Malaysia travel guide
With reefs and rainforests, mountains and minarets, skyscrapers and sampans, Malaysia certainly lives up to its slogan: “truly Asia.” One of the world’s great cultural melting pots, Malaysia is a nation where Chinese joss houses, Hindu temples and gold-domed mosques jostle for space with towering skyscrapers. The British once presided over this fascinating sampling platter of Asian culture, leaving behind a legacy of hill stations, polo fields and high tea.
In fact, Malaysia offers two countries for the price of one; Peninsular Malaysia, bordering Thailand at the southern end of the Malay Peninsula; and East Malaysia, the northern half of the island of Borneo, nuzzling up against Indonesia and Brunei. This opens up some spectacular opportunities for nation-hopping across Southeast Asia.
Malaysia’s supercharged capital, Kuala Lumpur, resembles a crystal garden that has grown miraculously in the jungle. Indeed, pockets of virgin rainforest still survive amongst the towering skyscrapers, multi-storey shopping malls and monorail tracks. If you do nothing else, devote a day to sampling KL’s street food; from Chinese noodles and Indian dosas (rice pancakes) to aromatic and spicy Malay curries and seafood.
Away from the cities, untamed nature awaits, in the form of jungles dripping with rare and exotic species and coral reefs thronged by turtles, sharks and tropical fish. Malaysia’s national parks and wildlife reserves are well-organised and well looked after, and you might be lucky enough to meet Malaysia’s most charismatic resident, the orang-utan (literally, “forest man”).
Then there are the islands; tropical resorts such as Langkawi, Tioman and the Perhentian Islands have become almost legendary for fans of swaying palms, sparkling sand and scuba diving on pristine reefs. Malaysia’s dive sites – particularly those reached on live-aboard safaris – rank amongst the best in the world.
Peninsular Malaysia is where people go for bustling cities and colonial history, but the states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo are the gateway to another world. Lush rainforests are inhabited by isolated indigenous tribes, whose traditional way of life is vanishing fast as the modern world encroaches; catch it now before they put up a parking lot.
329,847 sq km (127,355 sq miles).
30,751,602 (UN estimate 2016).
92.5 per sq km.
Ruler with the title of yang di-pertuan agong (paramount ruler): Tuanku Ibrahim Ismail ibni al-Marhum Sultan Iskandar since 2024.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim since November 2022.
The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) provides advice about risks of travel to help British nationals make informed decisions. Find out more about FCDO travel advice.
Areas where FCDO advises against all but essential travel
Your travel insurance could be invalidated if you travel against FCDO advice.
Eastern Sabah coastal islands
FCDO advises against all but essential travel to all islands and dive sites off the coast of eastern Sabah from Sandakan to Tawau, including Lankayan Island, due to the threat of kidnapping.
Find out more about why FCDO advises against travel.
Before you travel
No travel can be guaranteed safe. Read all the advice in this guide and any specific travel advice that applies to you:
If you choose to travel, research your destinations and get appropriate travel insurance. Insurance should cover your itinerary, planned activities and expenses in an emergency.
This advice reflects the UK government’s understanding of current rules for people travelling on a full ‘British citizen’ passport from the UK, for the most common types of travel.
The authorities in Malaysia set and enforce entry rules. If you’re not sure how these requirements apply to you, contact the Malaysian High Commission in the UK.
There are no COVID-19 vaccination requirements for travellers entering Malaysia.
Passport validity requirements
Your passport must be valid for at least 6 months from the date you arrive in Malaysia. Make sure your passport is undamaged, with no pages missing.
Check with your travel provider that your passport and other travel documents meet requirements. Renew your passport if you need to.
You will be denied entry if you do not have a valid travel document or try to use a passport that has been reported lost or stolen.
Malaysia does not recognise dual nationality. You can be refused entry if you’re found with a Malaysian passport and one of a different nationality. If you have dual nationality (not including Malaysian), enter and exit on the same passport.
British nationals do not need a visa to visit Malaysia. You will normally be allowed to stay for 90 days on arrival. For any longer, or for a non-tourist visit, you will need a visa.
The Malaysian authorities do not tolerate illegal immigration. Do not overstay your visa or violate the terms of entry. Even if you overstay for just a few days, you can be:
- deported to the UK at your own cost
- blacklisted for future visits to Malaysia
If you are detained, you will find facilities can be poor with limited healthcare services. The British High Commission is unable to help you to remain in Malaysia or issue any document to support your overstay.
