An Expat’s Guide to Living in Malaysia

So, you’ve made the bold choice of living in a different country? You adventurous, daring soul. Great job! Being an expat (expatriate) is one of the most fulfilling and eye-opening experiences one can have. Now, all that’s left is choosing an expat-friendly country and do some planning. While there’s a lot of debate on which country has the lowest living costs, there’s no doubt that Malaysia often makes the list. So it is reasonable to consider living there. Specifically in states like Kedah, Melaka, Selangor, and even Kuala Lumpur — the nation’s glittering capital.

Malaysia is a beautiful, tropical country in Southeast Asia with a melting pot of races that will surely give you a run for your money. And your bucket list. Care to explore all the perks? Read on!

Visa Requirements

As an expat, you will need a visa to live and work in Malaysia. Several types of visas are available depending on your reason for staying in the country. To live in Malaysia as an expat, you will typically need a valid visa. Here are some common visa options available for individuals wishing to reside in Malaysia:

  • Employment Pass (EP): This visa is suitable for professionals, skilled workers, and managers who have secured a job offer from a Malaysian company. The EP is usually sponsored by the employer and allows for longer-term residency.
  • Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) Program: Designed for retirees, this program offers a long-term social visit pass that allows foreigners to stay in Malaysia on a long-term basis. Applicants must meet certain financial criteria and fulfill other requirements to qualify.
  • Spouse/Dependent Pass: If you are married to a Malaysian citizen or have a Malaysian spouse, you can apply for a Spouse or Dependent Pass, which grants you the right to live in Malaysia. The pass is subject to certain conditions and may require proof of marriage or relationship.
  • Student Visa: If you are accepted into a Malaysian educational institution, you can apply for a student visa. This visa allows you to reside in Malaysia for the duration of your study program.
  • Malaysia Professional Visit Pass (PVP): This visa is suitable for foreign professionals who wish to work on specific projects or assignments in Malaysia for a limited duration. The PVP is typically sponsored by the Malaysian company hiring the individual.

It is essential to consult with the Malaysian Immigration Department or seek advice from an immigration lawyer or relevant authorities to ensure you have the most up-to-date and accurate information regarding visa requirements and processes for living in Malaysia.

Cost of Living

With relatively low living costs, Malaysia attracts tourists and expats like sugar reels in ants. The average buying power of the Ringgit (MYR, Ringgit Malaysia) is extensive in terms of commodities. But while gas and groceries are affordable, do keep in mind that prices will vary according to your lifestyle & which part of the country you’ll be staying in. For instance, living in Kedah or Perlis will be significantly cheaper than in Kuala Lumpur or Johor.


Bahasa Malaysia (or simply BM or Malay to foreigners) is the country’s national and official language. But English is also widely spoken, due to Malaysia being a British colony way back when. While English is especially prominent in urban areas, it is helpful to learn basic Malay phrases for daily communication and to avoid being swindled or taken advantage of. It will guarantee smoother and faster transactions. Not to mention, it will also garner you some admiration and respect from the locals. I got to say, learning BM can be considered relatively easy for several reasons. Firstly, Malay has a straightforward and consistent pronunciation system, making it easier for learners to pronounce words accurately. The pronunciation is generally phonetic, meaning that words are pronounced as they are spelled. Additionally, the Malay language does not use tones or complex verb tenses, which can be challenging for learners of other languages.

Malaysian Climate

Since Malaysia sits right at the equator, this makes it a tropical country with considerable humidity. The temperatures range from 25 – 35°C (77 – 95°F) all year round. The two polar seasons of hot/humid and cold/rainy could take some getting used to.

Feel like getting away from the heat and having a snack? Why not stop by a local mamak stall (small eatery-cum-café) nearby? Malaysia is awash with these types of stores with indoor and/or outdoor settings. All you have to do is sit back, relax, and order. 

Mamak stall
Mamak stall


Now on to a more serious topic, your health should be your topmost priority and Malaysia certainly has your back. The country has a well-developed healthcare system with both public & private options available. As a rule of thumb, every working adult is encouraged to obtain health insurance; regardless of whether they are an expat or not. But for expats, this importance is further elevated. Especially if you are living alone and rely solely on your income to cover your day-to-day expenses. Expats are generally advised to get private health insurance to augment any medical expenses that may arise. Thus, providing you and your wallet peace of mind.


Now that we’ve covered the basics of getting into Malaysia and what you’ll need… Let’s get you settled! Housing costs will also vary depending on geographical location (which part of the country & whether you’re living in an urbanized or more rural community) and type of accommodation. Depending on your duration of stay in Malaysia (either permanent or temporary), you would consider buying or renting a property. Most expats would prefer to rent a place to stay. Personally, my family has rented a townhouse/terrace house for most of my life in Malaysia, and it was generally affordable. But as with common sense, the bigger the houses the more amenities, the pricier it gets. 

Streets of Malaysia
Streets of Johor


Now that you’ve got a place to call home, let’s get exploring. When it comes to getting around in Malaysia, it’s a breeze! The Malaysian transport system is extensive that includes buses, taxis, trains & Grab; the Southeast Asian equivalent of Uber. The latter is also widely used in the country when you want a more private (chauffeur) service. 

Cultural Differences

Malaysia in her own right, boasts of a melting pot of cultures, sans tourists. The dominant population is made up of 3 communities: Malays, Chinese, Indians and indigenous tribes. Aside from these, Malaysia is also multicultural. It is also important to be mindful of local customs, such as removing shoes before entering homes or religious places and using your right hand for giving and receiving items. Malaysian culture places a strong emphasis on respect for elders. It is customary to address older individuals with honorific titles, such as “uncle” or “auntie,” as a sign of respect. Hence, it is important to be respectful of different customs & religions.


Malaysia has a strong banking and financial system that moves like clockwork. Expats are also generally encouraged to open up bank accounts in one, or several of the plethora of banking options. Maybank, the country’s flag-bearer has a myriad of services & branches across the nation, to offer. There are also plenty of international banks that cater to all unique needs and individuals. Though, be mindful that to open an account, expats may need to provide extra documents, as opposed to residents/locals. 

Malaysian students
Public School Primary Students


And last but not least, Malaysia has a commendable education system. Public and private schools abound. Whether you want to enroll in/send your child to either one of these schools, there’s something for everyone! For expat families, an international school would be quite fitting as some help process your visa. But also be reminded that the price point in private/international schools would be steeper than their public counterparts. So you or your parents will need to budget accordingly. What I can safely say though, is that there is a palpable difference for the student when it comes to attending private or public schools. What’s important is, how you/your child assimilates. 

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