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.
Interim-ruler with the title of yang di-pertuan agong: Tuanku Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah ibni al-Marhum Sultan Azlan Muhibuddin Shah since 2019.
Prime Minister Tun Mahathir bin Mohamad since 2018.
Last updated: 22 May 2019
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. 'We' refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all but essential travel to all islands off the coast of eastern Sabah from Kudat to Tawau, including (but not limited to) Lankayan, Mabul, Pom Pom, Kapalai, Litigan, Sipadan and Mataking.
Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Malaysia. Attacks could happen anywhere, including in places visited by foreigners. Be vigilant, monitor local media and follow the advice of the local authorities.
In May 2017, the Philippines authorities reported that they had received unsubstantiated but credible information that the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf may be about to conduct kidnaps in the Sulu Sea, including around the islands of the Sulu archipelago (Philippines) and the seas/islands off the east coast of Sabah (Malaysia). Any vessels sailing in this area could be targeted. You should carefully consider travel plans and be especially vigilant at this time.
There is a threat to foreigners of kidnapping and criminality on the eastern coast of Sabah and in particular the islands close to the Sulu Archipelago in the southern Philippines. There has been an increase in kidnapping by groups operating in the southern Philippines, some of whom have the ability to conduct kidnaps on the coast of Sabah. 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.
You should take great care in the town of Sandakan and along the coastal area south to Tawau, and in and around Lahad Datu and Semporna. In May 2015, 2 Malaysian nationals were abducted in Sandakan, one of whom was subsequently murdered. Monitor local media and follow the advice of the local authorities.
UK health authorities have classified Malaysia as having a risk of Zika virus transmission. For more information and advice visit the National Travel Health Network and Centre website.
Malaysia is a multicultural, majority Muslim country.
In recent years there has been a greater incidence of haze caused by forest fires in Indonesia. Haze can cause disruption to local travel, regional air travel, and to government and private schools.
Around 360,000 British nationals visit Malaysia each year. Most visits are trouble free, but incidents of petty crime, especially bag snatching, can affect visitors.
You can contact the emergency services by calling 999 (police and ambulance) or 994 (fire).
If you’re abroad and you need emergency help from the UK government, contact the nearest British embassy, consulate or high commission. Consular support is limited in parts of Malaysia where we advise against all but essential travel.
Safety and security
Local travel - Sabah
In February 2013, around 100 armed men from the Sulu archipelago landed on the eastern coast of Sabah and occupied the small village of Kampung Tanduo approximately 100 km east of Lahad Datu. On 1 March 2013 there was an exchange of fire and a number of fatalities. On 3 March 2013 there were reports of further incidents on the coast between Lahad Datu and Semporna. Additional Malaysian security forces were sent to the area on 4 March 2013 and on 5 March 2013 airstrikes and other military action was reported against locations held by the armed group from Sulu around Kampung Tanduo.
The Malaysian authorities have designated the entire eastern portion of Sabah (extending from the town of Kudat in northern Sabah to Tawau district near the border with Indonesia) as the Eastern Sabah Security Zone, and established the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) to co-ordinate security forces’ activity in the area. The Malaysian security forces have strengthened their presence in the area and introduced measures to reduce the risk of unauthorised boat landings.
The local authorities have imposed restrictions on travel by water in some coastal districts of eastern Sabah and in the coastal waters off eastern Sabah, including a night-time curfew. For more information, visit the Sabah Tourism website.
Take sensible precautions to protect yourself from petty crime. Avoid carrying valuables and take particular care of your passport whilst walking, in aircraft, cafes, airport and railway terminals, and hotel rooms. Don’t open your hotel room door to strangers, especially late at night. This applies particularly to women travelling alone. Credit card and ATM fraud is widespread. Take great care when using your card.
Incidents of bag snatching are common, particularly in major cities and including by thieves on motorbikes. Bags with shoulder straps should either be carried with the bag towards the pavement rather than the road, or tucked under the arm. Don’t wrap the strap around your arm or shoulder and do not try to hold on to your bag. People have been injured or killed by being pulled to the ground by their bag straps.
