The descriptive guide to a Working Holiday in Canada

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on Jun 5, 12 • by • with 9 Comments

The descriptive guide to a Working Holiday in Canada

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If you’re looking for a shorter guide about working in Canada (this is an unashamedly long one!), have a look here

Before you go –

Visa

The process to be able to live and work in Canada on a Working Holiday takes a bit longer than similar programs for New Zealand and Australia. The program is called International Experience Canada and provides a one year work/travel visa generally available for citizens aged between 18-35 (for some countries it’s 30). I’m writing this from a British perspective, so if you’re from elsewhere then please visit the IEC’s website here.

My guide to the Canadian working holiday visa is here, though keep in mind this is 2011/12 info. The process is now all done online, and is much faster than it was.

Insurance

You need travel insurance. Travel insurance for a Working Holiday is a bit different than the standard however. Firstly, most travel insurers are aimed at people who go on holiday maybe once or twice a year for a week or so at a time. You will need something that covers a lot longer; often these policies are advertised as ‘Backpacker’ or ‘Traveller’.

Secondly, if you’re seriously planning to work at all while in Canada whether at a ski resort or in an office, you need insurance that will specifically cover work. Why? You need to disclose this type of thing since insurance companies will do whatever they cannot to pay out if you try and claim – a lot of standard travel insurance policies only cover pleasure activities on a holiday. If you worked on one of these policies and then was injured, any claim could be completely invalid. Another thing to look for in the small print is whether you can fly to Canada on a one-way flight if this is what you plan to do. Again, many companies will not cover a trip with you leaving your home country without a return flight.

Don’t be sucked into buying insurance policies sold by travel agents (even student/young people focused ones…) without looking around first since they may offer poor value or not even what you really want/need. If you are planning to do any ‘extreme’ activities such as skiing/snowboarding, bungy jumping, skydiving, rafting etc, then you need to make sure they are also covered. For snowboarding/skiing, check how many days you can be on the slopes for. Often activities such as these are covered but at an extra cost or with a high excess (you pay a set amount of your treatment before the insurance companies pays out) if you got injured doing them.

Other factors to consider if you’re planning to stay in Canada for a long time would be whether you can extend your policy while away and if the policy allows you to return to your home country if the worst happens (close family member’s death) or for something great like a wedding! Often, returning to your home country effectively cancels insurance coverage – pretty important if you’ve paid for two years in advance!

I used ACE Insurance for my first year on the IEC. I have not ever had to claim so I can’t vouch for how they are regarding that, but they cover everything I wanted and needed then. The Traveller Insurance is available for up to 13 months, covers work (there is a list of applicable jobs) and extreme activities and has good medical/personal liability cover. Leaving the UK on a one-way flight is also acceptable, as well as returning to the UK for a short visit. Only catch is, their insurance is 13 months and no more – meaning that if you decide to stay longer (and apply for a second visa if you’re British, Australian etc) then you’ll have to find another insurance provider.

After my first year in Canada, I started using True Traveller insurance. Unlike ACE, they can start insurance coverage when you are ‘already abroad’ and allow extensions. More info on True Traveller and other second year IEC insurance options here

You may have heard about Canadian medical care for residents. This is different in every province (in Alberta there is free medical care!) but the general idea is that you pay a certain amount every month and then free medical care is available to you such as visiting a doctor or the emergency room. Things like prescriptions or glasses or cosmetic surgery are not included under Medicare. The basic rate for Medicare in British Columbia is $60.50 per person, per month – this is one of most expensive provincial medical care programs in the country.

Although Working Holiday participants can apply for Medicare in theory, a good number of people will not be able to take advantage. In British Columbia for example, Working Holidayers can apply but under certain conditions, see here. Unless you start a full time ‘permanent’ job soon after arriving in Canada, it is unlikely you are able to sign up to Medicare. I, for example, am a seasonal worker at a ski resort; for most of my stay in Canada I will not have a contract for longer than six months, and for the short time that I will, I do not have more six months left on my visa, making me ineligible. I’m not sure whether I’d pay Medicare anyway to be honest; it is $60.50/month = $726/year, which is a few hundred pounds more expensive than an annual insurance policy will cost me.

Remember that even if you want to try and get Medicare once you’re in Canada, you will still need travel insurance to enter Canada. The IEC conditions state that you need insurance to cover your stay, however to me this is a bit of a grey area for many reasons. It is unlikely that the border officials check for your insurance coverage, but what if they did and you entered Canada with a short term policy (three or six months) with the intention to extend later (like I did) or apply for Medicare – would they give you a shorter visa? There are a lot of variables with this sort of thing and it seems as if Medicare and IEC aren’t quite on the same page with it. Bit of a strange one to me!

