By Richard Hartung

From online banking to digital remittances to payment apps from startups, financial services are going digital and changing dramatically. And it’s hardly any wonder, given that Singaporeans have an average of 115 apps installed on their phones, the highest any country surveyed in 2019 by market data firm App Annie. Along with making banking more convenient, new digital services are bringing down costs as well. Whether you’re a newcomer to Singapore or a long-time resident, banking digitally is easier than ever.

Setting up an Account

While almost all financial services have gone digital, opening an account is still often stuck in the era of paper. Unless you’re a Singapore citizen or permanent resident, you’ll usually need to go to a branch with a slew of documents to open an account. At OCBC Bank, for example, foreigners need to go to a branch with their passport, employment pass, a phone bill or bank statement and a minimum deposit of S$5,000. HSBC requires new customers to leave contact details so a manager get in touch within three working days.

An exception is DBS and POSB, which allow online applications by filling in forms electronically and uploading passport copies and other documents. POSB accounts are free, with no minimum average daily balance required when accounts are opened online.

Banking Digitally

Once your account is set up, it’s easy to transact digitally with a mobile phone, a laptop or a card. All of the retail banks have online and mobile banking, making it easy to check accounts, transfer money or use most other banking services digitally.

You can use Fast and Secure Transfers (FAST) to transfer money from one bank account to another instantly using the recipient’s bank account number, for example, or use PayNow to make transfers using the recipient’s mobile phone number or identity card number. You can also download an app from your bank to make digital QR code payments.

Banks offer a multitude of other digital services as well. If you want investment information, for instance, OCBC’s One Wealth app provides information on shares and unit trusts while DBS Bank’s Nav offers articles and podcasts to improve your financial health.

More Than Banks

In Singapore as elsewhere, a host of fintech (financial technology) startups offer services that are often cheaper, faster and more convenient than banks.

One of the best places to start if you’re looking for alternatives is comparison websites, which help find the best deals on everything from insurance and loans to credit cards and investments. SingSaver, for example, shows features and rates for credit cards, loans, insurance and bank accounts as well as money-saving ideas and financial advice. Another is GoBear which, similarly, enables consumers to compare services ranging from accounts and money transfers to insurance. You should compare information on several of these sites carefully, though, since they receive fees from service providers and could have some biases.

If you need to send money overseas, there are plenty of good alternatives that are cheaper than banks. Local fintech, Instarem, for instance, says it uses mid-market rates sourced directly from Reuters and adds no margin, just charging a fee that can be S$2.50 or less. Global fintech Transferwise offers a similar service and also updates customers with emails at each stage of the transfer. Total costs can be vastly cheaper than banks.

If you want to get more than the paltry 0.1 percent or less interest that banks pay on your savings account, other types of accounts are available at most banks and earn up to about 3.8 per cent per year, if you use enough of the bank’s services. An alternative is robo-advisors, which leverage algorithms that use information you provide about your goals, willingness to take risks and time horizons to select exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that can achieve your goals. Smartly, Stashaway, AutoWealth and are among the leading digital financial advisors here, with fees ranging from 0.2 percent to 1 percent and minimum investments as low as S$50.

If you need actual foreign currency, moneychangers offer some of the best rates. Or, you can go digital. The Get4X app compares foreign exchange rates at nearby shops and lets you know where you’ll get the best deal. If you’re not in a hurry, online currency service, Thin Margin, promises better rates than 95 percent of the moneychangers on the island and will deliver cash to you within about two days.

There are also more than three dozen non-bank options for mobile payments, ranging from Grab Pay and Apple Pay to Kashmi and Fave. By spending a little time checking out the island’s digital financial services, you can save time and money while making banking hassle-free.