Pre-departure guide for international students

3. Before you leave

3.1 Overview of Canadian visa procedures

You must apply for a study permit if your main reason for coming to Canada is to study for more than six months. Before you can apply for a study permit, you must have been accepted at a school, university or college in Canada. You can apply for a study permit online, or by submitting your application form to the Canadian visa office that serves the country or region in which you live.

If you are from the United States, Saint Pierre and Miquelon or Greenland, you can apply at the point of entry when you arrive in Canada.

You must also have a passport that is valid for the entire duration of your studies in Canada. If the validity is shorter, you must request a study permit extension.

The Study section of the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada website will provide you with information on:

Preparing to study

  • what is needed before applying for a study permit in Canada

Determining eligibility

  • who can apply and what exceptions exist

Applying for a study permit

  • how to apply and what documents to provide with an application
  • downloading the application package
  • paying application fees and submitting an application

Checking processing times

  • information that is updated weekly and indicates the time (in calendar days) it takes to process an application after a complete application package is received

After applying

  • what to do after applying for a study permit

Preparing for arrival

  • what documents may be required when entering Canada

ESSENTIAL: Apply as soon as you receive your Letter of acceptance.

If attending an educational institution for six months or more in the Province of Quebec, you must also obtain a Quebec Acceptance Certificate (CAQ).

Applying for a CAQ

Submit an application to the Quebec regional office responsible for the territory in which your educational institution is located.

Quebec Immigration Services require the following to process your CAQ:

  • A completed CAQ application form
  • A photocopy of your letter of acceptance; keep the original for Canadian immigration
  • Proof of your financial capability
  • A processing fee

Upon receipt by Quebec immigration, your application will be processed and confirmation will be sent by mail to you and the Canadian embassy in your region.

More information on the CAQ

Please visit the Immigration Quebec website, under the Foreign Student section for further details.

3.2 Travelling to Canada

Talk to a travel agent to discover options or investigate the many online offers available. The following travel arrangements are important to consider:

  • Be sure of your travel dates. Consider a flexible ticket that allows you to change your return flight.
  • Travel insurance is strongly recommended. The medical insurance you will have at your Canadian educational institution may only cover your study period. Travel time before and after your studies you may not be covered (see Section 3.10).
  • Make sure you know what time you need to be at the airport. International flights usually require check-in at least two hours prior to the scheduled departure.
  • Canadian authorities do not require a return ticket, but if you do not have one in your possession when you arrive in Canada, the officer at the port of entry must be satisfied that you will have to means to purchase one when the time comes. Some airlines may require a return ticket.
  • Have a valid passport. Make sure it is valid for at least six months after your return date.
  • Know where you will stay when you arrive in Canada and how you will get there from the airport.
  • Carry some local currency for any transit destinations. Some countries require you to pay airline taxes in transit, which may not have been included in your ticket cost. Local currency is also useful to purchase a snack or magazine along the way.
  • Have enough Canadian currency–cash or traveller’s cheques.
  • Know the airline’s baggage limitations. Check how much baggage you are allowed to take with you and be mindful of weight restrictions.
  • Never agree to carry another person’s bags or their items in your luggage. It may be something that is illegal, and you would be held responsible for it.
  • Find out which items are restricted or prohibited for travel to Canada. There are restrictions on alcohol, tobacco, firearms, food, animal and plant products, drugs and prescription drugs that are not approved in Canada. Stiff penalties are imposed for infractions. Also, some seemingly harmless goods can be dangerous on board an aircraft and should not be packed in either checked or carry-on baggage. During your flight, you will be given a card to declare what youare bringing into Canada.
  • Pack basic toiletries and a change of clothes in your carry-on bag in case of travel delays. Liquids must be in containers less than 100 ml and should be kept in a separate plastic bag, which will be verified during security screening.
  • Remember to clearly tag all of your baggage, noting your name and the complete address of your destination in Canada. Also, pack a card inside your luggage with your Canadian contact details.
  • At airport check-in, ask whether your baggage will be checked through to your final destination in Canada, or whether you must claim and transfer at any stage. Find out if boarding passes for all connecting flights can be issued at once, or if you will need to check in at each airport en route.
  • Remember to keep all important documents, medications and high-value items such as cameras, jewellery, laptops, phones, credit cards and cash with you–do not pack these items in your checked baggage.
  • Make photocopies of important documents and pack them in your baggage, leaving additional copies at home with someone you trust. These documents can include:
    • passport
    • airline tickets
    • travel insurance certificate
    • letter of Acceptance from your Canadian institution
    • key addresses and phone numbers
    • a bank statement showing proof of funds
    • letter of Introduction from Canadian immigration, if applicable
    • prescriptions or a letter from your doctor for any medication you are carrying
    • medical and immunization records, which may be useful if you need medical care while abroad
    • traveller’s cheques
    • academic history and university transcripts, which may be needed for credit transfers, evidence of prerequisites for exchange students, or to obtain work
    • the Pre-Departure Checklist (see Section 8)

