malaysian news in English is available online. The most common publications are The Star, The Malay Mail, and the New Straight Times.
  95. Go to Jaya for imported food products. This grocery store seems to have the biggest selection of food items imported from other countries. But Cold Storage and Tesco are good too.
  96. Be ready to pay for restroomsThe toilets are free in shopping malls and restaurants, but you might be charged a very small amount at bus and train stations.
  97. Toilets are a mix of sit and squat. You’ll see both of these types, and we personally never had a situation where only one type was available.
  98. Bathrooms in apartments can be either wet or dry. We have had both types, and by wet I mean that the shower is not in a separate stall, so the water just sprays onto the bathroom floor.
  99. Hotel rooms and some apartments have an arrow painted on the ceiling. This arrow points in the direction of Mecca so that Muslim guests know in which direction to pray.
  100. Apartment rentals often include furnitureUnlike the US where you usually need your own furniture, in Malaysia it common for furniture to be included when renting an apartment.

So those are our best tips for living in Malaysia as a foreigner. Do you have any other tips? Please leave a comment to let us know!

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