The Cost of Living in Malaysia as an Expat

Looking for a cheap place to live where most people speak English? Want to live in a country where you never need a jacket, where you can eat well for a buck or two, and where you can fly to a dozen other countries for $60 or less? Then you’ll find the cost of living in Malaysia and the quality of life there to be quite attractive.

living in Malaysia

Photo from Penang Global Tourism

On top of all that, you can get legal residency there rather easily as long as you’ve got a solid income and some savings, either as a retiree (age 50 at least) or you’ve made a small fortune at a younger age that you can stick into a Malaysian bank.

When writer Kirsten Raccuia and her husband were getting tired of the rat race in Chicago and wanted to move abroad, they thought that was going to be to Costa Rica. They had made a few trips there and loved it. They were finding that it wasn’t really a good value, however, and no place really struck them as having a good expat community to integrate with. “We went to an International Living conference looking for ideas,” Kirsten said, “and a guy we met there living in Malaysia really made it sound attractive. We decided to go there on a vacation trip to check it out, but I said flat out I didn’t want to live there, being on an opposite time zone and so far away.

Soon after we got there though, I said, ‘Oh no, I love it here. I love everything about it.’ The food is great, the people are welcoming, there’s a big expat community, the price is right, everything. Six years later, here we still are.”

She says they intentionally burned their bridges back home. They sold their real estate business, sold their possessions, and took off for a new life in Malaysia. “I didn’t want to deal with a house, cars, things in storage—that would make it too easy to go back. I didn’t want to have one foot in each place.” Now they live in a $650 apartment of 2,300 square feet, ocean views, and “more closets than I have ever had” that Kirsten estimates would cost $5,000 a month or more in Chicago. Their average monthly budget is around $2,000 without trying very hard. “If I didn’t drink and didn’t cook we could spend less.” See more about her life there on the Sand in My Curls blog.

You don’t hear much about Malaysia from the location independent crowd because even though there are an estimated 12,000 foreigners in Penang, most of them fall into two camps: retirees or corporate workers. The former come because of the ease of getting a 10-year visa on the “My Second Home Malaysia” program–more on that in the visas section. Company executives are there because of the large number of foreign companies operating here in this port region and in the capital of KL. “Then there are a few like us,” Kirsten says, “who don’t fit into either camp. “But we intermingle a lot.”

When it comes to the ease of transition into a new life, it’s hard to beat moving to Penang. It’s a little cooler (a relative term) because of the regular breezes, it’s not such a huge city as the capital, and you can get from one end of the island to another for $15 in a taxi. It’s quite a paradise for foodies too.

It has all the comforts of a lively artistic city, it’s one of Southeast Asia’s most established arts hubs, and yet it has great hiking trails, amazing rainforest, wildlife, and some pretty decent beaches,” says Marco Ferrarese who runs the Penang Insider site. “All within a very short distance on a compact tropical island.”

Other expatriates mostly choose to live in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, or the former Portuguese colony of Malacca (sometimes spelled as Melaka). Some choose an island resort zone or one of the two states on the island of Borneo.

cost of living in Kuala Lumpur as an expatriate

There are a few bloggers and younger location independent workers who have spent time living in Malaysia and most of them give it high marks. They tout the green spaces, the ease of transportation, the ease of getting by in English, and the bargain living costs. “I couldn’t imagine having the same life in London or Melbourne compared to what we have here in Kuala Lumpur,” said Sherri “Shezz” Ottova from England on her Travel Mermaid blog, “unless we were on a 6-figure salary, and even then it would be a struggle.”

All of the expats I spoke to and all those who posted online are living on $2,000 or less per month as a couple or $1,500 or less as a single, usually without being very frugal. (Most locals earn less than $1,000 a month, to put that in perspective.) Here’s a rundown of what you can expect for the cost of living in Malaysia if you decide to live there for a few months, a year, or permanently.