Canadian $100 bill

Money

As mentioned before, you will need a lump sum of money in your bank account in order to satisfy the Canadian immigration officials that you can support yourself while job searching once in the country. The amount depends on your country; refer back to the Immigration website for the exact amount. To prove this amount to the officials, you will need to show a recent bank statement. You may not be asked however – I wasn’t!

Job?

You may be thinking about trying to organise work before you even arrive in Canada. Yes, this is possible, but it’s not easy and personally I don’t advise it. Certainly do some research and enquiring before you leave your home country to see what’s out there, but I honestly wouldn’t try too hard. Unless it’s a very specific and professional job that you’re qualified for, there it is unlikely that a Canadian employer would be interested in you while you are still thousands of miles away in a different country. See it from their perspective; there are Canadians looking for work in the country here and now, and there’s always the worst-case scenario, you might chicken out last minute, or get rejected at immigration. There are some exceptions (see below), sure, but on the whole, I’d wait until you arrive.

I’ve found that Canadian job seeking is as much about networking as it is about qualifications and experience. If you know someone who knows someone who is advertising for help, then you’ve a much better chance of getting in there.

One exception is ski resort jobs, which begin to be advertised anytime from August. I would still advise that going in person to a job fair in Canada would put you in much better stead than applying from your home country, but people certainly do get hired at the larger resorts even if they’re not in Canada especially in the case of more qualified positions such as ski instructors. I will go into this a bit more later.

On arrival:

Immigration

You will need your letter of introduction (final visa email) print-out, bank statement, travel insurance print-out, passport. 

After embarking from the aircraft, head to immigration as normal. Before I got to the queue for the immigration booths at Vancouver, I saw an airport official calling out for anyone with Work Visas of any kind. She directed me and some others to a side area, where we joined a queue for those with working holiday visas. After getting to the front, the official looked at my printed Letter of Introduction and my passport. That’s all. I wasn’t asked for proof of funds or travel insurance, but I did have printed proof ready (bank statement and insurance confirmation).

On the plane to Canada you would have filled in a little customs form where you would have declared if you were bringing any items of food across such dairy, meat etc. After you’ve collected your baggage, you’ll hand this in to an official on the way out of the baggage area, before exiting into arrivals.

You made it! Now you’ve probably arrived into Toronto or Vancouver…or maybe Calgary, Montreal or Halifax if wanted somewhere a little different. Either way, you’re in a city with all the amenities you will need to start your Working Holiday in Canada. Two things you do need and should try and sort shortly after arriving in the country: SIN number (like national insurance, used for tax on wages) and bank account. Aside from that, take time to explore the city, meet other travellers and relax a bit!

Social Insurance Number (SIN)

This number is essential for starting work in Canada. Luckily, it’s super easy to get. All you have to do is turn up at your nearest Service Canada office (find it here), ask at the desk how to get your SIN and join the (probable) queue. Then hand over your passport which has your new work visa in it. The official will ask for an address (you can use your hostel one or a Canadian friend’s) and a few security questions. You’ll get a print out with your new SIN number, while the actual SIN card will be sent to the address you gave within a few weeks. You can work just with the paper print out.

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Hiking in Strathcona Park, Vancouver Island, BC

Bank account

You might find banking a little different and sometimes frustrating in Canada if you’re from the UK. For one, most people pay for their account, even the most basic kind. Two, you get charged for everything. The majority of accounts have a certain allowance for taking money out (i.e. how many times you can in a month) as well as how often you use it in a shop. With most bank cards in Canada you can use them like a debit card; in shops and at petrol stations to pay for goods using the Interac system.

Having said this, having a Canadian bank account is essential if you plan to work, really useful just for day-to-day expenditures since many debit/credit cards rack up high fees when used abroad. Many of the major banks in Canada (RBC, TD Canada) apparently offer ‘one year free’ bank accounts, which would be of use to working holiday-makers, though there still are likely to be limits on the amount of transactions. Remember to always use your bank’s ATMS to take out money – if you don’t, you will be charged regardless of how many free withdrawals your bank offers (this is only for their own ATMs).

