Updated: Oct 4
Going through Singapore-Johor customs via Woodlands Checkpoint to Johor Bahru is a breeze to me since I cross the border about 2~3 times a month. The frequent trips allowed me to observe the flow of people across the border and find ways to save time. I have a number of little "tricks" that I applied to my advantage whenever I go over for breathers.
I am sharing these tips here to help others too, in order to help myself — if everyone can get through the customs faster, there will be lesser queuing time for everyone, including you and me.
Note that these tips are for travellers who visit Malaysia from Singapore using public buses.
PART 1: Going to Malaysia
#1. Avoid Peak Hours
If you choose to cross the border during peak hours, the longest time spent will be waiting in queues, either for buses or in immigration halls. Most of the tips in this post may be applicable but they will not be able to reduce long queuing time — which can be 1~3 hours or more during peak hours. So, do avoid peak hours if you do not want to be held up for long hours at the border-crossing.
#2. Skip Kranji MRT Station
To most people crossing the border, Kranji MRT Station serves as a convenient pick-up point with SBS Transit Service 170X and Causeway Link CW1 ferrying passengers to Woodlands Checkpoint directly from the station. At the bus-stop opposite Kranji Station, SBS Transit Service 160 and 170 will also ferry passengers to the checkpoint. On a side note, SMRT Service 178 also stops at the bus-stop before heading to Woodlands Train Checkpoint.
During peak hours, the queues for both Service 170X and CW1 can snake around the station, sometimes taking hours just to board the buses. When the buses are stuck in heavy congestions between Johor Bahru (starting on the highway leading to JB CIQ) and Kranji Station, there can be no-shows of the buses for 30 minutes or more.
It will be better if you can use any of the other border-crossing bus services to travel from your place of residence to Woodlands Checkpoint and skip queuing at Kranji MRT Station during peak hours. Alternatively, head to Woodlands Train Checkpoint and walk over to the departure hall of Woodlands Checkpoint.
#3. Use Woodlands-Johor Shuttle Train
Apart from using bus services to Johor, a shuttle train service is also available. Known as KTM Shuttle Tebrau, the train service transits between Johor Bahru train depot and Woodlands Train Checkpoint only. The 5-minute train journey offers a better way to skirt around any congestions on the Causeway, especially during peak hours.
The ticket per person from Woodlands to Johor is S$5 and from Johor to Woodlands is RM5. Tickets may be booked in advanced. However, train services follow a time-table and is less flexible than using bus services. Pre-booking of tickets is necessary during peak hours both to Malaysia and back.
Train schedules can be found at KTMB website.
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 the Singapore Immigration & Checkpoint Authority (ICA website) — the following 3 tips will apply to you.
(As no photographs are allowed in the immigration clearance areas, do try to picture the scenario as I try my best to describe them.)
#4. Use Automated Gantries Further to the Sides
For those who are familiar with Woodlands Checkpoint, the manned 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 enter it. Using the ACS to go through immigration checks is faster than using manual clearance, which is usually for foreigners, non-registered or non-biometric passport holders and those with issues using the ACS.
Singapore passport holders are dedicated several gantries nearer to the manual immigration counters. Most Singaporeans will head for these gantries — having to walk lesser — and often resulting in longer queues.
To go through the automated clearance system faster, walk a little more to the gantries for "Singapore, Singapore PR and Malaysia Passport", which are further to the left but just beside the the "Singapore Passport Only" gantries. The queues are usually shorter during non-peak hours and there are more machines.
#5. Wait, Insert & Press Down to Scan Passport
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, the scanner may not be triggered and result in a short delay. However, this is trivial as the person in front may need some time to clear the ACS.
2. Press down the personal particulars page of the passport to make it flush against the screen to facilitate the scanning process. Don't just insert and leave it there as any gaps will allow light to infiltrate and interfere with the scanner. If the scan fails, you will be asked to re-scan your passport 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 to the second machine — where most people will have trouble getting through.
#6. Understand the New Biometric Machines
The next machine is the newly-installed biometric scanners. It will first scan your iris and facial features, if both scans failed, you will be required to scan your thumbprint as secondary identification. Follow the instructions on the biometric machine.
1. You will be asked to look at the camera first. Remove your mask (don't just pull down the mask as it may still be covering some features on your face) as you walk towards the machine and look at the camera. Try opening your eyes wider without using your fingers. Do not put on coloured or patterned contact lenses. If the iris and facial scanners passed, you will be through the gantry in no time.
2. If the primary scanners failed, you will be prompted to scan your fingerprints. Same as Tip #3 above, if you try to beat the system, thinking that it will be faster to put your thumb on the scanner 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 resulting in longer response time. Wait until you are told to put your thumb on the scanner before doing so.
3. Remember which thumb you used when registering with ICA. Thumbprints on left and right thumbs are different. I had seen a girl failed twice at the machine before realising she should be scanning her left thumb.
On a side note, when registering your passport, do use your right thumb — it will be less awkward at the thumbprint scanner, which will be on your right side.
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 — it can be you in that queue. So, do help to "educate" those around you.
#7. Queue at the Left Lane (if taking Service 160 / 170 / 170X / SMRT 950)
All the lanes for SBS Transit Service 160 / 170 / 170X and SMRT 950 will board the next SBS Transit or SMRT bus that comes along. The left lane will board the bus via the front entrance and the right two lanes via the rear entrance. When long queues are formed at all the lanes, there will be a slight difference — the queue on the leftmost lane may be shorter since the two rightmost queues will be boarding the rear entrance.