An eye-opening experience

“The student exchange program at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, funded by the Canadian Commonwealth Scholarship Program (CCSP), was more than just education, and was definitely an eye opener for me with several social and cultural experiences that I will forever cherish. It is amazing how only four months turned my life around and enhanced my intellectual growth, academic and professional network.”

Sarah Kiden – Uganda
Saint Mary’s University: Student exchange program in MSc Information Systems CCSP (2011)

3.3 Culture shock

It is one thing to travel as a tourist, but quite another to immerse yourself in a new culture as a full-time resident. As you adjust to your new surroundings you will experience a variety of emotions, ranging from excitement to frustration. This is completely normal and to be expected. This section will help to prepare you.[1]

“Culture shock” is a term used to describe the anxiety that you experience as you integrate into a new society. Often characterized by physical and emotional discomfort, culture shock occurs as a result of the absence of familiar signs and symbols of social interaction.

There are five predictable stages of cultural adaptation. Although the length and intensity of each stage varies from person to person, everyone experiences culture shock at some point in their international experience. Moreover, as you progress along the stages, there may be times when you regress to previous stages. In time you will overcome difficulties and move forward again.

The five stages of cultural adaptation

  1. The “honeymoon” stage
    • You feel optimistic, fascinated, excited and adventurous.
    • You are detached from the unfamiliar because you are still in your identity from home.
  2. The “hostility” stage
    • You feel hostile, inadequate, disappointed, and alienated.
    • As the novelty wears off, you experience withdrawal, loneliness and depression.
    • Your new identity begins to emerge and the differences between your home and host culture are more noticeable.
    • You feel a sense of failure and try to avoid the cultural differences.
  3. The “adjustment” stage
    • You feel self-assured, independent and in control.
    • Although you have a tendency to stereotype and make generalizations about the host culture, you can also laugh at the differences and you no longer let them get you down.
  4. The “interdependence” stage
    • You feel comfortable and accepted.
    • Differences no longer dominate your identity and you trust your new environment and those around you.
    • You understand the meaning of actions in your surrounding cultural context.
    • Your ultimate goal is to achieve a bicultural or multicultural identity. Note that very few people actually achieve this stage and you should not consider yourself a failure if you do not develop a bicultural or multicultural identity. The journey is what’s important.
  5. The “re-entry” stage
    • Upon returning to your home country you will experience re-entry shock, also known as reverse culture shock.
    • You are excited about your experiences and frustrated when no one understands.
    • You will realize that you have changed.
    • You will glamourize your time abroad.
Tips for managing culture shock
  • Learn about Canadian culture prior to leaving home.
  • Pack some mementos from home that will comfort you when you’re missing your family and friends.
  • Ask questions if you are unsure of something.
  • Get involved and participate in group events.
  • Be open to new experiences and ideas.
  • Talk to other international students about their experiences in Canada.
  • Use the professional support services available to you at your institution.
  • Try to relax and not take everything too seriously or worry unnecessarily.
More information about culture shock

3.4 Working in Canada

Under certain conditions, you may be able to work in Canada. Students who do not have a study permit are not eligible.

