Pre-departure guide for international students

4. Living in Canada

4.1 Climate

Canada has four very distinct seasons: spring (March-May); summer (June-August); fall (September-October); and winter (November-February).

While temperatures in the far north climb above 0°C only a few months of the year, most Canadians live within 300 kilometres of the country’s southern border, where warm springs, hot summers and pleasantly crisp autumns prevail for at least seven months before winter sets in.

For average seasonal temperatures and detailed weather information by city, visit the Government of Canada's Weather website.

4.2 Winter survival tips

The following tips will help you prepare for the winter months [1]:

  • Listen regularly to weather forecasts on the radio or check the Internet to avoid being caught in a blizzard or other active weather system.
  • Winter clothing is not a luxury. You will need it to stay warm and enjoy your time here. Invest in a good winter jacket, gloves, a warm hat, a scarf and boots.
  • Dress in layers so that you can adjust to the variable temperatures inside and outside.
  • Be sure to eat a nutritious breakfast; you’ll stay warmer outside if your body has fuel to burn.
  • Prevent dehydration in cold weather or from dry indoor heat by drinking water regularly and using a moisturiser on your skin and lips.
  • Wear sunglasses and sunscreen on clear days as sunlight reflecting off snow can be very intense.
  • Remember there is a wind chill factor. High winds blowing on a cold day lower the temperature further, so -20°C with a wind of 16 km/hr can feel like -25°C.
  • Beware of frostbite. Ears, fingers, toes or cheeks exposed to very cold temperatures for just a short period of time can become frostbitten. Should any part of your body feel numb or become pale or slightly blue, seek medical assistance immediately.

Note on home heating in Winter: Individual homes and some apartment tenants pay for the heat they use, whether it is gas, oil or electricity powered. Verify if heating costs are included in a rental unit, or whether you are responsible for your own bill. Pay heating bills on time to avoid having the service shut off.

4.3 Communications

Canada has a comprehensive and modern communications network with first-class infrastructure that offers easy access to a wide variety of technology.

Making international calls from Canada

To call or fax an international number from Canada, you will need to dial:

011 + Country Code + Area Code + Local Number

International calling cards offer reduced rates and can be purchased from most convenience stores.

Internet services

Internet service is readily available at all academic institutions and you will get a free college or university email account once you begin your studies. Internet cafés are also common, particularly in metropolitan centres, and they offer reasonable rates.

Consider bringing your wireless-enabled laptop to Canada as most colleges and universities offer wireless Internet on campus.

You can get high-speed Internet installed at your home or apartment through a telephone company; a monthly fee will apply.

Major internet service providers include

Postal services

Canada’s postal rates are among the lowest in industrialized countries. Mail prices are based on size and weight. A standard letter mailed within Canada starts at C$0.61 for up to 30 g. A standard international letter costs C$1.80 and takes one to three weeks to deliver.

For more information, visit

Make meaningful connections that span the globe

Going to Canada was the best decision of my life. My time at Ivey also gave me great friendships: my classmates became friends and family after two years of living and studying together. When I decided to move back to China in 2008, I found my current job through my Ivey alumni network.

Judy Liu - China
Richard Ivey School of Business at University of Western Ontario: MBA (2005)
Senior BD Manager, Atkins

Cell phones

A large percentage of young people have cell phones (mobiles); monthly plans start at about $20 per month, and there are pay-as-you go options. The minimum term
for most phone plans is 12 months. A new phone can be purchased for under $100.

Major mobile companies in Canada:

Your existing mobile phone may work in Canada if it is compatible. Check international roaming charges, which can be expensive.

Time zones

The table and maps below show Canada’s six time zones in relation to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Daylight Time is observed the first Sunday in April to the last Sunday in October in most of Canada.

Time zones
Time ZoneStandard TimeDaylight Time
Pacific (PST)GMT -0800GMT -0700
Mountain (MST)GMT -0700GMT -0600
Central (CST)GMT -0600GMT -0500
Eastern (EST)GMT -0500GMT -0400
Atlantic (AST)GMT -0400GMT -0300
Newfoundland (NST)GMT -0300GMT -0230

4.4 Accommodation [2]

Residence/dormitory

Many post-secondary institutions have accommodation conveniently located on or near campus. Dorms generally have a shared kitchen, bathroom, and laundry facilities. Some offer optional meal plans where you can pay a set price up-front for two or three meal tickets per day.

If staying for just one semester, choosing a residence can be easier than finding your own private, off-campus housing.

For a longer period, you could choose residence for your first semester and then make alternative long-term arrangements as you become more acquainted with your area.

Staying in residence is the preferred option for a majority of Canadian students in their first and second years of study. Many international students also find it allows them to make friends and find study partners more easily, saves on transport to campus, and generally enables a smoother social transition.

