Changi Airport Goes Passport-Free: 12 New Laws Under the Immigration Act

Singapore Jewel Changi airport

Soon, you will be able to clear immigration without having to produce your passport, making the process of travelling much more hassle-free.

On 18 September 2023, several amendments to the Immigration Act were passed to strengthen the Immigration and Checkpoint Authority’s (ICA) operations. The Immigration Act governs the movement of people into and out of the country, such as entry into and departure from Singapore, Singapore visas for non-citizens, entry and re-entry permits and procedures on arrival and departure from Singapore.

What are the New Laws to be Introduced? 

Among the amendments made, new laws will be introduced to allow for end-to-end biometric clearance at the airport and checkpoints, which means that passports will no longer be needed for clearing immigration. This is to support the ICA’s New Clearance Concept, which was first introduced in 2019 with the goal of making automated clearance the norm at checkpoints.

Further changes include new provisions enabling the ICA to identify undesirable travellers in advance and prevent them from boarding airplanes, trains and vessels, restricting the entry of non-citizens on public health grounds, and introducing new immigration-related offences.

Some of the policy reasons behind the amendments include security threats such as terrorism and public health emergencies such as pandemics, which necessitate stricter border controls and regulation. Furthermore, a general increase in the number of travellers calls for changes to be made to ensure that our immigration systems are able to effectively cope with high traveller volume.

Taken collectively, the amendments aim to achieve the following broad objectives:

  • Digitalise and automate immigration clearance
  • Future-proof our immigration systems and processes against new and evolving challenges
  • Strengthen our border controls
  • Enhance the administration of immigration passes and permits

The new laws within these broad objectives include:

  1. Use of an automated clearance system and end-to-end biometrics 
  2. Collection of passenger and crew information for any vessel, aircraft or train that arrives, leaves or is due to leave Singapore
  3. Empowering Controller of Immigration to issue No-Boarding Directives
  4. Prohibiting arrival and entry of non-citizens on public health grounds
  5. Introduction of new offence of knowingly giving false or misleading information, and tiered penalties for the offence 
  6. Detention, custodial management, and repatriation
  7. Enhancing ICA’s taking over of protective security functions
  8. Introduction of fines in lieu of caning for exempted offenders
  9. Ancillary powers for immigration officers when acting on restraining orders concerning children 
  10. Removal of statutory appeals
  11. Loss of PR status
  12. Simplified process for varying immigration permit and pass conditions 

Digitalise and Automate Immigration Clearance

1. Use of an automated clearance system and end-to-end biometrics 

With the new amendments, travellers may clear immigration using an automated clearance system without the need to produce their passports. However, it should be noted that a traveller may still be required to appear before an immigration officer to clear immigration even after using the automated clearance system, and he/she will be required to produce their passport in such an instance.

The departure process will make use of biometrics end-to-end for a more seamless travelling experience. More specifically, biometrics will be utilised to create a single token of authentication that can be used at various automated touchpoints such as bag-drop, immigration and boarding. Hence, travellers will not need to produce their travel documents multiple times at each of these touchpoints.

In order to support this initiative, passenger and crew information will be disclosed to the airport operator for purposes such as bag drop, gate boarding, passenger tracing for security purposes and verifying the identity of travellers. Hence, the purposes for which the Minister may authorise disclosure of passenger and crew information will be expanded pursuant to the amendments.

Future-Proof Our Immigration Systems and Processes Against New and Evolving Challenges

2. Collection of passenger and crew information for any vessel, aircraft or train that arrives, leaves or is due to leave Singapore

Under the current law, a transport operator of a vessel, aircraft or train that arrives, leaves or is due to leave Singapore must provide a list of passengers and crew members and their particulars to an immigration officer — this enables the ICA to identify undesirable travellers in advance before they reach our checkpoints.

The amendments impose more stringent standards on the quality of the lists submitted — they must be complete and accurate. In addition, travellers may be required by the ICA to provide their personal particulars (such as travel history or health status) should the need arise upon arrival.

3. Empowering Controller of Immigration to issue No-Boarding Directives

A new provision in the Immigration Act will be introduced to allow the Controller of Immigration to issue No-Boarding Directives (NBDs), which prevent undesirable persons overseas from boarding modes of transport bound for Singapore.

