Absolute Must-Knows For A New Expat Living in Singapore | Mooving Stories
It’s been a year since I first moved to Singapore. From squeezing to the back on buses to indulging in the wide variety of chocolates at Mufasa, it’s safe to say that I’ve experienced most of Singapore.
Thus, I’ve put together a list of advice that I would give new expats or people looking to move here. This may be subjective so do keep in mind that I am one half of a couple who moved together, with no kids, and a mortgage back in Europe.
You will get used to the heat on the Red Dot. Nowadays, even when it’s 26 degrees, I already feel cold. You simply adjust to the heat, you have to. After all, it’s the humidity that is the real killer and makes you sweat.
You won’t need winter clothes. The only reason I even have them with me is for when I go back to Europe for Christmas or work. Do bring flip flops and shorts, especially if you are a male. My other half rarely wore shorts previously but has been converted by the weather.
Jumpers/ cardigans are for indoors. Trust me on this one. Offices, shops, busses… All freezing! Singapore is the first country I have been in where you remove articles of clothing when you exit a building. I get goosebumps in the office all the time. This gets even worse when it rains as it seems that the aircon in the office is linked to the temperature outside, making the office feel colder when storms pick up.
You will need an umbrella. Make that several. You will tend to lose them if you are anything like me. It’s best to always keep one in your bag, as the weather can turn in a second. There will also be scary thunderstorms, which can be pretty scary. It rains regularly but unlike the UK where it rains lightly for consecutive days, Singapore sees irregular heavy showers that halt quickly.
We went with Citibank for our banking but thinking about it, the whole “global” bank thing was a con as there was no way to have our card linked to a French account. Plus the credit card yearly fees are super high! Thankfully, we waived them in the first year.
I would in retrospect probably open a local bank account and use specialised companies in forex to transfer to and from our European accounts. Additionally, local banks often have discounts at various places. For example, OverEasy has a one for one wine deal throughout the night with UOB cards, while DBS has discounts for Wine Fiesta tickets.
If you can, explore the island before you rent. Many of my friends who initially chose to stay in central locations eventually moved. Luckily, my other half was here for months in advance so he explored many neighbourhoods. Most of my friends ended up moving out of the CBD to the East Coast.
It is important to live near transport links and local amenities, which are more accessible in areas where Singaporeans live. So a place surrounded by HDB (Housing Development Board) flats will be a good place. Most expats live in condos, which has facilities such as gyms, pools, and security, but we live in an old colonial house.
Don’t be surprised when you look for a place and you see loads of agents advertising the same house. The agent system here works in a way where both the renter (you) and the landlord each have an agent. Hence, it’s best to just find an agent you like and let them do the hard work running around.
If you’re confused by the contents of your rental contract, don’t hesitate to ask other expats to look through it. Services such as aircon servicing and pest control are normal, and so is having a minimum cost of repairs before the landlord funds them. Just ask around and you’ll know if you’re being rightfully charged.
Don’t get obsessed with having to be close to an MRT, though it is handy. We take the bus to work as do many of my friends. Being a bit further from an MRT is not the end of the world, especially if you stay near to a bus stop.
When looking to rent, use gothere.sg to map your route to work. Gothere.sg allows you to enter a departure and arrival address/ postal code and will show you the route by bus, MRT (and combinations thereof), and approximate driving time with directions and an indication of the taxi cost. However, the taxi cost is mostly unreliable.
My bus ride to work costs me $0.77 and takes about 15 minutes which is great. Just be prepared to get squashed and move to the back to make space. Don’t sit on the green seats if possible (reserved) and don’t eat or drink and you should be fine! Most importantly, get an EZLink card which you can top up with money and tap it when you get on and off buses and MRTs.
As a backup, taxis are relatively cheap. But trust me, they will frustrate you. The uncles (the taxi drivers are usually older and the sign of respect is to refer to them as ‘uncle’) can be lovely and entertaining but they may not stop for you even if they have the green light on. If you simply enter the taxi, they can’t kick you out but they usually will stop to ask where you are heading and speed off if uninterested! It will be more difficult to find a taxi when it rains and during peak hours, which can be frustrating.
You may also have to explain where you live. I tend to say the road and a couple of other roads close by and the nearest MRT to avoid confusion. Understandably, my accent is odd to them and I don’t always understand them so wires can get crossed. My boyfriend did, however, end up miles away after a night shift where he was misunderstood and dozed off in the back. But generally, they are good and cheap.
Singapore will be as cheap or as expensive as you make it, so don’t always trust the cost of living in Singapore comparisons. If you stick to living as you did back home it will cost you a fortune. Eating local food can be very cheap, no matter if you cook it yourself or eat out. However, if you choose to eat your usual food, you will have to shop in Cold Storage and specialist shops where it will cost three times the price it does back home.
We do most of our food shopping at local supermarkets, especially at Sheng Siong, one of the cheapest supermarkets on the island, which is a 1-2 minute walk from our place. It has most things as long as you cook mainly Asian food or simple Western dishes from scratch. We also go to FairPrice occasionally which is a bit more expensive than Sheng Siong but still relatively cheap. Don’t get me started on Cold Storage. While it is pretty and clean and sanitized, everything is twice the price!
We also like to shop at the wet markets. Wet markets are the cheapest places to shop by far and they have a large range of super fresh produce. We usually go to Tekka Market in Little India but sometimes visit Bendemeer as it is closer to home. The chicken in Tekka is one of the best and cheapest. There is also a stall in Tekka selling all sorts of exotic things like habanero and jalapeño chillies! If you’re looking to make bulky purchases, some of my friends order online at Redmart for delivery.
We also go to Mustafa Centre which has a great food section. 16 types of aubergines! Aisles of spices! Loads of chocolate in Mustafa! They sell pretty much everything in every variation, except pork and alcohol.