Malaysia Rent and Housing Costs

The most obvious cost savings you’ll see on your monthly expenses if you move to Malaysia is the drastic drop in rent prices, especially if you come from a major city. “They’re constantly building here and I’m not sure why,” says Helen Davies, who moved to Penang with her husband Paul for early retirement from the UK. “New buildings keep going up while there’s already a wide variety of empty places for rent. There are 600 units over three buildings in our gated complex, but probably only 30% of them are occupied at any given time.” They pay around $625 per month for their furnished three-bedroom, 1,600-square-foot condo on the 15th floor with a view of the water. The complex has a big swimming pool, huge gym, tennis courts, and 24-hour security. (“Though I’m not sure how necessary the security is,” she says. “Crime is very low in this country.”)

apartment in Penang view

(c) SandInMyCurls.com

Kirsten and Mark don’t have as many amenities, but they have even more space, paying less than $650 for 2,300 square feet, terrific views and balconies, all furnished including a dishwasher, oven, big TV, and washing machine. The two of them share four bathrooms, three bedrooms, and a maid’s quarters they use for storage. “We have paid between $650 and $700 for six years now,” she says. “I know others paying anywhere from $230 for a smaller but still nice and modern place up to $925 for a fabulous penthouse kind of apartment.” For that amount, you’ll probably get a roof terrace with a plunge pool or a full house with garage.

Marco lives like a local in far less fancy digs and his rent is almost too cheap to believe. “I live in a low-density local flat, meaning I have no facilities like swimming pool, security (which is mostly useless anyway I’d say), or a gym, and we spend around US$115 a month for our two-bedroom apartment. Yes it’s cheap and yes, it’s more than decent to live, but I am on the 4th floor without elevator too. Penang is still full of these deals if you can manage with a spartan life.” Even with utilities and internet factored in they spend less than $200 a month on accomodations.

In Kuala Lumpur, it’s a larger and more sprawling city, with the main choices being between the city center and the suburbs. Both have their advantages, but you can generally get more space and amenities for the money further out, with public transportation and car services bridging the gap rather easily. It can be quieter as well.

“I lived in a 120 square-meter three-bedroom flat (about 1,300 square feet) in one of the most exclusive expat neighborhoods for the equivalent of US$530 per month,” says Shezz. All bedrooms had an en-suite bath plus there an additional bathroom. It also had a balcony and 2 allocated parking spaces. The complex has an Olympic sized swimming pool, 2 additional secluded pools, a gym, tennis court, squash court, badminton court, sauna, Jacuzzi, and an herb garden. She says this is a pretty standard set-up for expats in KL, though they got a better deal than average, which is probably more like $650 to $700 in the expat suburbs for a similar size and amenities.

Anya from RoadIsCalling.com decided to rent in the city center instead, where she says the cost of renting an apartment here starts from around $310, with plenty to choose from. “Almost all apartment complexes have a gym, pool, barbecue area, cool common lounge, security desk, and office. Renting a home in Kuala Lumpur is easy and quick. A lot of our friends who live in KL use the Mudah.my site to find a flat.”

When I browsed the Mudah site I found basic city apartments on that site for as little as $150, then at the other end of the scale, huge 4-bedroom furnished places of 2,000 square feet or more with all the amenities renting for $650 to $800 per month. Only a few are more than $1,000 per month, probably rented to corporate workers with a housing stipend. In other cities, there’s Craigslist, agency sites, and multiple expatriate Facebook groups with rental listings. “I think there are four expat Facebook groups here in Penang,” says Helen.

Utilities aren’t going to set you back much either. WiFi will generally cost between $12.50 and $40 depending on speed. “We pay about the same as we paid in the UK,” says Helen, “but it’s about 10 times faster here.” Water and sewer will be $10 a month or less, gas about the same if you use that. Despite everyone needing to run the air conditioning constantly, electricity costs aren’t too bad. Everyone I talked to was paying somewhere between $40 and $70 per month, despite sometimes being in very large apartments with lots of windows.