If you hold a study permit, you can work on campus for the institution you are attending if it is publicly funded and grants degrees. No separate work permit is required. The employer can be the educational institution, the faculty, a student organization, a private business or a private contractor who is providing services to the campus. You can also work as a graduate, research or teaching assistant at an off-campus site that has a formal affiliation with the institution, such as a teaching hospital, clinic or research institute.

Full-time students may also be eligible to work off-campus for any employer. These permits usually allow up to 20 hours per week during the term, and full-time during holidays.

The following students are ineligible for off-campus work:

  • part-time students
  • visiting or exchange student
  • Students participating in a Canadian Commonwealth Scholarship Program or in the Government of Canada Awards Program
  • students participating in the Equal Opportunity Scholarship Program, the Canada-Chile or the Canada-China Scholars Exchanges Program or the Organization of American States Fellowships Program
  • students enrolled in English as a second language or French as a second language programs
  • students receiving funding from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)
  • students who have previously held an off-campus work permit and failed to maintain their eligibility or to comply with the conditions of their work or study permit
  • full-time secondary (high school) students

Some university programs require work experience. International students who want to enrol in a co-op or internship program must apply for a work permit in addition to their study permit. If you would like to work in Canada after graduating, you must apply for a work permit under the Post-graduation Work Permit Program.

If you would like to stay in Canada as a permanent resident after graduating, there are a number of programs available, each with its own requirements (see section 7.4).

If you are enrolled full time in a publicly funded post-secondary institution and you have a valid study permit, your spouse or common-law partner (person with whom you have been living in a conjugal relationship for at least 12 months) can apply for an open work permit, which means that neither an offer of employment nor a Service Canada labour market option is required. Your spouse/common-law partner’s work permit will be valid for as long as your study permit is valid.

More information on working in Canada is available at the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship website.

3.5 Employment

Before deciding to seek employment during your studies, carefully consider the following:

  • Do not expect to finance your studies in Canada through a part-time job. This may be unrealistic, and it is wise to secure savings or other sources of financing in advance in case of difficulties.
  • You may not be able to find suitable employment, or your studies and other activities may not leave you much time for a job.
  • If you do look for a job, be realistic about how much time you can commit to it and consider which jobs match your skills and experience. In general, undergraduate courses require at least two hours of personal work time for every hour of class time.
  • Take time to learn about the Canadian labour market, government legislation and your rights at work.

Social Insurance Number

A Social Insurance Number (SIN) is required to work in Canada or to receive government benefits. Obtain a SIN application form at the airport as soon as you arrive or afterward at any Canada Post outlet or Service Canada office.

More information

Workers’ rights and benefits

Federal and provincial laws protect workers and employers by setting minimum wage levels, health and safety standards, and hours of work. They provide for maternity leave, and annual paid vacation. There are laws to protect workers from discrimination, including protection against unfair treatment by employers based on race, religion, nationality, gender, age, sexual orientation or disability.

Workers in Canada must be paid at least the minimum wage as stated by the provincial government. Your employer will legally deduct money from your paycheque for income tax, Canada Pension Plan, Employment Insurance and, where applicable, taxable benefits and union dues.

More information

General tips

  • You should not work for any employer without signing a contract. Without this proof of employment, your rights may be severely reduced if anything goes wrong.
  • Always ask for pay stubs and keep them in a safe place.
  • Check your pay stub to ensure that the necessary taxes are being deducted from your pay. Failure to deduct taxes is illegal.
  • Do not accept any “under the table” jobs for paid cash, where you are not registered as an official employee. These jobs are illegal and can result in stiff penalties for you if discovered.
  • Learn the basics of Canadian labour legislation to be aware of your rights and what you are legally entitled to.
  • Ensure that you are paid at least the minimum wage.

