Greetings from sunny Singapore! I am still kind of stunned that I made it here, given the precarious levels of uncertainty and disruption that are associated with international travel, and the amount of paperwork that I had to pull together to make this happen.
In late 2021, Singapore created the Vaccinated Travel Lane, or VTL, to allow non-Singaporean citizens or residents to enter the country without the previously mandated two-week quarantine. As the name suggests, one must be vaccinated to make use of this scheme. But that’s just the first step of many.
As an overview, here are all the requirements I had to fulfill in order to enter Singapore, as of late January 2022. It goes without saying that this was just a personal experience that served as a snapshot of what it was like to travel to Singapore in this moment; the rules are constantly changing, and I would strongly suggest checking the government’s VTL page on a weekly if not daily basis for the latest updates.
- Have proof of vaccination in the form of a QR code.
- Spend the last 14 days only residing or travelling in an approved country.
- Book a special VTL-designated flight.
- Book a hotel that is approved for quarantine.
- Apply for a Vaccinated Travel Pass 3-60 days prior to entry.
- Purchase Singapore-approved insurance that will cover at least S$30,000.
- Book an on-arrival PCR test at Changi airport.
- Submit the SG Arrival Card health declaration form up to 2 days before arrival.
- Take a pre-departure PCR or antigen test.
- Upon arrival in Singapore, take a PCR test and proceed directly to the hotel for quarantine while waiting for a negative result.
- Download and activate the Trace Together app.
- During one’s first seven days in Singapore, submit to daily testing and reporting: two in person at a testing centre, and the rest as self-tests first thing in the morning before leaving the hotel.
Suffice to say, the Singaporean government is not playing around. You have to really want to go to Singapore to be willing to jump through all these hoops.
Part I: Preparation
In November 2021, Switzerland, along with a few other countries, was added to the approved list of VTL countries. Then in late November 2021, the omicron variant was discovered. International chaos ensued. Singapore immediately suspended several countries that had been scheduled to join the VTL list, but it did not remove existing countries or cancel the VTL scheme altogether. After checking the VTL page daily for several weeks and not seeing any concerning changes in that aspect, I decided to take the risk and book a VTL flight from France, another VTL-approved country.
It is not enough to simply purchase a plane ticket to Singapore; one must secure a spot on a direct flight that is specially designated as a “VTL flight”, in which all passengers are vaccinated, tested negative, and pre-approved to enter Singapore.
My flight: I opted to fly out of Paris via Air France, rather than out of Zurich via Swiss, even though I live in Switzerland, not France. There were two primary reasons. The first was timing: the Air France flight arrived in the late afternoon, whereas the Swiss flight arrived in the early morning. Since international passengers are required to go straight to their hotel for quarantine while awaiting PCR test results, this would have meant trying to negotiate with my hotel for an expensive early check-in.
The second reason was cost. Air France allowed me to book basic economy for the flight to Singapore, and business class for the return flight for a reasonable price (I think the total was a little over USD$1,000). Whereas with Swiss, I would have had to book the same class for both journeys. Economy roundtrip fares between Singapore and Switzerland were fairly normal at around $500-700, but business class was over $6,000. Needless to say, I don’t have that kind of money to throw around.
A few days after I booked my flights, Singapore temporarily suspended all ticket sales for new VTL flights. However, I believe ticket sales are slated to resume soon, but at a reduced volume.
My hotel: Around this time, I also booked my hotel, as I needed to supply this information later on when applying for the Vaccinated Travel Pass. It seems that many, but not all, hotels in Singapore are approved to host VTL travellers; there is a long list of them here.
After booking my stay, I sent the hotel a brief private message via Booking, letting them know that I was coming via the VTL and would need to quarantine, just to make sure that there wouldn’t be any surprises come check-in day. They replied promptly, confirming that I was welcome to quarantine there.
Vaccinated Travel Pass: Then, as soon as my travel dates became eligible, I applied for the Vaccinated Travel Pass, the most important document of all. I had always assumed that this pass was screened and processed manually, since the government had to put a cap on applications in the period leading up to Christmas due to the large volume of submissions. However, when I completed the form online (it took maybe 10-15 minutes), my request was approved automatically, and I received the requisite documents via email right away.
Insurance: Another requirement for entry for non-Singaporean citizens/residents is proof of insurance in Singapore. The government helpfully presented three options here, and I compared quotes from all three. All of them will satisfy the government’s minimum requirement of $30,000 of coverage, but it’s definitely a ‘you get what you pay for’ situation.
AIG was the cheapest plan and could have covered me for around USD $10-12, but being deeply risk-averse, I opted to go with Chubb’s more expensive plan. There were two big things I was worried about: 1) testing positive immediately before the trip and losing non-refundable payments; and 2) testing positive while in Singapore or being exposed to someone positive, both of which would have resulted in extended quarantines and financial losses. I chose to purchase add-on coverage from Chubb to address these types of situations.
Additionally, I have premium travel insurance through my employer, which is also supposed to cover events like hospital stays, medical evacuations, and trip modifications. Lastly, even though I was on annual leave and not working, I brought my work laptop with me out of an abundance of caution, which seems to be pretty common practice these days.
PCR test: Although I had to present a negative pre-departure test, I also had to pre-book and pay for an on-arrival PCR test at Changi Airport. I did not have to book a specific time slot, but rather book for a specific day. The cost was S$125, or around USD$93.
