If you’re preparing for a move to Singapore, it’s likely that you’ve already heard about the great variety of cultural, culinary and entertainment experiences the nation has to offer. Another kind of diversity you might not have heard about yet: the huge variety of ways to pay for stuff.
In daily life you will encounter a seemingly bewildering array of payment options, from familiar cash and credit card transactions to mobile payments using your smart phone. But Singapore also has its own homegrown systems, and certain public services require specific forms of payment. Even the simple act of writing a check has some unique Singaporean tics. Here’s a little help sorting it all out.
Network for Electronic Transfers (NETS)
Like many countries, most famously China, Singapore has been working toward becoming a cashless society. Since its introduction in the 1980s, the NETS system allows payments to be made directly from your account.
To collect payment, the merchant will insert your NETS-ready ATM card into a reader and ask you to punch in your PIN. NETS also has contactless options, which allow you to pay by waving your ATM card or mobile phone over a special terminal. Contactless payments require either a special card or a phone with NFC (Near-Field Communication) built in, so make sure you have the right tech. Contactless NETS can also work using QR codes and your phone camera. Note that any form of payment using your phone will require installing the appropriate app and logging in to your account.
NETS@Flashpay is also offered by NETS group, but it requires understanding a very important concept in Singapore: the “top up”.
Several forms of payment in Singapore are kinds of digital wallets. Just like your real-life wallet, if you don’t put in more cash from time to time, you can’t use it to pay. Digital wallets are no different. In Singapore, adding money to these digital wallets is called topping up. Some digital wallets are mobile apps but several important services, including public transportation, require special cards.
Some ATM cards are enabled for NETS@Flashpay, but you can also buy NETS@Flashpay cards at retailers such as 7-Eleven. These cards allow you to make contactless payments at many merchants and transportation services, including the MRT, buses, several cab companies, and even some car parks (parking lots). Cards can be topped up at ATMs and 7-Eleven, or via a mobile app. Some auto-top up systems are also available.
Pro tip: If you plan to use the ATM to top up, make sure there’s no one in line behind you the first couple of times. The navigation menus can be a bit complex, so you won’t want to feel pressured while you figure it out.
Also issued by NETS, the CashCard is essential for car-owners. CashCards are inserted into the In-Vehicle Unit (IU) mounted on the inside of all car windshields.
In order to manage road congestion, Singapore uses a system called Electronic Road Pricing (ERP). You’ll see giant, road-spanning gantries at various points around the city. If you drive under these the displayed charge will be deducted from your CashCard.
Pro tip: You’ll want to have a couple of these cards – one in the IU and another somewhere within easy reach. When your CashCard gets low the IU will start to beep; the way to make it stop is to insert a topped-up card.
In addition, many car parks have automatic payment systems that deduct payment from the IU CashCard. Those that don’t are often parking spots on the side of a road. Until recently, Singapore used a paper coupon system, but those are being phased out in favor of the Parking.sg app, so it’s handy to have this app pre-installed.
Launched in 2002, ez-link was the first contactless payment card created for public transportation. It works with the MRT and buses, plus some taxis and retailers, too. ez-link cards can even work with the ERP system. ez-link cards can be topped up at ATMs, via an app, or at 7-Eleven.
Pro tip: We keep a couple of spare ez-link cards around for when people visit. That way we can all ride the MRT and buses together.
Google Pay, Apple Pay, Samsung Pay
Up until now, I’ve been focused a lot on the ubiquitous card technologies in Singapore. But of course, payments technology is constantly changing, and Singapore works to stay up-to-date. Google Pay (formerly Android Pay), Apple Pay and Samsung Pay are widely accepted.
Other contactless and digital wallet systems
Once you dig into the payments systems in Singapore, it starts to feel like everyone has a special one of their own. The mobile phone carrier Singtel’s contactless system, Dash, allows payments at retailers and, if you get a special SIM card, you can use your phone for the MRT and buses.
Visa and MasterCard have their own technologies in the field. Visa payWave is a contactless payment system that is built into some bank cards. MasterCard’s MasterPass system can be used in a variety of ways, including for cab rides.
Pro tip: Some credit cards are restricted to prevent fraud, so call the company and tell them you’re moving to a different country and to approve purchases from there. Even if you do, things might be rocky for the first few months. It took a while for our credit card company to really, really believe that we weren’t crooks and had actually moved outside the US.
One payment system that was new to me when I arrived in Singapore was direct bank transfers – meaning you get a person’s or a merchant’s bank account number and use either your bank’s website or mobile app to send money directly from your account. This is easy enough to do once a given transfer is set up, but getting to that point can be a bit of headache. First, you need the accurate and detailed bank account information, then in order to be secure, banks require several stages of confirmation to add payees and send money. This type of payment uses a system called FAST (Fast and Secure Transfers), which you will likely see mentioned in many places and on your bank’s website.
Another common form of bank transfer is GIRO (General Interbank Recurring Order). This is a special payment relationship with a given merchant, enabling them to automatically collect payment from your account on a recurring basis, usually monthly. While convenient, it requires a certain level of trust and a bit of paperwork to set up, since you and the merchant are entering into a long-term contract.
Singapore’s banks also promote direct transfers in other ways. Recently they started a new system called PayNow. This is designed more for individuals to send cash to one another and requires that you know one another’s name, phone number and NRIC (Singapore ID) number. However, currently only one phone number and NRIC can be associated with each bank account.
Banks also offer digital wallet systems that can be used across different mobile phones. For example, DBS has PayLah, an app that can be installed across several devices – say, your kids’ phones – and everyone can use it to pay. It can then be topped up from your one bank account.
Pro tip: Once you get settled in Singapore, you’ll likely start traveling. Make sure your ATM card works outside of Singapore by contacting your bank to specifically enable ATM transactions elsewhere.
Paying by check
With all of these payment options, you might think that the plain, old-fashioned check (or cheque, as it is written in Singapore) had gone away. No, not quite. You will likely have to write one or two somewhere along the way. But even that has its own quirks. It’s highly likely that the company or person you’re paying will ask for two alterations. First, next to the line where you write the payee name, you will find the words “or Bearer”. Draw a line through that. Second, you’ll want to draw two angled lines across the upper left corner of the check. These two changes signal that you want the check to be deposited into the payee’s account only and not turned into cash or deposited elsewhere.
Relax, but keep paying attention
Overwhelmed? Yeah, me too, and I wrote the article. There are many systems and payment technology is constantly evolving, but you will soon figure out what works for you. Once you’ve gotten to that point, it can be fun to experiment with the other available options. New entrants from China, such as Alipay and WeChat Pay, are popping up in areas with lots of tourists. And of course, the competition is fierce among payments providers, so expect frequent developments and improvements.
Pro tip: Relax, enjoy your adventure, and good luck!
Bill Poorman is a writer who has lived in Singapore for four years and just figured out a good way to make sure his teenagers have some cash on hand without going to the ATM all the time.
Photos by Bill Poorman