Finding employment 

Inquire about employment opportunities in your area at your institution’s career centre, your local municipal government, newspapers, and online job banks.

Prepare your résumé in a Canadian format. You can find sample résumés and advice on the Services for Youth website.

The following websites also provide job listings

3.6 Scholarships

A variety of programs and funding is available to non-Canadians wanting to study in Canada. The first place to look for information is the International Scholarships website.

Postgraduate financial assistance and scholarships

The majority of Canadian universities offer some form of financial assistance for international students studying at the graduate level. Assistance may include:

  • teaching/department assistantships
  • research funds
  • university graduate scholarships
  • external scholarships
  • bursaries

The value of these awards will vary significantly by department as well as by institution. For more information, contact the institution you plan to attend.

International students may also qualify for Canadian government financial assistance or external scholarships.

Some specific examples:

  • Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships: Doctoral scholarships for exceptional students, valued at $50,000 per year for three years. This prestigious scholarship is on par with Rhodes and Fulbright Scholarships.
  • Trudeau Foundation Doctoral Scholarships: This is a highly competitive program offering doctoral scholarships for studies in social sciences and humanities, including a limited number available to foreign students. Candidates must be nominated by their university and in their first or second year of doctoral studies.
More information

For more information on specific scholarships, consult the website of the Canadian embassy or consulate responsible for your country.

3.7 Tourism in Canada

From coast to coast and everything in between, Canada offers many incredible sights: from the rugged shores of Vancouver Island to the Rocky Mountains in the West, the lakes and plains of the Prairies to breathtaking Niagara Falls in Ontario, the quaint fishing villages of the Maritimes to the frozen wonders of the North–each region is unique and well worth exploring.

View the Top Things to Do in Canada and for more information and visit the provincial and territorial tourism websites listed in Section 3.8.

3.8 Useful travel links

Top things to do in Canada

  • Watch the water rush over Niagara Falls, go whitewater rafting in the Northwest Territories or go sailing on the Great Lakes.
  • Ski the Western Rockies, or Mont Tremblant and Mont Sainte-Anne in the East.
  • Experience Carnaval, the City of Québec’s vibrant winter festival or have a peek at the world famous Ice Hotel.
  • Watch “Ridin’, Ropin’ and Ranglin” at the Calgary Stampede, or visit the indoor beach at the West Edmonton Mall.
  • Experience the colour of autumn leaves in a national park; go camping, canoeing, hiking or surfing in summer, snowshoeing, cross-country or alpine skiing in winter.
  • Explore the prairies on horseback; go fly fishing in Manitoba or vacation on a Saskatchewan farm.
  • Skate on Ottawa’s Rideau Canal, the world’s longest skating rink, or climb the CN Tower in Toronto’s downtown core.
  • See the northern lights in Canada’s Arctic, go dog-sledding in the Yukon or take in iceberg alley off Newfoundland’s coast.
  • Have a legendary lobster dinner in the Maritimes or watch the whales play in New Brunswick’s Bay of Fundy.
  • Walk the red sand beaches of Prince Edward Island and tong for oysters on its shores.

Government services

Canadian tourism by province/territory

Domestic airlines

Flying is the fastest way to travel across North America. Canada’s two largest air carriers, Air Canada and WestJet, serve most Canadian cities. Regional carriers include Porter Airlines, which flies out of the Toronto Island Airport to Ottawa, Montréal, Halifax and a number of U.S. cities. All Canadian carriers provide online booking services and most offer a range of prices for one-way flights.

Rail travel in Canada

VIA Rail provides passenger rail service in Canada. This includes twice-weekly service between Montréal and Halifax and transport between Montréal and Toronto to Vancouver.

Bus travel in Canada

Bus travel in Canada includes either local transit or long-distance vehicles. Besides city-run local transit, Canadian bus-line companies offer an extensive network of reliable bus service throughout the country, which includes frequent downtown-to-downtown services between major cities.