I have important tips on food storage! You will need to buy loads and loads of Tupperware and sealed plastic boxes to store things in. Pretty much everything needs to go in there. We even lost pasta! Mites and moths get into everything! Icky horrid little black things ruin your spices and your rice and so on. You have to seal everything.
I also love the Ziploc bags from Ikea for storing open packs of rice and so forth, but that’s for the dried goods that don’t go off. Expect fresh goods to go off quickly, so you really have to store pretty much everything in the fridge. I store chocolate in there too as otherwise, it melts rather quickly.
For eating out, you will find pretty much anything here in Singapore. From super cheap (hawker centres) to the über expensive fine dining restaurants and everything in between. Places pop-up non-stop, and there are always new places to try. For foodies, Singapore is heaven! Here is a link to all my posts about food in Singapore.
We often meet up with friends at hawkers as it is the cheapest place to have a beer. Everyone gets up, wanders around, brings back their loot and we share. That way you get to mix and match and have things like satay and noodles and sambal stingray and greens and all sorts! It’s super cheap, and however hard you try, you won’t spend much. We did a huge seafood dinner (and seafood is always the most expensive) at the East Coast Lagoon Centre and left having spent no more than $30 each, with leftovers to spare!
Alternatively, you could go to an atas place and spend that on one drink. Atas is Singlish for fancy but more in the sense of a place to be seen / snotty.
Drinking alcohol is expensive in Singapore. Very expensive. Try to buy spirits in duty-free – saw the same bottle for $22 at duty-free and $72 in Cold Storage. You can get two bottles per passport each time as long as you left for more than 48h and weren’t in Malaysia.
You can also bring in up to 2 litres of wine and 1 litre of beer from overseas duty-free. Above that, you will have to pay around $7 per bottle, depending on alcohol percentage and cost of it. We imported 6 bottles of wine when we came back from a holiday in Italy and paid $27 in tax, which is a real bargain since that would barely get you a decent bottle here. While we’ve tested all the cheap wines in the supermarket and have $16 and $18 go-to options, that took a lot of trial and error and dedication on our part! So I definitely recommend buying wine abroad and bringing it in legally by paying the duty. I believe that the limit is 10 litres per person.
When drinking out, find out the best happy hour places and deals around town like the OverEasy one with UOB cards. Or head over to a hawker centre where a big beer shouldn’t cost you more than $6 and you can eat cheaply too.
Another fun thing to do is to go to a champagne brunch where you get around 3 hours to attack a buffet and drink as much champagne as you can! It will set you back about $150 though, so it’s more for a special occasion.
We often spend most meals at hawker places. Lunchtime is usually spent at the hawker near our office, while we often visit hawkers such as Whampoa in the evening or Newton for late nights, as it is open 24h. Download the ‘I Eat I Shoot I Post hawker’ app to search for the best places for the many specialities of Singapore such as roti prata, Hokkien mee, fish head curry, satay, sambal stingray and so many other options. Your wallet will thank you – and no service charge!
‘++’ on a menu refers to GST and service charge. It is 7% + 10% respectively so you can expect another 17% on top of everything. Tipping is not expected whether or not there is a service charge, but it is nice to round up/ say to keep the change. However, some places really don’t want to be tipped – we once had a woman chase us down to give the change back!
Learn some Singlish! It makes life more fun and to be honest, easier. It helps with understanding people you interact with and usually elicits a smile. I tend to entertain my Singaporean customers with Singlish words as well as my colleagues. I’ve learnt words such as makan, can / cannot, lah, kaypoh , koyak, talk cock sing song, kiasu, and recently had someone exclaim ‘Alamak!’ in front of me – it was a taxi driver when he saw an accident on the ECP. Singlish is great, expressive and concise and just makes living here more fun.
Oh yes, ECP. You will need to learn the acronyms. For the roads, for the government bodies etc
Take advantage of public holidays and long weekends to travel! Singapore is very well located to explore the surrounding islands and countries. Many airlines fly here and they often have promotions. I have bookings on Jetstar, Air Asia and Tiger for the next few months to explore Phuket, Bali and Phnom Penh. Excited!
Building Expat Communities
Reach out to people, especially other migrants as they will have been through it too. You can try joining social media groups as they will be welcoming. I met all my friends outside work on Twitter or via the blog. It works!
Engage with Singaporeans too. It will make your life richer and help you understand what is happening. I find that food is always a good ice breaker. Simply ask where are the best places to try certain dishes, or ask people for lunch and so forth.
You can also ask about unusual customs and celebrations – the explanations are often fascinating. The country was designed with specific areas for Chinese, Malay and Indian heritage, and although everyone lives across the island, people are drawn into these places to celebrate festivals, eat the best ethnic food, and so forth. You go to Little India for Diwali, to Chinatown for mid-Autumn and Chinese New Year etc.
Most importantly, keep an open mind – part of the fun is not having a clue what is going on but you will get used to it. Really get to know some Singaporeans so they can explain the different festivals and customs to you. Eventually, you will find yourself handing out Ang Pows (red packets), eating mooncakes, and feasting after Ramadan. That one of Singapore’s biggest draws for me – how multicultural its society is.
This article was first published on Living in Sin. It is part of an ongoing project to share relocation narratives. We are collating first-hand accounts of expats’ relocation experiences in the hopes that it will provide you with valuable tips.
You can play your part in this story by sharing a page from your life with us. Reach out to us today
Other stories in this series:
- Is It Really Possible to Stay True to Your Roots When Relocating?
- An Australian Mother’s Honest Account on Kickstarting a New Life in Singapore (True Story)
- Expert Tips From a Veteran Global Nomad on Easing and Making the Most of Your Relocation