A primer for potential expats
A lot of people like to daydream about moving somewhere new, living a better life.
There are some other things to think about that many of us overlook. What does it take to immigrate? What rights do you have in another country? What should you know about Canada before you move? What happens to taxes?
You can’t just apply for citizenship
Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about their citizenship or what it takes to move to another country. Most people are aware of the American green card and the EU blue card, but we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what they really are.
You can’t just show up at the Canadian border with your passport and hope they let you in. Although you used to be able to.
Most people enter Canada as residents. This is usually because they have a job offer that comes with a work permit or they’re taking classes on a student visa. The working holiday visa program is another popular option for young people. It is assumed that residents will return to their country of nationality.
People who are settled permanently in Canada are permanent residents. Most people become permanent residents by marrying a Canadian or based on their skills. If you have PR status, you have almost all the rights of a citizen, but you can’t vote and you must remain in Canada for a certain amount of time.
After you’ve been living in Canada as a permanent resident for four years, you’re eligible to become a Canadian citizen. This does not happen automatically, you must apply for citizenship. Canada allows you to retain your original nationality, but some countries don’t allow dual citizenship.
So what’s the difference between an expat and an immigrant?
An expat is living in another country, but intends to return to their country of origin. The country they’re in isn’t their home, it’s just where they’re living at the moment.
An immigrant has moved permanently to another country. Their new country is now their home, even if they’re not a citizen. While they likely return to their old country to visit friends and family, they’re never going to move back. They expect to spend the rest of their lives in their new country.
Statuses in Canada and the rights that come with them
Everyone in Canada is protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
US citizens can open bank accounts in Canada, buy a home, or enroll in courses lasting less than six months without any special status.
Your rights as a visitor, student, temporary worker, or resident in Canada would be the same, regardless of where you’re from. The only difference is whether or not you require a visa and how long that visa is for. Visitors from many countries don’t require a visa to visit Canada.
Visitor to Canada
US passport holders can visit Canada for up to six months without a visa. They can also engage in business covered by NAFTA. US citizens are exempt from the requirement to have an electronic travel authorization. You may have to:
- Provide detailed information about the reason for your trip and your plans
- Undergo a search
- Prove that you’re the guardian of any kids you have with you
- Prove you have enough money for your trip
You can bring your own personal baggage and vehicles into Canada, but you may owe taxes on anything you leave in Canada. If you declare goods when you arrive and take them with you when you leave, you won’t owe duty, but may be required to leave a security deposit for those items.
You can be turned away at the border for any number of reasons. You need to be in good health, have proper travel documents, and convince the immigration officer that you will leave Canada within six months.
Any US citizen can visit Canada, so long as they’re not inadmissible.
Temporary Worker in Canada
Temporary workers in Canada are protected by Canadian laws and must pay taxes.
Learn how you can become a temporary worker in Canada.
Canadian permanent residents
- Can live, work, or study in Canada
- Are able to get most of the same benefits as citizens
- Must pay taxes and follow all laws at the federal, provincial, and municipal levels
- Can’t vote or run for public office
- Can join the Canadian armed forces
- Can’t hold certain jobs that require high-level security clearance
- May be deported if convicted of a serious criminal offense
Healthcare in Canada is managed at the provincial level, so while you’re eligible, you may need to meet other requirements such as living there for a certain amount of time.
Canadian permanent residents can risk losing their status if they don’t live in Canada for two years out of every five, calculated on a rolling basis.
You’ll need to carry your US passport and your PR card when traveling outside the country. Allowing the card to expire doesn’t mean you’ve lost PR status.
Learn how you can become a permanent resident in Canada.
You can apply to become a Canadian citizen after living in Canada four years as a permanent resident. As a US citizen, you can be a dual citizen of both countries.
- Live, work, or go to school in Canada
- Vote in federal, provincial, territorial, or local elections, unless they’ve been living outside of Canada for more than five years
- Express yourself, gather peacefully and groups, and practice your religion freely
- Enter, remain in, or leave the country
- Be treated with the same respect, dignity, and consideration regardless of personal characteristics
- Have information presented, participate in government, and receive services in either English or French
Canadian citizens can
- Join the armed forces
- Benefit from social welfare programs, such as healthcare, which may have residency requirements
- Eliminate discrimination and injustice, help others in the community, and protect our heritage and environment
Canadian citizens have the duty to
- Respect the rights and freedoms of others
- Obey Canada’s laws and pay taxes
- Participate in the democratic process by serving on a jury
- Respect Canada’s official languages and multicultural heritage
New Canadian citizens get the Cultural Access Pass, allowing you to visit cultural institutions for free during their first year of citizenship.
Serious about moving?
