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A Student's Guide to Living in Malaysia

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

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 also for its capital, Kuala Lumpur, which boasts some of the most spectacular architecture in the world (and some of the tallest buildings!). In recent years, Malaysia has opened up to foreigners of all nationalities, creating a dynamic environment in which to work and study.

One of the newly industrialised countries, Malaysia has a booming economy (annual growth is around 5%) which performed beyond expectations over the last two decades. Sectors such as services, manufacturing, agriculture, mining and construction have all experienced growth and this has been reflected by an increase in national spending.

Key Facts:

  • Malaysia had 13 states and 3 federal territories, divided into Peninsular Malaysia (where 80% of the population lives) and the states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo
  • Parliamentary democrary
  • Population: 28 million
  • Main religion is Islam but other religions are well represented
  • While Kuala Lumpur is the capital, the federal government is in Putrajaya
  • 5 main ethnic groups, hence several languages are commonly spoken (in addition to English)
  • The climate is tropical with monsoon seasons (which will happen at different times of the year depending on which part of Malaysia you live)
  • Peninsular Malaysia has a coastline which extends nearly 1,900km (1,200 miles)

Visas and Immigration

All international students are required to have a Student Pass (equivalent to a student visa) to study in Malaysia. A Student Pass is an approved document issued by the Immigration Department.

Once you have an offer of admission, your visa application can be made through your university’s International Students’ office/service prior to entry for a fee (see below). Your University will provide you with guidelines and forms to apply for your Student Pass. Please note that your Student Pass is only valid to study at the University it refers to. If you wish to transfer to another university, a new Student Pass will be required.

Visa application-associated fees:

  • Processing fee: MYR50-60
  • Visa fee: varies according to country of origin
  • Personal bond fee, refundable upon completion of your degree: MYR200–2000

Immediate family members (spouse and children) are allowed to stay with you in Malaysia. They will be given a Social Visit Pass for the duration of your course. You and your family may have to demonstrate that you have adequate financial resources to live in Malaysia.

You (and your family, if applicable) are recommended to register (and their family, if applicable) at your local embassy/consulate while you are staying in Malaysia (the procedure will vary depending on your country of origin).

Students from countries such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and India are required to obtain an approval letter/visa clearance from the Immigration Department of Malaysia before entering Malaysia.

Employment regulations for Student Pass holders

Students who wish to work part-time during their studies must apply to the immigration authorities (this can be done through your institution). You will be allowed to do a maximum of 20 hours per week (this may be extended upon good academic reports) but this is limited to employment in restaurants, petrol kiosks, mini markets and hotels.

Living costs/banking

Despite the current worldwide economic situation, Malaysia continues to be a country with a high standard of living as well as a very affordable place to live and study.

Examples of prices

  • Inexpensive restaurant, 2-course meal with soft drink: MYR7-10.
  • Monthly public transport pass (Regular Price): MYR50-100
  • Monthly gym subscription: MYR150
  • Cinema ticket: MYR12
Student's Guide to Living in Malaysia

Image Credits (top-bottom): Andrew Reid Wildman; Arian Zwegers; McKay Savage; Prashant Ram.

Opening a bank account is not compulsory but will be needed if you are to receive a stipend or to avoid paying unnecessary fees when paying for your day-to-day expenses. The international students office/service in your university may provide guidelines to open a bank account in Malaysia. You will most likely require:

  • A confirmation letter from your university
  • Your passport and Student Pass
  • A cash deposit of around MYR250
  • Proof of address

There are plenty of local banks as well as international banks with branches in Malaysia. They all have different fees and terms & conditions so be sure to read all the documentation carefully.

Finding a place to live

Accommodation prices will vary and major cities tend to be more expensive but universities will normally offer on-campus accommodation for around MYR600-3000 per semester. Some universities will provide fully-catered accommodation which will include food for a cost between MYR10-20 per student per day. Most on-campus accommodation will be self-catered. If you are bringing your family with you, it is unlikely that you will be offered accommodation on-campus. There is a huge range of options off-campus which your university can help you with (See websites for privately-owned properties below). Hot water and laundry facilities are not always included so it is worth checking. Rent for privately-owned accommodation will exclude utilities. If you are renting a room in a shared flat, make sure you check what is included (for example, you may not have access to cooking facilities). As a general rule, it is best to boil tap water before consumption.local banks as well as international banks with branches in Malaysia. They all have different fees and terms & conditions so be sure to read all the documentation carefully.

