As a public health major, it’s interesting to observe the stark differences in COVID-19 situations between the United States and Singapore, not to mention to live through and actively participate in both countries’ preventative measures. To many Americans, Singapore’s methods may seem a bit over the top, but it suffices to say that I feel SIGNIFICANTLY safer here than in the US (especially after having just read a news headline about the US reaching a million cases in a day…).
Traveling during a global pandemic is quite complicated, not to mention costly. On top of the already-extensive entry formalities that Singapore requires, the traveler is expected to bear all costs of COVID testing requirements, as well as the self-isolation accommodation, which does add up. Making these preparations in the midst of the holiday season was the biggest pre-departure stressor for me. Of course, being a tiny, urban, densely-populated island, it’s important to have safety measures in place to control and minimize disease spread.
Here, I walk through my experience preparing for travel and living in Singapore during a pandemic, and break down any additional costs incurred.
- Student’s Pass – SGD $90
As a culture that strives for efficiency, one thing I noticed before even stepping foot into the country is that Singapore has an affinity for acronyms and abbreviations. As I’m about to outline in this section, there was an overwhelming amount of shortcuts to wrap your head around when understanding the requirements for entry – to the point where I had to write out a glossary to ingrain these terms in my mind. Here’s that exact glossary to guide your reading of this (rather long) post:
OGEM – NTU’s Office of Global Education and Mobility
MOH – Ministry of Health
STP – Student’s Pass
SOLAR – Student’s Pass Online Application and Registration
IPA – in-principle approval (temporary STP)
ICA – Immigration Checkpoints Authority
STPHL – Student’s Pass Holder Lane
VTL – Vaccinated Travel Lane
VTP – Vaccinated Travel Pass
SHN – Stay Home Notice (quarantine)
eHDC – electronic Health Declaration Card
QTC – Quick Test Centre
CTC – Combined Test Centre
SHC – Smart Health Card
SIA – Singapore Airlines
Step 1: Apply for Student’s Pass + pay $30 application fee
In the two months leading up to my departure, I began the application process for my Student’s Pass (student visa/identification card) through the ICA SOLAR system, which we would receive after arrival in Singapore. In order to be processed, I had to pay a $30 application fee.
Step 2: Receive Student’s Pass IPA
For the time being, I received a Student’s Pass IPA (in-principle approval) letter granting temporary entry into Singapore. Upon approval of my application, I had to pay a $60 STP issuance fee within one week (important!). The timeliness of this step is key, as failure to pay the fee on time could result in the IPA being revoked.
Step 3 (post-arrival): Collect Student’s Pass at ICA
Within the stipulated dates of the IPA letter, we’re required to make an appointment to physically report to the Immigration Checkpoints Authority (ICA) building to collect the Student’s Pass. At the end of exchange, we’re required to leave the country before the pass’s expiry and surrender it at immigration, as overstaying would be considered an immigration offense.
Pandemic Pre-Departure Preparations
- VTL flight (round-trip) – USD $1600
- Self-isolation hotel (2 nights, 3-star hotel) – SGD $270
- Pre-departure COVID rapid test – USD $150
Singapore significantly limited foreigner entry during the pandemic. There were two “lanes” for initial entry into the country available to us students. Generally, the lane for an exchange student would be the Student’s Pass Holder Lane (STPHL). On the STPHL, a traveler would have to serve a 7-day or longer Stay Home Notice (SHN/quarantine) in a government-approved accommodation depending on Singapore’s classification of the departure country. Again, travelers were responsible for covering the cost of their SHN, so this option could be quite expensive.
Step 1: Choose a travel lane – STPHL or VTL
Step 2: Book VTL flight
Step 3: Book hotel for at least 2 days
- Confirm hotel accommodates VTL travelers
Travelers from select countries, including the United States, could bypass this quarantine by taking the Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL), a collection of specific flights for fully-vaccinated travelers. The VTL only required self-isolation at a home address or a hotel until receipt of a negative on-arrival COVID test result, around 1-2 days – a better option for your bank account. In the United States, VTL flights only ran from two cities: New York and Los Angeles. Fortunately, I booked my VTL flight a week before Singapore decided to freeze VTL flight sales due to the omicron variant. And I was also very lucky to have booked a fairly affordable hotel for my arrival, as options were becoming increasingly limited with the New Year’s holiday approaching.
