Updated: Apr 10, 2020
Going through Singapore-Johor customs at Woodlands Checkpoint was a breeze to me as I went over to Johor Bahru about 2 to 3 times a month. The frequent trips allowed me to observe the flow of people and discover ways to cross the border faster. I have a number of little tricks that I applied to my advantage whenever I went over for breathers.
I am sharing these tips here to help others in order to help myself — if everyone can get through the customs and the Causeway faster, there will be lesser queuing time for all, including you and me.
Note that these tips are for travellers who visit Malaysia from Singapore using public buses. Not for drivers.
PART 1: Going to Malaysia
#1. Avoid Peak Hours
If you choose to go through the customs during peak hours, the longest time spent will be waiting in human queues at the immigration counters. Most of the tips in this post will still help you to get through the customs but they won't be able to reduce the long queuing time — which can be 1-2 hours or more during peak hours. So, do avoid peak hours if you don't want to be held up for long hours at both the Singapore and Johor Bahru customs.
Find the non-peak hours:
At Woodlands Checkpoint, you will probably be using the enhanced-Immigration Automated Clearance System (eIACS) if you hold a biometric passport that is registered with Singapore Immigration & Checkpoint Authority (ICA website) — the following 3 tips (#2, #3 and #4) will be applicable to you.
PS: As photography are not allowed in the immigration clearance areas, do try to picture the scenario as I try my best to describe them.
#2. Use Automated Gantries Further to the End
For those who are familiar with Woodlands Checkpoint, the manual clearance immigration counters are situated in the centre of the departure hall (going to Malaysia). The automated clearance systems (ACS or "gantries") are located to the left side of the hall when you walk into it. Using the ACS is definitely faster than manual clearance, which is usually for foreigners and non-registered or non-biometric passport holders.
Singapore passport holders are dedicated several gantries nearer to the immigration counters. Most Singaporeans will head for these gantries — having to walk lesser — and often resulting in longer queues. Due to heavy usage and misuse by people who do not know how the ACS works, the machines at these gantries can be slow and faulty at times and the queues are slow.
To go through the clearance system faster, walk a little more to the gantries for "Singapore, Singapore PR and Malaysia Passport" holders, which are further to the left but just beside the "Singapore Passport Only" gantries. The queues are usually shorter during non-peak hours and there are more machines.
#3. Wait, Insert & Press Down to Scan Passport
I mentioned that most people do not know how the ACS works — just observe how many times people have to re-scan their passports and holding up the queues. To go through the first machine, the automated passport scanner, fast, remember these:
1. Wait until you are told to insert your passport, then do so. This allows the sensors to be activated before you insert your passport into the slot and trigger the scanning process. If you insert too early, a short timeout (probably 1-2 seconds) will take place before the scanning starts. However, this is trivial as the person in front may be taking longer time to scan his/her thumbprint.
2. Press down the personal particulars page of the passport to make it flush against the screen to facilitate the scanning process. If the scanner fails to scan the page clearly, it will indicate an error and you will have to re-scan or go queue at a manual clearance counter — which will cost you more time. So, do press down your passport for the scanner to read your data clearly.
And on to the second machine — where most people will have trouble getting through.
#4. Wait, Press & Observe when Scanning Thumbprint
99.99% of people don't know this...
The next machine will verify your thumbprint. Remember these:
1. Instead of wiping your thumb against your clothing to make it too dry for scanning, rub your thumb against the palm of your other hand to clean it but still leave a little moisture so it will be easier to scan. The machine needs you thumbprint, so make a print on it. For hygiene sake, avoid using your saliva.
2. Same as Tip #3 above, if you try to beat the system, thinking that it will be faster to put your thumb there before being told to do so, then you are wrong. A timeout of 2-3 seconds will kick-in if the system failed to pick up the "triggering" action on its sensor. That means that for 2-3 seconds while you are pressing down on the thumbprint scanner, the system is not reading it! So, wait until you are told to put your thumb on the scanner before doing so, and allow the sensor to detect your personal touch.
3. Remember which thumbprint you used when registering with ICA. Thumbprints on left and right hands are different. I had seen a girl failed twice at the machine before realising that she should be scanning her left thumb! It took her 10 minutes to clear the ACS as she was told to step back, scan her passport again and then her thumbprint and repeat again.
