Life in Singapore

Just Take My Card!

cardreaderI am writing this because sometimes life in Singapore gets frustrating. Today’s frustrating example is with payments at retail shops. This has happened to me so many times here I think it is endemic. Sometimes, when I go to pay my card gets declined, except not really. What really happens is that the cashiers are not familiar with the myriad of payment devices at their register, they don’t understand all of the different payment mechanisms from around the world, and they don’t know how to process your card. Yesterday’s example, though, was a surprisingly poor showing on the cashier’s part because it was a local card. This is why I always carry cash on me here, because you never know what you will encounter at the register, or if they will have a minimum charge amount to use a card.

First, let me start with an explanation of what seems to be going on here, and because my husband is in payments, I think I have a good grasp of the problem. One local payment system here is called NETS, and it is kind of like a debit card network. This is what the local folks seem to prefer. They also have a visa/MasterCard machine which processes transactions through that system. In addition, they also have a separate register terminal, which is not integrated at all through the payment processing machines. When the cashier processes your payment, he or she has to know which type of card you have, and its origin will determine how it is run through the machine. Cards throughout most of the world have a microchip in them, and the cashier will insert the microchip into the card reader and the payment should process no problem. The US, however, doesn’t have that technology in most of its cards, and instead they rely on entering a 3 digit code on the back of the card.

Normally, when a cashier has trouble processing my card, it is because it is one of my US based cards and they are unfamiliar with the 3 digit code procedure. I always watch to see which machine they are using, and if they seem stumped, I explain it to them. Yesterday, however, I was using my local Citibank debit Visa, with a microchip, and the cashier still kept getting it declined. Unfortunately, she was using machines that were way under the counter that I couldn’t see so I couldn’t help her out. I try to use this card for my local purchases because I don’t have to pay a foreign fee for my transaction. So here I was trying to pay for our steaks at the butcher, and the total was only $31. I knew there was a lot of money in that account, and it was an operator error, but she got too flustered and I didn’t have any cash on me. Instead, I whipped out my US Citibank debit card and paid with that, and the transaction went through. What is irritating about that, though, is rather than paying $31, now I had to pay an exchange fee and a foreign fee on top of that, so my $31 steaks probably cost $35. In the land of expensive groceries, you don’t need any extra fees on top of your already too pricey food.

Of course, when I got home, I checked my bank account online, and sure enough, there was much more than enough to pay for the $31 steaks. At the time, I was having paranoid thoughts that maybe someone had stolen my card and wiped out our account. Now I am just annoyed that the cashier couldn’t figure out how to use a local card and I had to pay an extra fee. If only it was unusual, but instead this sort of thing happens all the time. Sistic can’t process US based cards online, they always get declined. I have to go in and buy tickets there and help them process the card. I’ve run into similar problems with Jetstar. My doctor’s office couldn’t process my card once, and I had to go and withdraw money from an ATM and come back. It took me half an hour, because I had to call them and get my daily limit raised (this was for a $1500 bill). Embarrassing!

Mostly, I find the easiest thing to do is to use my local Citibank debit Visa for most purchases, and carry about $200 in cash around so I have a backup, plus make sure I have a couple of credit cards in my wallet just in case so I have plenty to try. It is embarrassing, though, to have to go through a couple of cards to pay for your $31 steaks, especially when the issue is not your available funds. We have a US based Citibank account, and I can transfer funds from the US account, where our paycheck gets deposited, instantaneously into the Singapore Citibank account. Then I try to spend in local currency and withdraw in local currency, minimizing the fees. I can also pay the utilities and cable bill online this way. The other advantage of the local Citibank card is you get 1% cash back at Cold Storage, so at the end of the month I get about $20 credited back to my account. This system mostly works for us, with a glitch here and there. A local NETS card would probably be more advantageous, but I wonder how to easily get your money from your US based account to the local account electronically? Most of the time I want the money transferred now, not in three days via ACH.

So that’s our system, folks. If you have one that works better, by all means share your ideas!


  1. Hullo, I’ve just found your blog. Thanks do much for all thd information you’ve shared. I hope you n your family are doing fine here in Singapore as you’ve not had any entry since this one. Take care and God bless!

  2. wondering if you are still in Singapore? I have really enjoyed reading your postings as we are a family of 6 heading over this summer for a few years.

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