Step 4: Apply for Vaccinated Travel Pass
- Obtain valid overseas digital vaccination certificate
- Upload vaccination certificate to NTU vaccination declaration
After booking the VTL flight, I then had to apply for a Vaccinated Travel Pass (VTP) through the Singapore Ministry of Health (MOH) that would officially verify my vaccination status. To get this pass, I had to upload a valid certificate of vaccination – the physical CDC vaccination cards wouldn’t suffice. Instead, MOH wanted a scannable certificate (QR Code) that would link directly to the state health department’s immunization database, also known as a SMART Health Card (SHC). I laughed and shook my head upon reading this requirement. I was fully convinced that Singapore had no idea how inconsistent, how poorly in shape the US was in terms of handling vaccinations and standardizing records across states; that Singapore was overestimating the US. This was the first time I had ever heard of a SMART Health Card, and after consulting Google, I found out that only a few states had this option rolled out. As a New Jersey resident, I was lucky to live in one of the few states that had a mobile app linking to the SHC, called Docket. After some continued difficulties syncing my vaccination record to Docket, calling the state immunization system for app troubleshooting, and even going to my county’s health department for a signed physical copy of my immunization records as a backup, I finally received my VTP on December 22, 8 days before departure – a perfect birthday gift. As part of booking my self-isolation accommodation, I had to individually confirm with hotels that they would accommodate VTL travelers and provide them a copy of my VTP to verify my status as a VTL traveler.
Step 5: Submit eHealth Declaration Card
At least 72 hours before arrival in Singapore, I had to submit an electronic Health Declaration Card (eHDC) declaring my health status and travel history.
Step 6: Pre-departure COVID test (at most 48 hours before flight)
Lastly, all travelers were required to show a negative pre-departure COVID PCR test result from an “accredited lab” no more than 2 days/48 hours before departure of the first leg. And because my flight was at night, my test would really have to be the day before departure. At this step, I really toiled trying to find a testing option that 1. was recognized by MOH, 2. performed testing for travel, 3. had a quick turnaround time so I had my results by the time of my flight, and 4. would provide an official test certificate containing all of the specifics requested by MOH. Eventually, I settled for an urgent care in University City. Because the test was for non-essential travel purposes and not covered by insurance, I did have to pay $150 USD out-of-pocket for rapid results, but this urgent care ticked all the boxes and did everything I wanted them to do. I did my test around 8:30am and received results in electronic and printed formats within an hour. To absolutely seal my chances of being negative, I had celebrated the holidays at home and sent virtual farewells to family and friends, skipping out on the annual family Christmas party and even my 21st birthday. And rightfully so – because I ended up being negative and clear to board my flight the following day.
Pre-departure was a series of firsts – my first time booking a flight, first time booking a hotel, among others, so I did feel alone in this process overall. However, NTU OGEM provided incoming students plenty of information and support through their pre-departure orientations and briefing sessions, and were quite responsive to students’ questions. Though the staff who checked my documents seemed to scan over them quickly without any double-takes (to my surprise), with Singapore’s infamous reputation for being strict, I was incredibly paranoid that I might miss a document or important information. Thus, I left no stone unturned to ensure that I had everything organized and ready to go.
- On-arrival PCR test – SGD $120
- Taxi to self-isolation accommodation – SGD $30
- Home ART kits (4 days) – SGD $30
- Grab transportation to QTC (Days 3 and 7) – SGD $30
- Serology test (non-VTL) – SGD $50-80
Upon arrival, travelers were required to book and take an on-arrival PCR test before leaving Changi (SGD $120) – the test that would determine if I would be a free person or not. Afterwards, we had to go directly to our self-isolation accomodation via taxi or private-hire vehicle (no public transportation allowed). I was swabbed around 6pm after passing the immigration checkpoint and an email arrived promptly before midnight, enclosed with the good news I had been desperately hoping for: negative! I was free from self-isolation from that point on.
Also required for VTL travelers (until January 2022) was a series of daily COVID-19 ARTs for the first 7 days in Singapore. For Days 3 and 7 post-arrival, we were required to book supervised ARTs at a QTC (Quick Test Centre) or CTC (Combined Test Centre). After spending my first two nights in the hotel, I checked out and took a Grab to my supervised test site – a former junior college in the Jurong West neighborhood, right near NTU. Rinse, repeat for Day 7. Results for each supervised test were again sent by email, usually a few hours after the test.
The other days consisted of at-home tests using self-procured test kits (SGD $30) specifically authorized for use in Singapore, with self-reporting of results via an online government portal. Because I was required to go straight to my isolation accommodation from the airport, I had to use a delivery app like Grab to order the ART kits from a pharmacy like Watsons. Email reminders were sent out each day – and if you failed to submit your results, you could be prosecuted for offenses under Singapore law.
Because of the post-arrival testing requirements, I spent my first week in Singapore carefully minimizing my contact with people, mostly limiting myself to campus (which was fine since I was one of the first exchange students to arrive).
Staying Safe in Singapore: Safe Management Measures
Upon arrival, I had to download and activate Singapore’s contact tracing app called TraceTogether, developed by MOH. TraceTogether holds your vaccination status which determines your eligibility for vaccination-differentiated activities, like dining out at restaurants and shopping at malls. Only “fully vaccinated” individuals are allowed to participate in these activities.