Private accommodation

Check with the housing office or student union office on campus for a current list of rental units nearby. These private accommodations are not inspected by the institutions, therefore it is your responsibility to contact the landlord, inspect the premises and determine suitability for your needs.

Price, quality and availability will vary greatly. Rent can be especially high in some cities. Expect to pay from C$400-$1500 per month, depending on the city, the neighbourhood, and whether there are co-tenants. Landlords typically collect one month’s rent up-front as a damage deposit, which is returned to when you move out if no damages are incurred.

Private rentals require a signed lease, which is a legal document stating your responsibilities as a tenant, such as paying rent on time, keeping premises clean, repairing any damages caused by you or your guests, and not disturbing other tenants.

Landlords may add various rules and conditions to the lease. Read the document carefully before signing and ask for a copy.

The landlord also has responsibilities, such as keeping the premises in good repair. In emergency situations, the landlord may enter your dwelling unannounced; otherwise advance notice must be given with a reason for the request. If the landlord needs you to vacate the premises, 60 days advance notice is required. If you refuse to move, the landlord can go to court and obtain an eviction notice.

If you experience trouble with your landlord, free or affordable legal assistance may be available through your Canadian educational institution.

It is your responsibility to arrange accommodation. For more information, please contact the housing or residence office at your institution.

4.5 Electrical appliances and voltage

Bringing electrical appliances to Canada requires some planning and research. Read this section carefully as the consequences can be severe.

Voltage and electrical outlets

In Canada, appliances use 120 volts with plug type B. Plugging an appliance into an incorrect voltage outlet can cause an electrical fire. Some multi-voltage appliance models can be adjusted to match the proper current. If not, a “transformer” can be purchased at any major electronics retailer to do the conversion.

4.6 Driving in Canada

If you are staying in Canada for less than three months, you can use a valid driver’s licence issued by your country. If you are staying longer than three months, you must obtain an international driver’s licence (IDL) from your country of residence. An IDL is a special licence that allows motorists to drive internationally when accompanied by a valid driver’s licence from their country of residence. You must have this licence when you arrive in Canada; you cannot apply for one once you are here.

Learner’s permits, probationary licences and temporary licences cannot be converted to a Canadian equivalent. Contact the Ministry of Transportation in the province or territory in which you will be living to find out whether you will have the right to drive.

Car rentals are available. Generally, the minimum age to rent is 21 and you must hold a valid driver’s licence. Drivers between 21 and 25 years of age may have to pay a surcharge.

Road rules and driving tips

  • Throughout Canada and the United States all traffic drives on the right side of the road.
  • Seat belts for drivers and all passengers must be worn in the front and back of the vehicle, and infants/toddlers must be strapped into a safety seat.
  • Speed limits in city areas are usually 40 to 60 kilometres per hour (km/h), except in the vicinity of schools where it is reduced to 30 km/h. Where no limit is posted, the maximum is 50 km/h.
  • Speed limits for rural driving vary, depending on the province/territory, and are set according to local conditions. Generally, speeds are between 90 and 100 km/h. Always check the speed signs when crossing into a neighbouring province/territory.
  • Pedestrian crosswalks are often marked with overhanging yellow signs and an X or white horizontal lines are painted on the road surface. Pedestrians have the right of way and cars must stop to allow crossing.
  • Turning right on a red light is permissible at an intersection in every province/territory except for the Island of Montréal in Quebec. Before making a turn, bring the car to a complete stop and make sure that there are no signs forbidding a right turn.
  • If a police officer signals you to stop, remain seated, switch off the engine and await instructions from the approaching officer.
  • Always carry your licence and vehicle documentation.
  • In case of an accident involving personal injury, the police must be notified immediately. They will file an accident report. It is a crime to leave the scene of an accident involving injury without first giving details to the police.
  • If your vehicle breaks down, roadside assistance is available. The Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) will assist members of some international auto clubs. Check with your local auto club for details on coverage when driving in Canada. If driving a rental car, assistance information may be found in the glove compartment.
  • Ensure that your vehicle is properly equipped for winter driving. It is mandatory in some parts of Canada to have winter tires fitted by a certain deadline.

4.7 Business hours

Most businesses are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Monday to Friday and closed on weekends. Most retail outlets and grocery stores are open until 9 p.m. between Monday and Friday, and until 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Note that some retailers are closed Sunday.

The closing time for bars, clubs and restaurants varies from one province/territory to another.

4.8 National public holidays in Canada

The following public holidays are observed nationally:

  • New Year’s Day – January 1
  • Good Friday or Easter Monday
  • Canada Day – July 1
  • Labour Day – first Monday in September
  • Christmas Day – December 25

Additional public holidays are determined by individual provinces and territories.

