How to Stay Out of Trouble in Singapore

Singapore's Duty Free Allowances and Staying Out of Trouble

Rules in Singapore
••• Mindlessly bringing a drink onto the MRT in Singapore could cost $500!. Ignacio Palacios / Getty Images

Even "good" travelers can accidentally get in trouble in Singapore.

Good behavior is rewarded with a fascinating city-island-country to explore. But bad behavior could make you go Singa-poor faster than you prefer — even for seemingly innocuous infractions. For instance, distractedly getting onto the MRT train with a drink in your hand could cost S$500 if you get busted.

Locals and resident expats know how to navigate their "fine" city best; follow their lead. You don't have to watch your step too closely the entire time in Singapore, just don't watch those steps jaywalk in front of the friendly peace officers. They skillfully wield fines that must be paid before departure!

How Strict Are They Really?

That depends. Like many places, some of the drastic laws on the books are more or less just fodder discussed by tourists. Although the maximum punishments seem a little harsh (e.g., stealing a Wi-Fi signal can land you three years in prison), the authorities probably would have to be in a very bad mood to burden the legal system and consulates for that.

Then again, blatant infractions such as dropping a cigarette or stepping around the corner when the queue for the bathroom at a festival is too long will certainly get you in trouble.

Here are some ways you could technically get fined in Singapore:

  • Feeding pigeons
  • Not flushing a public toilet
  • Jaywalking
  • Smoking outside of designated areas
  • Spitting in public
  • Bringing in pirated DVDs
  • Being caught with porn (internet browser cache counts, as does certain swimsuit magazines)
  • Bringing in electronic cigarettes
  • Bringing in non-medical chewing gum

Some controversial laws are so draconian that they are rarely enforced. Homosexuality is officially still illegal in Singapore. Being spotted nude in your own home counts as indecency, then again, there is a similar law in Virginia.

Technically, by local law, arriving in Singapore with drugs in your blood counts the same as bringing drugs into the country. You can face jail time for failing a drug test whether you did the drugs in Singapore or not.

No Food or Drinks on Public Transportation

The excellent MRT train system in Singapore is clean for a reason: no food or drinks of any kind are allowed. The no-food-or-drink rule is strictly enforced. Cameras and officials vigilantly monitor all modes of public transportation. Consuming small snacks, chewing gum, and taking a drink are forbidden — wait until you arrive!

Singapore Is Hard on Smokers

Smoking isn't convenient in Singapore. Unlike much of Southeast Asia where cigarette prices are low and usage is high, Singapore is an exception. Smoking is definitely one of two easy ways to blow a travel budget (drinking is the other). Otherwise, Singapore isn't as expensive as most budget travelers fear.

Smoking in the wrong place or leaving a butt behind are serious infractions in Singapore. You'll definitely attract a fine if seen by an officer who isn't in a forgiving mood.

Technically, Singapore has no duty-free allowance for any number of cigarettes brought into the country — not even a single pack. This catches a lot of travelers by surprise. Don't think you can beat Singapore's harsh tobacco taxes by bringing a cheap box from Thailand or Malaysia. Bags are scanned for exactly such things.

Travelers are expected to declare all tobacco products brought into the country or risk facing a S$200 fine for the first offense. Customs agents at the airport are typically lenient and may allow an opened pack with a few cigarettes missing to be carried through, but by law, they don’t have to make any allowances. Enforcement seems to be more strict at the land border with Malaysia.

Smoking is illegal indoors and on most patios. As of January 2013, smoking was also banned on all covered walkways, pedestrian bridges, and within 15 feet of bus stops. If you aren't sure, don't smoke unless a permanent-looking ashtray is present.

Electronic cigarettes are banned in Singapore as is chewing tobacco. Don't use these products in public, even in designated smoking areas. Pretty well all nicotine-delivery systems are illegal to bring into Singapore, this includes nicotine gum and patches.

Bringing Alcohol into Singapore

Travelers are given a duty-free allowance for up to three liters of alcohol in one of these possible combinations:

  • 1 liter of spirits, 1 liter of wine, and 1 liter of beer
  • 2 liters of wine, 1 liter of beer
  • 1 liter of wine, 2 liters of beer

But there is a catch: you must be at least 18 years old, have spent at least 48 hours outside of Singapore, and can't be arriving from Malaysia. That last stipulation causes some travelers to get busted.

If you arrive with more than one bottle of spirits, you’ll need to go through the Red Channel and pay a steep duty tax.

Staying Out of Trouble at Customs

If you're reading this on the plane to Changi and have a bag full of contraband items, don't panic: there is a solution. You technically haven't broken the law until you exit through customs.

If you didn't trash any suspect items yet, you can opt to go through the Red Channel at customs and declare what you are carrying. Although the idea of doing so makes most travelers cringe (was that a rubber glove that just snapped?), the officers will simply confiscate items that aren't acceptable.

If you opt for the Green Channel with contraband, be prepared for a lot of hassle concluded with a steep fine.

The Singapore Customs website will have the latest on restricted goods and allowances.

Is Chewing Gum Really Illegal in Singapore?

Actually, no. But selling gum or bringing it into the country is prohibited.

Gum for dental or medical reasons (excluding smoking-cessation gums) is allowed, but you'll need proof that chewing is somehow helping your body. Therapeutic gum must be purchased from a dentist or pharmacist, ​and they must record your personal details.

Spitting gum out is a sure way to bring down the wrath of the country's tough litter laws. Just to be safe, don't smack that gum too loudly when around public officials.

Singapore’s Drug Laws

Singapore’s drug laws are draconian, even by Southeast Asian standards—which are tough anyway. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte stole the title once held by Singapore for harshest stance on drugs with his deadly 2016 Drug War in the Philippines.

Drug smugglers in Singapore receive a mandatory death penalty. Although rare, police have the right to demand random drug tests for tourists. If you test positive for controlled substances, you could be jailed and fined whether or not you partook in Singapore.

Pornography is Illegal in Singapore

As with many other countries in Southeast Asia, pornography of any kind—electronic or print—is illegal in Singapore.

Although anti-pornography laws are common, the actual enforcement can be cause for privacy concern. The authorities may seize and copy your smartphone or hard drive at any time as well as search your camera and any other form of electronic storage. Temporary files in an internet browser cache may contain what is still considered pornographic imagery.

Avoid carrying magazines with risqué covers (e.g., certain men's magazines, swimsuit editions, etc). Magazines aren't the only way to get busted for pornography: some popular video games (including ones about stealing cars) are banned due to scanty bikinis and such.

Note: Singapore has strict laws to curb digital piracy. Even if your hard drive is clean of porn, you could still be busted for copies of "illegal" movies or music unless you prove ownership.

Don’t Criticize the Government

Ever. Although Singapore has a thriving art movement, the Singaporean government strictly monitors media and the web for any outspoken criticism of the government. That includes what you post on social media.

Watch what you write about, at least until you're outside of the country. Books that speak out against the government are banned and blacklisted. The Singaporean government even came under criticism by the United Nations in 2011 for human rights issues related to free expression.