NBDs may be issued against both passengers and crew members intending to board, regardless of whether they intend to enter into or transit through Singapore. Through the issuance of NBDs, the ICA does not need to remove such individuals when they arrive in Singapore since they can be dealt with at the point of departure instead.

NBDs are issued against:

  • Prohibited immigrants;
  • Persons who pose a health or safety risk;
  • Persons whose presence would be undesirable in Singapore (unless they have a valid permit or pass to enter Singapore in which case an NBD cannot be issued*); and
  • Persons who would not be issued a permit or pass to enter Singapore (unless they merely intend to transit through Singapore in which case an NBD cannot be issued*).

*NBDs also cannot be issued against Singapore citizens.

If an NBD is issued against a particular traveller, the Controller may give notice of the NBD to the master, operator, owner, agent, and/or charterer of the transport operator.

If the people who have been given notice of the NBD (i.e. the master, operator, owner, agent, and/or charterer) against a specific traveller fail to comply with the NBD by allowing that traveller to board the transport operator and reach Singapore, they could be guilty of an offence. making them liable to a fine of up to $10,000.

Any other related person who knows that an NBD has been issued against the traveller but nevertheless enables that traveller to board could be guilty of an offence and may be liable to a fine of up to $10,000, imprisonment of up to 6 months, or both.

4. Prohibiting arrival and entry of non-citizens on public health grounds

To enable the authorities to better manage cross-border public health concerns, amendments have been introduced to restrict the entry of foreigners into Singapore during a pandemic.

Under the new law, the Minister will be empowered to prohibit the entry of persons into Singapore if it is expedient to do so in the interest of public health. This can apply even to individuals with valid entry permits or passes, such as Permanent Residents (PRs) or long-term pass holders.

5. Introduction of new offence of knowingly giving false or misleading information, and tiered penalties for the offence 

Currently, it is an offence to make a false statement to obtain an entry permit or pass into Singapore.

Under the new law, it will be an offence to obtain any entry permit into Singapore by knowingly giving information which is false or misleading, or by omitting any matter without which the information is misleading.

Those found guilty of this offence may be liable to a fine of up to $8,000, imprisonment of up to 12 months, or both. If one gives such information without knowing that it is false or misleading, he or she may be subject to a fine of up to $4,000.

Strengthen our Border Controls

6. Detention, custodial management, and repatriation

Under the current law, travellers may be denied entry into Singapore due to invalid visas or expiring travel documents, and will therefore have to leave. However, it may not be possible for them to leave straight away (i.e. because the next available flight is days away or certain arrangements need to be made for their departure). Hence, the new amendments will allow immigration officers to place these travellers in holding facilities such as an immigration depot or a place designated by the Controller.

A new provision will be introduced to regulate custodial management measures within these immigration depots. Under the amendments, the Minister will be empowered to make regulations to maintain or manage any immigration depot — this includes the care, control, discipline and medical examination of any person kept within an immigration depot. In this regard, regulations may be made to control unruly persons in the depot or to assess casualties in the event of medical emergencies. Additionally, different provisions may be made for different immigration depots.

Finally, a series of amendments will allow the Controller to remove persons other than prohibited immigrants from Singapore and send them back to their place of embarkation, their birth country or any other place designated by the Controller. Under the current law, the ICA is legally empowered to recover funds from “prohibited immigrants” to cover the cost of their repatriation. The new law will allow the same to be done for other categories of persons apart from “prohibited immigrants” by including “specified immigrant[s]” within the relevant provision. Examples of specified immigrants include persons who have been convicted of certain offences under the Immigration Act, such as attempting to enter Singapore at an unauthorised landing place.

7. Enhancing ICA’s taking over of protective security functions

Currently, immigration officers can only stop and search persons or vehicles for immigration-related offences; police intervention is required for non-immigration offences. Immigration offences are governed by section 57 of the Immigration Act and include offences such as attempting to unlawfully enter Singapore, abetting someone to unlawfully enter Singapore, and obstructing an immigration officer in carrying out his duty. On the other hand, non-immigration offences are governed by other acts, such as drug trafficking which falls under the purview of the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Hence, new laws will be enacted to empower immigration officers to intervene even for non-immigration offences — they will be granted powers of arrest and will be able to detain any vehicle driven by the person suspected to be involved in such an offence, without police officers having to be present.

