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Cost of Living: Penang, Malaysia

Published on 21 July 2011 by Tracy Burns | 44 Comments |

Penang is an island on the west coast of Malaysia, two hours from the Thailand border. Once an important shipping port in the spice trade between east and west, the Penang of today is a fascinating blend of old and new. Luxury condominiums the size of small palaces line the foreshores, while just a few streets away in the capital Georgetown historic Chinese shop houses sit jumbled together on narrow streets.

With its diverse mix of cultures, eclectic cuisine and beach-city status, Penang has a lot to recommend it as a great location for families. Penang offers great infrastructure, good education, and a range of entertainment and lifestyle options such as sporting teams, hiking, cinemas, family friendly beach-side bars. The cost of living is low while the standard of living is extremely high.

Penang isn't quite a tropical paradise. Here's the nicest beach ... which is several kilometers walk from the nearest town. 

Most of the island is heavily populated, although there's lots of jungle covered mountains, pockets of nature and undeveloped coastline. It has peak hour problems, although no where near as bad as most cities. The ocean isn't exactly pristine and rapid development is spoiling some areas, but there are still a lot of small friendly suburbs with green places.

We came here for a week last year and ended up staying 5 months. At the end of that five months we decided to spend the next few years in Penang, living here half the year and travelling the rest. While there are cheaper places to live in South East Asia, for us it offered everything we wanted: a high standard of living at a low price, easy access to facilities like healthcare and entertainment, good schooling and educational facilities (great bookstores, interesting outtings), a diverse culture to learn about, a nice balance of nature/beaches and city lifestyle ... and possibly most importantly for us - lots of other families hang out with. 

In case you're considering moving to Penang, here's a break down of our costs. These costs are based on a family of 4, with two young children.

FYI: Prices are quoted in ringgits, which is roughly RM3 = 1USD or 1AUD or RM5=1 UK pound

Just a note: since we're holidaying here in Penang, we're not working. So I'm not providing details on the cost of work visas, shipping, taxation rates etc. This is just a daily living guide.

Housing & Utilities

The cost of rent in Penang is all about location, location, location! The closer you are to Georgetown or the bridge to the mainland, the more expensive the rental prices.

Penang Hill View

Expats tend to be scattered all over the island. Many live out near the beaches closer to the international schools. Others live in Georgetown, near the airport or the bridge to the mainland, for work reasons. There's no bad place to live, it just depends on the needs of your family. 

The best way to find a place to stay is to come to Penang and stay in a guesthouse or hotel while you look. Generally, places advertised online will be more expensive. A week is more than sufficient time to find an apartment, but allow a month if you are looking for a house. Try to set some time aside and search for Penang hotels online. This might not seem like a huge issue, especially if this is an endeavor you’ve been saving for, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised with how much money you can save by going this route. All it takes is a few clicks on a high-profile website like Expedia, and you’ll be able to find a great room for a low price. You can usually book a number of last minute hotels as well, so don’t feel as though it’s too late to check and see what’s available.

Penang is a relatively safe place to live, but break-ins are not unheard of. Many people choose to live in apartment complexes for this reason, but houses are perfectly safe provided you have good locks, grills and a decent fence.

It's worth noting in Malaysia, unfurnished can mean an empty shell - no kitchens, lights or hot water. Semi-furnished usually refers to the place having a kitchen, hot water, lighting and possibly AC. Fully furnished means everything you'll need, except perhaps an oven and installed hot water (although ask nicely and your landlord will probably provide these things if you are staying more than a few months).

Furniture and applicances are a little cheaper than back home, while other household items like plates, cutlery, curtains, linen are at least 30% cheaper than you'd pay back home if you know where to shop. 

Apartment

If you're just coming to Penang for a few months, a furnished apartment is your best choice. It is hard to find a furnished house on a short-term lease.

The cost of renting an apartment varies depending on location, size, age, furnished or unfurnished, quality of furnishing, length of rental agreement and the facilities the complex has.

For a furnished apartment in a nice complex with a pool expect to pay RM1800-5000 per month, depending on location and the length of your lease.

For an unfurnished apartment on a 12month+ lease with a pool, the price will be between RM800-3000. You can rent a lot cheaper than this but you will be in an older apartment block without facilities or security, and the apartments will often be quite small.

