Getting Your Driver's License in Singapore

I did something very stupid during my move to Singapore: I allowed my motorcycle license to expire before I converted it. While the rest of the move went really well, this one mistake has cost me months of time and probably around $1000. To be fair, I didn’t know how big a mistake this was at the time. My aim today is to make sure you don’t make the same mistake.

TL;DR If you have a driver’s license from anywhere else in the world, start the conversion process within 3 months of getting to Singapore. If you wait or if your license expires, you may find that you can’t convert your license in time or at all, as happened to me. You do *not* need to take a “foreign license conversion” course. See my tips below for what you need to study, just write the test, and follow the procedures to get your license converted.

If you’re moving to Singapore, you probably think everything runs efficiently here: public transit, the financial system, even roads. And for the most part you’d be right. But there’s one area Singapore is sorely lacking: driver’s education. Getting a driver’s license here is an enormous pain, mostly because the schools are poorly run, bureaucratic, and essentially a license to print money. Getting your driver’s license from scratch can take years and cost thousands of dollars. A motorcycle license is a little easier, but it will still take months and cost you somewhere between $500 and $1000. This applies regardless of your experience level, passing the tests is intentionally made extraordinarily difficult.

If you have a driver’s or motorcycle license from another country already, then you can skip most of this hassle, but only if you act in time. You can use your foreign license for one year, after which you must convert your license to drive. Here’s the catch: just booking the test itself can take months! And remember what I said about the schools being a bureaucratic nightmare? They don’t want to just let you write the test. They’ll tell you to take their “foreign license conversion” course. Don’t listen to them: I went through one of their courses and not only did it take months, I felt dumber afterwards. Seriously, I learned more using the same time to just read the handbook, and the instructor on several occasions actually recommended unsafe practices.

Worst of all, if your license expires, then you’re really screwed. The traffic police will not convert an expired license under any circumstances. So make absolutely sure you convert your license well before it expires. It can take months just to get to write the Basic Theory Test, so start the process early!

One last reason to convert your license early: your license will be on “probation” for the first year. If you get the license early, then you’ll clear probation earlier. It’s also probably better for insurance to have more time with a license in the country, but I haven’t checked that out yet.

Here’s what you do: within your first month, call the closest driving centre and tell them you just want to write the “Basic Theory Test.” You’re not doing their course, just the test. If you can’t do it by phone, go in person. You’ll book a date to write the test a month or two later.

While you’re waiting for your test date, grab the “Basic Theory of Driving” Handbook from the Singapore Traffic Police. Read it cover to cover. It’s only ~100 pages, so for most people that shouldn’t take longer than a week. Next, revise or make notes on the following areas:

  • All lane markings and their meanings, including zebra crossings
  • All signs and their meanings, including difference between mandatory, warning, and informational signs.
  • Bus lanes and hours
  • Traffic Police hand signals
  • Rules of right of way at intersections (should be the same as other jurisdictions, but you’ll need to know them in detail)
  • What to do in the event of accident, specifically when you must file a police report
  • Need to display probationary plate and consequences, DIPS points on probation
  • Limits and consequences of drink driving
  • PDL Validity

If you know all of those, you should be able to pass the test. You can find sample tests online, but beware that most of them are out of date, so while they help for preparation, don’t rely on them and don’t trust their answers!

Once you’ve passed the BTT, all you have to do is take your existing license (with an English translation if necessary) and your passport, along with photocopies of both to the traffic police HQ. Fill a form, and submit it. You’ll get your full license within two weeks and they should give you a temporary license.

A quick note on motorcycle licenses: they have a graduated system by engine size. Unless you can show proof of training on a certain size of engine, they will restrict you to < 200 cc. This is another reason to start the process early. Even if you’re not planning on riding, get the license early so that later you can apply for a higher class of license earlier whenever you decide you want it.


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