Keep a copy of your passport and visa safe in case your passport is lost. It may take time to get a replacement visa. If you cannot show your original visa or entry stamp on exit you may be treated as an overstayer, fined and blacklisted.
Applying for a visa
If you want to stay for longer than 90 days or visit for non-tourist purposes, you must apply for a visa from the nearest Malaysian diplomatic mission before you travel.
Entry to East Malaysia
If you’re travelling between Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia (sometimes known as Malaysian Borneo, made up of the states of Sabah and Sarawak) you will need to carry your passport. You will pass through immigration control when entering and exiting East Malaysia from and to Peninsular Malaysia, and must obtain an entry and exit stamp.
You must fill in the Malaysia Digital Arrival Card to enter Malaysia. You should complete this before you travel as it may be requested at check-in. You do not need to complete the arrival form if you are not passing through immigration. See the Malaysian Immigration website for further information, including exemption details.
At least 8 weeks before your trip, check the vaccinations and certificates you need in TravelHealthPro’s Malaysia guide.
You could be asked to take a urine test on arrival in Malaysia if you are suspected of having used drugs before your visit. If you’re found with drugs in your bloodstream, you could be detained, or deported and blacklisted from any further visits to Malaysia. You can be charged with drug consumption even if the drugs were consumed overseas, including if they were consumed in a country where the use of that particular drug is legal.
There are strict rules about goods you can take into or out of Malaysia. You must declare anything that may be prohibited or subject to tax or duty.
If you are in any doubt about the legality of any items, including medications, you should declare them on entry.
It’s illegal to import unlicensed firearms and ammunition into Malaysia. This includes spent ammunition and souvenirs from war museums. Do not take any weapons or replica weapons into Malaysia. You may be detained and charged if you do. If you’re convicted of dealing in illegal firearms you can be given the death penalty.
Taking money into Malaysia
You can import or export up to the equivalent of 10,000 US dollars in Malaysian ringgit without prior approval.
On entry to or exit from Malaysia, declare any cash or travellers cheques if the value is 10,000 US dollars or more. If you do not declare it, customs officials can seize your money, and you may get a fine of up to 3 million ringgit and up to 5 years’ imprisonment. Further information can be found on the Royal Malaysian Customs Department website.
There is a high threat of terrorist attack globally affecting UK interests and British nationals, including from groups and individuals who view the UK and British nationals as targets. Stay aware of your surroundings at all times.
UK Counter Terrorism Policing has information and advice on staying safe abroad and what to do in the event of a terrorist attack. Find out how to reduce your risk from terrorism while abroad.
Terrorism in Malaysia
Terrorist attacks in Malaysia cannot be ruled out.
Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners. Potential targets include:
- bars and restaurants
- shopping malls
- tourist attractions
- places of worship
You should be especially vigilant and maintain a high level of security awareness in crowded places and at large gatherings.
British nationals are seen as legitimate targets, including tourists, humanitarian aid workers, journalists and business travellers. If you are kidnapped, the reason for your presence is unlikely to protect you or secure your safe release.
The long-standing policy of the British government policy is not to make substantive concessions to hostage takers. The British government considers that paying ransoms and releasing prisoners builds the capability of terrorist groups and finances their activities. This can, in turn, increase the risk of further hostage-taking. The Terrorism Act (2000) makes payments to terrorists illegal.
In Malaysia, there is a threat to foreigners of kidnapping in coastal areas of eastern Sabah from terrorist and criminal groups. The threat is particularly high between the towns of Sandakan and Tawau and on islands close to the Sulu Archipelago in the southern Philippines.
The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), based in the Philippines, has previously kidnapped foreigners from the east coast of mainland Sabah, the islands and the surrounding waters. The group has murdered several hostages. Some groups operating in the southern Philippines, including factions of ASG, have pledged allegiance to Daesh and are likely to regard Westerners as legitimate targets.
In response to the current situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, there have been peaceful demonstrations in some Malaysian cities, including outside some Western embassies.
It’s illegal under Malaysian law for foreign nationals to take part in demonstrations or protests.
Monitor local and international media and avoid all demonstrations. Police can use tear gas and water cannons to control public protests.
Protecting your belongings
Take precautions to protect yourself from petty crime. Avoid carrying valuables and take particular care of your passport while:
- in cafes
- on aircraft
- in airport and railway terminals
- in hotel rooms
Credit card and ATM fraud is widespread. Take care when using your card.
