Updated: Oct 19, 2020
The most daunting part of travelling to Malaysia from Singapore via Woodlands Checkpoint is crossing the Straits of Johor using the Causeway (also known as the first link). The road-and-rail link between the two countries is usually heavily congested, especially on weekends, a time where most people chose to get on the road-bridge at the same time.
To find the best times to cross the Causeway, we need to understand who, why and when will the people be at Woodlands Checkpoint (for going to Malaysia) and Johor Bahru Checkpoint (for coming to Singapore).
The majority of the "who" are:
1. Commuter-Workers: There are more Malaysians going to Singapore to work than Singaporeans working in Malaysia. Most of the workers are blue-collar workers and usually need to work 5.5 days a week. Workers can either be working on shifts or regular time (from 9am to 5pm).
"Workers" also includes those who drive cargo-carrying lorries, long container trucks, cars and motorcycles, which are one of the contributing factors to traffic jams. Singapore imposes a Vehicle Entry Permit (VEP) fee on foreign-registered vehicles from Monday to Friday but exemption granted between 5pm to 2am. Most foreign-registered vehicles will aim to reach Singapore checkpoints after 5pm on weekdays to save on the fee. During school holidays, the exemption starts at 12pm.
There are also Malaysians with Permanent Resident (PR) statuses who reside and work in Singapore but will return to their hometowns over the weekend.
2. Travellers. These are foreign travellers and Singapore holiday-goers, but mostly Singapore day-trippers to Johor Bahru due to higher exchange rate when converting from Singapore dollar to Malaysia ringgit. Most Singapore day-trippers drive, which worsen the traffic conditions during peak hours.
3. Others. This population is too small to be of concerns.
Normally, weekdays are the least congested with smoother traffic outside of peak hours. Weekends are when the Causeway is usually congested — but not at all times. If you can understand the flow of people through the checkpoints, you will be able to find the right time to cross the Johore Strait without being caught in both the human and traffic jams.
Let's study the detailed flow of people at certain times, and why, with the aid of time charts to have better pictures.
ON WEEKDAYS IN A NORMAL WEEK
Weekday routine is largely similar from Monday to Friday. However, as Friday is considered a weekend after working hours, things can be a little different.
From Singapore → Johor Bahru:
1. In the early morning, there are not many workers going over to Malaysia to work, so this is generally not an issue.
2. At around 9am, Singapore day-trippers (housewives, retirees, people-on-leaves, etc) will cross the Causeway as most shopping centres open for businesses at 10am. Container trucks and goods-carrying lorries going to Malaysia will start to arrive at the checkpoint at this time.
3. After 3pm, Malaysian production workers on first shift will start to turn up at the Causeway to return home.
4. After 5pm, the main bulk of Malaysian workers on regular working time will be at Woodlands Checkpoint. This will usually cause congestion at the immigration checkpoints and petered out by around 8pm (except on Friday).
On Friday evening, there will be more people crossing the Causeway, including those who resides in Singapore and going back to their hometowns over the weekends. Some holiday-goers to Malaysia may also choose to cross the Causeway at this time without having to take annual leaves.
5. After 11pm, workers on night shift will reach the Causeway.
From Johor Bahru → Singapore:
1. As early as 5:30am, Malaysian workers will cross the Causeway, especially those in the first shift. The working crowd will petered out by 10am.
2. Around 4pm, Malaysian workers on night shift will be waiting for private buses inside Johor Bahru CIQ's bus waiting area. The blue-painted private buses often caused congestion in JB CIQ due to workers arriving late and also due to the bus drivers trying to earn extra income by picking up other commuters. They will wait in the main lanes (only 2 lanes) instead of the bus bays. This created a bottleneck that resulted in bus congestion on the road leading to JB CIQ as early as 4pm — every weekday.
3. Around 4.45pm, foreign-registered vehicles will start to traverse slowly on the Causeway so they can reach Singapore just after 5pm to avoid paying the VEP. Some drivers may even park their vehicles on the Malaysian side of the Causeway when they are too early.
Although Saturdays are weekends to most people, they are not so for people who need to work another half a day on those days. This is a major oversight for many people who choose to cross the Straits of Johor on Saturdays.
From Singapore → Johor Bahru:
1. Malaysians who do not go back to their hometown on Friday night will do so on Saturday morning.
2. Weekend holiday-goers for 2 days in Malaysia will also cross the Causeway on this day. Most tour buses will depart as early as 6am to avoid the congestion that usually worsen around 8am. Due to high demands on Saturdays, there will be more busloads of people reaching the checkpoint — from no less than 10 bus companies.
3. Singapore day-trippers will join in the fray around 9am. Since most shopping centres open at 10am, they usually won't go in too early. Most people ended up reaching the shopping centres after 12pm or turned around at Woodlands Checkpoint.
4. As usual, at around 9am, cargo-carrying or empty trucks will begin to go over the Causeway to Johor Bahru — for those who need to work on Saturdays.
5. After 12pm, Malaysian workers, including those residing in Singapore and need to work on Saturdays, will start to turn up at the Causeway. This adds more crowd to the border-crossing and can last till 8pm. Note that first shifts may end at 12pm and second shifts at 4pm on Saturdays.
