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What to Know Before Moving to Singapore

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Laura Scott
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Singapore is a tiny island city-state in Southeast Asia. Compared with other cities in the region, the vibe is pretty chilled. If you’re imagining lively streets filled with motorbikes and street food sellers, think again!

If you're looking for a more chaotic city to call home, check out this lifestyle guide to living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Other amazing Asian cities popular with expats are Taipei, Taiwan and Bangkok, Thailand.

Singapore is clean, modern, and safe. Plus, the cultural diversity here is incredible.

With this in-depth Singapore guide, you'll be ready to decide if being a Singapore expat and living in this unique city state is right for you!

Basic Singapore Information

Language

There are four official languages spoken in Singapore- English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. Malay is the national language, but English is the most widely spoken.

That means, regardless of where you're from as an expat, if you speak English, integrating into Singaporean culture will be easier for you since you already have a common language with the locals.

Food

Regardless of background, everyone is united by a love of food. The food here is a mix of Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, Indonesian influence. It's truly unique and delicious!

There is an epic food scene here, from hawker centers (think food courts for street food) to high end international restaurants. 

The hawkers boast some of the best and cheapest food in Singapore so don't get deterred by the "food court" ambiance. One of the hawkers was even recognized as the cheapest meal with a Michelin star but unfortunately, last year, lost it's star. Trust me though, it's still great food for far cheaper than you'll find in restaurants throughout the city.

Climate

Singapore is only 111km from the equator which means it’s hot and humid all year round.

The sun rises and sets at the same time every day, which was a big change for me coming from London. No more long summer days and short winter ones, it's always the same day in and day out in Singapore.

Long time residents tell me that lack of seasons can mess with your sense of time but I’ve been here 18 months and so far, I haven’t felt that. 

Cost of Living in Singapore

This little country has big a reputation for being expensive, but I don’t think that’s entirely fair.

I have found that some things are very expensive like health insurance, phone plans, dental work and regional flights. But some stuff is amazingly cheap, like public transport, taxis and local food. Like I said, stick to the hawkers and you'll eat well and save your budget.

Let's put it this way, if you head to Marina Bay Sands every Friday night for a few cocktails and then a nice dinner afterwards, your life in Singapore will be ridiculously costly. On the other hand, if you enjoy local food and stick to local bars for afterwork drinks, it still might not be as cheaper as other South East Asian countries but it won't be nearly as costly as you might have expected.

The area you live in will also have a big impact on your day to day cost of living as prices can vary a lot across the island. Below I'll dive into different neighborhoods in Singapore and help you figure out your best bet based on your cost of living but also daily life preferences.

a view of the skyline in Singapore
A peak at Singapore's skyline

Best Neighborhoods in Singapore

Singapore can be broken down into four major areas - Central, East, West and North. Most expats I know tend to live in Central or on the East Coast.

International Schools often have a big impact on people’s decision, if they're moving here with their family; if that’s a priority for you then I recommend seeking out a dedicated schools/neighborhood guide.

Property Guru is the biggest property website so it’s a good place to start to get a feel for what’s available. If you’re looking for a house share then I recommend checking out the expat Facebook pages. If your budget is on the slightly higher side and you’re looking for something unique then We Love Walkups and Isabel Redrup are the best places to look.

Keep in mind when deciding where to live that it’s so easy to get around Singapore. The train system is called the “MRT." It’s brilliant, cheap, frequent, and reliable. The buses are great too. We also have two ride hailing apps here: Grab and Go Jek. While walking is always my preference, it's nice knowing I can get anywhere in the city relatively easy given the great public transportation options.