Bag-snatching is common, particularly in major cities. Thieves on motorbikes can target tourists. They can cut straps or pull off bags carried on the shoulder closest to the road. They have sometimes pulled people to the ground and killed or injured them if they try to hold onto their bags.
There have been cases of assaults and robbery, particularly around bars and nightlife areas. Do not open your hotel room door to strangers, especially late at night. This applies particularly to women travelling alone.
There have been cases of strangers offering tourists a spiked drink, even in reputable bars or restaurants, and then robbing or assaulting them.
Taxi coupon systems are in place at airports. In other areas, taxis should use a meter.
If you’re a victim of crime, inform the local police and get a police report.
Laws and cultural differences
Malaysia is a multicultural, majority Muslim country. Respect local laws, cultures, traditions and religions.
Dress modestly, particularly in conservative and rural areas. You may be refused entry to places of worship or government offices if you do not have your shoulders and knees covered or are not wearing closed shoes. Check the signs displayed at the entrance.
If you’re a Muslim, you may be subject to local Sharia law.
Always carry your passport.
Ramadan is a holy month for Muslims. The dates vary by year and country. Ramadan will take place between March and April in Malaysia in 2024.
During this time, you should:
- check opening hours of shops and restaurants
- follow local dress codes – clothing that does not meet local dress codes may cause more offence at this time
- be aware of the risks of dehydration and that fasting can cause tiredness, particularly during the later afternoon and early evening
Get more advice when you arrive from your tour guide, hotel or business contacts.
Illegal drugs and prison sentences
There are severe penalties for all drug offences, including for amphetamine-type stimulants. If you are detained following a raid on a bar or nightclub, you could have to take a urine test to check for drug use.
Possessing drugs, even in very small quantities, carries severe penalties, including:
- arrest and detention
- a long jail sentence if charged and convicted
- a possible whipping
- if drug trafficking is indicated, a possible death sentence by hanging
Same-sex sexual acts are illegal in Malaysia under federal law. The Malaysian authorities sometimes carry out raids on LGBT+ spaces and events. Shows of affection in public could attract negative responses from other members of the public. Openly LGBT+ safe spaces and support groups exist.
Read more advice for LGBT+ travellers.
Outdoor activities and adventure tourism
Water sports and scuba diving
If you rent jet skis or any other type of water sports equipment, make sure adequate safety precautions are in place. Only use licensed operators, insist on training before use and make sure you’re covered by your insurance.
Diving school standards are not always as high as in the UK. You should:
- check a dive operator’s credentials
- make sure safety equipment is available on the boat, particularly oxygen
- ask about safety precautions, including the ability to transfer divers to a hyperbaric chamber
If you have not had any previous diving experience:
- ask your dive instructor to explain what cover they offer before signing up
- check what to do if something goes wrong, including how to call for help while at sea
The diving sites of HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales, which lie in international waters off Kuantan, have been declared ‘protected places’ under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. Only dive there on a ‘look not touch’ basis. Make sure any boat operator you use holds a licence for diving at the wreck site.
If you are planning to drive in Malaysia, see information on driving abroad.
You need a 1949 international driving permit (IDP) and a UK driving licence to drive in Malaysia for up to a year. You cannot buy an IDP outside the UK, so get one before you travel. You can buy an IDP in person from some UK post offices – find your nearest post office branch that offers this service. You will need to buy a new IDP for each additional year you plan to drive in Malaysia.
Drivers (particularly motorbike drivers) do not always stop at traffic lights or pedestrian crossings. If you’re involved in a road accident, it’s illegal to leave the scene before the police have arrived. If a crowd gathers, it may be safer to go directly to the nearest police station instead.
There have been several fatal bus crashes, particularly on overnight journeys. Choose a reputable operator for your journey.
If you rent a motorbike, it’s illegal not to wear a helmet.
Driving under the influence of alcohol is a serious offence and the traffic police regularly carry out breath tests. If you are found driving over the legal limit, you may get:
- a heavy fine
- a jail sentence
Road conditions in East Malaysia and not as good as those in Peninsular Malaysia.
Sea and river travel
Some passenger boats have sunk due to overloading and poor maintenance. Take care when travelling by passenger ferry or speedboat. Avoid travelling on vessels that are clearly overloaded or in poor condition. Make sure life jackets are available.
Piracy in South East Asian waters is an ongoing problem. There have been attacks against ships in and around Malaysian waters, particularly in the Strait of Malacca and the waters between Sabah and the southern Philippines. Be vigilant and take appropriate precautions. Reduce opportunities for theft, establish secure areas on board and report all incidents to the coastal and flag state authorities.
