Canada is a huge country and the easiest and most flexible way to explore it is by car. Buying a vehicle in Canada is cost-effective for long-term visitors and temporary residents, although it can be tricky to navigate through the process. The main reason why? Everything vehicle related is managed provincially in Canada. This means that the process is different in Newfoundland compared to Alberta. And then different again in British Columbia. Let’s see if I can help.
Originally published 2012, updated Feburary 2018.
why buy a vehicle in canada?
If you’re not living in a big city in Canada, then a car can be a very, very useful thing. In the six years, we have lived in Canada, every place (Comox Valley, Fort St John, Penticton, Tracadie) has had limited public transportation.
In many towns, public transport does exist but it is often neither particularly extensive nor convenient especially if you want to explore outside of towns and cities. We like to go on hiking and paddling trips and having a car makes this very easy for us. Doing so via public transport would be very tricky if not impossible.
If you are planning to live in one of the bigger urban areas (e.g. Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto) for the entirety of your stay in Canada, I wouldn’t worry about getting a car. The bigger places have car-sharing programs (such as Zipcar) that are very popular and perfect for when you want a weekend out of the city.
For those planning to live outside the main cities or want to travel around Canada after a long stint of work, I would say that a car is almost essential. Renting is possible but for long term (over 4 weeks) purchasing a vehicle would almost always be cheaper.
Driving conditions in canada
The biggest difference from those coming 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 such as:
- One way systems are not super common but they do exist.
- Roundabouts are also not very common and aren’t used particularly efficiently in my experience (drivers often wait for no other cars to be on the roundabout at all before entering them)
- Turning right on a red light is generally allowed unless there is a specific sign prohibiting it. There are also a few cities that do not allow it in the downtown area e.g. Montreal.
- Beware of large animals on the road i.e. deer, elk, moose. They can cause a lot of damage to a vehicle if hit. They are most commonly seen at dawn and dusk.
Navigation, in general, is easy outside of the cities due to Canada having few main highways. Within cities, I like to use Google Maps to navigate and outside, Backroad Mapbooks. Not just useful for directions, Backroad Mapbooks also show places to visit, trails to hike and free campsites.
Read next: How to Camp for Free in British Columbia
Canadian drivers Licenses
International Driving Permits
Time limits for exchange from foreign licences
Changing your license in BC
I have personal experience of changing my British license to a British Columbia one when I first moved to Canada. New residents to BC have 90 days to change switch their home license to a BC one.
It is straightforward 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. New drivers with less than two years experience are only eligible for a graduated license that has driving restrictions. If your driver’s license does not indicate how long you have held it (either directly on the license or a counterpart), you will most likely need proof from your home country to show your driving experience.
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 usually be done on the spot. Your home license will be suspended and a fee has to be paid.
Finally, they will ask a few questions about driving in BC. My questions were concerning why drivers should be careful around motorcyclists 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 within a few weeks.
Exchanging licenses between provinces
If just visiting a province or territory for a certain time period (usually six months), it is not necessary to swap to a local license. So if you had an Albertan license and travelled around BC and Yukon for the summer, a swap wouldn’t be needed.
I recently moved from British Columbia to New Brunswick (why? read more here) and so needed to change my license. I was asked to prove my right to residence in Canada (PR Card or work permit) and New Brunswick (utility bill) as well as my identity (photo ID). Finally, I had to pay the application fee ($90 at time of writing) and have a new photo taken. To be able to buy vehicle insurance in New Brunswick, we had to get our BC licenses swapped first.
buying a vehicle
The ease of buying a vehicle varies throughout the country but there is a large second-hand car market everywhere. There are especially true in provinces such as British Columbia where there is no annual roadworthiness test for vehicles.
I would strongly recommend buying a car in Canada if you are able to. The freedom that a vehicle offers in this huge country is amazing! You can easily pick up a decent late 1990s car for $1000 (or less, depending on where you are in the country).