I opened an account with President’s Choice, which is owned by one of the biggest supermarket chains – a bit like banking with Tescos or Asda in the UK. My passport and temporary work visa were good for a ‘basic’ account, which gave me a debit card (usable in shops, not online) and most importantly, a place to put my money. There are no transaction/usage fees with President’s Choice, which is why I chose it – I can take out up to $200/day for no charge from PC and CIBC (a major bank) ATMs. President’s Choice does not have any branches per se, but you can find ATMs and ‘pavilions’ (where you can speak to bank staff) in the supermarket – Superstore, SuperValu, Loblaws etc. If I use my PC debit card in Superstore to buy my groceries, I also get points….double bonus. Find out more about President’s Choice here

goose spit spring beach mountain vancouver island

Comox Valley, Vancouver Island, BC

Mobile phones (cell phones) and SIM cards

Ah, Canadian cell phones. Unfortunately no matter how ahead Canada wants to be with technology, it is still way behind with telecommunication. Firstly, you pay to receive calls. Yes, both people in a conversation pay to have that call. In Canada things like Caller I.D. (knowing who is calling you, even if they are programmed into your address book) and Voicemail are luxuries that you will also pay extra for. Oh, and if you’re phoning anyone from outside your near location (i.e. your local town or suburb) then technically it’s ‘long distance.’ Bizarre!

Despite these difficulties, there are quite a few mobile network providers in Canada (Bell, Telus, Rogers et al) and dozens more ‘operators’ (Koodo, Chatr, Wind, Virgin etc) who use the main provider’s networks. Often these ‘operators’ are just subsidiaries or other brands of the main ‘parent’ company such as Bell or Telus. You can get both pre-paid (pay as you go style) and contract deals (pay monthly). Cell phones themselves can be bought outright (but are usually locked to a network) or you can get one included on a contract deal.

Have a look on CompareCellular if you’re considering getting a contract deal. There are a lot of cell phone companies and operators in Canada, so it’s easy to get overwhelmed. If you’re planning to travel around a lot, make sure you choose one that has national coverage as opposed to provincial. Note that many companies want a two or three year commitment – not so helpful if you’re visiting Canada for a year or less. There are month by month no commitment plans around – we currently have one with Koodo. Have a look at ‘Our Experience’ Paragraph for more info….

Connecting your own mobile/cell phone to a Canadian network is relatively easy – if it has tri-band or quad-band frequency. Don’t panic – a lot of ‘new’ phones do, certainly handsets like IPhones and Blackberrys and other smartphones. We got a bit of a shock when neither of our phones worked on arrival in Canada – they couldn’t find any sort of signal at all. You need to make sure your phone is ‘unlocked’ before you leave your home country so that it will accept sim cards from other networks. In the UK this costs around 10 pounds, depending on your network provider, phone and where you get it done (by the provider or in a local market…)

Our Experience: On arrival in Vancouver we signed up with Chatr – a company offering great no commitment pay monthly SIM-only deals. We bought a cheap basic phone through them ($40) and away we went. They have some really good plans, all of them including unlimited incoming and outgoing calls in Canada. Ten days in to our Canadian trip and we’d relocated to Vancouver Island. Here’s the Chatr catch – they cover 92% of inhabited Canada. Apparently the Island isn’t included in this. Luckily though, since it was a no commitment contract (30 days) we could get out of it quickly. I would still recommend Chatr to anyone – anyone who’s not planning to live on the Island like us!

Then we signed up with Koodo. They also have lots of different plans, from $20/month and with many mix and match options on top. Koodo also offers great smartphone deals – you get a smartphone on ‘tab’ meaning that it’s kind of on loan. Since you’re not committed to a long two-three year contract, the idea is that 10% of your bill every month goes to pay off this tab (most are around $150). Whenever you cancel your contract, whether it’s in four months or fourteen months time, you pay the rest of the tab off. You can effectively get a ‘free’ phone if you stay with them long enough. For us, it enabled us to get a smartphone without paying a large amount upfront. We pay about $50/month for our plan, so I know if we stay with them for at least a year we will have definitely less than $100 to pay off. Not bad really!

Accommodation

Hostels are the most common form of accommodation available for travellers and working holiday-ers in Canada. Even if you’re planning to get your own apartment or room in a house ASAP, don’t shrug off the idea of staying in a hostel for a while. It’s definitely worth it for your first few weeks in town at least, so you can get your bearings and start getting employment sorted.

Hostels offer shared and private rooms with shared and en-suite bathroom facilities for travellers, with a shared kitchen/living space. Some are much bigger, cleaner, louder and more unique than others, but in all you will find somewhere to sleep for around $30 a night, depending on various factors including location and facilities. Some hostels have breakfast available and bars, others hot tubs/spas. There are hundreds of hostels all over Canada most in cities and towns but plenty out in the middle of nowhere, in places you wouldn’t expect. Some are independent, others part of a chain such as Hostelling International.

