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Living in Malaysia – A Guide for PhD Students

Written by Mike Davies

As a PhD student living in Malaysia you’ll have the chance to explore the country’s beautiful scenery and thriving multicultural cities. Home to over 20% of the world’s animal species Malaysia is a boiling pot of biodiversity while rapid economic growth in recent years has turned the cities into bustling economic hubs.

The guide covers useful information about moving to Malaysia for your doctoral studies, including accommodation, living costs, part-time work, transport and opening a bank account in the country.

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Student life

Home to many other international students, Malaysia is a great place to work for your degree whilst immersing yourself in a vibrant new culture.

Culture and tourism

Malaysia is located at the heart of South-East Asia and is a lively multi-cultural country. It is well- known as a dynamic tourist destination and for its capital, Kuala Lumpur, which boasts some of the most spectacular architecture in the world (and some of the tallest buildings!).

If you prefer the great outdoors, Malaysia is awash with beautiful vistas and fascinating biodiversity. From the rugged mountains to the warm sandy beaches and rich, humid mangroves, there is something to explore whatever your interests..

Sport and leisure

Malaysians love sports and play many types of sport across the country. Badminton, field hockey, tennis and bowling are all commonly played but the one sport that has a somewhat universal appeal for Malaysians is football.

There are also plenty of leisure activities to be found in Malaysia. If you’re looking for adventure the country offers everything from cave exploration to mountain climbing. Malaysia is also a tourist paradise with many beautiful beaches where you can lie back and enjoy a well-deserved rest.

Food and drink

As a student living in Malaysia you are in for a treat when it comes to food. Malaysian dishes reflect the diversity of the country; their cuisine blends the flavours from Chinese, Indian and local southeast Asian Malay dishes.

From a classic Nasi lemak, a rice dish cooked in coconut milk, topped with spicy sambal chili sauce, to Ikan bakar, a delicious marinated grilled fish, Malaysia will give you with plenty of new flavours to explore.


There are several options for accommodation during your PhD. The price of the accommodation will depend on the city in which you’re studying as well as the type and size of the housing.

Typically, international students studying in Malaysia will live either in privately rented accommodation or on campus university accommodation:

University accommodation

Most universities offer on campus accommodation for around MYR 372-1,395 (USD $80-300) per month. This is usually self-catered although some universities do offer fully-catered accommodation for an additional fee.

An important point to consider is that on campus accommodation is usually unavailable if you are bringing your family with you to Malaysia.

Private accommodation

There are a huge range of options for those wishing to rent privately. The cost of private accommodation is usually more than on-campus accommodation and can be anything from MYR 232-1,163 (USD $50-250) per month for a shared rental property, to MYR 697-9,304 (USD $150-2,000) per month for an individual condominium.

It’s worth remembering that utility bills are not normally included in these rental prices and you can expect to pay more for utilities in the hotter months as AC becomes a comfort necessity.

Living costs

The cost of living in Malaysia is fairly affordable relative to other parts of the world, such as the UK or Australia. Living expenses (excluding rent) are an average MRY 2,220 (USD $478) per month.

Prices in Malaysia

The following table should give you some idea of common expenses in Malaysia.

Student Cost of Living in Malaysia - 2024
Restaurant Meal MYR 12 (USD $2.58)
Cinema Ticket MYR 18 (USD $3.87)
Monthly Travel Pass MYR 60 (USD $12.91)
Monthly Utilities MYR 207.35 (USD $44.62)
Based on crowdsourced data published by Numbeo.

Working during your PhD

As an international student in Malaysia, you can take part-time work, though there are several limitations surrounding what you are permitted to do. These limitations drastically reduce your earning potential and so it’s probably not a practical way to fund your studies

The Malaysian Immigration Department is the body that’s responsible for setting the guidelines for what work you can do as a student. These guidelines state that you can only work 20 hours a week and then only during semester breaks. You are also restricted as to the type of job you can take. These include jobs at restaurants, petrol kiosks, mini markets and hotels.

It also goes without saying that you should never take unofficial employment as that could result in you losing your student visa and a rather abrupt end to your studies.

If you want to apply for a work permit you should contact the Student Visa Officer at your university. You will need to submit a document detailing a valid reason for part time work. The university will also need to provide a supporting letter giving permission for you to work as well as term dates.


Opening a bank account in Malaysia is not essential but doing so will save you from paying unnecessary fees on day-to-day expenses.

The currency in Malaysia is the Malaysian ringgit (MYR)

To open a bank account in Malaysia you will need to provide:

  • Your student pass
  • Your passport
  • Minimum deposit - the value of this will vary by bank
  • Fingerprints - some banks will take your fingerprint for identification purposes

Unfortunately, you will not be able to open a new account with a Malaysian bank before you arrive. If you need a bank account in place before travelling, you could open an account with an international bank that operates in Malaysia. Quite a few international banks operate in Malaysia so it’s worth checking if your current bank is one of them.


Well connected to Europe, Australia and the whole of Asia, there are plenty of public transport options both nationally and internationally. Some transport networks will also offer student discounts.

Rail travel

Inter-city trains (including sleeper trains) are widely available and offer good value for money. As most trains are also air conditioned, they can offer a welcome relief during the blistering summer months.

You should buy your transport tickets at the counters of train stations.

Air travel

Malaysia makes a good base to discover neighbouring countries such as Singapore and Thailand. Kuala Lumpur is the main airport but there is an extensive network of domestic and international flights, including direct routes between Europe and Malaysian Borneo.

Inner-city travel

The best way to get around Kuala Lumpur is by train, on one of the city’s commuter rail networks (monorail and light-rail transit train services). In general, bus services are inexpensive and available in many areas.

Taxis can be flagged down at the side of the road in most places. In the cities, taxis will have meters so make sure you insist on the driver using the meter.

Find a PhD in Malaysia

Think Malaysia might be for you? Have a look at some of our current PhD opportunities in Malaysia. Alternatively, you can look at our other guides to PhD study abroad.

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Last Updated: 29 November 2023