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How to Buy a Car in Canada: A Guide for Visitors and New Residents

Canada is a huge country and the easiest and most flexible way to explore it is by car. This post will share how to buy a car in Canada, aimed specifically at long term visitors and temporary residents. First, I’ll try and break down the process, share my own experiences and finish with a frequently asked questions section.

Updated June 2020

This post includes affiliate links. If you make a qualifying purchase through one of these links, I may receive a small percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you. 

How to buy a car in Canada

Buying a car 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 process to buy a car is different in Newfoundland compared to Alberta. And then different again in British Columbia compared to Ontario. And so on!

Van parked next to reflective lakes in the Canadian Rockies
Roadside stops in the Canadian Rockies

With that in mind, here’s a very quick overview to the processing of buying a car in Canada:

  • Before arriving in Canada, research the insurance/licensing rules in province you intend to register a vehicle.
  • Get a letter from previous insurers as needed to prove driving experience and/or lower insurance premiums in Canada.

Once in country, the next steps are:

  1. Swap drivers license soon after arrival as per provincial rules
  2. Search for vehicle
  3. Buy insurance
  4. Register the vehicle (in British Columbia, steps 3 and 4 are the same)

Why buy a car in Canada?

If you’re not living in a big city in Canada, then a car can be a very, very useful thing to have. In the eight 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 remote hiking and paddling trips often 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, I wouldn’t worry too much about buying a car in Canada.

The bigger cities have car-sharing programs (such as Zipcar) that are very popular and perfect for when you want a weekend out of the city.

If you’re 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.

Blue Astro Van with Northern British Columbia mountains in background
Buying a car in Canada may be the best decision you make!

Driving conditions in Canada

Outside of cities, Canadian roads are pretty quiet and straight (making for easy driving), though there can be a few quirks here and there such as:

  • Unique one way systems
  • Four way junctions, where the first vehicle to stop is the first one to go
  • Roundabouts, which are not usually used efficiently (some drivers wait for the roundabout to be completely empty before entering them)
  • Turning right on a red light (generally allowed unless there is a specific sign prohibiting it at a junction or a local restriction)
  • The risk of large animals on the road

The latter includes animals such as deer, elk and moose as well as bears, porcupines, skunks are more. They can cause a lot of damage to a vehicle if hit. Animals are most commonly seen at dawn and dusk.

The biggest difference for some newcomers to Canada (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 Canadian cars being left-hand drive and mostly automatic.

Navigation, in general, is easy outside of the cities due to Canada having few main highways.

Within cities, I like to use downloaded Google Maps to navigate. Beyond civilisation, we use the excellent Backroad Mapbooks. Not just useful for directions, Backroad Mapbooks also show places to visit, hiking trails and free places to camp.

Read next: How to Camp for Free in Canada

Stop and "Wa'la" on a red sign
First Nation road signs in British Columbia

Canadian drivers licences

Driver’s licences are issued provincially. New residents need to exchange their home drivers license for a local one. 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. Your new Canadian licence will usually only be valid for as long as your work permit.

International Driving Permits

An International Driving Permit is a translation of your driver’s licence. It has no real validity unless it is presented alongside a valid driver’s licence although there are some exceptions.

Alberta is one of these exceptions. As long as you have a IDP, you can drive on your ‘home’ licence for up to a year in Alberta. In most other provinces, the IDP is simply seen as a translation of the foreign licence (in terms of language and driving level). 

Time limits for foreign licence exchange

The standard rule is that foreign licences must be swapped for a local provincial one after a certain amount of time, dependent on the province/territory.

It’s a similar requirement if you move provinces. Depending on the province, you may need to show your work permit, proof of residency (utility bill etc) and/or driving history to be able to complete the exchange. 

Driver’s licence deadlines and requirements for each province and territory in Canada:

Alberta – within 90 days for new residents from other provinces, not specified for new residents from other countries

British Columbia – within 90 days

Manitoba – within 3 months

New Brunswick – “as soon as [you] take up residence”

Newfoundland and Labrador – within 3 months

Northwest Territories – within 30 days (as specified in ‘Basic Drivers Handbook’)

Nova Scotia – within 90 days

Nunavut – no deadline specified

Ontario – within 60 days

Prince Edward Island – within 4 months

Quebec – within 6 months

Saskatchewan – within 90 days

Yukon Territory – no deadline specified

A highway snakes between snow capped mountains
Winter road trips views in Alberta

Changing your licence in British Columbia

I have personal experience of changing my British licence to a British Columbia one when I first moved to Canada. New residents to British Columbia have 90 days to change switch their home licence. 

It is straightforward to get a BC licence 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 licence that has driving restrictions.

If your driver’s licence does not indicate how long you have held it (either directly on the licence or a counterpart), you will need proof from your home country to show your driving experience.

To swap a driver’s licence in British Columbia –

  • Bring your passport, work permit and home country license to any Service BC location. They record your height/weight/eye colour on the licence, despite having a photograph, so be prepared to be asked!
  • An eye test will usually be done on the spot. Your home licence will be suspended and a fee has to be paid.
  • Finally, they will ask a few questions about driving in British Columbia. My questions concerned 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).
  • The last step is to take a new licence photo there and then. A temporary licence is given and the actual one posted to you within a few weeks.
A dirt road stretches out as far as the eye can see
The Dempster Highway in Yukon and NWT – one of the many great reasons to buy a car in Canada

Exchanging drivers licences between provinces in Canada

If you are just visiting a province or territory for a certain time period (usually six months), it is not necessary to swap to a local licence.

