Singapore is a modern economy in every sense, from its liberal approach to foreign investment, to its high-tech polymer bank notes and fraud-proof coins. There are a wide variety of payment options available for most purchases (except, of course, for small traders and street vendors, where cash is king), and the country is moving towards cashless, remote payments in a range of everyday areas.
The unit of currency in Singapore is the Singapore Dollar (S$ or SGD), with a dollar consisting of 100 cents. Banknotes come in denominations of $2, $5, $10, $50, $100, $100, $1,000 and $10,000, the last being the most valuable circulated banknote in the world. Previous issues of banknotes have at various times included $1, $20, $25 and $500, and although still legal tender these are now rarely seen. Singapore banknotes feature the face of Yusof bin Ishak, first president of the Republic of Singapore, on the front, and on the reverse scenes of “civic virtue”, such as educational institutions, the Singapore Botanic Gardens, ethnic musical instruments, and government buildings.
Coins have denominations of 5¢, 10¢, 20¢, 50¢ and $1 (the 1¢ coin is no longer issued but remains legal tender), with the latest Third Series first being circulated in June 2013. These state-of-the-art coins include enhanced security features, and depict national icons and landmarks, such as the Merlion ($1), Port of Singapore (50¢), Changi Airport (20¢), HBD Housing (10¢) and the Esplanade Theatres (5¢), with a lion head on the reverse of each.
There are around 400 different places in Singapore licensed to exchange currency. Many of these are small enterprises, found all over the city, that usually provide a better rate than banks, although all of Singapore’s banks also offer a foreign currency exchange facility.
Singapore is “Asia’s answer to Geneva and Zurich”, according to The New York Times, and has become Asia’s largest foreign exchange center, ahead of Japan and Hong Kong. The government’s approach to economic liberalisation means Singapore’s economy is considered one of the most open in the world, while low levels of corruption and high opportunities for investment have seen the city become a leading private banking hub for the world’s super-wealthy.
For the average expat relocating to Singapore there are 122 commercial banks, and although not all of these offer retail banking, it makes setting up a bank account very easy and something that can usually be accomplished in a day.
The most popular banks for personal banking in Singapore are POSB (Post Office Savings Bank)/DBS (Development Bank of Singapore), OCBC (Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation), UOB (United Overseas Bank), HSBC, Standard Chartered and Citibank.
POSB/DBS (the two merged in 1998) probably leads the way in terms of promoting their packages and services directly to expats. The DBS Expatriate Programme provides multi-currency savings accounts, a platinum credit card with no fees, and a host of lifestyle rewards, including discounts at leading retailers. There is also the advantage of Singapore’s largest ATM network with 745 machines, as well as 31 branches, so their coverage is extensive.
OCBC likewise has a significant presence with 589 ATMs and 55 branches. They offer fixed deposit accounts in nine foreign currencies (AUD, CAD, CHF, EUR, GBP, NZD, USD, HKD and JPY), a full range of online and mobile banking services, while there is also the advantage of 19 of their branches being open on Sundays, from 11am-7pm.
UOB has proved itself to be a popular bank with expats because many consider it to have the best Internet and mobile banking services. They are also particularly well known for their credit cards, with a wide range that offers discounts and rewards in all types of programs, including the Lady’s Card (where any purchase of shoes or a handbag is automatically converted into an instalment plan!). UOB also offer NETS cards and easy international transfers, and have a large network of 537 ATMs and 51 branches across Singapore.
HSBC has 10 branches and over 500 ATMs in Singapore, and is a member of the “atm5” network, meaning customers can use HSBC, ANZ, Citibank, Maybank, Standard Chartered Bank and State Bank of India ATMs. HSBC also offer a QuickCash facility, meaning you can withdraw cash from the cashier at a host of Singapore’s most popular retail outlets, including Cold Storage, Giant, Guardian Health and Beauty, Photo Finish and Market Place.
Standard Chartered Bank offers expats a foreign currency current account (in USD, GBP, EUR, AUD, NZD, CHF and HKD) that enables you to make cashless payments for a wide range of goods and services. They also provide a foreign currency savings account that is noted for requiring a relatively small initial deposit. Standard Chartered also provide 24/7 phone and online banking, and have 19 branches and 18 ATMs. They are also part of the atm5 network.
Citibank is increasing in its popularity in Singapore amongst expats, not least because of its Citibank Global Transfer (CGT) system, which offers reduced fees for international fund transfers. Moving money from a Singapore Citibank account to your Citibank account at home costs only $10, and is free if you join their Citigold program. Citibank is also leading the way in remote banking technology, having introduced (in Singapore, Manila and Kuala Lumpur) Citibank Express, a next-generation ATM that allows customers to open accounts and apply for loans and cards, and also provides video conferencing and biometric identity checks. The Citibank Express ATM is located at 290 Orchard Road, Paragon #01-25B, and they also have 25 branches and 126 ‘regular’ ATMs (including drive-thrus) across Singapore. Citibank is also a member of the atm5 network.
Opening an account
If you are in Singapore on an Employment Pass (or are a PR) and over 21, opening a bank account will require minimal documentation. This will vary slightly from institution to institution, but it’s more than likely that just your passport, work pass and proof of your mailing address will be required. A reference from your employer and/or current bank might also be useful to speed up the process. It’s important to note that it might not be possible for spouses and dependants to open accounts independently, so look into opening a joint account where appropriate.
Banking hours in Singapore are usually 9.30am-3pm Monday to Friday, and 9.30am-11.30am on Saturdays, although some branches have longer opening hours and a handful are open on Sundays. ATMs are plentiful, but there are different networks, meaning that’s it not possible to use every ATM, and so in the case of some banks you could find yourself living a distance from an ATM that is part of your network. Most ATMs will accept foreign-issued cards, but you can expect to pay a fee to use these. The standard of online banking is extremely high, with almost all banks having adopted an Internet banking protocol that requires a user ID, a password, and an additional Second Factor Authentication (2FA) number using a token.
Cash or Card?
Most major credit and debit cards, including American Express and Diners Club, are accepted widely throughout Singapore, although there may be instances when you have to pay a surcharge when purchasing goods and services or for using a foreign card at an ATM. All Singapore banks issue their own credit and debit cards but it’s important to note that recent changes in banking legislation mean that, as an anti-fraud measure, if you intend to use a Singapore-issued credit or debit card outside of Singapore, you will need to inform your bank so that can it be activated for overseas use.
For small purchases, cash is still used most frequently in Singapore, although EFTPOS is increasingly available for low value transactions. However, the country is quickly moving towards a largely cashless system for many purchase associated with everyday living, such as bill payments, using public transport and the payment of road tolls.
NETS (Network for Electronic Transfers) are cards that are linked to a DBS/POSB, OCBC, UOB or Standard Chartered Bank account and which double as an ATM card. They are the most commonly used cards in Singapore and are accepted in over 70,000 locations, including taxis. You can also use a PIN-based NETS card to receive cashback, pay your bills at 24/7 iNETS kiosks, buy your MRT tickets, top up your ERP and pay your car parking fees.