If you’ve never stayed in a hostel before then you’re probably thinking that the idea of shared rooms/facilities doesn’t really appeal that much. Hostels however are the best way to meet fellow travellers of all ages, nationalities and walks of life….and are also the cheapest place to stay temporarily by a long shot! Quite a few people in your first hostel in Canada will be in a similar situation to you; just arrived in the country and are looking for work or travel opportunities. Others will be half way through their trip, or right at the very end. Regardless, you’ll be able to make friends and get tips and advice from people who are, who have been, in a similar position to you.

To book or not to book? I would definitely advise you to book at least your first few nights in a hostel on arrival in Canada. Past that, unless you are travelling around/arriving in summer/during a holiday weekend or wanting to stay in a specific hostel in a remote area then there is little need to book. If you’re in a city, with so many hostels around, in the unlikely event that your chosen hostel is full you can walk a few hundred metres and find another. If you are concerned and have a Canadian cell phone or sim, you could call on the day or a few days to confirm or book a bed (or book online!).

Road to Hope near Abbotsford

Driving inland from Vancouver

Most hostels allow long stay travellers; either those who are working locally and just want to live in the hostel for convenience/cost (a cheaper long stay rate can often be negotiated) or want to stay and work within the hostel for accommodation. Otherwise you have the option of finding private accommodation – either through private advertising on the Internet (the local versions of Craigslist and Kijiji are popular) or through a rental agency. You could also group up with other travellers from your hostel if you find others wanting to do a similar thing – get talking to others or have a look on hostel notice boards (not just your own hostel’s!!).


Work

First off, it’s good to know that the Canadian economy is doing OK right now. The oil industry in Alberta is making a minority of people very very rich, but even for the majority things are generally better than other Western nations such as the USA and UK.

I’ve found that the situation for working holiday-ers in Canada is a bit different to what is found in New Zealand or Australia. Canada is a huge place with only small pockets of urbanisation (big journey distances!), making travellers more likely to settle down in one place, as they would less commonly do in NZ or Australia. Perhaps one reason for this is that it is relatively easier to be able to get Permanent Residence in Canada than Down Under, and so maybe more people head out to Canada with an idea of settling for good (for at least a few years). In my experience so far, a huge number of British working holiday-ers seem to settle down and work in one of the main cities for most of their year(s) in Canada. Aside from cities, the other major destination for workers would be ski resorts; for one thing, they offer seasonal employment which is perfect for people with one year work visas.


Resumes and Cover Letters

Just a quick word on resumes – they are a bit different from CVs. I find them to place way more emphasis on your overall skills rather than the different responsibilities and employment experience. A bit hard to explain, but with a bit of Googling of ‘resumes’ and you’ll understand before long! Another difference is the idea of a ‘Objective Statement’ at the top, in which you set out (briefly!) what you’d like to achieve and how you could do this through the position you’re applying for. I received advice from a Career Advisor here who said that you need to tailor your resume and cover letter (explaining more in detail why you’re perfect for the job and what skills/experience you’ll bring to the company) to each job you apply for.


Cities

There are opportunities for employment in the big cities of Canada as there a huge number of businesses with a high turnover of staff, such as restaurants/bars, hotels and offices. However, unless you do have some particularly amazing skill or qualifications, do not hold out for a really high wage. Coming from the UK, you unfortunately only have a one year visa (with possibility to apply for another) and Canadian unemployment still isn’t that low. Be realistic!! No doubt that many British working holiday-ers have managed to find well paying employment with potential to stay in Canada for longer, but just be prepared to be a bit flexible and perhaps do a different job role than you used to do in the UK. In the bigger cities people will be far more used to newcomers applying for job roles unlike if you’re based in a small town.

A surprising amount of jobs can be found advertised on the local versions (there’s one for each major city and almost every big urban area) of Craigslist and Kijiji. Do be prepared for some people attempting spams on these sites; Craigslist has a good warning before you go into job section.

There’s also the nationwide government run Canada Job Bank as well as other job searches such as Wow Jobs Canada and Monster Canada.

Don’t forget the local paper – in my area the job listings come out every Wednesday, Friday and Monday. Often you can find the listings online, such as on Working.com

There’s a local ‘JobShop’ in my area, which is a bit like the Job Centre. Useful place since you can job search on the computes/Internet for free, and also print out a number of resumes for no charge. I also was able to see a Career Advisor here who helped me out with my resume.