We rented for 4 months in Miami Green, a really nice apartment complex near the beach with several pools, squash courts, gym and security.

We paid:

  • 3 bedroom Apartment: RM2200/month for a 4-6 month lease. RM2500-2800 per month on a shorter lease.
  • Electricity: RM200/month (use of AC overnight and for a few hours during hottest part of day)
  • Gas (for stove): RM5/month
  • Water: RM8/month
  • Cable television: RM49/month for basic package plus children’s channels and western news channels.
  • Cleaning: House cleaner 2x weekly RM300/month
  • Internet: RM18/week for a USB modem with sim card

 

The swimming pool and playground

House

You can rent large, modern houses for RM1200-3000 per month unfurnished or RM3000-5000 per month furnished.

It's almost impossible to rent a house for anything less than a 12 month lease.

Houses within gated communities are also an option, although they're definitely at the higher end of the rental spectrum.

We're currently renting an unfurnished 5-bedroom house with a yard on a two year lease 20km from Georgetown in a small tourist suburb. Our house is 7mins walk to the beach in a quiet street.

We pay:

  • Rent: RM1200/month
  • Electricty: RM200/month
  • Gas (for oven and stove):RM5/month
  • Water: RM8/month
  • Cable television: RM50 for basic or RM125/month for full package with HD and recording
  • House Cleaner: RM12 per hour, or 5x weekly RM500/month
  • Internet: RM100 per month for ADSL 

Gurney Hill, Penang

Transport

Buses in Penang are modern, comfortable and cheap. They have AC and some even have free WIFI. The bus network is relatively comprehensive and some people just get around using this.

Having a car definitely makes life easier though, particularly for families. Cars are expensive to buy in Malaysia, but relatively cheap to rent on a monthly basis.

To buy a car, looks for cars over 12 years old. Cars older than 12 years can't be financed in Malaysia so they drop dramatically in price. Also, the engine capacity determines the yearly registration. A 1.6L car costs RM90 per year to register, a 2L around RM400. We were quoted RM9000 for a 4.6L 4WD ... a huge difference.

For a reliable car with AC over 13 years old, expect to pay RM15000-30000.  

Motorbikes are another option, although traffic is faster here than in other Asian cities and the roads are winding. People do it but there are a lot of motorbike accidents here so think carefully.

Car rental

  • 5-year-old sedan: RM1200/month with additional excess, free services and repairs
  • Newer car: RM2000/month
  • Petrol: RM70-90/week (RM1.90 per litre)

Bus tickets

  • Less than 14km: RM2/adult
  • 14km-21km: RM2.70/adult
  • Monthly ticket (unlimited): RM75/adult, RM35/student/concession
  • Children under 6 are free, children over 6 are half price.
  • www.rapidpg.com.my

Food & Groceries

If you want to live cheaply in Penang, shop where the locals do. Find out where your nearest wet markets are, discover local butchers and importers for meat, cheese, yogurts and for those things you just can't find in local stores find out where the nearest Tescos is.

Assuming you are cooking simple meals or local dishes, not eating expensive steaks every day and eating out 2-3 nights a week, then groceries for a family should be no more than RM300 per week.

Loaf of bread: RM3
1L of milk: RM7
Apple: RM1.50 for large imported apple
4 bananas: RM2
Navel Orange: RM1.50 per piece
Lettuce: RM3

4 carrots: RM2
1KG chicken breast: RM9
1KG beef mince: RM16
1KG nice steak: RM30

Nescafe instant coffee (small): RM10

250g Honey/Nutella/Jam(good quality): RM10

250 Jam (cheap): RM3

2L bottled water: RM2
Can of beer: RM6
Can of coke: RM1.50
500g pasta: RM5
1kg rice: RM2

Toothpaste: RM6
Shampoo: RM5-20 depending on brand
Diapers: RM35 for pack of 30

Eating Out

Eating out in Penang is inexpensive. If you are happy to eat where the locals do you'll only pay a few ringget more than you would cooking at home.

Hawker Markets and small local restaurants will offer the cheapest food, whereas the tourist restaurants in Batu Ferringhi and Georgetown will blow your budget (even if they are quite cheap in comparison to what you would pay back home in the west in a good restaurant).