SG Arrival Card: Finally, I had to complete the SG Arrival Card health declaration. This is another electronic form that asks you about your recent travel history, vaccination status, contact with any COVID-positive people, etc. You can’t fill it out until two days prior to your departure, and you have to print and bring the confirmation email.
Part II: Travel
Pre-departure test: For entry, Singapore will accept both PCR and rapid antigen tests taken within two days before departure (so for instance, a test taken on the 1st is still valid if departing on the 3rd).
Considering how every other person these days seems to have omicron, I had to be very, very careful. The last time I had a face-to-face, maskless meal with a friend was more than two weeks before departure. I stopped going into the office unless it was absolutely essential. I stopped hosting social gatherings and regretfully postponed plans to hang out with friends. In Switzerland, we are still required by law to wear masks inside all public transportation and buildings, be it shops, buses or offices, so I felt reasonably protected.
One day before departure, I took an antigen test at one of the m3 testing sites in Geneva. It was an incredibly well-organized, well-oiled machine. I was checked in, swabbed, and given a printout of my test results within half an hour. And it was free of charge.
Boarding: The following day, armed with a large envelope full of documents, I took the train to the CDG Airport in Paris. Even though my flight wasn’t until 9pm, I arrived five hours early just in case. There were so many possibilities swirling around in my mind: what if there was suddenly a labor strike and the train got cancelled? What if there were insanely long lines at security? What if they suddenly changed their mind and wanted a PCR test instead of an antigen test?
None of that happened, and I arrived at CDG with plenty of time to spare. I even took the shuttle train to Gate L, where I spent two hours relaxing in the Yotel lounge with some coffee, iced tea, and a new novel.
At boarding, the Air France employees checked to make sure that we had four documents in particular: passport, the Vaccinated Travel Pass, vaccination certificate, and negative test. Boarding and document checks took a long time, beginning at 8pm and only wrapping up at 9pm, when the flight was supposed to have taken off.
The flight: It was not great. While in theory, I should have felt safer on this flight since it was supposed to be composed of only vaccinated, COVID-negative passengers like myself, the reality was that there were a lot of families travelling with young children and toddlers who were neither masked nor vaxxed.
The family in the row right in front of me had three kids under the age of five; the youngest spent most of the flight screaming, and so I slept poorly in short 30-minute bursts, continuously jolting awake to hear the father hissing angrily in French, “Putain! What is it that you want? Tell me!” as the child steadfastly refused to watch any programmes on his iPad.
Part III: Arrival
Immigration: I found the border control and arrivals process at Changi Airport to be extraordinarily efficient. Our plane touched down at around 4:30pm, and I was at the taxi stand by 5pm. That’s how streamlined it was.
The immigration officer was fast but thorough, checking to make sure I had the following documents:
- Vaccinated Travel Pass
- Vaccination certificate
- Negative pre-departure test
- Booking confirmation for on-arrival PCR test
- SG Arrival Card health declaration
- Singapore insurance
He asked me about my travel history within the past 14 days, and also verified the hotel that I would be serving quarantine at. Then it was on to the PCR test.
PCR test: After passing through immigration, I followed the signage to the PCR test area. First I had to show the QR code from my booking; I was then checked in by one staff member, and then beckoned to the actual testing booth, where a severe-looking auntie in scrubs was awaiting me. This was the part I was most scared of; I hate, hate the feeling of PCR tests. “Please be gentle,” I told her with a nervous laugh. “I’m scared.”
The auntie just looked at me without expression. “Open your mouth and relax your tongue,” she said. She inserted the swab into my throat, and I gagged a little. Then she stuck another swab into both my nostrils. Surprisingly, it wasn’t painful at all, unlike previous PCR tests I’ve had, so I think my little plea might have worked.
Taxi: I was then cleared to go down to the taxi stand. This is the part that took the longest time, surprisingly. I joined the line at 5pm and didn’t get a taxi until 5:50pm. This was because for every taxicab that accepted credit card payment, there were five that only accepted cash, and I hadn’t thought to withdraw any, as I was singularly focused on getting through immigration and the PCR test. The French businessman in front of me got into a cab, was driven around in a circle, and then was abruptly brought back and dumped on the curb once again when the driver learned that he didn’t have cash.
In the Taxi, I had to activate the Trace Together app on my phone and scan a QR code inside the taxi to show that I had ‘checked in’.
Hotel and subsequent quarantine: After arriving at my hotel, I scanned another QR code into the Trace Together app, checked into my room and immediately went into mandatory isolation while waiting for my PCR results. Since I couldn’t leave my room for dinner, I ordered delivery from a local Thai restaurant using the Grab app, and it was soon delivered to the front desk of the hotel and then deposited in front of my door. I didn’t mind the isolation, actually; I had a fantastic view from the window, and I would have been too tired to go outside anyway. Also, the food was insane. For a moment there, I wished that I didn’t have to go back to Europe. That’s how much I’ve missed good Asian food.
At around 10pm, I received an email with the results of my PCR test. (Negative, as expected.) I immediately forwarded the results to my hotel, at their request, and informed them that I was cleared to exit quarantine. (But of course, I still had to test daily in the days that follow.)
And with that, the feeling finally hit me: after a month of stress, planning and organization, it had all come together. I am really, actually in Singapore. And I am so looking forward to getting to know this beautiful country!