The currency in Kuala Lumpur is the Malaysian ringgit.
Dealing with an unfamiliar currency is one of the unique daily challenges faced by travelers. First, you'll have to figure out the best ways to get local currency without making too many middlemen rich. When paying, you'll have to do the exchange rate in your head and fumble to find the right denominations in your wallet, perhaps with impatient people tapping toes in the queue behind you.
Fortunately, working with the currency in Malaysia is straightforward, unlike India, Burma, and other places with confusing money. One of the first things travelers notice about Malaysian money is how colorful it is. This isn't just eye candy. You'll quickly learn which colors match which denominations and know amounts with a glance.
Compared to U.S. dollars which are uniform in color and size, Malaysian banknotes are colorful, creative, and implement advanced anti-counterfeiting measures. The different sizes help people who can't see well to find the right denominations.
Currency in Malaysia is issued by the Bank Negara Malaysia (National Bank of Malaysia).
- Currency Code: MYR
- Local Abbreviation: RM (for ringgit Malaysia)
- Common Usage: RM before the amount (RM 5.50, RM15 ... )
- Pronunciation: "ring-it." Same word for singular or plural (e.g., 1 ringgit, 10 ringgit ... )
- Breakdown: 1 MYR = 100 sen (cents)
The Malaysian Ringgit
The word ringgit actually means "jagged" in Malay. It refers to the Spanish silver dollar coins with rough edges that were once used in Malaysia during colonial times.
Prior to 1975, the currency in Kuala Lumpur was the Malaysian dollar. Very rarely, perhaps as a throwback to the dollar days, prices can sometimes be seen listed with "$" or "M$."
The ringgit was pegged to the U.S. dollar until 2005 when Malaysia followed China's lead by removing the relationship between the two currencies. The Malaysian ringgit is not traded internationally.
Using the Currency in Kuala Lumpur
Ringgit is available in denominations of: RM1, RM5, RM10, RM20, RM50, and RM100. In the 1990s, the government demonetized the RM500 and RM1000 denominations — don't allow someone to give you one!
Each denomination of the ringgit is a unique color to make identification easier. Amounts are printed in large type and are easy to read. Malaysian ringgit implements several high-tech features to make copying and counterfeiting difficult. Like in Singapore, currency is printed on higher quality paper than that found in Thailand, Indonesia, and neighboring countries.
Malaysian ringgit is further divided into 100 sen (think: "cents") with coins in denominations of 5, 10, 20, and 50 sen. Some of the coins are so lightweight that they seem fake!
Unlike in Thailand where coins accumulate quickly, tourists rarely end up encountering many coins in Malaysia. Prices are often deliberately rounded to the nearest ringgit. In some instances, supermarkets don't want to deal with coins so you'll actually get a few candies back as part of your change!
Kuala Lumpur Currency Exchange Rates
Since 2000, one U.S. dollar has been roughly equivalent to between 3 - 4.50 ringgit (RM3 - RM4.50).
Current exchange rates provided by Google Finance:
As usual, you will encounter currency-exchange kiosks at the airports in Kuala Lumpur as well as in malls and touristy places. Although sometimes exchanging money is the best option, ATMs typically offer a better rate, assuming your bank doesn't punish you too much for international transactions.
Compare the current exchange rate to the ringgit "sell" rate posted by the kiosk. Count your money in plain sight of the attendant before walking away from the window.
Using ATMs in Kuala Lumpur
Globally networked ATMs can be found throughout Kuala Lumpur. Fees to withdraw money, if any, are notably lower than Thailand's brutal 220-baht fee (around US $6.50 per transaction).
Tip: Using ATMs that are physically attached to bank branches is always best practice. You stand a better chance of recovering your card if it is captured, and there is less chance that a card-skimming device is installed on the machine. These hidden devices capture and store your account number as the card is put into the machine. Using an ATM standing in the shadows away from the main strip is generally a bad idea for many reasons.
RM100 banknotes given by some ATMs may be difficult to break. Try to find ATMs that issue cash in denominations of RM50, and enter an amount that requires the machine to dispense smaller denominations. For example, request RM450 rather than RM500 — at least you'll receive one RM50 banknote instead of just five RM100s. If the machine allows, RM490 would be even better.
Other Options for Accessing Money
Although usage is generally in decline, American Express traveler's cheques are the most readily accepted. You will pay a fee per cheque to cash at banks, so bring larger denominations (e.g., one $100 is better than two $50s).
Visa and MasterCard are the two most accepted credit cards. Large hotels, malls, dive shops, and other businesses will accept credit cards, but they may tack on a service fee or commission. Let your banks know that you'll be traveling before you go. Otherwise, seeing charges pop up in Asia may cause them to deactivate your card for fraudulent use! Overall, it's better to forgo the rewards points and just use cash while traveling in Malaysia.
Using Money in Malaysia
As in other countries in Southeast Asia, small change can sometimes be hard to find for local businesses. They may have to fight through not having enough change for the rest of the shift if you clean them out early. Paying for your RM5 street noodles with a RM50 banknote is just bad form — don't do it!
Mindfully try to accumulate small change to pay street vendors and people who have trouble with large banknotes. It's a money game that everyone in Southeast Asia plays. Save those big RM50 and RM100 banknotes to break when paying at hotels, bars, chain mini-marts, or other establishments with plenty of cash flow.
Tipping in Kuala Lumpur
Tipping is not customary in Malaysia, however, tips may be expected in luxury hotels and at five-star establishments. A service charge of 10 percent may be added to hotel or restaurant bills in nicer places. Go ahead and round up fares for drivers; doing so is customary. They'll probably tell you they don't have any change anyway!