Central Singapore Neighborhoods

  • CBD - non-existent commute, quiet at weekends, generally pretty expensive
  • Bukit Timah - fancy, lots of green space, very expensive
  • River Valley - expat central, condo life, convenient
  • Tiong Bahru - old art deco buildings, hipster scene
  • Little India/Farrer Park - high energy, emerging hipster scene, more affordable
  • Novena - condo life, relatively new area, more affordable

the colorful houses of Joo Chiat, Singapore
A glimpse at China Town, not a popular place to live but a popular place for tourists

East Singapore Neighborhoods

  • Joo Chiat/Katong - beautiful old buildings, bit of a hipster scene, too far from the CBD for some, more affordable
  • Geylang - red light district, arguably the most interesting area, more affordable

Coming from a relatively cold place meant I was seeking a summer lifestyle and I knew I wanted to live in an old building instead of condo, so living in Joo Chiat was an easy decision for me! I love the laid back village feel and the 12 minute taxi to the airport is amazing if you’re a frequent traveller. 

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Fun Things to Do in Singapore

You might have heard that Singapore as described as “boring”. That’s a misconception. There is a lot to do here, but sometimes you need to work a little harder to find it. Social life here revolves around food so if you're a foodie, then you've come to the right place!

The bars and restaurants of Tanjong Pagar are great for a more international experience. My favorite spot for local food is Old Airport Road Hawker Center in East Sinagpore or Maxwell Road Hawker Center in Central. Must try dishes are wanton mee and chicken rice. 

For a chilled out day, I love taking a bumboat to Pulau Ubin for a day of walking and exploring. Lazarus Island is also just a short ferry ride away and it has a beautiful beach. 

If you're looking for more ideas, check out my top things to do in Singapore.

expat living abroad in singapore exploring the gardens
Did you know Singapore is called, "The City Within the Garden?"

Visa Options for Foreigners

80% of countries do not require a tourist visa to visit Singapore and you can stay 30 or 90 days depending on your nationality. You can’t rent accommodation on a tourist visa though so keep that in mind if you're a digital nomad planning to work and travel while on a tourist visa. You'll need to stick with hotels or renting a house through a site like Airbnb.

All foreigners must work permits to work her and you need to have a job before you can apply for a work visa. There are lots of different visa options depending on your skills and personal situation. You can check your eligibility for an Employment Pass or S-Pass using the handy online tool.

This blog post has lots of useful information about how to find a job in Singapore. 

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A Long List of Laws

The rumors are true, Singapore is a very strict country.

You can’t buy chewing gum, there is zero tolerance for drugs and caning is still a thing. Singapore’s media environment is highlight controlled. As a European I often feel at odds with these restrictions. The upside of the system is personal safety.

You can leave your stuff on a café table while you go to the loo, you can keep your phone in your back pocket while walking around busy streets, and women can walk anywhere late a night without fear.

I have never felt “unsafe” while I was living in London but I was vigilant, especially when I was by myself late at night.

The past 18 months in Singapore has changed my definition of what “safe” and “unsafe” feels like, with Singapore showing me what the definition of these words really means.

Although I can't say I agree with all of Singapore's laws, I can say that I do thoroughly enjoy the personal safety it as awarded me.

The bright and colorful Haji Lane, Singapore
Exploring Haji Lane, a fun and bright street full of shops and cafes

Bonus Tips to Living in Singapore

Domestic and International Travel

Singapore is the perfect base for exploring Asia, which means people who live here travel a lot. Flight prices are crazy around Singapore public holidays, especially Lunar New Year, so you need to plan early.

If your job allows you to, I'd suggest not traveling during peak times and instead embracing random weekends during the year. Trust me, every tourist destination in Asia is really hectic during Lunar New Year, so from experience, I'd opt to travel other times if possible.

Humidity

Living in 80% humidity means you need to pay attention to a few extra things around the house. Lots of “cupboard” foods won’t survive unless you keep them in the fridge - my spices recently went moldy which was a first for me.

Clothes, especially winter clothes in storage, can easily become a bit musty or moldy so best to keep an eye on them. Store anything you don't wear often and any leather products in air tight bins. This will help keep the mold away and keep you from constantly needing to clean them off.

Even with these few imperfections, I love living in Singapore and would recommend you giving it a shot by moving to Singapore if given the opportunity.

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