Taxi coupon systems are in place at airports. In other areas, taxis should use a meter.
Be careful if you’re offered a drink by a stranger, even in a reputable bar or restaurant. These approaches can involve spiked drinks, and have resulted in cases of robbery and assault.
If you are a victim of crime, inform the local police and get a police report.
You can drive in Malaysia with an International Driving Permit (IDP) for up to one year from your date of entry into Malaysia. From 1 February 2019, you can only get IDPs over the counter from 2,500 UK Post Offices. You will not be able to buy an IDP outside the UK, so get one before you travel.
After a year, you will need to get a Malaysian driving licence. Further information is available from the Malaysian Road Transport Department.
British nationals already in possession of a Malaysian driving licence can continue to renew their Malaysian driving licence as before.
Road conditions in Peninsular Malaysia are generally good, but less so in East Malaysia. Vehicles (particularly motorcycles) don’t always stop at traffic lights or pedestrian crossings. If you are involved in a road accident you are obliged by law to stay at the scene until the police have arrived. If a crowd gathers, it may be safer to leave the scene and report to the nearest police station.
There have been a number of fatal bus crashes, particularly on overnight journeys. Choose a reputable operator for your journey.
If you rent a motorbike you should take the same safety precautions as in the UK. Malaysian law states that helmets must be worn.
Driving under the influence of alcohol is a serious offence and the traffic police regularly carry out breath tests. Anyone over the legal limit can face a heavy fine and/or a jail sentence and deportation.
Sea and river travel
Piracy in South East Asian waters is an ongoing problem. There have been a number of 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.
Some passenger boats have sunk due to overloading and/or poor maintenance. Take care at all times when travelling by passenger ferry or speedboat and avoid travelling on vessels that are clearly overloaded or in poor condition. Make sure life jackets are available.
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 reputable licensed operators, insist on training before use and make sure you’re insured.
Check dive operators’ credentials carefully and make sure you’re insured. Check that safety equipment is available on the boat, including oxygen. Ask about contingency plans, which should include the ability to call for help while at sea and to evacuate divers to the nearest hyperbaric chamber if necessary.
You should take great care if you’re diving the sites of HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales, which lie in international waters off Kuantan. They have been declared ‘protected places’ under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. You should only dive there on a ‘look not touch’ basis. Don’t attempt to penetrate the wrecks, which lie in deep water. A British diver died in November 2011 while diving on HMS Repulse. Make sure any boat operator you use holds a licence for diving at the wreck site.
Police have sometimes used tear gas and water cannons to control public protests. Monitor local and international media and avoid all demonstrations. Under Malaysian law it’s illegal for foreign nationals to take part in demonstrations.
Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Malaysia. Attacks could happen anywhere including in places visited by foreigners. In January 2016, the Malaysian police said the country was on the highest security alert; from time to time the police presence increases in public areas. Be vigilant, monitor local media and follow the advice of the local authorities.
On 28 June 2016, there was a grenade attack at a bar in the town of Puchong, injuring 8 people. Malaysian authorities have confirmed this was a terrorist attack by individuals with links to Daesh (formerly referred to as ISIL).
There’s a heightened threat of terrorist attack globally against UK interests and British nationals, from groups or individuals motivated by the conflict in Iraq and Syria. You should be vigilant at this time.
Find out more about the global threat from terrorism, how to minimise your risk and what to do in the event of a terrorist attack.
There’s a threat to foreigners of kidnapping on the eastern coast of Sabah and in particular the islands close to the Sulu Archipelago in the southern Philippines. There has also been a kidnapping case in Sandakan on mainland Sabah.