However, if an immigration officer seizes and detains a vehicle, he or she must immediately inform a police officer that a seizure has been carried out, hand over the vehicle to a police officer and inform the vehicle owner of why the vehicle has been seized. In the same vein, if an immigration officer arrests a person for a non-immigration offence, he or she must immediately inform an authorised officer of the arrest, hand over the person to an authorised officer, and cannot detain the person for a period exceeding 24 hours.

Further, to prevent travellers from evading examination, the ICA will be empowered under the new law to give instructions to all travellers arriving in or leaving Singapore (where previously instructions were limited only to arriving travellers). Such instructions may include asking travellers to queue at specific lines or to proceed to a waiting area.

8. Introduction of fines in lieu of caning for exempted offenders

Currently, female immigration offenders and male offenders over the age of 50 cannot be caned for their offences — such offenders may instead be liable for an additional term of imprisonment not exceeding 12 months. With changes to the law, males who have been sentenced to caning but are subsequently found medically unfit for caning may be given a fine in lieu of caning.

9. Ancillary powers for immigration officers when acting on restraining orders concerning children 

The courts may issue a Restraining Order preventing a child from being taken out of Singapore — amendments have been introduced to better enable ICA to ensure the child’s safety and well-being in such an instance.

Under the new law, an immigration officer may temporarily keep the child in an authorised area until either a specified person (i.e. the child’s parent or legal guardian) or a police officer accompanies the child out of the authorised area (but without leaving Singapore). The officer may also allow any person travelling with the child to remain with him or her within the authorised area. In addition, immigration officers are protected from liability as long as they have acted “in good faith and with reasonable care” when exercising their powers in relation to the child.

Enhance the Administration of Immigration Passes and Permits

10. Removal of statutory appeals

With the amendments, foreigners no longer have the right to make statutory appeals to the Minister regarding their stay in Singapore — the rationale being that for the sake of public interest, foreigners should not expect to be granted the right to enter or stay in Singapore. However, should relevant new facts and circumstances arise, foreigners may still ask for the Controller to reconsider decisions that have been made regarding their stay.

11. Loss of PR status

The change in the law also seeks to clarify when a PR is considered to have lost their PR status. Presently, when a PR is outside Singapore without a valid re-entry permit, he or she is deemed to have lost their PR status. Once the re-entry permit has expired, the PR has a grace period of 1 month to apply for a re-entry permit, which would restore their PR status. However, the ICA has allowed some PRs who have missed the deadline to reinstate their PR status if they had legitimate reasons (i.e. if they had been admitted to a hospital overseas).

When the new law comes into force, a PR who is overseas without a valid re-entry permit has to apply for a new one within a prescribed period of 6 months. If they fail to do so, they will lose their PR status immediately and there will be no chance of reinstatement in such an instance. They will have to make a fresh application to be a PR again.

12. Simplified process for varying immigration permit and pass conditions 

Finally, changes in the law will simplify the process of adding new conditions for immigration permits that have already been issued, or changing pre-existing conditions within these permits. Currently, the ICA must inform permit holders of changes in conditions before inviting them to make representations before the changes can be enacted. Under the new law, ICA does not need to invite permit holders to make representations and can simply effect the changes by giving notice to the relevant permit holders.

In addition, new provisions will be introduced to allow ICA to impose new conditions on permit, pass and certificate holders, particularly during emergencies such as a pandemic. The ICA may also regulate the conduct of these individuals by “prescribing the duties and responsibilities of a holder of a permit, pass or certificate”.

To conclude, some of the key amendments to the Immigration Act include allowing for end-to-end biometric clearance which makes travelling much more convenient, empowering the authorities to be better equipped at handling emergencies such as pandemics, strengthening the ICA’s protective security functions as well as clarifying the status of PRs.

If you would like further advice on some of the amendments that introduce offences with criminal penalties, you may wish to consult a criminal defence lawyer.

A criminal defence lawyer can explain the new laws in greater detail, assess your situation (if you have been charged with an offence under the new law) and advise you on the appropriate steps to take moving forward.

Do refer to our list of highly rated criminal lawyers in Singapore to kickstart your search. You can also use our Find a Lawyer service to assist you in finding a criminal lawyer that best suits your needs.