You'd be forgiven for thinking that eating out is the favourite passtime of locals. Most eat out at least once a day, including us. We will usually eat breakfast out a few times a week and dinner out at least 3 times per week. 

At a Hawker Market or local eatery, for a family (of 4) expect to pay:
Breakfast with tea and water: RM10-15
Dinner or lunch with local iced drink: RM15-25
Dinner with beer and juices: RM45-60

At a local restaurant
Dinner with just water or iced local drinks: RM30-40
Dinner with beer and fresh juices: RM55-80

Home delivered Pizza
RM22

Little India - Queen & Market

Daycare & Schooling

Primary and Secondary Schooling

There are a lot of great International Schools in Penang. St Christopher's Elementary School is the cheapest and has a fantastic reputation. Dalat, Tenby and Uplands are more expensive but very good schools and your best option with high-school aged children.

Enrolment in a local school is an option, but some schools won't accept students if your only here short term on a tourist visa and the quality of schools varies greatly. Formal schooling in Penang doesn't start until 7 years of age. Like the rest of Asia, Malaysia is very focused on education. Discipline is strict and a lot of homework is given. In and around Georgetown there are some great locals schools though - you just need to do your research. 

For an international school, expect to pay RM12000-18000 per year including fees for primary school, while secondary school ranges from RM18000-RM40000 including fees. 

Childcare and Daycare

Daycare in Penang is commonly available for children aged 2.5yrs-7yrs. For younger children, it's harder to find childcare outside of a local nanny.

Daycares in Malaysia generally follow a very Asian education model so it can be hard to find play-based learning for younger children if this is what you are used to. Most have children over 4 years doing mini-school work. Play-based centres do exist but you may have to pay more and drive further! Taska Lin and Cherie Hearts both have a great reputation for a more play based approach, however their prices are double the costs quoted below.

Daycares commonly offer three options – 5 half days per week, 5 full days per week or a mix of both (for example three half days and two full days).

Cost:

RM180-350 / month for 5 half days, including lunch and morning tea.
RM250-450 / month for 5 full days, including morning tea, lunch and afternoon tea.
RM200 / year once off fee for books, craft materials, uniform.

After School Tuition and Sports

After school tuition in anything from reading and maths to music and karate is widely available in Penang. Almost every suburb will have a couple of tuition centres, and at least one organisation running some type of weekend sport.

Expect to pay anything from RM20-60 per month for one hour of tuition per week, and a similar price for children's sport.

Homeschooling

Homeschooling is legal in Malaysia, although if your a resident you may be required to register with the government. The bookstores here have an amazing range of children's books, from textbooks to leveled readers and novels, making it a very easy country to homeschool in. And of course with all the temples, cultural diversity, national parks and local lifestyles to explore it's not hard to find great homeschooling excursions! 

The Dalat International School has a distance education and homeschooling department. For RM600 per year a family can access the schools library, homeschooling resources and afterschool sporting activities. Assistance with curriculum and testing is also available for an additional fee.

Kek Lok Si

Other

Cinema: RM40 (two adults, two kids, two drinks, two popcorns)

Doctor's consult: RM20 at a local hospital, RM50 at a private clinic

Emergency consult with xray: RM70

Parking: RM1 per three hours on weekdays, RM3 per three hours on weekends.

Gurney Plaza

Cost of living series

We're aiming to build up a cost of living series focusing on great places around the world for families to stop for a while ... be it a month or two for a rest during your travels or living long term. If there's somewhere you've stopped that you've loved and you can give us a breakdown of the costs, we'd love to add it to the series.


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Comments

  • Hi Caroline - sorry it's taken me a couple of days to reply. Most apartments that I've seen are 2-3 bedrooms but I am sure you would be able to find one bedroom apartments for 2 week rentals. You could look online (try iproperty.com.my and mudah.my) but if you have the time I would probably head to Penang and start asking around. We found our first apartment in Penang by asking taxi drivers and tour agents. Usually someone will know someone who rents holiday apartments. Otherwise contact Annie from Annies Guesthouse in Batu Ferringhi. She usually has holiday apartments for rent and if not, she always knows someone to contact.

