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Banking for Expats in Singapore

Submitted: April 2014

As Singapore is one the world’s leading offshore financial centres with a stable political environment, expats might wish to hold a Singapore-based offshore account over the long term as well.

Opening an account is something that expats should plan for several weeks in advance. Bank accounts may be opened by both residents and non-residents, but banks may turn out to be quite reluctant to open a current account for a non-resident.

Traditionally, the account opening process has been quite straightforward, non-residents included. US citizens or residents may have some trouble because the FATCA makes it more costly for non-US banks to accept US clients.

Accounts are available in Singapore dollar (SGD) or in foreign currency, such as the Japanese Yen, US dollar or the Euro.

Singaporean banks and non-residents

If you are looking forward to opening an account as a non-resident, you should ask the following questions:

  • Do you have a Singapore-based company who has a long-standing relationship with a Singaporean bank?
  • Can you be introduced to a Singaporean bank by an existing client?
  • Do you have an existing long-standing relationship with your bank in your home country, and does that bank operate in Singapore?
  • Are you looking forward to opening a savings account only?
  • Are you applying for private banking services (minimum wealth of no less than SGD100,000, if not more)?

If you cannot answer yes to any of the above questions, Singaporean banks will unlikely be willing to take you as a new client. Otherwise, it may be worth enquiring. Be aware, however, that there is no guarantee your application will not be rejected.

Opening an account

Accounts may be opened in person at a bank branch, on the internet, through the post, or over the phone. It’s generally best to do it in person.

As far as paperwork is concerned, you need at least:

  • Passport and, if applicable, visa
  • Proof of address

Other documents may be required, especially if you are applying for a non-resident account, but this varies from one bank to another. For expats, this would likely be a bank reference letter, or even an employer reference letter. For non-residents, a tax identification number may be requested.

Recent experience shows that Singaporean banks are getting more and more reluctant to take new clients that easily. If you see one of your account applications rejected, you might wish to consider challenging the bank’s decision.

Products available

Bank accounts are not necessarily fee-paying, but minimum balance requirements may apply. These may range from SGD 500 to SGD5,000. It’s worth checking if your bank will charge you if you temporarily fall below the minimum.

As far as interest rates are concerned, they have always been quite low in Singapore, even before the 2008 crash. Nowadays, an SGD-denominated easy-access savings account would get you 0.10% while a 1-year term deposit would land you with a return of around 0.25%.

All SGD-denominated accounts are insured by the Singapore Deposit Insurance Corporation (SDIC) up to SGD50,000.

Where to apply?

It is strongly advisable to shop around before selecting a bank. Feel free to compare the fees, the interest rates, the customer satisfaction rates, and the account opening process.

Singapore’s banking system comprises of over 124 commercial banks, 28 of which are foreign banks licensed for retail banking. These foreign retail banks include BNP Paribas, Citibank, HSBC, and Standard Chartered.

In addition to that, there are 5 local banks in Singapore, namely Bank of Singapore, DBS Bank, Far Eastern Bank, Oversea Chinese Banking Corporation, and United Overseas Bank. Local banks tend to be cheaper while offering more services, e.g. a wider ATM network in Singapore, easier access to a share dealing account, etc.

All banks are regulated by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS). Banks are typically open from Monday to Friday, from 10am to 6pm, and from 10am to 2.30pm on Saturdays.

Day-to-day account management

Do always check if you are paying a fee for something you don’t need, for banks make a lot of money from the charges.

Once opened, your account will come along with a cheque book and an ATM card. In some instances, this may be referred to as a NETS card (Network for Electronic Transfers). These cards may often be used as a debit card, and not just for cash withdrawals from ATMs. An ATM card will also enable you to perform your day-to-day account management (e.g. deposits, bill payments) through ATMs in Singapore.

Additionally, the following services are generally available from Singaporean banks, often free of charge:

  • Online banking and statements
  • Telephone banking
  • Direct debits.

Bank statements may be sent to an overseas address, but a charge may apply.

 

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