  • Family Day – Third Monday in February (BC 2nd Monday in February)
  • Victoria Day – the Monday preceding May 25
  • Civic Holiday – First Monday in August
  • Thanksgiving – second Monday in October
  • Remembrance Day – November 11
  • Boxing Day – December 26

4.9 Personal safety

Worldwide surveys show that Canada is a peaceful, safe and orderly country [3]. Despite this, international students should follow the same common sense safety precautions in Canada as they would anywhere in the world.

Here are tips for keeping you and your belongings safe:

Register with the Embassy/Consulate

It is a good idea to register your presence in Canada with your country’s embassy or consulate.

In an emergency

  • Call 911 in any emergency situation, if you are in trouble or witness to a crime. This is a central number for police, fire and ambulance throughout Canada. You do not need coins to dial 911 from a pay phone. If English is your second language, do not panic. Interpreters are available.
  • If you are robbed, do not argue or fight. If you are assaulted, shout or blow a whistle to draw attention to your situation. Try to protect your body and distract the attacker so that you can escape. Call 911 immediately.
  • If you are a victim of a crime, no matter how small, report it to the police.
  • If you have a non-emergency issue or question for the police, visit or call the police station. Police in Canada are very professional and willing to assist you.

In the community and on the street

  • Be cautious toward strangers, just as you would anywhere.
  • Be aware of who and what is going on around you.
  • Trust your instincts and leave uncomfortable situations.
  • Some city areas may have higher crime rates than others. Ask advice for the best routes to take when going out.
  • Always tell someone where you are going and when you will return. 
  • Always walk on well-lit, busy streets at night. If possible, travel with a friend and avoid isolated areas, such as parks or alleys.

On campus

  • Most colleges and universities have campus security. This may include patrol cars, 24-hour telephone lines and well-lit areas where you can contact the campus security office.
  • Some colleges and universities also offer an after-dark “walk home” service where qualified students will walk their peers home or to another location.

On buses, subways and in taxis

  • Know your bus route and schedule before you leave.
  • Do not hitchhike.
  • Taxis are a good way to get home when it is late and dark. Keep a taxi company number handy in your wallet. Canadian taxis should all have running meters showing the cost of the ride. Taxi drivers will not expect to negotiate a price with you.
  • Many public transportation systems also offer special assistance for those travelling alone at night.
  • On the train, use the emergency phones on the platform or emergency button if you are ever harassed.

On a bicycle

  • Helmets are mandatory when riding a bike in Canada. At night, use front and rear bike lights and wear reflective clothing.
  • Bicycles must ride on the road or on a bicycle path. Sidewalks are for pedestrians only.
  • There are many clearly labelled bicycle paths in urban areas across Canada. Try to take these as often as possible, and remember to keep to the right side of the road. Your local government office or information centre will have maps.
  • Traffic rules are the same for bikes as for cars: stop signs, red lights, etc. apply to everyone. You must also remember to signal your turns with your arms.
  • Lock your bike when leaving it unattended.

Alcohol and other drugs

  • The legal drinking age varies across the country, but is generally age 18 or 19. Arrange a ride home beforehand if you plan to drink alcohol. Do not accept a ride from a stranger in a bar.
  • NEVER drink and drive. Doing so is not only dangerous and irresponsible, it is also a serious criminal offence.
  • Know your drinking limit. 
  • Do not accept drinks from strangers or let your drink out of your sight. If you do leave it unattended, order a new drink. Drugs can be put into drinks when you are not paying attention.
  • ‘‘Recreational’’ drugs such as cocaine, heroin, marijuana and ecstasy are illegal and involve stiff penalties or prosecution for possession. Do not offer to carry or transport such drugs for others.

Homeless people

  • Street people will occasionally ask for money. If you want to help them, we suggest you contribute to a charity instead. There are many community agencies throughout Canada that help panhandlers by offering free meals, shelter, and counselling.

Accommodation

  • When renting accommodation, deal directly with the landlord and pay the damage deposit directly to him or her.
  • When possible, pay rent with a cheque to have proof of payment, and always ask for a receipt.
  • Do not let people into apartment buildings if you do not know them. If you are not expecting a repairman, delivery person or salesperson wanting access, refer them to the building manager.
  • Meet and get to know your neighbours.
  • Keep your door locked, even when you are home.

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[1] Adapted from International Students Handbook: A Guide to Study in Canada, 8th Edition. Canadian Bureau for International Education, 2001.

[2] Adapted from International Students Handbook: A Guide to Study in Canada, 8th Edition. Canadian Bureau for International Education, 2001.

[3] Mercer Human Resource Consulting, 2009.