Our experience buying vehicles in BC
Six years on after moving to Canada, we have owned exactly five vehicles:
- A 1997 Plymouth Voyager – purchased for $600 in 2011 and sold for $700 in 2012
- A 1995 Chevrolet Astro van – purchased for $1000 in 2012 and sold for $1200 in 2017
- A 1997 VW Polo – purchased for $600 in 2013 and sold for $600 in 2013 (three months later)
- A 1992 Ford Explorer – purchased for $1000 in 2017 and sold for $500 in 2o17 (three months later)
- A 2005 GMC Savana van – purchased for $9000 in June 2017. This is our current vehicle.
Why so many vehicles? We usually share one van between us for general travelling use. We converted the Astro with basic living accommodation for weekend trips around BC and later for a five-month adventure around BC, Yukon, NWT and Alaska in 2014. After the Astro reached well over 350,000km in 2o17, it was time for her retirement and a new van. Enter the Savana. The other vehicles listed were all ‘convenience cars’, either for a temporary time when we needed two vehicles to get us both to our various workplaces or when our main vehicle was out of action.
Searching for a vehicle in canada
From my experience, most people living temporarily in Canada tend to either head for the major cities (mainly Toronto and Vancouver, sometimes Ottawa, Montreal, Edmonton or Calgary) or 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 physical ‘for sale’ signs 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.
a note about Campervans and RVs
RVs (motorhomes) are hugely popular; it feels like almost everyone seems to have in rural areas! Home converted campervans are have become much more popular over the last few years with the #vanlife movement. Compared to when we first moved to Canada in 2011, reasonably priced mid-sized vans (from the Astro upwards) are much harder to find than they used to.
Choosing a vehicle to buy in canada
In some provinces, there is less risk when buying a vehicle. As mentioned above, BC does not require drivers to submit their vehicle to an annual roadworthiness test and hence research can initially only be on the condition of the vehicle, age, mileage and how it feels to drive. In this case, bring a friend along for a second opinion if possible and consider paying for a mechanical check at a garage.
One important thing to mention here is vehicles that are registered in a different province than the one you are in. This means the owner has moved provinces and brought their vehicle with them. Check the plates of the vehicle you are intending to purchase. 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.
When you’ve decided to purchase a car you will need to register the car in your name and also insure it. When registering your first vehicle in Canada, you will need to purchase license plates at the same time. If you later sell the vehicle and buy another, you would put these same plates on your new vehicle unless it is in a different category (i.e. car, large van, truck etc) or you move provinces.
Like driver’s licenses, both registration and vehicle insurance is organised provincially. For this reason, cost and procedure vary significantly between provinces. To my knowledge, registration is always completed with the provincial government (Service Alberta, Service New Brunswick et al) and insurance coverage is purchased from private companies with the exception of BC.
In New Brunswick, we had to buy insurance for our vehicle first and then register it at Service New Brunswick.
Over in British Columbia, things are done a little differently. Vehicle registration and insurance are both controlled by a government corporation called ICBC. For this reason, registration and insurance are purchased at the same time.
It is mandatory to have at least third party insurance in Canada. The price of insurance depends on so many factors that it would be impossible for me to give any kind of ballpark here. One of the most important factors will be the province you live in. Besides that, it is also your location within that province (coverage for cities is generally higher), type of vehicle, usage of vehicle, age of driver, experience of driver etc.
As mentioned, buying insurance in BC is different. 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 additional or comprehensive coverage on top from either ICBC or a private insurer. This does mean that insurance costs are high in BC since there is no competition and therefore no shopping around possible. For reference, we paid around $120/month for basic third party insurance on our Astro. For the Savana, comprehensive coverage was $166 with 6 years no claims discount.
It is possible to get a no claims discount if you can prove your driving history in another country or province. In BC, for example, drivers need to show a complete claims history letter.
- Swap drivers license soon after arrival as per provincial rules
- Search for vehicle
- Buy insurance
- Register the vehicle (in BC, steps 3 and 4 are the same)