How to become a freelancer or self-employed in Singapore
Self-employment and freelancing makes up around 14% of the employment market in Singapore. In 2016, this amounted to 300,500 individuals running a business or trade by themselves. It’s therefore relatively easy to get started on freelancing, as long as you have skills that are in demand.
As an expat, however, this is a bit more challenging as your long-term stay in Singapore is dependent on securing employment. You may therefore consider applying for an Entrepass or registering a company in Singapore, if you’re considering freelancing as your main source of income.
Freelance work is categorised as a form of self-employment, as defined by the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS). While freelance work involves providing services in return for monetary compensation, other forms of self-employment include commission-based agency work, driving a taxi under a licensed taxi operator or running an online business.
Separately, the Ministry of Manpower defines freelancers as “own account workers” who operate a business or trade without employing any paid workers, and these make up more than 50% of the total self-employed population.
You’ll need to be a citizen or a permanent resident to conduct freelance work in Singapore legally. You’re also required to pay tax on the income earned, and contribute to your personal Medisave account, which is the mandatory medical savings programme for citizens and permanent residents.
As a foreigner, you cannot work without an Employment Pass, S-Pass or Work Permit. To get around this, your options include:
- Applying for an Entrepass, which requires incorporating a company, and raising a minimum amount of funding or seeking partnerships with approved organisations.
- Setting up a local company, which requires at least one director whose ordinarily a resident in Singapore (i.e. usual place of residence is in Singapore).
If you’re living in Singapore legally under a Dependant’s Pass (DP) or a Long Term Visit Pass (LTVP), you may not work unless you get a Employment Pass, S-Pass, Work Permit or Letter of Consent, all of which can only be applied for by an employer from the Ministry of Manpower.
The first 3 are straightforward employment permits, while the Letter of Consent caters specifically to DP and LTVP holders who are living in Singapore because of their spouse’s or partner’s Employment Pass (EP). Upon the expiry of the EP, the Letter of Consent is invalidated.
Some expats have previously worked around this employment requirement by getting their spouse or partner to register a sole proprietorship company in Singapore, and then applying for a Letter of Consent under the newly registered company. However, there are some rules you have to abide by if you want to register a sole proprietorship company as a foreigner.
There’s currently no special work passes or permits for foreigners who’d like to become a freelancer in Singapore. A company has to apply for your work pass/permit, with the exception of the EntrePass, you can apply for this pass yourself. Unfortunately, the EntrePass isn’t suitable for freelancers, as this one is meant for entrepreneurs, innovators or investors.
It costs S$70 to apply for an EntrePass, and an additional S$150 to receive it upon approval. On average, the entire application takes 8 weeks to complete.
Foreigners of all nationalities are eligible to apply, either as a seasoned entrepreneur, an established innovator, or an investor with a proven-track record.
To apply for the Entrepass as an entrepreneur or innovator, you’ll need to meet at least one of these conditions:
- Raise at least S$100,000 from recognised organisations or individuals.
- Be incubated under an approved incubator or accelerator programme.
- Hold intellectual property that offers a significant advantage over other businesses.
- Collaborated with at least one Singapore-based research institute or organisation.
- Be recognised as a successful or well-connected entrepreneur / innovator.
You don’t need a license to freelance in Singapore, although for certain trades a business license is required. For example, driving for a ride-sharing service, running a real estate agency and running a food stall all require licensing from the Land Transport Authority (LTA), the Council of Estate Agents (CEA) and the National Environmental Agency (NEA) respectively.
There are no licensing requirements to offer creative services as a freelancer. Most potential clients will only request to view a portfolio of your work, and any relevant academic certification to verify your proficiency.
A license is also not required for freelances working in software development and engineering. Again, potential clients will usually look out for a portfolio of your existing work and any academic certification instead.
Introduced in early 2017, a Private Hire Car Driver’s Vocational License (PDVL) is required for freelancers who wish to ferry passengers around Singapore in private cars. Applicants are also required to attend a 10 hour course and pay a S$40 application fee.
Since many freelance services don’t require any formal qualifications, while other specific trades require a specific license, there’s no single business license that freelancers should apply for.
If you’re engaged by a local organisation or individual as a freelancer, you may be required to register for a license depending on the business or trade. In general, you don’t need to register your services with the government.
For the following services or trades, you’ll need to apply for a license with the respective government agencies. Some trades, like conducting real estate transactions or insurance policy sales, require you to attend a mandatory course and pass a written examination.
|Service / Trade||Government Agency|
|Real Estate Salesperson||Council of Estate Agencies|
|Insurance Agent||Monetary Association of Singapore|
|Taxi Driver / Private Car Driver||Land Transport Authority|
|Food Stall Hawker||National Environment Agency|
If you’re receiving money from abroad, you’ll need a bank or remittance agency to transfer your money across international borders. Banks and remittance agencies like Western Union and Moneygram will typically use a higher exchange rate to convert to Singapore Dollars, and then charge an administrative fee on top of it.