Most apartments come furnished and that includes everything except kitchen items like skillets, glasses, and cutlery. While in many countries you can’t expect to have “western” appliances or the kind of bathrooms you’re used to, in Malaysia there’s not much of an adjustment. You may not have an oven since few locals bake, but you’ll usually have a washing machine and often even a dryer. The furniture will be comfortable and modern, the TV, microwave, and stove up to date.

If you use an agent like Helen did when she and Paul moved to Penang, expect to pay a fee equivalent to half the first month’s rent. Then you usually pay one month’s rent as a security deposit.

Food and Drink Cost of Living in Malaysia

One of the first things any expat in Malaysia mentions when talking about the advantages is the food. Not only is it cheap, sometimes just a buck or two for a tasty noodle or rice dish at a street stall, but it’s varied and delicious as well.

This country has three distinct cultures and cuisines in the mix before you even get to foreign trends. The ethnic Muslim Malays have their own cuisine, which is based on local ingredients, has some spicy options, and from the meat side is halal. In some places in the western, more urban half of the country, half the population may be ethnic Chinese, which means a whole range of dishes that originated in China. Then because of British colonialism, there’s a large Indian population in much of the country as well. You could have dim sum for breakfast, a vegetarian thali spread for lunch, and a chicken satay with peanut sauce followed by nasi goreng for dinner.

Those people living in Malaysia always have a lot of delicious food to choose fromIt’s not unusual to find any of these local items on the street or in a simple restaurant for a buck or two. “We rarely cook because it’s so cheap to eat out,” says Helen. “Lunch yesterday was 7 ringgit for two ($1.70).” 

Kirsten, like Helen, buys most of her food at the market. She says a kilo of chicken or pork is usually around $4. Most fruits and vegetables are a dollar or two a kilo. She agrees though that it’s cheaper to eat out than it is to cook for yourself. “You can go out to a nice restaurant here and spend 70 ringgit for 2 for a full seafood meal–less than $20. There’s a huge sin tax on alcohol though. Like most people, we have a smuggler we buy liquor from because the store prices are insane. We can buy a bottle of vodka from him for $9 that in a store here would be $20 or more.”

Helen agrees, saying, “Where the expense comes in is if you drink alcohol. Beer and spirits are about the same as the UK, wine is more. We paid 38 ringgit ($9) yesterday for a very basic bottle of Chilean wine from our smuggler guy and that’s about the best you can expect.”

“What we personally like is how many cute cafes that serve delicious breakfast and coffee Kuala Lumpur has,” Anya says. “There is a lot to choose from and prices range between $3.50 to $8 for breakfast and $2-$3 for a coffee drink.”

Naturally you’ll pay more for food from home, but at least here it’s available if you’re willing to splurge. In Penang you have Tesco, Sam’s Club, and Marks & Spencer, while there are even more options in the capital city.

For a variety of good articles on food in George Town, see the Penang Insider site run by Italian expat Marco Ferrarese.

The Cost of Transportation

“It’s very easily to get around for cheap on public transportation, some loop routes are even free,” says Helen. “The pay bus in George Town is US 35 cents and the most you would pay to traverse the whole island is on a public bus is a dollar. Taxis are very cheap, plus we have Grab on the phone. A local journey of 5-8 kms on Grab is $1.50 to $2.50. The most you would pay is $7, like to the airport. They overcharge to come back from there though, as in $12 for a 30-60 minute ride. So last time we just took the bus.”

In Kuala Lumpur, a monthly transportation pass is just $23 and a one-way ticket on the rail service that heads out to the suburbs is 70 cents. There’s also a monorail that hits 11 locations in the city center. Most public transportation runs until 11 or 12 at night.

A six-kilometer taxi or Uber ride will run $2.50 to $6. In theory taxis as supposed to use the meter but some will refuse, thus the massive switch over to Uber and Grab for many riders.