  • On-campus single bedroom: MYR100-500/month
  • Off-campus bedroom in shared flat: MYR350-500/month
  • Off-campus studio flat (also called condominium): MYR1000-1500/month
    Can be serviced and sometimes includes luxury facilities such as a swimming-pool or a gym.
  • Larger apartments off-campus which can be shared between several students are a good option: MYR1500-2500/month. Non-serviced appartments are a cheaper option.

Useful accommodation websites:


Connections in the region

Malaysia is well connected to Europe, Australia and the whole of Asia. Thus, it makes a good base to discover neighbouring countries such as Singapore and Thailand. Kuala Lumpur is the main airport but there is an extensivenetwork of domestic and international flights, including direct routes between Europe and Malaysian Borneo. Buses and trains to neighbouring countries such as Singapore and Thailand are also available.

Transport within the country

It is possible to fly within Malaysia but it can be an expensive option. Inter-city trains (including sleeper trains) and bus services are widely available and offer good value for money as well as comfort (most of them are air-conditioned). It is recommended that you buy your transport tickets at the counters of train or bus stations.

The road network is extensive and major roads are well maintained. However, road quality is of varying standard (as is the driving local style) outisde of cities. For this reason, it is best not to drive at night. If you already have a driving licence from your home country, it is possible to acquire a Malaysian licence. To find out the procedure, you can get advice from your university’s international office or check with the Road Transport Department of Malaysia.

Public Transport within cities

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 insist on the driver using the meter. If there is no meter, you are advise to agree on a price. It is reasonable to haggle but you may wish to ask fellow students what reasonable fares are.

Everyday life and tips

  • When you are in Malaysia, local laws apply to you. These include penalties for drug related offences, including possession of even small amounts of any type of hallucegenic drugs. Penalties are severe in Malaysia where drug offenders are subject to a mandatory death penalty.
  • The Ministry of Higher Education has made it compulsory for all international students to register for health insurance through their university. However, depending on the terms of your insurance, not all medical costs will be covered and you may still have to pay some medical bills so it is worth setting a budget aside for this.
  • To avoid offending local sensibilities, female students should wear clothes that cover the legs and upper arms. Shorts are rarely worn by adults, except at the beach.
  • During Ramadhan, be sensitive of local customs.
  • If people speak in their own language in your presence, do not feel embarrassed to ask for a translation – they will quickly switch to English to accommodate you.

Life, Culture and Leisure in Malaysia

Malaysians are well known to be friendly people and the best way to experience life in Malaysia is to make friends with the local students. Malaysians have a strong sense of national identity and will be proud to help you discover their country. Islam is the main religion but others cultures and religions are well accepted. Number of colourful festival and holidays are elebrated there. The main festival is Eid, celebrated by Muslims at the end of the fasting month of Ramadhan. Chinese New year and the Hindu Deepavali (festival of lights) are also celebrated. A tradition during these festivities is the ‘open house’ concept, where friends, family and neighbours are all welcomed to drop by to celebrate.

Just as many languages are represented in Malaysia so are cuisines. Whatever  your taste, you will find something to suit you: Malay, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Mexican, Middle-Eastern or Western. A good way to experience local food is to do what the locals do and go to open-air stalls and food courts, which feature a wide range of foods. Most popular are:

  • satay (grilled meat on coconut skewers) served with peanut sauce
  • mee goreng mamak (spicy Indian fried noodles)
  • yong tau fu (fresh vegetables stuffed with meat and fish)
  • ais kacang (a dessert of shaved ice topped with a sweet syrup and toppings)

Fresh cooking ingredients can be purchased from supermarkets, fresh markets, local grocery store and mini markets (sometimes called sundry shops). In general, Malaysia offers a wide range of shopping choices, from Western-style shopping centres to markets. Everything can also be found in night markets (where the prices are considerably lower than the shopping centres).

Malaysia is a tourist paradise offering rainforests, islands, white-sand beaches, waterfalls, caves, mountains, and lakes, usually no more than an hour or two away from major cities.

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