Some things you should know about Canada
Canada welcomes around a quarter of a million immigrants each year. Unlike most western nations, Canadians generally support their high per capita immigration rate. Support for immigration is increasing and all major Canadian political parties support it.
Because Canadian immigration is based primarily on a points system, immigrants to Canada are better educated and better paid than immigrants to the United States. Many of Canada’s highest educated workers were born outside of Canada.
Nearly half of Canada’s immigrants settle in the Greater Toronto Area.
The capital is Ottawa, Ontario
Ten provinces and three territories, making eleven co-sovereign jurisdictions
Canada is part of the Commonwealth
Toronto is the largest city
Quebec is basically a different country
Newfoundland was a self-governing country until 1949
No, Canada is not a frigid polar land.
Canada is a really big country. Most of the population is within 100 miles of the US border, so it’s not terribly different.
I’ve found Toronto to be a few degrees cooler than New York City, so the summers aren’t as brutal and the winters are a little rougher. Only in Toronto they have underground walkways and are prepared for anything, whereas, my neighbourhood in Brooklyn never got shovelled and the subway would be shut down without notice.
Quality of life
Canadian cities frequently place at or near the top of quality of life rankings. Canadians have a higher level of life satisfaction. Canadians get more paid time off. Parents get 50 weeks of paid leave to welcome new children. Canadians work fewer hours. Fewer marriages break up. The infant mortality rate is lower and the life expectancy is longer. Net worths are higher. Brag, brag, brag.
Canada hasn’t fixed discrimination, but overall Canadians are much more accepting. There are fewer incidences of bias and they’re less extreme. If you’re a visible minority, your odds are better in Canada. Income disparity is a problem in Canada, but a much smaller problem compared to the US.
Canada is much safer than the US. Non-violent crime rates are roughly similar, but violent crimes are much, much lower.
Canadians who live in Vancouver, Toronto, or Montreal will complain endlessly about how expensive it is. Coming from New York, I find this adorable. Canadian cities are significantly less expensive than their American counterparts. The best example is real estate, which is horrifically expensive unless you’ve ever looked at renting or buying in New York or San Francisco…or London.
If you’re not coming from a city, you may find the cost of living to be higher in Canada. The price of goods in Canada reflects the actual cost of the items, whereas, in the US, the government covers the cost of corporate pollution and wages too low for many workers to live off of.
It’s hard to compare tax rates between the US and Canada because there are so many variables. I haven’t filed taxes in Canada yet, but it sounds like it’ll be comparable. Only my taxes will include nearly all of my healthcare costs, saving me a chunk of money when compared to how much I paid per pay period for my employer based health insurance plan in the US. The thought of never calling (or faxing!) an insurance company again brings me great joy.
The US taxes your worldwide income, it’s true. Being a successful American expat comes at a cost. While living abroad, you aren’t taxed in the US on the first $95k USD of earned income. You also get tax breaks for things like housing costs. The US gives you credit for any taxes you pay in Canada. It also has agreements with Canada so you’re covered under Social Security in whichever country you end up in, with credit for your employment in both countries.
Canada has a publicly funded single payer healthcare system, with private organizations providing services and the government health insurance covering most costs. The government doesn’t provide any care directly and all patient information remains confidential.
Imagine never having to fill out — or dispute — insurance claims again. Changing jobs or being unemployed has no impact on your coverage. You don’t have to switch doctors when your plan changes or call around to find doctors who take your insurance. There are no lifetime limits or pre-existing conditions. You won’t get hit by unexpected bills for pre-approved surgeries because someone who treated you while you were unconscious was out of network.
There are no deductibles on basic healthcare and co-pays are very low compared to what most people pay in the US. Each province runs its own system and they may have residency requirements for enrollment. In Ontario, you have to be living in the province for three months before you are eligible for healthcare (OHIP).
Patients choose their family doctor (aka GP) and the family doctor makes referrals to specialists as needed. Preventive care is encouraged. If you encounter a rare disease and a proven treatment is only available in another country, the government will pay for you to fly there and get the care you need.
As you may have heard, there can be waiting lists for treatments that aren’t urgent, although these seem comparable to similar services in the US, depending on your insurance coverage and ability to pay. You can get an idea of what the waiting times for something like cancer surgery are like. People of means who opt not to wait can receive care anywhere in the world and pay out-of-pocket. For all the criticisms, Canadians have a longer life expectancy than Americans.
People in Canada don’t die of curable diseases. The survivorship rate for serious diseases like cancer are much higher in the US than in countries with public healthcare systems, but the mortality rates are the same. That suggests people in the US are being diagnosed and treated for conditions that could have been left untreated.
