When you’re an American expat first arriving in Singapore, store clerks can sometimes make you feel like a slow snail on a wet sidewalk. When you first approach a cash register and hand over your credit card, they often ask, “How you want to pay?” You may think, “It’s a credit card, my dude. You just run the stripe along the side of the machine.” But it’s not that easy here – it can take some time to get the hang of the entire array of options. Here are five of the most common. It’s your job to tell the cashier which button they should push on the register to initiate the transaction. Please don’t make them guess!
PayWave is the most common, contactless payment system in Singapore. It works like contactless payments in the United States: tap your credit card on the terminal to pay. However, shop clerks in Singapore sometimes throw recent arrivals for a loop because they ask for it by name at checkout.
PayWave is the brand exclusive to the Visa network of electronic funds transfers, while MasterCard has a similar, but less-catchily named, service called MasterCard Contactless. However, cashiers always seem to ask, “PayWave?” instead of “MasterCard Contactless?” probably because “PayWave” is less of a mouthful. Since MasterCard and Visa each strive to distinguish their brands in the market, the two services have different names. Still, the basic idea behind both is the same: tap your credit card on the reader, and the transaction amount gets charged to your account, whether you’re using Visa, Mastercard, American Express, or another card.
PayWave relies on Near-Field Communication, or NFC, the chips embedded in your bank card or cell phone allow you to “wave” (get it?) or tap your device onto a reader. This transfers money from your card or phone to the store using Radio Frequency Identification or RFID. With this nifty technology, the miniature computers embedded into these chips are powered by the very radio waves they use to communicate. The transfer happens in a flash, and you can take your instant noodles and skootch out the door.
PayNow is a service offered by most Singaporean banks that allows you to send and receive Singapore dollars using a mobile phone number. Think PayPal, Venmo, and Zelle all rolled into one and virtually everyone with a Singapore bank account has access to it. Shops and restaurants generate a QR code that you scan to pay. If you want to pay a person, you can also do that using that person’s mobile number.
Yet other purchases may require you to key in a UEN, or Unique Entity Number, to send payment. UENs are a by-product of Singapore’s trademark government efficiency. These numbers were initially developed to help the Ministry of Finance identify corporations in administrative records but have since come to be used in other transactions that don’t involve the government.
In Singapore, many competing digital wallet services vie for market share. Some of the most popular are PayLah, GrabPay, and EZ Link Pay by Wallet. With each of these services, you load your digital wallet of choice with Singapore funds and the wallet stores that amount until you use it up. Because Singapore has so many similar payment services, they try to distinguish themselves in the market as lifestyle apps. Each offers discounts, promotions, and cash back on purchases. Consumers who pick one service and use it exclusively can amass rewards over time that add up.
Three Kinds of NETS
The Network for Electronic Transfers, better known as NETS, is the granddaddy of electronic funds transfers in Singapore. It was founded in 1985 by a consortium of local banks. NETS currently comes in three varieties: NETS Cashcard, NETS Motoring Card, and NETS FlashPay. Like the digital wallet services mentioned above, the various NETS cards store funds.
The NETS Cashcard and Motoring Card are primarily used to pay for road and parking tolls. They differ mainly in the technology powering them. The NETS CashCard, introduced in 1995, is a physical chip-based card that you insert into a vehicle’s card reader. It automatically deducts road tolls from the user’s stored value. However, NETS intends to phase out the old CashCard and replace it with the newer Motoring Card. The NETS Motoring Card is a contactless card compliant with the CEPAS standard used in second-generation vehicle transponders. From the end user’s standpoint, the payment technology doesn’t matter much: the primary concern is whether the cards work when needed.
The NETS CashCard and the NETS Motoring Card allow you to pay for parking lot charges and congestion pricing. What is congestion pricing? Known locally as ERP (Electronic Road Pricing), it’s a means to regulate traffic flow in the Central Business District. The price for driving into the ERP area fluctuates based on traffic conditions, with times of peak traffic accruing greater tolls.
Don’t confuse the CashCard or the Motoring Card with the NETS FlashPay card. The FlashPay card is a stored-value card aimed at consumers rather than motorists. You can use it to pay for transit, including the MRT and buses, and also at retail outlets. Many small shop owners offer payment by NETS but not Visa or Mastercard because NETS charges lower fees than the multinational credit card networks.
One word of warning: legacy NETS terminals lie in wait all over Singapore to ambush unsuspecting foreigners simply trying to make their way out of parking garages. You can also top up these cards using an app on your phone.
When you write a personal check in Singapore, there is a convention that prevents an individual from cashing the check directly. When you make out the check, if you write the amount on the payment line with a slash and an equals sign following the number (for example, $500 / =), then the check must be cleared through a bank deposit. In other words, no individual can cash the check to their personal account. This is referred to as a “crossed check.”
Singapore's range of payment options can seem surprising to new expats. Like many other things in this country, the sophistication and focus on convenience can prove highly inconvenient if you don’t know what you’re doing.
When my family first moved into our house, we rented a van to transport bulky items. Since we already possessed US credit cards and an account at a local bank, it simply never occurred to us that we might need a NETS card. We visited the Paya Lebar mall to shop late on a Sunday night. We drove innocently to the exit of the parking garage as a long line of cars piled up behind us. Of course, the payment terminal only took NETS CashCards. We frantically tried every card in our possession to get the gate to open. Imagine my mortification when everyone had to reverse to let our van back up.
Once we had parked for the second time, we spent the better part of an hour searching for a place to buy a card that would let us out of the parking lot, but we could not obtain one. NETS CashCards are usually available at convenience stores, but we had the bad luck of visiting three separate ones that were out of stock. Ultimately, we had to ask the mall security to scan their card while we paid them in cash. No one was happy about the situation.
I hope this article can help new expats avoid making the same mistakes we did!