At the time of writing, we have been in Canada about seven months and are onto our second car. Not that there was anything hugely wrong with the first, but the ease of buying and selling cars is so straightforward here that when we started to have a few concerns about our first car we decided to get a new one. We live in British Columbia so I’m writing this with a very BC-biased voice, but I have tried to keep some of the advice relevant to anyone looking in Canada.

Updated May 2017 

the need for a vehicle

If you’re not living in a big city, then a car can be a very very useful thing. Where we live, on Vancouver Island, there is public transport but it’s neither particularly extensive nor convenient for us. We have a canoe and like to go on trips around the Island. Having a car makes this very easy for us. Long time wise, we want to drive across and around Canada.

If you are planning to live in one of the bigger urban areas (e.g. Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto) for the entirety of your Canada stay, I wouldn’t worry about getting a car. For those planning to live outside the main cities or want travel around Canada after a long stint of work, I would say that a car is almost essential.

Driving

The biggest difference from those visiting from the U.K, Australia and New Zealand is driving on the ‘right’ hand side of the road. It is surprisingly easy to get used to it though, mainly due to cars being left-hand drive and mostly automatic.

Outside of cities roads are pretty quiet and straight (making for easy driving), though there can be a few quirks here and there. The road system in our nearest town, Courtenay, can be frustrating as you can easily end up in the ‘wrong’ lane at the traffic lights, forcing you to turn in the wrong direction!

Beware of large animals in rural areas i.e. deer, elk, moose. They can cause a lot of damage to a vehicle if hit. We live

Navigation is easy outside of the cities. We live on Vancouver Island and haven’t found a necessity to have a map in our car; there are very few main roads and the signage is generally good.

One unusual traffic rule to note is being able to turn right on a red light. I still find it a very unnatural manoeuvre six months in.

Licensing

Driver’s licences are issued provincially. Each province/territory has various reciprocal agreements with countries to facilitate exchanges for the equivalent licence class. If a province/territory does not have a reciprocal agreement with the country where your license was issued, a written and practical test may be needed to complete the exchange.
When exchanging, your ‘home’ licence will be taken away and sent back to the foreign licensing authority.

Most provinces and territories require visitors to change their home license to a local one within a certain time period. Similar rules apply if you move provinces.

driving the dempster highway yukon

Changing your license in BC

New residents to BC have 90 days to change switch their home license to a BC one.

I went to ServiceBC just over three months after I’d arrived in BC to get my new license (I needed the proof of address for my 2nd work visa). While the clerk did question me about how long I’d been in the province, she didn’t make more of an issue out of it.

It is fairly easy to get a BC license if you have at least two years driving experience and are from one of the countries that have a reciprocal deal with the province. Bring your passport, work permit and home country license to any Service BC location. They strangely record your height/weight/eye colour on the license, despite having a photograph, so be prepared to be asked! An eye test will be done on the spot.

Finally, they will ask a few questions about driving in BC. My questions were concerning why drivers should be careful around motorcyclists (they’re hard to see) and what should you do when a school bus stops and all the lights flash (stop, don’t overtake). They take the license photo there and then. A temporary license is given and the actual one posted to you.

buying a vehicle

The ease of buying a vehicle varies throughout the country but there is a large second-hand car market everywhere. In BC, there is no annual roadworthiness test for vehicles like there is in many other countries (MOT in the UK, WOF in NZ) and consequently, there are many older cars still on the road, road worthy or not. Because of this, I would advise you to be careful; car dealers usually have their cars mechanically checked, but private owners don’t. Unless a car is ‘imported’ to another province, it is possible it could never have another ‘professional’ mechanical check after it’s manufacture.

Having said this, I would still strongly recommend buying a car in Canada! You can easily pick up a decent 1990s car for $1000 (or less, depending on where you are).

Our experience buying vehicles in BC

We bought our first car – 1992 7 seater Plymouth Voyager (below) – for $600 and then our second – 1995 8 seater Chevrolet Astro – for $1000.