Bus rides within Malaysia are inexpensive and efficient, thanks in part to cheap fuel prices and great highway systems. You can get to most places in the country for $15 or less and it will be a comfortable ride, as long as you bring an extra layer to deal with the extreme A/C. Short hops are just a few bucks.

train sleeper in Malaysia

There’s also a train system, with similar fares, but it’s not as convenient and fast since the system is limited to two lines through the country. One line goes through the western cities like Penang, KL, and Melacca, while the other starts on the east coast and goes through the forested interior. They meet up south of Melacca and head to Singapore. It is a more romantic way to move about and an alternative to flying if you want to travel to Bangkok or Singapore. You can book online and reserve a seat or sleeping berth.

This is an easy country to get by without your own car, which helps keep the cost of living in Malaysia low unless you live in the countryside somewhere.

Cheap Travel From Malaysia

One of the great advantages of living in Malaysia is that you can travel to other places for cheap when you want a change of scenery. Budget airlines like Air Asia are constantly running unbelievably low fares for those who can plan ahead and travel light. “The two of us flew to Cambodia for the equivalent of $65 return for two of us,” says Helen. “We flew to India and back for $132. It was $12 for two to go to Langkawi and back.”

“We can fly a lot of places for $25 to $80,” says Kirsten, “and we never spend more than $50 even in a nice hotel. We would never have thought in America that we could get a nice hotel for 25 or 30 dollars, but you really can in this region.”

There are ample flights from Penang, then even more from Kuala Lumpur, which is a major budget flight hub now. The government built a high-speed light rail train that goes between the city center and both international airports, running every 15-20 minutes. The compartments are clean and air-conditioned, there’s WiFi, and luggage storage ($13 one way). Plus most of the regular international airlines fly into KL, so it’s easy to get back to your old home to see the relatives, or to fly most anywhere for a conference or business meeting. Assuming there’s no pandemic going on, that is. Check rates here on Kayak or Skyscanner.

Lankawi beach at sunset

That shot above is from Langkawi Island, one of the many places you can visit in Malaysia itself. Malaysia has plenty of its own picture-perfect tropical islands, hill station areas where you can cool off a little, and the much wilder section of the country that’s on the island of Borneo, shared with Indonesia.

Getting around by train or bus is inexpensive. The bus from Penang to Kuala Lumpur, for instance, is generally $9 or less for one with plenty of legroom. A sleeper train between George Town, Penang and Bangkok is around $30 one way.

Malaysian Visas and Residency

Most foreigners who are 50 and above and not intending to work locally go for the 10-year residency visa offered via the My Second Home Malaysia program. This program is not for you if you’re broke, however, as there are fairly high income and savings requirements you need to meet.

This is by far the easiest, most straightforward place to get long-term residency in Southeast Asia, thanks to a formal system that has been in place for a couple decades. Sure, the rules change now and then and the amount of money you have to put into the country is sizable, but the requirements don’t bounce around every few months like they do in Thailand and you’ve got some security that you can really stay long-term after you have a visa in your passport.

“You can get it done yourself, but we used an agent,” says Helen. “They took care of a lot of the red tape and making sure the many forms were filled out properly. For us it was worth the agent fee of around $1,900 that we paid. The rules change quite frequently, but it’s much easier if you’re over 50.

When we applied, you had to prove 350,000 Malaysian ringgit of savings that cannot be property (a little more than $80,000). You also have to show income of 10,000 per month (currently around $2,300) for at least three months, with bank statements. You apply in one person’s name for the visa and that includes a spouse, parents, even a housekeeper supposedly.”

You’ll see that MM2H income requirement quoted with different figures in different places, but that’s mostly because of exchange rate differences. To be safe, find a way to get at least $2,600 coming through your checking account for a few months as they’ll be looking at your bank statements and the ringgit could strengthen.

Malaysian food is a bargain

You need a police certificate to show that you don’t have a criminal record. Once you get approved, you have three months to deposit the equivalent of $35,000 in a Malaysian bank and that money has to stay there for at least a year. After a year you can remove up to a third of it to pay for a car, real estate, medical care, and a few other approved expenses. You also have to have a basic local health insurance policy. Plus you need a medical certificate which requires a very basic physical.