6. After 5pm, more Singapore day-trippers will cross the Causeway for dinner or late-night supper in JB. These group of people usually drives and extend the traffic congestion to 10pm.
From Johor Bahru → Singapore:
1. In the morning, Malaysian workers will cross the Causeway, as usual, for those needing to work on Saturdays. Those on second shift will cross over after 10am but the number is not a lot.
2. Malaysian day-trippers or tourists to Singapore will cross the Causeway at any time of the day. Singapore day-trippers will return home usually towards end of the day. Traffic from JB to Singapore is usually easy.
The good thing about Sundays is that majority of the commuter-workers don't need to work — except those in retail line.
From Singapore → Johor Bahru:
1. Singapore day-trippers will go over around 9am and at any time of the day — usually before 2pm.
2. Malaysian tourists to Singapore will return at any time of the day.
From Johor Bahru → Singapore:
1. Usually after 3pm, holiday-goers and day-trippers will start to appear at the Causeway to return to Singapore. This may last till 8pm or later.
2. Malaysian workers (normally PRs) residing in Singapore and need to work the following day will also return to Singapore near the end of the day, usually after 4pm.
NORMAL-WEEK TIME CHARTS
Putting all the information together, we came up with the time charts below using our best estimation. Each shade represents 20% congestion probability (white is 0% to 20%). The darkest shade is 80% to 100% congested.
For travellers and day-trippers, the best time to go to Johor Bahru on a weekday starts around 8am and back by 4pm or after 8pm. It is better to avoid going on Saturdays as the traffic congestion at the checkpoints can result in 2-4 hours long queue — the worst record was 9 hours. On Sundays, the best duration will be between 8am to 3pm.
For those who are NOT driving, read this too:
Read on further for the impact of school and public holidays.
EFFECT OF SCHOOL HOLIDAYS
During school holidays, the number of holiday-goers between the two countries will increase on all days. The time-charts are generally still the same as they are characterised by the larger population of commuter-workers. However, the total number of tourists and day-trippers crossing the border may increase by 2 to 3 folds - mostly school children.
So, weekdays will be like any weekends, and weekends will become nightmares.
EFFECT OF PUBLIC HOLIDAYS
For public holidays and observance days that fall on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays, it is not an easy task to predict the congestion probability — it depends on the nature of each holiday, who will be affected and whether it is a holiday in Singapore only, Malaysia only or both countries.
For example, the Chinese Ching Ming Festival (清明节), or Tomb-Sweeping Day, falls on a weekday in April 2017, but the Causeway and Tuas Link experienced traffic congestion on weekends as early as 3 weeks in advance. Traffic held-ups reached as long as 9 hours at one point on a Saturday.
Ching Ming Festival is the time where many Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia will cross the Straits of Johor to pay respects to their ancestors — it doesn't have to be on the actual day. Travellers and day-trippers do take note of this period.
However, public holidays that fall on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays or Mondays are easier to guess. Despite differences in nature of the holidays, they have one thing in common — long weekends.
a. What if Saturday is a public holiday in Singapore?
In general, there will not be much differences from a normal weekend, except that more Malaysians residing in Singapore may want to go back on Friday night or Saturday morning. This is a long weekend for those who need to work on Saturdays.
Sunday is still a better time for day-trippers.
b. What if Friday is a public holiday in Singapore?
There are two possible scenarios: 1) Saturday is a off day for all; 2) Some workers still need to work half-day on that Saturday.
For both scenarios, Friday becomes a congestion day on the Causeway. Thursday night will be highly congested than usual.
For scenario 1, Saturday and Sunday will be easy days for travellers and day-trippers.
For scenario 2, workers needing to work on Saturday will still go to Singapore in the morning and cross back to JB in the afternoon. This should not pose much of a problem to travellers and day-trippers from Singapore as they are travelling in opposite directions.
c. What if Sunday and Monday are public holidays in Singapore?
When Sunday is a public holiday in Singapore or Malaysia, Monday will definitely be a holiday. Saturday will be highly congested with more Singapore PRs wanting to go back and more 3-day holiday-goers to Malaysia.
Sunday (whole day) and Monday (before 4pm) are better times for day-trippers and travellers.
Below are some screenshots of the road conditions on the Causeway on Christmas Eve of 2017, a Sunday, using Checkpoint.sg mobile app or website. Notice that at 9:30am and 11:20am respectively, there were not many vehicles going over to Johor Bahru.
There were more vehicles coming into Singapore — probably because Singapore has more vibrant Christmas events than Malaysia.
For Singapore day-trippers to Malaysia, go on Sunday on normal weekends or when Saturday is a public holiday. Go on Saturday if Friday is a holiday and on Sunday if Monday is a holiday. This is how I have been going in and out of Malaysia — for food hunts — without wasting time in traffic jams.
For Singapore holiday-goers, don't try to save annual leaves by sticking to weekends. Being caught in traffic jams should not be part of a travel plan — plan to avoid the congestion rather than allocating time to be caught in one. Taking a day's leave on Friday can avoid going on a congested Saturday. Similarly, a Monday leave can avoid coming back on a congested Sunday evening.
For foreign travellers (including Malaysia holiday-goers to Singapore), avoid the peak hours (in darker shades on the charts) when crossing either into Singapore or Malaysia. The best time is always on weekdays or Sunday morning.
Going to JB for a shopping trip?