3.9 Canadian currency and banking

Canada’s currency is the Canadian dollar. There are one hundred cents to one dollar.

The Canadian dollar is available in $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 notes.

Canadian coins come in denominations of five cents (nickel), 10 cents (dime), 25 cents (quarter), $1 (loonie) and $2 (toonie). You will rarely see a 50-cent piece, although these are minted for special occasions.

For further information visit:


Canadian banks are quite similar to their American or European counterparts in many respects. Most charge a fee for customer service and offer a variety of packages. A basic bank account will cost approximately CAD 5 per month. Opening a Canadian bank account is optional, however, Canada’s major banks offer great student accounts and services that may save you international transaction charges and make managing your money easier.

Ask about student account options at any Canadian bank or inquire whether your current bank has established partnerships in Canada.

Most stores accept multiple payment methods, including cash, credit card and debit cards. Cheques are used frequently for large amounts, such as rent and bill payments. Your bank will issue personalized cheques when you open an account. Internet banking is common and is a widely accepted method to pay bills and complete other transactions. Many universities offer online banking options for tuition and account payments.

Credit cards

Visa and MasterCard are the two main credit cards accepted by most major businesses. American Express is accepted, although not as widely. Your existing Visa or MasterCard may be accepted in Canada, but be sure to check with your bank beforehand and be aware of exchange rates and any foreign transaction fees.


In Canada, automatic banking machines (ABMs) are numerous and easy to find. They are located in most shopping centres, tourist attractions and banks, as well as in some convenience stores and gas stations. Most ABMs are operated by a major bank. You can withdraw cash from ABMs not operated by your own bank, but a small fee will be charged for withdrawal from a local account, more from a foreign bank. Inquire about international withdrawal fees from your home bank before attempting to use your ABM card in Canada.

All ABMs can be used for cash withdrawals. To access other banking functions like deposits, paying bills, printing account statements and transfers between accounts, you must use an ABM associated with your own banks.

Check with your bank whether your card will be accepted at Canadian ABMs, and whether the networks used by both banks–such as Cirrus, Plus, Interac–are compatible. Your bank can inform you about networks and international withdrawal fees. Some banks have agreements with Canadian bank.

You can also make cash advances from your credit card at Canadian ABMs, but fees and interest rates can be high. Inquire about fees directly at your credit card company before you depart and advise them of your overseas plans. Failure to inform them may flag your card as stolen once used in Canada, and may result in a frozen account.

Bank hours of business

Most banks are open Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. Some branches close later, at 7 p.m. one day a week, and some are open for reduced hours on Saturday. Most banks are closed on Sunday.

Money transfers to Canada

Traveller’s cheques are an easy way to transfer money to Canada. They can be purchased at most banks and come in a variety of denominations. They are secure and can be immediately cashed at any Canadian bank or currency converter. Do not forget to make photocopies of your traveller’s cheques in case they get lost or stolen.

You can also transfer money using a bank draft from another country, but it can take up to eight weeks for clearance at the Canadian bank and a service fee is likely.

Some banks can transfer money electronically into your Canadian account. Fees vary by institution.

Canada’s major banks include:

3.10 Health and travel insurance

Canada’s universal health-care system is well developed due to joint federal and provincial government efforts.

Each province/territory manages health care for its region, covering all citizens for hospital and physician care. Virtually all Canadian post-secondary institutions have medical-insurance plans available to international students. Contact the Canadian educational institution you plan to attend for information about health insurance coverage for you.

Whether or not you plan to purchase coverage from a Canadian institution, it is highly recommended that you purchase travel health insurance. Contact your travel agent for more information.

3.11 Tipping

In Canada, it is customary to tip service providers such as bartenders, waiters, hairdressers, concierges and cab drivers. A tip is a sign of appreciation for service provided and is not automatically included on the bill. Ask peers what tip is customary for various services in your area.

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[1] Adapted from “Culture Shock,” UNESCO Co-ordinating Committee for International Voluntary Service.