So if you have an Albertan license and decided to travel around BC and Yukon for the summer, a swap wouldn’t be needed. It is a good idea to check your insurance is valid too, though.

If you do decide to move to a different province (looking for work and renting a place are example indicators of moving), the process is almost the same as swapping licences from a different country.

British Columbia to New Brunswick and then back to BC again

A few years ago, JR and I moved to New Brunswick for a year and changed our licences. We were asked to prove our right of residence in Canada (PR card for me) and also 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 licences swapped first.

A year later, we did everything in reverse and had to pay to swap our licences back to BC.

White van on rocky coastline, Nova Scotia
Driving in Nova Scotia, on Canada’s East Coast

Buying a car in Canada

The ease of buying a car in Canada 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 mid to late 1990s car for around $2000 (or less, depending on where you are in the country).

Our experience buying cars in British Canada

Seven years after moving to Canada, we have owned exactly five vehicles:

  1. A 1997 Plymouth Voyager – purchased for $600 in 2011 and sold for $700 in 2012
  2. A 1995 Chevrolet Astro van – purchased for $1000 in 2012 and sold for $1200 in 2017
  3. A 1997 VW Polo – purchased for $600 in 2013 and sold for $600 in 2013 (three months later)
  4. A 1992 Ford Explorer – purchased for $1000 in 2017 and sold for $500 in 2017 (three months later)
  5. A 2005 GMC Savana van – purchased for $9000 in June 2017 (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 2017, 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.

Views of Sunshine Coast with GMC Savana van and kayaks
Road tripping on British Coumbia’s Sunshine Coast in our Savana van

Searching for a car to buy in Canada

In 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 buying a car in Canada 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 may even be adverts on hostel notice boards in the main arrival/departure cities (Toronto and Vancouver).

If you’re planning to live 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 likely be less choice and higher prices in the resort area. 

A note about buying campervans and RVs

RVs (motorhomes) are hugely popular; it sometimes like almost everyone seems to have in rural areas in Canada. Home converted campervans are have become much more popular over the last 4 or so 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 harder to find than they used to. On the other hand, pre-converted vans are easier to source! They often come with all the camping necessities from camp chairs and stoves to food storage and more.

Wild animals on the road in Alberta
Winter driving in the Canadian Rockies

Choosing a car to buy in Canada

In some provinces, there is less risk when buying a car. As mentioned above, British Columbia, for example, 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.

Out of province vehicles

One important thing to mention here is the issue of buying a vehicle that is 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.

Having transferred our vehicle from BC to New Brunswick and then back to BC within two years….my recommendation is to avoid buying an out of province vehicle if you possible can.

Not only did we have to spend money getting some cosmetic problems fixed, we also had to pay a surprising amount of admin and processing fees.

View inside vehicle looking out to road with huge snow capped mountain behind
Driving towards Mount Robson in British Columbia

Registering a car in Canada

When you’ve decided which car to purchase, it’s time 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 licences, 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 British Columbia.

New Brunswick

In New Brunswick, we had to buy insurance for our vehicle first and then register it at Service New Brunswick.

British Columbia

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.

How to buy car insurance in Canada

It is mandatory to have at least third party insurance when buying a car 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. Quebec is widely known to have the cheapest car insurance premiums in Canada, for example.

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.

An insurance broker is usually a good place to start when buying car insurance in Canada.

View of a highway winding around green highlands
Driving the Cabot Trail, Nova Scotia

Insuring a car in British Columbia

As mentioned, buying insurance in British Columbia 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 back in 2011-2017. For the Savana, comprehensive coverage started at $166/month with 6 years no claims discount and is now around $135/month after 8 years.

It is possible to get a higher no claims discount if you can prove your driving history in another country or province.

How to buy a car in Canada: FAQs

Is it possible to buy a vehicle with a foreign licence in Canada?

It depends on the province. For example, we couldn’t buy insurance in New Brunswick without having a New Brunswick licence. In British Columbia, foreign licences are accepted but insurance is automatically more expensive

Do I need to provide physical address to register and insure a car in Canada?

Yes, you must be able to provide a local address (within the province) to register and insurance a vehicle. A separate mailing address is usually OK. When applying for a drivers licence, you’ll only be given a paper version immediately and the card will be mailed within 2-3 weeks. For insurance purposes, you have to supply an address where the vehicle will usually be ‘residing’ (that is, parked when not in use).

But what if I am going to travel around Canada for a long period of time, without a home to go back to?

You still need an address to initially register and insure the vehicle at. Having experienced this issue myself, I can tell you that it is one of the more frustrating aspects to travelling in a van long term.

Do I need to provide proof of the drivers licence and insurance address?

For insurance purposes, not usually. For the drivers licence, possibly. It depends on the province. For example, BC does not ask for proof but New Brunswick requires it.

I plan to travel across Canada, staying in each province for a few months at a time. What do I do about vehicle insurance?

If you are only travelling through and not moving to a province (to find work, rent a house etc) it is not necessary to transfer you vehicle over each time you cross a border. You should, however, check your insurance policy for any relevant time limits on travel.

I plan to travel in the USA too, how does that work for insurance?

Most Canadian insurance policies will include driving in the USA too. But you should always check first.

What should I do if I move addresses within a province in Canada?

You must update the address on your licence and insurance soon after moving. In British Columbia, this is required within 10 days of the move.

If you have any more questions about how to buy a car in Canada, ask in the comments below

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