On a side note, when registering your passport, do use your right thumb — it will be less awkward at the thumbprint scanner, which is always at the right side.
4. Press your thumb on the scanner and observe your thumbprint on the screen in front of you. If you can see the lines on your thumbprint clearly, then the system will see them too. If your thumbprint is too light, press down a little harder. If your thumbprint is too dark, release a little pressure. If your thumbprint is too close to the sides of the white box, maneuver it to the centre of the box. Help the system to allow you to go through faster.
Follow Tips #3 & #4, and you will be through the automated clearance system in less than 10 seconds. Only 2 seconds required at the thumbprint scanner if you follow this tip — and I always did that. If each person delays for 30 seconds at each gantry, a queue of 60 people will add 30 minutes waiting time to the 61st person and so forth — which can be you in that queue. So, do help to "educate" those around you too.
#5. Queue at Bus 160 Lane — if taking Bus 160, 170 or 170X
Most people going over to Johor Bahru, especially first-timers and foreigners, do not know that both the lanes for Bus Service 160 and Service 170 will board the same bus. So they usually queue in the lane for Bus 170 and create a long line that snakes around the basement of Woodlands Checkpoint — especially on Saturdays. The lane for Bus Service 160 always has the shortest queue.
So, go ahead and queue in the lane for Bus 160. Bus lane 170 will board the next Bus Service 160/170/170X using the front entrance and bus lane 160 will board via the rear entrance. To the elderly, the rear entrance is closer to most of the seats.
At Johor Bahru Customs, Immigration and Quarantine Complex (JB CIQ),
#6. Go for Immigration Counters in Back Row
The immigration counters in Johor Bahru CIQ are arranged in two rows. The counters in the front row will have one queue per counter. The counters in the back row will have one queue to two counters. Being in the back row, their queues will have additional 8-10 people when all queues seem equal from behind.
Logically, queuing for the back-row counters will be faster provided both counters are manned. However, you have to play by ear as the factors contributing to fast clearance may change any time: the officers on duty, the crowd and the composition of the queue (we will discuss the last factor in Tip #7).
1. During peak hours, especially on weekends, all the counters will be manned. It will be faster to queue for the dual-counters in the back row. Sometimes, the officers may leave their posts during changing of shifts or washroom breaks, it may take few minutes but stay in the queue. You will regret jumping to another queue once another officer takes over.
2. During off-peak hours, not all the counters will be manned. So the back-row counters may not be serviced by two customs officers per queue. Open your eyes and check. Sometimes, one of the officers may go off-duty without anyone taking over — you will not know. However, the queues should be shorter during off-peak hours so it should be OK to stay put unless other queues are shorter.
3. When the arrival/departure hall is not very crowded, the back-row counters will usually be single-manned. If all the queues seem to be of the same length when seen from behind, go for the front-row counters. There may be 8-10 more people in the back-row counter queues, but you should be able to do a quick count.
And do get your passport ready before your turn at the immigration counter. Because of the long queuing time, some people got too carried away by their chatting or playing with mobile phones that they started searching for their passports in front of the customs officers. You can really see the officers frown — I seen twice.
#7. Avoid Queues with Many Foreigners
There is no Visa-on-Arrival for foreigners at JB CIQ (via Woodlands) — it is available at the second link (via Tuas) for selected nationals only, but not many foreigners realised this. Foreigners without valid visa will get stuck at the immigration counters and will be send back to Singapore. This little episode will make the officer-on-duty leave the counter to escort the foreigner to the service counter behind.
If the foreigners have valid visa, they will be required to scan their fingerprints for first-time entrants. And apart from passport checks, they will also need to do visa checks. It will take extra time for each foreigner. And when there are many of them in a queue, especially from a tour group, you better go to another queue.
Apart from foreign travellers, there are also those foreign expats on Singapore work permits but did not bring along their work permits when going over and those with passport expiring in less than 6 months. They will usually hold up the queue.
This tip may be a little hard to apply unless you can identify them. There was once I queued right behind a group of 12 students, when I heard them spoke Japanese, I switched over to another queue that is slightly longer than the one I was in. And sure enough, after I cleared the immigration check, the first student in the group was still answering the questions hurled by the customs officer — well, the language barrier added some delays too.