Writing this update in May 2017, we have just purchased a 1992 Ford Explorer for $1000 after taking our Astro off the road. ‘Big Blue’ (our converted Astro) has done very well over the years, bringing us all the way to the Arctic Circle and back plus many other adventures all over BC, Yukon, NWT and Alaska. Over five years, we spent approximately $4k on repairs and maintenance. This may sound a lot but we drove over 100,000km and even lived in the van for five months.

We are now in the market for a larger van (also to convert) but haven’t found the right one yet. The Explorer is a temporary fix until then.

plymouth voyager first car in canada

Campervans and RVs

RVs (motorhomes) are hugely popular; everyone seems to have one where we live. While home converted campervans are not nearly as common as in New Zealand, they are definitely more popular than in the UK. I think this is due to people building them for hunting or fishing trips as well as the general backpacker market. They either seem to be super basic (just a bed frame and mattress in the back) or very fancy (pop-up roof, fridge, inside kitchen).

We’ve definitely noticed more people travelling in converted vans as the popularity of the #vanlife movement has been rising. As mentioned, we are looking for a van to convert now and are finding it difficult to find anything suitable in our price range. Mid-sized vans seem to be disappearing from the market a lot faster than they used to!

Searching for a vehicle in canada

From my experience, most people on working holidays in Canada tend to either live in the major cities (mainly Toronto and Vancouver, sometimes Ottawa, Montreal, Edmonton or Calgary) or in the ski resort areas (Whistler, Banff, Jasper, Big White).

Those living in cities will have no trouble finding a car using either Craigslist and Kijiji (whichever is most used locally), looking in local papers and keeping an eye out for adverts on cars. There might even be adverts on hostel notice boards in the main arrival/departure cities (Toronto and Vancouver). If you’re living in a ski resort area over winter then it’s likely you won’t need a car. If you decided you want one, then I’d advise to buy it before you leave a big city to go there; there will be far less of a choice and most likely higher prices in any of the resort towns.

Choosing a vehicle

As there is no annual roadworthiness test or vehicle tax in British Columbia, research is based on the condition of the vehicle plus age and mileage. If in Canada solo, consider bringing a friend along for a second opinion. You can also pay for a mechanical check at a garage. One important thing is note however is

One important thing to mention is vehicles registered in a different province. To register an out-of-province vehicle in the ‘new’ province, it has to pass an official inspection. The cost (and risk!) for this is usually on the purchaser.

Registration

When you’ve decided to purchase a car you will need to register the car in your name and insure it. In BC this is done at an Autoplan broker, which can be found in many different locations.

Here in Courtenay, there is an Autoplan broker in the local Superstore (Sussex Insurance) and maybe six other locations in the town. At the broker’s, there are transfer papers available that both you and the previous owner will need to fill in (the owner might have done their part already).

There is a section on the forms where the seller/buyer confirm how much you bought the car for (and the broker will ask you this too). In our experience, it is always agreed to put a lower price than accurate, to pay less tax. If this is your first vehicle in B.C., you will receive license plates that are effectively your registration proof. If you later sell this car and buy another, you would put these same plates on your new car.

Insurance

While you are registering your car in BC, you will buy insurance at the same time. Everyone must have basic insurance with the provincial insurance provider ICBC and then you can add extra coverage on top. Most other provinces do not have this system.

The final price of the insurance will depend on factors like where you live and whether you drive your car to work or not. As neither Jean Robert and I have any history of insurance in B.C (and his history elsewhere in Canada didn’t count as he was not a named driver) we pay a pretty standard fee for insurance.

I say ‘we’ but really JR is the one insured since here you don’t have to pay for ‘named’ drivers. If the car is insured, then anyone with a valid license can drive it. We pay about $120 a month to insure our Astro van with basic third party, though we did opt for some extra coverage. Extra personal liability insurance is something we specifically choose to pay more than the base amount for. Our car is not however covered for collision or theft or anything like that, quite simply because the coverage would cost more than the vehicle itself.

The cost of insurance varies from province to province in Canada. Some are known for being cheaper (Alberta, Quebec) while others are more expensive (BC!)

Gemma
Author

One half of a Canadian/British couple currently living in Penticton, British Columbia. Gemma is happiest with a paddle in her hand, on the trail or planning the next big adventure.