“The whole process took two months, but now a different ministry is handling it and we hear it’s taking much longer,” Helen says. “The MM2H visa is renewable after 10 years, but of course if your passport renews before that, you have to transfer the visa, which requires another step. Should my husband pass away, I would have to reapply. It should be transferable, but it’s not.”

The rules and amounts change every years or two, partly due to exchange rate erosion, plus the money amounts can be different according to where you decide to live: you have to deposit or invest more in KL, for instance, than you do in Kuching, which is not on the peninsula. If you invest a large sum in property you can get around the bank deposit, but all the expats I’ve spoken to say real estate is not a good value in Malaysia and you’re better off renting since there’s so much available at a good price.

If you don’t go down the MM2H path and you don’t have a work visa, the most common path is a three-month tourist visa. “The first year we had tourist visas and did visa runs,” says Kirsten. “We would just take a vacation every three months and go somewhere new. Later we got a business visa because we had plans to run a medical tourism business here, but then that ended up not working out. When Mark hit 50, we got on the My Second Home program, which meant showing income and depositing about $33k in a fixed deposit in a Malaysian bank. You are not allowed to work for a Malaysian company, but otherwise the rules aren’t restrictive and the 10-year visa is a huge benefit.”

Obviously this is much more attractive to those over 50 than it is for younger people who are still making a living. There are rumors as I write this that the under-50 crowd will be required to deposit $130,000 in a bank, which is not the kind of liquid wealth most non-retirees have put away. For many this means having to get a corporate job or depend on tourist visas that expire every three months, with the risk that you could be denied re-entry.

There is some hope that the government is adjusting to the new remote worker reality though. If you are running a legit online business or are getting ready to launch one, the Malaysia Tech Entrepreneur Programme will provide a visa of one year or five years depending on an array of qualifications and fees. The income requirements are a little fuzzy on what is essentially a one-page website, but this is an encouraging development for Southeast Asia, where tech entrepreneurs who are location independent have traditionally been viewed with distrust or downright skepticism, despite the tens of thousands of them based in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Bali.

Downsides of Living in Malaysia

There are always pros and cons of moving abroad and it’s only fair to point out the downsides. The cost of living in Malaysia is low, but if you’re going to move there, you’d better not have an aversion to sweat. “No matter what clothes you put on, be ready to sweat once you step outside,” says Anya of the Road is Calling blog when talking about what it was like when they lived in Kuala Lumpur. “I don’t think the temperature ever goes below 30C degrees (86 degrees Fahrenheit) and humidity never drops below 80 percent.”

Kuala Lumpur gets high marks from Internations and Mercer as being a very livable city, but “On a cold day, it might drop to 26/27C after a storm,” says Shezz. Many expatriates say they wouldn’t even consider an apartment complex in that city that didn’t have a big swimming pool. It does rain a fair bit too, so on top of a raincoat or umbrella you’ll need waterproof sneakers, hiking shoes with Gore-tex, or rain boots for the downpours.

Don’t expect much in the way of customer service, most expats advise. There’s also a major litter problem fed by a garbage-tossing culture, not helped by the locals’ love of plastic in all its forms. Any drink you get to go will probably come in a disposable plastic bag and there’s no limit on any kind of single-use plastic yet, something that will become quite obvious if you visit the beaches of Penang, where too much of it ends up.

“I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to motorbikes riding down the sidewalks,” says Helen. The only sidewalks where that doesn’t happen are the ones jammed with food stalls.

Marco, who has a Malaysian wife, says the traffic is getting much worse in Penang and the over-development brings a lot of negatives. “The place is losing its authenticity to try to mutate into something it shouldn’t become.”

If you decide you like the look of Melacca, be advised that everyone there seems to complain about the gridlocked traffic. It can take you a half hour to go a few kilometers through 10 stoplights and if you’re riding in from the suburbs, it can feel like an epic start-and-stop journey.

Looking for other options for moving abroad? See our rundown on the cheapest places to live in the world.

3 Comments

  1. GG 04/24/2020
  2. Ravikumar 05/06/2020
  3. Aditii 05/11/2020

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