The system doesn’t cover everything. You’re on your own for prescription drugs, home care, long-term care, vision and dental. Most jobs cover these with supplemental insurance. Prescription drug prices are negotiated by the provincial governments to keep costs down, leading to many Americans buying their medications from Canadian pharmacies. Mental health care is covered in some circumstances. Coverage varies from province to province. Only about 15% of healthcare costs are paid out-of-pocket.
Canada has no restrictions on abortion. Medical marijuana is legal.
Education is provided for free through high school. School systems are managed by the provinces. Schooling is offered in both English and French. Canadian 15-year-olds score above Americans on the OECD’s tests.
The thing that stands out to Americans is that there are publicly funded religious schools in Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, because separate schooling was guaranteed in 1867 and it’s never gone away.
More than half of Canadians have a college degree, a rate far higher than any other country.
Canadian colleges and universities may not be as internationally known as big name US schools, but all Canadian universities provide a high-quality academic experience, while the US struggles with diploma mills and predatory for-profit colleges. Canadian schools generally have much lower tuition rates, sometimes half as much, even when US students are paying international rates.
The Canadian dollar and the US dollar are not the same, although they often have a nearly equal exchange rate. The Canadian economy has strong ties to the US economy.
Most Canadians work in the service industry. Logging and oil are big industries, along with car and aircraft production. Seafood and tech are also big, even though Canada is overshadowed by competitors in the global arena. Most of the goods flowing in and out of Canada are with the United States. China is Canada’s second biggest trading partner.
Canada’s economy fared better than the US during the recession, in part because Canada didn’t have the subprime mortgage implosion.
Canada is regularly ranked as the most democratic nation in the Americas.
The Dominion of Canada is a constitutional monarchy with a federal parliamentary democracy, in contrast to the federal constitutional republic government of the US. The Canadian Crown heads the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.
The head of state has been Queen Elizabeth II since 1952. The Queen appoints the Governor General based on the advice of the Prime Minister, traditionally for a term of five years.
Canadian laws are based on English Common Law, except in Quebec. It’s also guaranteed that at least three of the nine Supreme Court judges are from Quebec. All political figures are expected to be bilingual.
Ready to move to Canada?
Learn everything you’ll need to know to move to Canada and get settled in your new home.
You get your visa to move to Canada.
What comes next?
- Declaring yourself a landed immigrant
- Getting pets across the border
- Moving your things through customs without owing duties
- Getting new IDs, enrolling in health insurance, and getting your SIN
Canada is just like home.
Except for when it’s not. We share what we’ve learned to save you some trouble.
- Healthcare in Canada
- Finding a job in Canada
- Canadian salaries
- Cross-border banking
- Understanding currency conversion
Welcome to Toronto
Toronto is Canada’s largest city, it’s financial capital, and a place where over 50% of residents were born abroad.
- Toronto neighborhood guide for new residents from a New York perspective
- How to rent an apartment in Toronto without a credit history and without getting scammed
- Buying a condo in Toronto as a newcomer without standard documentation
- Setting up your first home in Canada Hydro, metered internet, and how to furnish your apartment.
- How to survive your first Canadian winter It’s really not that bad.
There’s more to being Canadian than watching hockey and saying ‘eh.’
Canada isn’t just a colder US, it’s got a culture and history of it’s own. They’re just too modest to brag about it.
- Becoming a Canadian citizen How long it takes, whether or not you have to give up your US citizenship, and other things you should know before making a decision.
- Kingdom of Canada How exactly did Canada wind up with a queen and what is a dominion?
- Canadian Federal Government A 101 guide to Canadian politics
We moved to Canada without an immigration attorney or consultant and you can, too.
Now that we’ve successfully immigrated to Canada from the US using the Express Entry program, we’ve writing the guides we wish we’d had.
If you want the step by step process on how to immigrate to Canada, here it is. I found the book easy to read, inspiring, and very informative.
Useful for getting a general overview of the process all in one place, rather than searching around the internet.
This book is clearly exhaustively-researched. Each section gives detailed information on how to begin the process of moving to Canada, with super informative with real-world examples and step-by-step instructions. I found the section on health care and taxes especially informative!
We are an American couple planning our immigration to Canada through the Express Entry program. This book has been very helpful to aid us in planning and organizing all the steps and timelines for the immigration process. It also has lots of other great information about the actual moving, landing, and transitioning process. If you are a professional looking to navigate through the Canadian immigration program this book is well worth the read. We actually are using it as a reference as well, keeping pages bookmarked and using the spreadsheets and timelines, costs, etc as a model for our own documents.
A lot of the other books about moving to Canada talk about what it’s like to live in Canada, whereas this book talks about how to actually get there. A must have for anybody thinking about immigrating.
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