Your guide to expat life in Singapore

Living in Singapore

Singapore’s well-developed infrastructure and modern amenities offer expats an exceptional lifestyle. This comes at a price though, as it’s one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Despite the relatively high cost of living, many expats say they have more disposable income than they did back home. The only real downside is the government's control of local media, but you can keep up to date with world news online – and foreign newspapers and magazines are sold across the city.

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The housing market in Singapore is divided into public and private sectors. Most locals and Asian expats choose public accommodation, managed by the Housing Development Board or HDB.

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Public housing

Public housing isn’t associated with lower income groups and even includes luxury options. Most complexes are in self-contained neighbourhoods with easy access to public transport, shopping centres and other amenities.

Private housing

High-earning Westerners often choose to rent a private apartment, condominium or bungalow. Rents in the suburbs are considerably cheaper than in the city centre. Because most landlords understand the transient nature of expat life in Singapore, they prefer the guaranteed rental income of a corporate lease.


You can find both furnished and unfurnished accommodation in Singapore, so consider whether it’s necessary to ship all your belongings from home.


Most expats live in apartments or condos, all of which have basic facilities. Some buildings also have amenities such as a pool, gym, BBQ pit, tennis court and 24-hour security.

Black and white houses

In a city filled with small apartments, these big old colonial houses, with their high ceilings, verandas and gardens are highly sought after by expats. Only around 500 houses remain in leafy enclaves such as Dempsey Road, Rochester Park, Portsdown Road and Adam Park.

Culture changes

Singapore’s multiculturalism makes it easy for expats to adjust. The three largest ethnic groups are Chinese, Malay and Indian; this diversity makes for a colourful collection of traditions, holidays and customs.

Although culture shock is minimal, some things may take you by surprise.

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English is the language of business, but Malay and Mandarin are also widely spoken.


Flip-flops and shorts are the unofficial uniform of Singaporeans. With an average temperature of 27°C (81°F), light cotton shirts, shorts and summer dresses are sensible choices.


Singapore’s reputation as one of Asia’s culinary hotspots means food lovers are spoilt for choice. Hawker centres are very popular. These outdoor food courts sell local speciality dishes that are cheap, quick and tasty. Keep an eye out for traditional chilli crab and fish head curry, both local favourites. There are also plenty of fast-food chains and restaurants serving Western cuisines.


Kiasu is Hokkien for ‘fear of losing’ and is used to describe anxious, selfish behaviour caused by a fear of missing out. Kiasuism manifests in many ways, such as waiting in long queues for a prize or giveaway, or grabbing excess food from a buffet. Kiasuism is also used to describe ambitious and successful people. This attitude can seem aggressive and opportunistic, but Singaporeans consider it necessary to succeed in a competitive society.


Singapore has an excellent education system, known for its discipline and results.

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Public schools

Cheaper than international schools, public schools are a good option if you plan to live in Singapore long-term. The nuances of the local curriculum and teaching styles may be problematic. Top schools are rumoured to dismiss underperforming students and corporal punishment is legal.

International schools

Singapore has a number of excellent international schools that follow the American, British or Australian curriculum, or offer the International Baccalaureate. Fees are high, so try to negotiate an education allowance as part of your employment contract.

Interact more with local people, spend time exploring the green spaces such as the nature reserves and parks, and take night walks around the neighbourhood to enjoy it’s peacefulness. In Singapore, you can appreciate security, simple pleasantness and warmth.

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Keeping in touch


Mobile phones are easy to get and coverage is reliable. Most contracts include a free phone, but if you don’t want to commit to a plan, go for a prepaid SIM card. SingTel, StarHub and M1 are the main providers of mobile, landline and internet services.


Calls between landlines are cheap and mostly use broadband lines. To apply for a landline, you'll need your passport, proof of address and a deposit.


The internet in Singapore is very fast, although fibre optic broadband isn’t available everywhere. You can use WiFi throughout the city-state, and internet cafés are easy to find.

English media

You can tune into English radio and TV stations in Singapore. You can also buy English-language books, newspapers and magazines in all big bookshops.


The Media Development Authority (MDA) regulates and approves all national media. Foreign content is also regulated.


Consistently ranked among the best in the world, both public and private hospitals provide efficient and professional services. Expats often choose private hospitals for primary care and public hospitals for emergency services.

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Public healthcare

Public hospitals mainly cater for locals and permanent residents who are entitled to subsidised care. Expats with work passes don’t qualify for these subsidies and are charged similar rates to those they’d pay at private hospitals.

Private healthcare

Most expats prefer private healthcare as the costs are only slightly higher and the service is assumed to be better.

Medical insurance

You don’t need medical insurance to use private health facilities, and general healthcare costs are surprisingly affordable. That said, you may decide to take out some form of cover in case of a complicated illness or an emergency.

Health risks

Your two biggest health concerns are sunburn and dehydration. The wall of heat and humidity that greets new arrivals is hard to anticipate. Stay hydrated and use sunscreen.

Getting around

Public transport in Singapore is reliable and extensive. The bus and Mass Rapid Transit lines can take you nearly everywhere and cabs are abundant and cheap.

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Mass Rapid Transit (MRT)

The MRT has a number of lines and is constantly expanding. Trains are clean and air-conditioned, and usually run from around 5.30am to midnight. Consider buying a rechargeable EZ-Link card for reduced fares if you plan to live in the city long-term.


There are more than 300 bus routes across Singapore. Most operate from 5.30am to midnight, while some only run at night. Bus routes go further into residential areas than the MRT lines, and people use them to connect to the nearest train station. Bus stops display route information, and most are named after the building or landmark they’re closest to.


Taxis are comfortable and convenient. Most cabs have a light on their roof – red indicates they’re occupied; green means they’re available.


Cycling is growing in popularity and drivers are gradually getting used to sharing the road. There are few bike lanes. Cyclists usually ride in the road unless signs indicate otherwise. Not all drivers are considerate, and accidents do happen.


Singapore is very pedestrian friendly, with paved sidewalks on most streets. Even the busiest roads are easy to cross using overhead bridges and underpasses.

All Expat Explorer survey data and all tips (in quotation marks) are provided by HSBC.

All other content is provided by, Globe Media Ltd and was last updated in October 2020. HSBC accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of this information.

This information does not constitute advice and no liability is accepted to recipients acting independently on its contents. The views expressed are subject to change.

Healthcare - Bloomberg source: "Singapore Beats Hong Kong in Health Efficiency: Southeast Asia"

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