Whistler Village

Whistler Village, BC

Ski resorts

Want to spend the winter skiing or snowboarding (or learning to, like I did!) while earning a bit of money? If so, definitely look into ski resort work. It may not make you a lot of money and not be the most exciting job you’ve ever had, but you’re sure to have a good time outside of work, with a free ski pass/free lessons/free rentals and more! Furthermore, there are lots of different work opportunities even if you don’t have much or any experience; guest services, housekeeping, waitressing, lift operations, parking, retail and more!

There are loads of ski resorts in Canada, the biggest concentration being in the Rockies around the BC/Alberta border. And of course there’s the West Coast mountains, with Whistler being the most well known. The snow is more reliable and long lasting in the West, with Eastern resorts often closing a month or so earlier than in the West. Most of the Western resorts open early or mid December until April.

Ski resorts start advertising for staff anytime from August onwards, depending on the size and expected opening date of the resort. As well as online advertising (check each resort’s individual website) there will be Job Fairs in September and October, where you can potentially get hired on the day. Only problem is, often the season doesn’t start until mid-December, so you have to be willing to hang around for a while.

Being hired from the UK can happen, as ski resorts are way more open to hiring international workers than…basically any other industry! If you have professional qualifications (instructor!) or experience (well travelled ski bum) then you’re more likely to be in.

Most resorts will have hired the majority of their staff by mid to late November. If you haven’t secured any work by then, you could always just turn up and take a chance, and also see what’s happening in the resort towns. After all, in places like Whistler and Banff, there are plenty of other ski related jobs that aren’t controlled by the local ‘resort’ itself i.e. local rental shop staff, restaurants and bars etc.

I’ve heard it from quite a few different sources (and experienced it myself!) that there is an unofficial second hiring season in January – after Christmas/New Year, when the absolute busiest/craziest time is over and then incompetent staff start to get fired or just leave following the holidays. I was hired in this way! It’s a bit of a risk, but if you’re in a resort town and working an unrelated job (in a bar or something) look out for opportunities in the New Year.


Exchange work

Another option for your time in Canada is working in exchange for room and/or board (food). Now you might think that doesn’t sound amazingly appealing, well…it can set you up with a place to stay really easily and quickly and also will most likely provide you with a unique Canadian experience. One of the most common exchange work opportunities is in hostels; many will advertise for cleaners to work 2/3 hours a day in exchange for a dorm bed. This is a pretty good deal if you need something to tide you over while looking for longer term paid work or are unsure what to do next. Accommodation is often the biggest dent in daily expenditure, so cutting that out can really help your budget, especially if it’s near the end of your trip and/or is pretty low!

Look around the web for organised work/accommodation exchange websites, such as HelpX or WorkAway. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of some of the adverts on there for work, but I’ve seen these two sites recommended (and posted on hostel noticeboards) quite a lot over the years.

There is also the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms program – see website here. The idea is to spend maybe 3/4/5 hours a day working on an ‘organic farm’ (a loose term!) in exchange for lodging and/or food. You should note here that an ‘organic farm’ can mean anything from a full-on dairy farm to a family home with a sizeable organic vegetable patch. Nonetheless, you’re sure to have a uniquely Canadian experience wherever you end up, especially as many of the hosts lead what you’d call an ‘alternative lifestyle.’ The WWOOF program requires you to pay to sign up and receive the host listings, but you can get an idea with a small snippet of the adverts on the WWOOF website. I’ve never done WWOOFing myself but I’ve heard good and bad tales about the program in New Zealand….mostly good, but I know of hosts who work their WWOOFers harder than others.

If you’re not adverse to a bit of hard (and dirty) work and need a bit of cash, then consider fruit picking. One well known area for this is the Okanagan in British Columbia – here is a list of all the cherry orchards for example, complete with contact and accommodation details. The idea of fruit picking as part of a Working Holiday isn’t as common as in Australia or New Zealand (and it’s less easy to find out where to go for work), but it is definitely an option. Have a look on PickingJobs to see get an idea of what’s out there.

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9 Responses to: The descriptive guide to a Working Holiday...

  1. Joe says:

    Thanks for all the useful advice! I found this very helpful while planning for my trip.

  2. Alex Cole says:

    Thank You!

  3. matt jackson says:

    very helpfull thanx alot

  4. paula says:

    So far the best blog on IEC, thanks for all the important details. So, um, time to book my flight, I guess. x

  5. Jodie says:

    Such a helpful blog, thank you! I’ve been putting off booking my flights as I felt I was unorganised, but you have helped immensly!

  6. Megan says:

    I am looking into going to Canada on a working holiday but am from Aus so a little different. Still helped a lot so thank you :)

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