At Johor Bahru Customs, Immigration and Quarantine Complex (JB CIQ),
#8. 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, the queues will have additional 8-10 people in each queue when all queues seem equal from behind.
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, i.e the number of 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 may be manned. It will be faster to queue for the dual-counters in the back row. At times, the officers may leave their posts during changing of shifts or washroom breaks, it may take several 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 counters will be manned. So the back-row counters may not be serviced by two officers — open your eyes and check. However, queues should be rather short during off-peak hours so it should be OK to stay put in a queue 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 — you should be able to do a quick count.
Do get your passport ready before your turn at the immigration counter. Because of 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 that twice.
#9. 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 visitors of selected nations only, but not many foreigners realised this. Foreigners without valid visa will get stuck at the immigration counters and will be sent back to Singapore. This little episode will make the officer-on-duty leave the counter to escort the foreigner(s) to the service counter to the rear.
If the foreigners have valid visa, they will be required to scan their fingerprints and will be asked some questions. It will take extra time for each foreigner. When there are a number of them in a queue, especially from a tour group, it will be better to change to another queue.
Apart from foreign travellers, there are also those on Singapore work permits who did not bring along their work permits when going over, those with passport expiring in less than 6 months and other entry issues. 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 to another queue that was slightly longer. 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 — language barrier added some delays too.
Malaysia passport holders are advised to use the "Malaysia Passport" counters specially for them for speedier clearance since scanning of fingerprints are not required. Singaporeans entering Malaysia are foreigners too, so the "All Passports" queues will usually be slower due to the need to do fingerprint scanning.
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 means to shame queue-cutters. So, don't cut queue, many eyes will be on you — some people may even be hoping to watch another "shouting drama".
#10. 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 a couple of minutes. But if you are requested to open your luggage for further inspection, it will take up longer 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 or backpacks instead of a towed luggage that will be subjected to scrutiny even though it may be empty.
After the luggage check station, 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 #7, #9 and #10) will be applicable on the way back to Singapore. And some extra tips for entering Singapore at Woodlands Checkpoint here:
#11. Don't Wear Metallic Objects on your Body
Going into Singapore, everyone will be required to go through metal detector gates and all belongings will be X-rayed regardless of luggage sizes.
Frequent travellers will know not to wear watches and belts with metal buckles, including coins in pockets and wallets, when going through customs checks at airports and border crossings. Metallic objects will trigger metal detectors 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 will result in delays.
The simplest thing to do is to dump everything on your person and in your pockets into your backpack or luggage for X-raying, regardless if they are metallic or not, and walk through the metal detector. If need be, use a belt with no metal parts, especially steel, or wear something that uses drawstring or does not require a belt. Ladies should avoid wearing clothes that have metallic accessories sewed on.
Heeding all these advices, you will be through the body checks in one pass.
#12. 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 exceeds S$100 for less than 48 hours visit to Malaysia (Singapore Customs website).
If you buy a lot of items or some expensive items, like watches, jewellery, cosmetics, etc, do keep your receipts for tax purpose. Voluntarily declare for taxing at the Customs Tax Payment Office if you know you need to pay GST. 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 excise officers when requested (more info).
Otherwise, keep your purchase 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 paying tax if you "lost" your receipts for expensive goods. All items will be verified against the excise database system and tax will be computed based on the recorded prices. If the items you bought are priced lower than the recorded prices, you have no receipts to proof otherwise.
So, do keep your receipts for faster clearance and unnecessary tax. It is better to be prepared.
#13. Declare Any Alcohols Before Baggage Checks
There is no duty-free concession for alcohol at the border-crossings between Singapore and Johor, so all alcohols are taxable. Declaring alcoholic goods is a must without demand — if alcohol is 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 and empty everything.
Other than alcohol-bottle-lookalikes, objects that look like weapons, such as guns or sharp blades, cigarette packs, chewing gums, etc, are all likely to result in delays too.
#14. Skip Bus Service 170 (if going to Kranji Station)
If you are going to Kranji MRT Station during off-peak hours, queue at the lane for Bus Service 170X. There are separate lanes for Service 160 (to Jurong East) and Service 170 (to Queen Street). However, all 3 lanes will board the next bus (160/170/170X) that comes along — except for those who are going further than Kranji MRT Station.
All 3 bus services will call at Kranji MRT Station with one difference — Service 160 and 170X will head directly to the station while Service 170 will make a loop around Woodlands Centre (additional 10-20 minutes depending on traffic conditions) before going to Kranji Station.
So, do not use Service 170 if you want to reach Kranji MRT Station sooner during off-peak hours. If the queue for Service 170X is too long, go to the lane for Service 160, it may be shorter because most people will not want to take the longer walk.
During peak hours or when there is a traffic congestion on the causeway, board any buses that come along — the next bus may be more than 30 minutes or hours away in the congestion. Alternatively, walk over to Woodlands Train Checkpoint and exit from there. You can take Service 170 to Kranji MRT Station, or other services to other destinations, at the bus stop outside the train checkpoint.
Above are the tips that I have been using to get through Singapore-Johor customs without wasting time since 2017 and they are still applicable after the border reopening on 1st April 2022. Do use them to your advantage. Also, help yourself by helping others to get through faster, share this post with them.