    Hi Madhurima Deb. It is hard for me to answer your questions as we were not working in Penang, just staying there on a long term holiday. We did not earn money so did not pay tax and only had holiday visas. We are a family so I only know costs for families. Penang is very safe and there is a wonderful Indian community. Apartment costs vary but even renting a very nice apartment in a nice complex with a pool, 7500 RM would be more than sufficient for a couple. Locals live off a lot less. I think you could have a comfortable life in a smaller apartment for much less. Public transport is good but doesn't go everywhere. If you are living in Batu Ferringhi I think a car is good. But if you live closer to Georgetown you might not need one. I hope this helps

    Posted by Tracy, 08/07/2012 6:44pm (5 years ago)

  • I realized that many of the property in Penang are slightly more expensive if they are advertised online or in the newspapers. What I would do is to search online for vacancies and go to the ground and survey the surroundings myself. There might be other houses for sale that are cheaper.

    Posted by Richard Dillon, 06/08/2012 4:48pm (5 years ago)

  • Thanks so much for your valuable information.

    I hope to rent a small two bedroom house, unfurnished.

    Can you recommend an agent who is fair and knowledgeable?

    and

    what might be the range for such a home in your area?

    Thanks

    Mike
    Pasadena, California USA

    Posted by Michael Mina, 09/08/2012 10:14am (5 years ago)

  • Hello
    I am in FL, USA . I would like to rent short term ( 2 months), fully furnish Apt with inernet access, one bedroom will be good , near Georgetown close by to shopping and Adventist Hospital. Do you have any suggestion??? This trip will be a fact finding trip so we can decide where to live in future for longer. Any help or suggestion will be appreciated. Also if you know agent who can assist to us to find place.
    Thanks

    Posted by Kirit, 28/08/2012 2:40am (5 years ago)

  • This is a very informative website about living in Penang. Thank you Tracy. If you have known anyone who would like to seek a place to stay in Penang. Feel free to email me, we can help them to look for one. My email contact will be anmf@hotmail.com.

    Posted by Angie, 22/09/2012 5:44pm (5 years ago)

  • Hi

    Just looking at an alternative place to live and I have zeroed in on Penang. Not sure how old your post is but it just seems to confirm what we thought already. Love the laid back lifestyle and hate the over regulation we have in the "Western World". If anyone has any other ideas about living 5 - 8 months in Penang per year we would love to hear from you!

    Posted by Cathy, 08/10/2012 7:12pm (4 years ago)

  • Hi Tracey, my husband and i have been contemplating a move to Malaysia for some time and we found your comments very helpful.. We have spent some years in the islands and have travelled through many Asian countries and feel sure we would love Penang.Con you tell me please how you entered Penang , did you apply for a holiday visa and stay on ? Or did you use the " Mm2h scheme? If so did you apply prior to entry ? Or can it be done once there ? We are not sure where to start . We will come for a holiday first anyway. Where do you go to meet people ? Expats like us? It is so easy when you have children at home ,ours have flown the nest . Can you recommend a good real estate agent. ?What about your favorite things , books , pictures and much loved items ? Did you send for them ?
    I look forward to a reply.

    Posted by simone Brown, 11/10/2012 7:23pm (4 years ago)

  • Dear Sir/Madam,

    I want to shift to Malaysia along with my family (wife and daughter).
    Just don't know where to shift,I need high class living(buy own house) but at reasonable cost area.
    For business, I am thinking about Palm farming which will be near to my house or any best solution you have.
    kind regards,

    Iftikhar

    Posted by IFTIKHAR, 11/10/2012 7:33pm (4 years ago)

  • Great article! Thank you!! I was mainly concerned about the international schools and from the sounds of it, it is more affordable than in kL! Hopefully everything will work out and we get to live there soon! Thanks again!

    Posted by Sia. , 31/10/2012 2:14am (4 years ago)

  • we own 2 homes in penang :
    a. 3 bedroom fully furnbished apartment in gelugor next to university of science
    b. terrace house yet to be furnbished

    short term rentals on a weekly or monthly basis will be welcome

    we are singapore citizens and these house were left over by our parents

    our contaqct : +65-9-6232860
    winston chu

    Posted by winston, 13/11/2012 10:11pm (4 years ago)

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