Extreme weather and natural disasters
Malaysia is affected by seasonal storms. The timing of these storms depends on location in the country. Flooding and landslides are common and can cause significant damage to infrastructure. Essential services can be interrupted. Check Malaysian meteorological information on local weather.
Earthquakes can happen in Malaysia, but are rare.
This section has safety advice for regions of Malaysia. It only covers regions where FCDO has specific advice.
You should also read safety and security advice.
Eastern Sabah coast
FCDO advises against all but essential travel to all islands and dive sites off the coast of eastern Sabah from Sandakan to Tawau, including Lankayan Island, due to the threat of kidnapping.
Commercial shipping companies have been advised to adopt heightened vigilance when navigating the Sulu and Celebes Seas. Most maritime incidents occur in the Sulu Sea in the area between Sabah (Malaysia) and Mindanao, the Sulu Islands and Palawan (Philippines).
The Regional Co-operation Agreement on Combatting Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) advise all ships to re-route from the area where possible.
Before you travel check that:
- your destination can provide the healthcare you may need
- you have appropriate travel insurance for local treatment or unexpected medical evacuation
This is particularly important if you have a health condition or are pregnant.
Emergency medical number
Call 999 and ask for an ambulance.
Contact your insurance company quickly if you’re referred to a medical facility for treatment.
Vaccinations and health risks
At least 8 weeks before your trip check:
- the latest information on vaccinations and health risks in TravelHealthPro’s Malaysia guide
- where to get vaccines and whether you have to pay on the NHS travel vaccinations page
Altitude sickness is a risk in parts of Malaysia, including Mount Kinabalu in Eastern Malaysia (Malaysian Borneo). Read more about altitude sickness on TravelHealthPro.
Mosquito-borne diseases occur all year round. These include:
Take appropriate precautions to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes.
Other risks include rabies in the states of Perlis, Kedah, Penang and Sarawak.
For more information and advice visit the TravelHealthPro’s other risks page for Malaysia.
High levels of air pollution in major towns and cities in Malaysia may make respiratory conditions worse.
Forest fires in Indonesia can cause haze between June and October. Haze can cause disruption to local travel, regional air travel and to schools.
The legal status and regulation of some medicines prescribed or bought in the UK can be different in other countries.
The NHS has information on whether you can take your medicine abroad.
Healthcare facilities in Malaysia
Government and private hospitals charge for all services. Private care is expensive. Make sure you have adequate travel health insurance and accessible funds to cover the cost of any medical treatment abroad and repatriation.
Contact your insurance or medical assistance company quickly if you are referred to a medical facility for treatment.
FCDO has a list of English speaking doctors in Malaysia.
There is also guidance on healthcare if you’re living in Malaysia.
COVID-19 healthcare in Malaysia
If you test positive for COVID-19 while in Malaysia, you should follow local procedures.
Travel and mental health
The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) cannot provide tailored advice for individual trips. Read this travel advice and carry out your own research before deciding whether to travel.
Emergency services in Malaysia
Police and ambulance: 999
Ambulance (from a mobile): 112
Contact your travel provider and insurer
Contact your travel provider and your insurer if you are involved in a serious incident or emergency abroad. They will tell you if they can help and what you need to do.
Refunds and changes to travel
For refunds or changes to travel, contact your travel provider. You may also be able to make a claim through insurance. However, insurers usually require you to talk to your travel provider first.
Find out more about changing or cancelling travel plans, including:
- where to get advice if you are in a dispute with a provider
- how to access previous versions of travel advice to support a claim
Support from FCDO
FCDO has guidance on staying safe and what to do if you need help or support abroad, including:
- finding English-speaking lawyers, funeral directors and translators and interpreters in Malaysia
- dealing with a death in Malaysia
- being arrested or imprisoned in Malaysia
- getting help if you’re a victim of crime
- what to do if you’re in hospital
- if you’re affected by a crisis, such as a terrorist attack
Help abroad in an emergency
If you’re in Malaysia and you need emergency help from the UK government, contact the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur.
You can also contact FCDO online.
FCDO in London
You can call FCDO in London if you need urgent help because something has happened to a friend or relative abroad.
Telephone: 020 7008 5000 (24 hours)
Risk information for British companies
The Overseas Business Risk service offers information and advice for British companies operating overseas on how to manage political, economic, and business security-related risks.