“Fully Vaccinated”: Initially applying to those who completed the full dosage of COVID vaccines, “fully vaccinated” changed to also include the first booster sometime in January/February. Everyone had to upload proof of their booster shot by a deadline after which their status would become invalid (I got my first booster in December before I left for Singapore). My fully vaccinated status was valid until June 30, 2022 (much past my stay), but those whose statuses would expire during their stay in Singapore would have to get a serology test (SGD $50-80) to maintain their status.
All public establishments like malls and restaurants had QR codes posted at their entrances for individuals to scan and “check in” using TraceTogether, known as SafeEntry. The app also retains a 25-day history of all of your previously checked in locations, and uses Bluetooth signal exchanges among mobile devices to track possible exposures based on where people have checked in. Thus, having cellular data/wifi is absolutely essential when going out in Singapore; people who didn’t have smartphones (mostly the elderly) had TraceTogether Tokens that they could use to check in.
A few days before I left Singapore (end of April), some life-changing news was released: TraceTogether is no longer required in most places. This is likely part of Singapore’s plans to treat COVID-19 as endemic (i.e. living with the disease). In my last few days in Singapore, I saw the demise of TraceTogether as I would pull out my phone at entrances like muscle memory… and not have to scan in. Though the app is almost obsolete now, it remains downloaded on my phone to this day, purely ~for the memories~.
A few months before the exchange, social gatherings in public were limited to only 2 people; I remember many exchange students being concerned about this, even reconsidering their decision to study abroad because of it. Fortunately, this number increased to 5 by the time we arrived in Singapore, and remained at 5 for most of the program duration. This did put a damper on our social activities as our large friend group often had to split into smaller groups when doing activities together. At restaurants, we were always seated at separate tables, and servers were quick to shut down any unconscious intermingling between our tables. However, I only saw this as a minor inconvenience, and if anything, I feel like this restriction allowed me to manage socialization a bit better, get closer to people individually, and eventually helped me integrate into the larger group. In April, this limit was increased to 10 people, making our last full month in Singapore together one filled with celebrations and camaraderie.
Masks were required at all times (except during exercise/strenuous activities)… even when outside, even at restaurants when not eating or drinking. Masks were also required to be worn properly – over the mouth and nose. With this in mind, I arrived in Singapore with a preliminary stash, including a K95 and a few surgical masks provided by SIA in their complimentary passenger care package. I know some people in America would riot or scoff at this rule, but as one who actually prefers and enjoys wearing masks, I didn’t mind – except for having to wear them in the already hot, humid weather. Sometime in April, the restriction for outdoor mask wearing had lifted, but many Singaporeans continued to wear their masks outside anyway (likely out of habit).
Admittedly, my skin wasn’t too happy by the end of exchange, but again, this was all in the name of safety and upholding public health.
As an American, do I think these regulations would be feasible in the US? Culturally, no, and I don’t think they would fly if they were to even be suggested, much less implemented; instead, they’d likely be met with opposition and backlash. This is one of the many ways in which culture and public health are inextricably linked. As a public health student, however, I do think that Singapore’s approach to the pandemic is more effective. Combating public health crises is a group effort and I believe Singapore understands this quite well, with public health messaging often containing phrases along the lines of “do your part,” “for the good of Singapore…” Generally, I think that the societal values typically held and promoted by Asian governments – collectivism, community – are already somewhat conducive to public health efforts, whereas America’s emphasis on individualism and personal freedom may arguably complicate them (reflected in our handling of the pandemic), but I digress…
In Singapore, there is a culture of respect for the law; very rarely did I see anyone wearing their mask improperly or openly refusing to get vaccinated, because individuals in noncompliance with the regulations I described could be subject to prosecution, astronomical fines and even imprisonment under the Infectious Disease Act. With its unique, specific laws coupled with punishments many would consider harsh, Singapore is often synonymous with “strict.” This is why I was extra diligent in reading the fine print, the substantial walls of text on the ICA and MOH websites that I must’ve reread a thousand times. This is why I was so worried coming into Singapore. But in hindsight, it all just boils down to following directions, really, a basic skill you learn as a child. “Strict” on the surface, but ultimately a means of maintaining peace and order. And with Singapore’s status as one of the safest countries in the world, there’s no doubting its effectiveness.
Ultimately, while seemingly daunting, please don’t let all of the requirements I listed deter you from considering Singapore! While the pandemic was indeed a hindrance to studying abroad and added extra costs and stress, as I finish up this post in June, I must say that all of these efforts to get to the Little Red Dot were worth it, and I’m glad (and proud) that I persevered through it.
Note: Many of the requirements and restrictions outlined in this post have been loosened or are no longer in effect as of June 2022.
A Message from the Office of Global Engagement:
The safety and security of Drexel students is a priority for the University. As part of the efforts to support Drexel students that are studying abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Office of Global Engagement has conducted a rigorous review of programming and provided additional support to participating students with customized pre-departure orientations and regular check-ins during the required self-isolation period and the term.