Currency in Malaysia
The Malaysian currency is the Malaysian ringgit, abbreviated RM or MYR, divided into 100 sen (cents). The ringgit is sometimes unofficially referred to as the dollar and you may see the ‘$’ symbol on older notes. There are coins of RM0.05 (silver), RM0.10 (silver), RM0.20 (silver or gold) and RM0.50 (silver or gold), and notes of RM1 (blue), RM5 (green), RM10 (red), RM20 (orange), RM50 (green/blue) and RM100 (purple). 5-sen coins are mainly issued as change in large shops or supermarkets, while hawkers and street vendors may be reluctant to accept them. Note that Singapore and Brunei dollars are also known as ringgit in Malay. So if you are near border areas, make sure you know which currency the price is in.
Foreign currencies are generally not accepted, although you could get away with exchanging US dollars or euros in more remote areas, but expect lots of stares and some persuasion. The big exception is the Singapore dollar, which is accepted by the KTMB and toll roads, but at a very unfavourable exchange rate of 1:1 (an anomaly from the time when the ringgit was interchangeable with the Singapore dollar, before the 1970s).
Money exchange counters are easy to find in larger shopping centres and have a better exchange rate than in banks and airports. Be sure to state the amount you wish to exchange and ask for the “best rate” as the rates shown on the board are often negotiable, especially for larger amounts. Note that large foreign banknotes, such as €500, are hard to change at a good rate in some areas, especially in Sabah or Sarawak, as banks will offer a much lower rate than if you were to change a banknote with a smaller amount. Some money changers in Kota Kinabalu or Kuching will even refuse you if you have large foreign notes, so it is best to bring smaller notes unless you are willing to buy.
Banking in Malaysia
ATMs are widely available in the cities, but you should stock up on cash if you go to the smaller islands or into the jungle. Credit cards can be used in most shops, restaurants and hotels, although skimming can be a problem in dodgier shops. When using credit cards, make sure your credit/debit card has a chip, as most merchants no longer accept magnetic stripe-based cards.
Banks in Malaysia handle international transactions. These range from a small fee if you are an account holder to a slightly more expensive amount if you only go there to use a particular service. International banks like Citibank & HSBC have their presence in Malaysia, with the latter having branches all over the country. Local banking giants are Maybank, Public Bank & CIMB Bank, & they are a very good alternative to the aforementioned banks, especially in terms of pricing, local knowledge & presence, and available international services such as money transfers. For all enquiries & transactions, get a number, sit down & wait your turn. (There is no need to queue while you wait in air-conditioned comfort!).
Banks are open Monday-Friday from 09:30-16:00 and selected banks are open on Saturdays from 09:30-11:30, except on the first and third Saturday of each month. In the states of Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu, they are open Sunday-Thursday from 09:30-16:00.
Due to the risk of fraud, it is not possible to withdraw money with foreign debit cards at many Malaysian ATMs. Numerous travellers have noted this on travel forums. Choosing a different ATM or area can help so that your cash supplies are not depleted too far. This is only the case in Malaysia and does not apply to Thailand, Singapore or Indonesia. If you call your bank or even Visa/MasterCard, they often don’t know about it because the transaction is declined by the bank in Malaysia. Make sure you bring cash or other forms of money in case your debit card is declined.
Costs in Malaysia
Most visitors will find Malaysia quite affordable, although it is significantly more expensive than neighbouring Indonesia. You can live in hostels and feast on hawker food for less than RM50 a day, but you should budget double that for comfort, especially if you are travelling in the more expensive East Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur is also generally more expensive than the rest of the country. At the other end of the spectrum, luxury hotels and airfare are comparatively affordable, with even the poshest 5-star hotels costing less than RM400 per night.
Tipping in Malaysia
Tipping is not customary in Malaysia. However, hotel porters and taxi drivers are happy to receive a small tip if you have been served in an exemplary manner. In most air-conditioned restaurants, a service charge of 10 % is included in the total bill. Most expensive restaurants, bars and hotels quote prices in terms of RM19++ (“plus plus”), which means that VAT (6%) and the service charge (10%) are added to the bill. Hotel tax of 5% may also be added.
Shopping in Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur is a shopping mecca for clothing, electronics, watches, computer goods and much more, with very competitive prices by any standard. Local Malaysian brands include Royal Selangor and British India. Traditional Malaysian fabrics (batik) are a popular souvenir. The cheapest place to easily buy ethnic souvenirs (especially wooden ones) is in Kuching, East Malaysia, and the most expensive place is in the big, posh shopping malls of Kuala Lumpur.
Generally, shops in the big cities are open from 10:30-21:30/22:00. In the smaller towns and rural areas, they open and close earlier. Some shops may also be closed on certain days, such as in Malacca, where many shops and restaurants close on Tuesday.
When shopping in Malaysia, if you buy too much (which is quite easy), postage costs are very cheap on the surface. Excess baggage at the airport is still high, but not as high as in many other countries. Check with your airline first.