Also, Malaysia passport holders are advised to use the counters specially for them. Singaporeans going to Malaysia are foreigners too, so their queues will usually take longer time.
On a side note, avoid cutting queues in Johor Bahru CIQ. The long waiting time do get on the nerves of some people and cause frustrations. There were cases where people in the back of queues would walk up to queue-cutters and shout in their faces, causing embarrassments — unglamorous as it may be, this has became the most effective method to shame queue-cutters at the border-crossing. So, don't cut queue, many eyes will be on you — some people may even be hoping to watch another "shouting drama".
#8. Don't Use Towed or Big Luggage
After passing through Malaysia immigration checks, the next station will be the luggage checks. Travellers with towed or big luggage will be required to go through the X-ray scanner. If all goes well, you will be held up by couple of minutes. But if you are required to open your luggage for further inspection, it will take up more time.
Unless it is really necessary to bring a towed or big luggage, try to reduce the things to bring over and carry just a small backpack for a 1-2 days trip. If you are going for shopping, you can bring along tote bags instead of bringing a big luggage that will be subjected to scrutiny at the customs even though it may be empty.
After the luggage checks, you are through the customs. Enjoy your trip in Malaysia until it is time to go through the customs again on the way back.
PART 2: Back to Singapore
The tips above (except 5, 7 and 8) will still be applicable on the way back to Singapore. And some more tips here.
At Woodlands Checkpoint...
#9. Don't Wear Metallic Objects on Body
Going into Singapore, everyone will be required to go through a metal detecting door and all belongings will be X-rayed regardless of luggage size.
Frequent travellers will know not to wear belts with metal buckles and watches, including coins in pockets and wallets, when going through customs checks at airports and border crossings. Metallic objects will trigger the metal detector and the officer-on-duty will require you to go back, empty everything and walk through the detector again or he/she will search you manually. This usually takes up quite some time.
The simplest thing to do is to dump everything on your person and in pockets into your backpack or luggage, regardless if they are metallic or not, and walk through the metal detector. If need be, use a belt with no metal parts or wear something that uses drawstrings or does not require a belt. Ladies should avoid wearing clothes that have metal accessories sewed on.
Heeding all these advice, you will be through the metal detector in just one pass.
#10. Keep your Purchase Receipts
Coming into Singapore, you will need to pay a 7% Goods & service Tax (GST) if the total value of your purchases exceed S$150 for less than 48 hours visit to Malaysia (more info).
If you buy a lot of items or some expensive items, like watches, jewellery, cosmetics, etc, do keep your receipts for tax purpose. And voluntarily declare for taxing at the Customs Tax Payment Office if you know you need to pay it. A faster way will be to pay the tax using the Customs@SG mobile app or web portal before arriving at the checkpoint and show the e-receipt to customs officers when requested (more info).
Otherwise, keep your receipts as proof to show the excise officer that you did not exceed the allowed quota. This will expedite the process and save you a lot of time.
Do not assume that you will be excused from tax if you "lost" your receipts for expensive goods. All items will be verified against the excise database system and tax will be based on the recorded prices. If you have bought the items at prices that are much lower than the recorded prices, that will be too bad, you have no proof anyway.
So, do keep your receipts for faster clearance and unnecessary tax. It is better to be prepared.
#11. Declare Any Alcohols Before Baggage Checks
There is no duty-free for alcohol at the border-crossings between Singapore and Johor, so all alcohols are taxable. Declaring alcoholic goods is a must without demand — if found in your baggage without declaration, you will be slapped with a fine plus the tax. So, do segregate any alcohols from other belongings and declare them before going through the baggage checks.
Consequently, any bottles that resemble alcohol bottles may also be picked up as "probable" alcoholic products at the X-ray stations. Items such as cooking sauces or drinks in large glass bottles, sparkling juices in wine bottles, multiple canned drinks, etc, always result in bag checks by customs officers. So, do prepare these items for ready inspection instead of waiting for the officer to ask you to open up your baggage.
Other than alcohol-bottle-lookalikes, objects that look like weapons, such as guns or sharp blades, cigarette packs, etc, are all likely to result in delays at this very last station.
#12. Skip Bus Service 170 — if going to Kranji MRT Station