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. A number of hostages have been murdered by the group. Some groups operating in the southern Philippines, including ASG, have pledged allegiance to Daesh and are likely to regard Westerners as legitimate targets. Commercial shipping companies have been advised to adopt heightened vigilance when navigating the Sulu and Celebes Sea. Most maritime incidents occur in the Sulu Sea in the area between Sabah (Malaysia) and Mindanao, the Sulu Islands and Palawan (Philippines). Boats travelling to and from off-shore islands and dive sites are possible targets. The Malaysian authorities have increased security in the region in response to recent incidents.
The long-standing policy of the British government is not to make substantive concessions to hostage takers. The British government considers that paying ransoms and releasing prisoners increases the risk of further hostage taking.
Local laws and customs
Malaysia is a multicultural, majority Muslim country. You should respect local traditions, customs, laws and religions, especially during the holy month of Ramadan, other religious festivals or if you intend to visit religious sites.
You should also dress modestly, particularly in conservative and rural areas and when visiting places of worship.
If you’re a Muslim you may be subject to local Shari’a law.
There are severe penalties for all drug offences; this includes amphetamine-type stimulants. Trafficking incurs a mandatory death penalty. Possession incurs a custodial sentence and possible whipping.
You could be asked to take a urine test on arrival in Malaysia if you’re suspected of having used drugs before your visit. Urine tests can also be taken when individuals are detained following raids on bars and nightclubs. If the test is positive, you could be detained, charged and/or deported and blacklisted.
Importing unlicensed firearms and ammunition into Malaysia is prohibited and can carry the death penalty.
Homosexual acts are illegal in Malaysia and punishable under federal law, and in some states, shari’a law. You should avoid any behaviour which could attract unwanted attention, including public displays of affection. Openly gay and lesbian support groups exist. See our information and advice page for the LGBT community before you travel.
The information on this page covers the most common types of travel and reflects the UK government’s understanding of the rules currently in place. Unless otherwise stated, this information is for travellers using a full ‘British Citizen’ passport.
The authorities in the country or territory you’re travelling to are responsible for setting and enforcing the rules for entry. If you’re unclear about any aspect of the entry requirements, or you need further reassurance, you’ll need to contact the embassy, high commission or consulate of the country or territory you’re travelling to.
You should also consider checking with your transport provider or travel company to make sure your passport and other travel documents meet their requirements.
British nationals don’t need a visa to visit Malaysia. You will normally be given permission to stay for 3 months on arrival. Visas for longer stays or for non-tourist purposes must be obtained from the nearest Malaysian diplomatic mission before you travel.
The Malaysian authorities are running a vigorous campaign against illegal immigration. Don’t overstay your visa, or violate the terms of entry. Even if you overstay for just a few days, you can be fined, detained, deported to the UK and blacklisted. Flight costs will be the responsibility of the individual.
If you’re travelling between Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia (sometimes known as Malaysian Borneo and comprising the states of Sabah and Sarawak) you will need to carry your passport. You must get an entry stamp in East Malaysia at your initial port of entry.
Recent changes to visa requirements for Thailand may affect travellers wishing to make regular crossings at land borders between Malaysia and Thailand. for further information.
Your passport should be valid for a minimum period of 6 months from the date of entry into Malaysia.
Yellow fever certificate requirements
Check whether you need a yellow fever certificate by visiting the National Travel Health Network and Centre’s TravelHealthPro website.
UK Emergency Travel Documents
UK Emergency Travel Documents (ETDs) are accepted for exit from Malaysia.You’re likely to need to get a special exit pass from Malaysian Immigration before leaving and there will be a cost for this. If you plan to use an ETD to enter or transit through Malaysia, check entry requirements with the nearest Malaysian Embassy or High Commission before you travel.
Malaysia doesn’t recognise dual nationality. Technically you can be refused entry if you are found to be holding two passports of different nationality.
Exchange control rules
You can import or export up to 10,000 Malaysian Ringgit without prior approval. There are no limits on the amount of foreign currency you can import or export, but you must declare any amount in excess of US$ 10,000. Penalties include a fine of up to RM 1 million and up to 3 years’ imprisonment. Further information can be found on the Royal Malaysian Customs Department website.
