- I flew into Singapore in January 2021, and again a year later, in January 2022.
- In 2021, I was ushered directly into a 14-day hotel quarantine. This year, I had to take a COVID test every day for seven days, but didn’t have to quarantine.
- The change shows how far Singapore has come in its COVID-containment strategy — but also how differently it’s still approaching the pandemic than most other countries.
I’ve flown into Singapore twice during the pandemic, and while the flights were 363 days apart, the experiences were worlds apart.
In January 2021, I was one of a handful of passengers on the 19-hour direct flight out of JFK. Upon landing, airport workers shepherded me onto a bus parked outside the terminal. My fellow travelers and I were driven to a hotel, where we each checked into a room that would serve as our quarantine home base for the next 14 days.
I wasn’t permitted to leave the hotel room for the duration of quarantine, received plastic-wrapped meals at my doorstep three times a day, and spent tons of time trying not to think about how much time was left in quarantine. On the twelfth day, I was given a deep-nasal COVID PCR test in the lobby, and when it came back negative on the fourteenth day, I was free to go into the world.
In all, it was a highly regulated, highly observed process that left little room for individual error and included occasional phone calls from the government as well as daily temperature logs.
A year later, things have shifted dramatically.
To lighten the quarantine load, Singapore now offers regular flights followed by a mandated quarantine period, and as an alternative, vaccinated travel lane (VTL) flights. The latter allows travelers from certain countries (including France and the US, both of which I visited on this trip) to enter Singapore without having to serve a quarantine period.
Though it cost nearly twice as much as a regular flight, I booked the quarantine-free VTL option.
But just because VTL travelers are exempt from quarantine doesn’t mean they’re entirely without monitoring.
Before leaving Singapore, VTL travelers have to book an on-arrival PCR test (S$125), and they have to agree to quarantine in their home until that test comes back negative — which usually takes between eight and 10 hours. After getting through customs, baggage, and the PCR test at Singapore’s Changi airport, I took a cab to my apartment. I got my negative test result in a matter of hours, and by that same afternoon, I was changing into my summer clothes and heading out for a bike ride.
Seven more days of tests, including two ‘supervised tests’
As part of the VTL process, travelers also have to take a COVID test every day for seven days after arrival. On days two, four, five, and six, those are unsupervised ART tests (the government mailed multiple tests to every address last year) that people can take at home and log on a government site. Travelers are required on days three and seven to take “supervised tests.”
And so, on the third day after arriving in Singapore, I biked to my appointment at a Quick Test Center. Workers had set up plastic chairs in a long row outside the front door. A woman in scrubs told me to go to the back of the building to the “testing pavilion.”
Out back, I found exactly what she had described: The pavilion was dotted with little cubicles that reminded me of those you might take a high school exam in. I checked in, was handed a rapid COVID test and a kitchen timer, and was told to pick a seat.
The place was around half-full; I was one of maybe 10 test-takers there, and there were roughly 20 cubicles set up. The supervision element of the test was pretty minimal: I swabbed my nose, turned a timer to 15 minutes, and waited for the purple line to appear on my test as the timer wound down and employees milled around, glancing at my test strip. After 15 minutes, an employee recorded my negative test results and told me I could leave.
That’s a whole lot more supervision than I experienced in the other countries I visited on my trip. To enter France in December, I signed a health declaration form attesting that I didn’t have COVID. And to enter the US, neither testing upon arrival nor a sworn statement was required (I presented negative PCR tests to board my flights out of both countries).
But it was also a whole lot more trust than I experienced entering Singapore just one year prior. This time around, I booked my own test appointments, logged most of my own test results, and, aside from that, was able to go about my life like everyone else.
This evolution in Singapore’s border policy is buoyed by the constancy of its internal policies. Singapore’s task force ministers have long urged an approach of social responsibility, and months ago, the government declared that Singapore was learning to live with COVID.
Yet nearly two years into the pandemic, life within the city-state is still heavily restricted. Yes, I can go about my life like the rest of the country does — but that means I’m still required to wear a mask inside and outside, socialize in group sizes of no more than five people, and use an app to check in to every store and facility I enter.
A long road to get to here
Of course, the pandemic has shown that there is no international “normal” for travel anymore, and to compare Singapore (or Hong Kong) to the US is close to comparing opposite pandemic reactions. And the role of Singapore’s high vaccination rate cannot be understated when it comes to the city-state’s containment of the virus.
Throughout the pandemic, Singapore’s leadership has been clear-eyed about the sacrifices the country would be required to make.
“The path toward being a COVID resilient nation is going to be a long and hard slog,” Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said in August. “Even at very high vaccination rates, we are not going to reach herd immunity where the outbreak just fizzles out.”
In recent months, the government has buckled further down in an effort to limit the spread of Omicron — sometimes to deleterious effect.
In late 2021, Singapore began sending ambulances to travelers’ homes and bringing them to quarantine facilities if someone else on their flight tested positive for Omicron, regardless of whether they were showing symptoms. A recent Bloomberg article detailed how some travelers had been forced to hand off their children or pets to government officials as they underwent quarantine at a government facility. (Singapore’s Ministry of Health later relaxed its protocol for Omicron cases and Omicron-adjacent travelers).
And that VTL flight that allowed me to enter Singapore without quarantining? The city-state suspended all sales of VTL tickets from late December through January 23 amid an Omicron surge.