A few people have asked me about the job market in Singapore, and/or my first-hand experience with Singapore’s Working Holiday Programme. So I’ve written this post for anyone who may be thinking about moving to Singapore to find work, especially new graduates, or anyone who is interested in applying for the Working Holiday Pass (WHP).
Updated Oct 2015: Updated visa cost, eligible age and countries, and MOM website links.
Updated Sept 2020: Updated visa cost, eligible countries, and MOM website links.
The first thing to know is, in terms of finding work, Singapore is not like the rest of Asia. By that I mean it is not full of 20-somethings taking an easy break in another country, usually earning their keep by teaching English. For one, everyone already speaks English here, so native English teachers are not as prized or sought out as they would be in, say, China.
The bottom line is this, and it’s important so I’m saying it first:
Singapore is not entry-level friendly.
It’s a work pass issue. There are various types of work passes, but almost every one of them requires you to be sponsored and brought in by a company. You can’t really just show up and try to sort out a work pass after your arrival.
Singapore’s main sectors are banking, IT, law, marketing/communication, and construction. Even if you’re in that field, you need a few years of experience before a company will consider hiring/sending you overseas — it’s an investment on their part, and they’re not going to risk it on a fresh green banker or law graduate.
(For this reason, the majority of expats in Singapore are in their late 20s-50s. I rarely met any expats my age; almost everyone in my social circle was in their 30s.)
It makes sense when you think about it: the country is small and the international talent pool is large. If you can afford to be picky, then of course take the more experienced IT guy over the newbie who’s only worked for six months.
Also, foreigners already make up at least 30% of the population of Singapore [Depending on your source, it’s anywhere from 25-40%, but 1 out of 3 seems to be a general consensus]. This is often a point of contention for Singaporeans, especially come election time, so the government has really cracked down on how many foreigners they let in, how many each company is allowed to sponsor, etc.
So, you still want to move to Singapore.
There is a visa option for students/recent graduates between the ages of
17-30 18-25 (as of Sept 2020): the Working Holiday Pass (WHP).
It doesn’t seem to be very well-known, but that might be because of the job market reasons I listed above. This isn’t like, say, Australia, where you can get a working holiday visa and work in a bar or a hostel for six months.
Be warned, almost all entry-level or ‘hospitality’ jobs like server, bartender, etc. are still only available to Singaporeans, Malaysians, or Permanent Residents (PR). Don’t be surprised to find most job listings end with “Singaporean or PR only.”
The WHP allows you to stay in Singapore for up to six months. You have to be a student from Australia, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland, United Kingdom, or the United States. Unlike the other work passes, the WHP does not have a minimum salary requirement. You can work any job, as long as there are no accreditation prerequisites (like in medicine or law).
Applying for the WHP is simple and done mostly via email. The application process is listed here* — just fill out the application form, email it to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), and attach soft copies of the three required documents (bear in mind, the first one will require you to contact your college/university’s registrar’s office).
Once you have sent your application, the MOM will review it and email back their decision (their site says it takes 21 days to process, but mine came back in six).
If you have been approved for a WHP, the email will have an “In-principle Approval Letter” attached. From that date you have three months to pick up your WHP. This time period is important because the six-month validity of your WHP begins from the day you pick up your WHP, not the day you receive your approval letter.
(A bit of advice from personal experience: If you don’t have a job yet, stay on your social visit visa until you find one. Then pick up your WHP, thereby not wasting any of those six months.)
When you decide to collect your WHP, first schedule an e-appointment at the Employment Pass Services Centre (EPSC). On appointment day, take your in-principle approval letter, passport, at least two passport photos, and a couple other forms that will be listed and attached to the approval letter, to the EPSC (Google Map).
It will be a painless process once you get there: turn over the papers, scan your fingerprints, pay S
$120 $150 $175 (as of Sept 2020), then return a few days later to pick up your flashy new WHP. Voila, you are now legally allowed to work in Singapore!**
(Sidenote: This place has the smoothest government bureaucracy I’ve ever seen — the DMV could take some lessons!)
Take care of your WHP however, because when your six months are up, the pass must be returned to the EPSC. In return, you’ll be handed a letter of notification that you should keep in your passport and hand to Immigration the next time you leave Singapore (to prove you were there legally).
If you find a job during the six-month period that is willing to sponsor you after your WHP expires, then congratulations! But you’ll still have to return your WHP.
It may sound like I’m trying to deter people from coming to Singapore. I’m not.
But I had wished there was more information on the WHP when I was moving to Singapore, so I’m putting this out there now for future grads and young people.
But don’t be discouraged; consider it a first-hand lesson in Singaporean bureaucracy and efficiency. If you think you want to move to Singapore, then come lah! I’m a firm believer in seizing the unknown because you never know what adventures can follow.
I mean, if I had read something like this before I moved to Singapore and decided not to come, I would have missed out on so much: experiencing the wonderful food and holidays of different cultures. Learning what it’s like to work in reality tv. Weekend trips to Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia. Not to mention some of the most rewarding friendships I’ve found abroad (Sept 2020 update: these are people I’m still very close to ten years later!). And the best surprise of all, taking the path that would eventually lead to my dream career and a life spent overseas.
*This post also has some very useful advice, written by another expat who struggled to find a job at first but then landed one through LinkedIn.
*Double check the site and your paperwork. My experience is from August 2010, and the MOM is constantly updating and changing (for example, the fee was only S$40 in 2010; now it’s S