At least 8 weeks before your trip, check the latest country-specific health advice from the National Travel Health Network and Centre (NaTHNaC) on the TravelHealthPro website. Each country-specific page has information on vaccine recommendations, any current health risks or outbreaks, and factsheets with information on staying healthy abroad. Guidance is also available from NHS (Scotland) on the FitForTravel website.
General information on travel vaccinations and a travel health checklist is available on the NHS website. You may then wish to contact your health adviser or pharmacy for advice on other preventive measures and managing any pre-existing medical conditions while you’re abroad.
The legal status and regulation of some medicines prescribed or purchased in the UK can be different in other countries. If you’re travelling with prescription or over-the-counter medicine, read this guidance from NaTHNaC on best practice when travelling with medicines. For further information on the legal status of a specific medicine, you’ll need to contact the embassy, high commission or consulate of the country or territory you’re travelling to.
UK health authorities have classified Malaysia as having a risk of Zika virus transmission. For more information and advice visit the National Travel Health Network and Centre website.
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.
Mosquito-borne diseases like dengue fever occur all year round. There has been an increase in the number of cases of dengue fever, including in Kuala Lumpur. You should take appropriate precautions to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes
The states of Perlis, Kedah, Penang and Sarawak have been declared as rabies infected. You should take precautions to protect yourself if you’re travelling in these areas.
From June to October, Malaysia can experience air pollution from forest fires in Indonesia. Monitor the Air Pollutant Index Management System (APIMS) updates and health advisories issued by the Malaysian Department of Environment.
If you need emergency medical assistance during your trip, dial 999 or 112 from a mobile and ask for an ambulance. You should contact your insurance/medical assistance company promptly if you are referred to a medical facility for treatment.
Malaysia is affected by seasonal storms between October and February, which occasionally result in heavy flooding.
There was a magnitude 6.0 earthquake in Sabah on 5 June 2015, affecting Mount Kinabalu.
Travel advice help and support
If you’re abroad and you need emergency help from the UK government, contact the nearest British embassy, consulate or high commission. If you need urgent help because something has happened to a friend or relative abroad, contact the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London on 020 7008 1500 (24 hours).
Foreign travel checklist
Read our foreign travel checklist to help you plan for your trip abroad and stay safe while you’re there.
The FCO travel advice helps you make your own decisions about foreign travel. Your safety is our main concern, but we can’t provide tailored advice for individual trips. If you’re concerned about whether or not it’s safe for you to travel, you should read the travel advice for the country or territory you’re travelling to, together with information from other sources you’ve identified, before making your own decision on whether to travel. Only you can decide whether it’s safe for you to travel.
When we judge the level of risk to British nationals in a particular place has become unacceptably high, we’ll state on the travel advice page for that country or territory that we advise against all or all but essential travel. Read more about how the FCO assesses and categorises risk in foreign travel advice.
Our crisis overseas page suggests additional things you can do before and during foreign travel to help you stay safe.
Refunds and cancellations
If you wish to cancel or change a holiday that you’ve booked, you should contact your travel company. The question of refunds and cancellations is a matter for you and your travel company. Travel companies make their own decisions about whether or not to offer customers a refund. Many of them use our travel advice to help them reach these decisions, but we do not instruct travel companies on when they can or can’t offer a refund to their customers.
For more information about your rights if you wish to cancel a holiday, visit the Citizen’s Advice Bureau website. For help resolving problems with a flight booking, visit the website of the Civil Aviation Authority. For questions about travel insurance, contact your insurance provider and if you’re not happy with their response, you can complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service.
Registering your travel details with us
We’re no longer asking people to register with us before travel. Our foreign travel checklist and crisis overseas page suggest things you can do before and during foreign travel to plan your trip and stay safe.
Previous versions of FCO travel advice
If you’re a British national and you have a question about travelling abroad that isn’t covered in our foreign travel advice or elsewhere on GOV.UK, you can submit an enquiry. We’re not able to provide tailored advice for specific trips.