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A Comprehensive Guide on Moving to Malaysia

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Relocating to Malaysia

There is a steady flow of expats moving to Malaysia, a Southeast Asian state with a long history of both colonization and immigration. The first Europeans coming to Malaysia in larger numbers were the Portuguese, following their conquest of Malacca in 1511. Subsequently acquired by the Dutch, Malacca was eventually turned over to the British.

As was often the case in the history of British imperialism, the first British foray to Malaysia was made by the East India Company. It leased the island of Penang from the Sultan of Kedah in 1786. The first British colonialists created the Straits Settlements and, in the course of the 19th century, expanded their sphere of influence.

British Protection and Economy Growth

Malaysia saw a relatively short but turbulent period starting in 1948 when the Federation of Malaya was governed by autonomous rulers under British protection. The ensuing move towards Malaysia’s independence had become inevitable then. It was completed in 1957, followed by a Malaysian unification with Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore in 1963. The union with Singapore obviously didn’t last long, as the city state declared its independence two years later.

With one of the best-performing and most stable economies in Asia, the country has done really well. Moving to Malaysia, you will find an open, newly industrialized market economy. Beginning in the 1980s, the country experienced a period of rapid economic growth and urbanization. The move towards a multi-sector economy — away from a focus on agriculture — has been successful. Since then, the country has attracted an increasing number of expats.

Travel and Health: Keep an Eye Out

Malaysia is considered a safe country for expats, but you should nevertheless consult the travel advice provided by your Foreign Office before moving to Malaysia. You should be aware of a general threat of terrorism, piracy, and kidnappings. This warning is not supposed to discourage anyone from relocating to Malaysia, but to increase their level of general awareness.

Health-wise, a couple of precautions should be taken. There has been an increase in reported cases of leptospirosis (a rare bacterial infection). People moving to Malaysia should bear this in mind and refrain from bathing in lakes, rivers, or waterfalls. Common tropical diseases such as malaria and dengue fever should also be on the list of things to expect. So make you sure you do your best to prevent mosquito bites!

If you are will be staying in the country for a period exceeding one month, you might want to consider immunization for rabies, typhoid, hepatitis A/B, diphtheria, cholera, and Japanese encephalitis. Other than that, you should at least make sure that all standard vaccinations have been refreshed before your relocation.

Two Regions and the Monsoon

Malaysia consists of two regions, which are separated by the South China Sea: Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia. The former is divided into 11 states and two federal territories. The latter consists of two states and one federal territory. All of them have their own immigration policies and a unique residency status for people moving to Malaysia.

Both parts of the country share similar geographical characteristics, i.e. coastal plains rising to hills and mountains. The tropical equatorial climate and the relatively moderate temperatures due to the surrounding oceans are a plus. The only seasonal change is brought about by the two monsoon periods, which can cause heavy downpours. There is high humidity all year round.

Visa Requirements for Malaysia

Monarchal Malaysia

Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy with an elected monarch as the head of state and a Prime Minister as the head of government. Nine Malay states have hereditary rulers who take turns in serving as Malaysian monarch in five-year terms.

The remaining four states are ruled by titular governors, the federal territories directly by the federal government. The federal legislative consists of a bicameral, Westminster-style parliament, but every state also has its own legislative assembly.

Malaysian Visa: Everything You Need to Know

Not all nationalities require a visa in order to enter Malaysia. Citizens of Australia, Hong Kong SAR, Japan, the EU member states, South Korea, Turkey, the USA, and a number of other countries may spend up to three months in Malaysia without a visa. The web portal of the Malaysian Immigration Authority provides details of visa requirements and visa fees by country.

Your first point of contact for all visa issues should always be the Malaysian Representative Office in or nearest to your country of residence. National of countries who are subject to visa regulations can apply for a single entry visa (valid for up to three months) or for a multiple entry visa (valid for three to twelve months).

If you are granted permission to remain in Malaysia for a longer period, whether for employment reasons or other purposes, you will receive a pass (i.e. residence and/or work permit) fixing the circumstances and conditions of your stay.

How to Apply for a Visa

Depending on the purpose of your stay, you need to apply for a visa with reference or a visa without reference. The former is required if you are going to Malaysia on an Employment, Dependant or Professional Visitor’s Pass (for further information on these passes, see our article on living in Malaysia).

A visa without reference usually applies to social visits only. In order to apply, you need to submit the following documents:

  • your passport and two photocopies
  • two copies of the visa application form
  • two passport-sized photographs
  • return travel ticket and two photocopies
  • proof of financial independence
  • letter of invitation (if applicable)
  • visa fee

People applying for a visa with reference need to obtain approval from the Department of Immigration first and include evidence thereof in their application. Please note that a visa issued for Peninsular Malaysia does not automatically entitle you to travel to the states of Sabah and Sarawak in Eastern Malaysia.

Public Transport and Big Cities in Malaysia

Travel by Rail: Lagging Behind

Malaysia has a relatively well-developed infrastructure, although the rural areas are somewhat lagging behind. The Malaysian National Railway Company is called KTM Berhad and offers a relatively comfortable and inexpensive way to travel across the country.

Unfortunately, only two main intercity lines are really fully operational in Peninsular Malaysia: JB Sentral-Kuala Lumpur-Butterworth and Gemas-Wakaf Bharu.

Travel by Plane or Coach: The Most Comfortable Option

Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, about 50 km south of the city, is the place where most international flights arrive and depart. It is served both by Malaysia Airlines and various international airlines.

Inter-city and regional flights are increasingly common, but not necessarily recommended unless you are in a terrible hurry. Especially during holiday seasons, they are often fully booked and can be rather unreliable, due to extreme weather conditions.

The best way to travel overland is by coach. It is the most popular form of transport, and modern, air-conditioned express coaches are available for long journeys. The more exclusive and more expensive option (if you don’t want to drive your own or a hired car) is to take an inter-state taxi. As opposed to the metered city taxis, they operate on fixed tariffs.

Kuala Lumpur: The Place to Be

As the national capital and largest city, Kuala Lumpur naturally attracts most expats coming to work in Malaysia. It is the fastest growing metropolitan region in the country, both in terms of the economy and its population. The city is an important cultural, financial and economic center and has particularly attracted attention as an emerging hub for Islamic finance.

Kuala Lumpur offers high living standards to expats, but it’s not exactly cheap. However, compared to its perennial rivals Singapore and Hong Kong, it is often considered to have a lower overall quality of life — but also a significantly less expensive cost of living.

Johor Bahru: The Ultimate South

Johor Bahru, on the Peninsula’s southernmost tip, is another important industrial and commercial hub. Its economic significance is partly due to its proximity to Singapore: Johor Bahru is connected to the city state via bridge and causeway.

Johor Bahru doesn’t only maintain close economic ties to Singapore, but also owes its high intake of tourists to the neighbor. As a result, it has a highly-developed retail and tourist industry.

George Town: Penang City

Finally there is George Town, the capital of the island and Malaysian state of Penang. Also referred to as Penang City by the locals, George Town has one of the most important ports of Malaysia. It is a significant trading center for rubber and agricultural products.

The population is mainly ethnic Chinese, followed by Malays, but due to the presence of many foreign trading companies, George Town has a relatively high percentage of foreign inhabitants. It is a very livable city, which was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 2008.

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  • Adam Malewski

    With all the great information on this site, getting settled in Kuala Lumpur was a piece of cake.

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    A former business partner recommended InterNations to me when I moved abroad to Malaysia. We still use it to stay in touch.

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