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A Student's Guide to Living in Singapore

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

Singapore is a vibrant and cosmopolitan city at the heart of Southeast Asia. Situated between Malaysia and Indonesia, Singapore is a small island of around 720 km2 and with a population of approx. 5.2 million. Well-known as a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic country in Asia, it is characterised by an excellent education system (a literacy rate of 96%), well-established business and industrial community, a strong financial centre, a key regional trading centre and the world's busiest port. It offers the best of East and West providing a global environment, yet rooted in Asian tradition. Over the years, this small country has built up an international reputation as a hub for world-class education and research, attracting overseas students, researchers and professionals from all over the world.

Key Facts

  • One of the fastest-growing economies in the Asia-Pacific region
  • Often voted as one of the best places to live and work in Asia
  • Business hub home to over 7,000 multinational companies
  • Well established corporate and public R&D investment
  • Excellent national transport system and easy access from over 150 cities worldwide
  • Strong culture of innovation and entrepreneurship backed by large investments
  • Education system based on a bilingual policy (English with Malay/Mandarin/Tamil
  • Approx. 90,000 overseas students (around 18% of the total student population)

Visas and Immigration

All international students with an offer of admissions are required to hold a valid Student’s Pass issued by the Singapore Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA). As in many countries, a tourist visa is not sufficient to study in Singapore. The process can be done mostly online through the Student's Pass On-Line Application and Registration (SOLAR) system which both universities and students use to submit the relevant documentation. Successful applicants will be issued with an in-principle approval (IPA) letter by ICA which your university will send directly to you. For applicants who require a visa to enter Singapore, a visa will be incorporated in the IPA letter.

Part-time work is allowed under certain conditions and it is also subject to approval by the university that you are studying in. Before you look for part time employment, it may be best to enquire at the relevant university office. Local employers are allowed to offer part-time employment to overseas students from local universities. As a student, you will have to present a letter of authorisation from your institution allowing you to pursue part time employment.

Living costs/banking

Singapore has a high standard of living and can be an expensive place to live. Within Asia, Singapore is one of the 10 most expensive cities, although Tokyo, Osaka, Hong Kong, and Beijing claim the highest ranking spots. The annual living costs for students are estimated to be around S$4,700 (Singapore Department of Statistics 2009).

Rent is likely to be your biggest outgoing (which is not unusual) but there is a variety of options for students; some of them will offer better value for money (see Finding a place to live section). Food is relatively inexpensive if using University food outlets or if eating in. Restaurants can vary widely in price (from S$10 a meal  to considerably more if going to exclusive establishments). Local public transport is also cheap and a monthly transport pass will cost around S$90.

Opening a bank account is not compulsory but will be needed if you are to receive a stipend or to avoid paying unnecessary fees when paying for your day-to-day expenses. There are numerous banking institutions in Singapore and all offer different services. Opening a bank account is generally easy, although it is worth checking what the requirements of individual banks are. As a general rule, you will need your passport, proof of address and your student’s pass/visa to open an account. A minimum deposit amount (S$500-1000) may also be required.

Finding a place to live

Students in Singapore either live in halls of residence, in private hostels or in private housing.

Halls of residence

On-campus graduate housing is generally available but demand greatly exceeds supply. Halls of residence are therefore reserved for full-time postgraduates with new students on research programmes often given priority. Some universities only provide on-campus accommodation for defined periods of time (one year) and this may not cover the entire duration of your course, particularly if you are a PhD student. On-campus is offered on a self-catered basis (but university canteens and cafés are widely available). Universities generally do not offer accommodation to families and couples and recommend that students seek alternative in the private sector.

A Student's Guide to Living in Singapore

Private shared flats

Privately owned apartment or house can be rented directly from the owner. This can be an expensive option, so sharing with fellow students will help reduce the cost. You can expect to pay around S$400 per person per month

Private Hostels

Hostels can be a good option for students but they vary in quality and in facilities so be sure to check the accommodation before deciding. Pricing rage from S$140 to S$440 per student per month.

Housing Development Board (HDB) flats

It is possible to rent a room in a HDB flat or the entire flat. This is a cheaper alternative to private housing. Prices for HDB properties range from S$250 (room only) to $1,000 (whole flat) per month.

Living in a flat of your own

This is the most expensive option and can cost anything from S$1000 upwards.

Life, Culture and Leisure in Singapore

Because of its size, Singapore is sometimes nicknamed “The Little Red Dot”. Despite being one of the smallest countries in the world, Singapore is a major force on the economic stage. Singapore is essentially a city-island, well known to be cosmopolitan with a multi-cultural heritage made up of 4 ethnic groups, Chinese, Malays, Indians, Eurasians, all with a strong unified Singaporean identity. Over the years, this multi-cultural environment has been added to by expatriates living and working in Singapore, each bringing their own traditions and culture.

Singapore's excellent geographical position makes it an ideal base to visit Asia and it is easy to explore Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, China or India (all no more than a 5-6 hour flight away).

Singapore is highly urbanised due to the lack of landspace. Its skycrapers make up the famous skyline. Despite this, Singapore also boasts a thriving ecosystem of nature and wildlife, rainforests, wetlands and nature reserves are all easily accessible. A good way to discover Singapore history is through the heritage trails on the island, taking you to historical monuments and sites.

For those of you favouring city sights, the bright lights of Singapore are for you! You can choose from many of its shopping malls, museums and dining, along a thriving arts and cultural scene. The nightlife is varied with themed nightclubs, clubs (on an enormous scale!), live music bars, pubs and beach bars. Singapore is also a food-lover paradise and the hardest thing to do will be to choose which cuisine (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Peranakan ) you want to try first.

If sports are what you enjoy, there is plenty to suit all students. World-class facilities cater for all kinds of sports, even winter sports (despite a tropical climate!). The sunny and hot climate means that outdoor pursuits such as wakeboarding, windsurfing, and dragonboat racing can be done year-round (except during monsoon seasons).

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