For example to receive US$1,000, expect to pay (excluding exchange rate differences):
|DBS Bank (receiving bank)||S$10 + fees of overseas remitting bank|
|OCBC Bank (receiving bank)||S$10 + fees of overseas remitting bank|
|UOB Bank (receiving bank)||S$10 + fees of overseas remitting bank|
To save on these fees and surcharges, consider using a Transferwise borderless account, which holds money in up to 27 currencies with more constantly being added. It lets you send and receive money easily, and saves up to 5% compared to banks or PayPal. You can also exchange currencies at the real exchange rate, the same one you find on a simple Google search.
Income from freelance work is taxable in Singapore, and the rates depend on the status of your tax residency. If you’ve stayed and worked for 183 days or more in the previous year, you’ll be treated as a tax resident and have to pay tax based on a progressive tax rate of between 2% to 22%, depending on income.
Non-tax residents need to pay a flat withholding tax rate determined by their type of income. For freelancers working as a professional (consultant, trainer, coach etc), you may choose to be taxed at 15% of your gross income or 22% on your net income. If you’re working as a public entertainer, you’ll need to pay 10% of your taxable income.
If you’re an Australian tax resident, you’ll need to pay tax on the income earned in Singapore. Generally, this is the case if you’re working overseas with an intention to return in the future. If you’re deemed to have left Australia permanently, you’ll be taxed only on any income earned in Australia, like rental, pensions and capital gains on Australian assets.
If you’re a UK tax resident, you’ll need to report foreign income above £2,000, or any money brought into the UK. Tax residency applies if you spent 183 or more days in the UK in the tax year, or if your only home was in the UK and you spent at least 30 days there.
On the other hand, you’ll be treated as a non-tax resident if you:
- spent 16 or fewer days in the UK in the tax year,
- spent 46 days in the UK if you haven’t been a tax resident for the past 3 tax years, or
- work full time, with at least 35 hours a week outside the UK and spent fewer than 91 days in the country,
US citizens, permanent residents and US tax residents need to pay tax on income earned in Singapore. To meet US tax residency status, you’ll have to stay in the US for at least 31 days, and a total of 183 days over the past 3 years, based on a calculation that discounts the number of days spent in the earlier years.
Singapore has signed Avoidance of Double Taxation Agreements (DTAs) with numerous countries including Australia and the UK. These agreements prevent tax residents working overseas from paying tax twice, to both their country of tax residency and the country where the work was done. Refer to the respective agreements to see what kind of taxes are payable to which country.
If your skills and nature of business allows you work with an international clientele, online freelance platforms are your best bet to get jobs and clients. Browse UpWork, Freelancer and Guru to look for jobs, or list your profile and portfolio and let clients find you.
If you’re looking to find jobs or clients in Singapore, you can post small ads on public noticeboards legally, or advertise them online on popular Singaporean forums and online marketplaces like Carousell and Gumtree.
In recent years, many co-working spaces have been set up all across Singapore. The quality of work environment and facilities usually varies proportionally to the membership fees, but here are several well-regarded places to check out:
You can also compare the facilities and membership rates at GorillaSpace, which has a wide range of co-working spaces and commercial offices for rent.
Citizens and permanent residents in Singapore are required to pay for the mandatory national health insurance Medishield. For an affordable annual premium, this covers the fees for some expensive medical treatment and in-patient hospitalisation expenses.
If you’re a foreigner, you’ll want to purchase private health insurance in Singapore as medical treatment is expensive in Singapore.
If you prefer to go with a bank that's a major presence in your home country, you can also open a personal banking account with one of these international banks:
To be an effective freelancer, you’ll need to deliver quality work to your clients on time. Here are some tips to help you stand out:
- Ensure your online profiles on freelance platforms are detailed, and demonstrate your skills, academic qualifications and portfolio.
- Find a conducive place to work from, either a co-working space or a small private office. Crowded cafes and your bedroom, though cheap and tempting, might not be the best places to keep you focussed on your work.
- If you can’t afford an office space, work from public libraries. On weekdays, during office hours, you’ll be able to work in air-conditioned comfort and use the shared desks, power outlets and free WiFi.
- Deliver work on time and meet the agreed scope and standards. If you feel like you can’t handle a project, inform the client right from the start.
- Even if a client is an individual or based overseas, agree on the scope of work and sign a contract on it. Even a simple email acknowledgment by both parties may be legally binding, and is invaluable in case a dispute arises.
- Once you’re done with a job, always ask for feedback, both positive and negative. Improve on the negative points, and politely ask your clients to post a review online if they’re positive. Every 5-star review goes a long way to securing more jobs and enhancing your reputation as a freelancer!
Freelancers and self-employed individuals play an important role in Singapore’s economy, especially since many companies prefer short-term contract workers instead of permanent employees these days. While you get to choose who to work with and how you want to work, not having a steady paycheck means you’re at the risk of not earning enough for the month. On the upside though, you have no limits on your income, as long as you can take on more work and deliver value to your clients.
If you’re not a citizen or a permanent resident, doing freelance work locally will be difficult because you’d need an employer to qualify for long-term stay in Singapore. If you do manage to secure a long term visit pass or dependant pass, look for overseas clients and work over the internet. As long as you have the right skills and charge a reasonable price, the world’s your oyster!
This publication is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to cover every aspect of the topics with which it deals. It is not intended to amount to advice on which you should rely. You must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content in this publication. The information in this publication does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from TransferWise Limited or its affiliates. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.
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