Driving in Canada may be a new experience for some newcomers, as Canadian cities are often quite spacious with neighborhoods far distances apart. Outside of Canada’s dense urban centers with advanced public transportation systems, driving is sometimes the only way to get around. Knowing the costs, time, and necessary paperwork involved in getting your driver’s license in Canada will help you to stay organized, save time and money, and get on the road as soon as possible.
To drive a car legally in Canada, you will need a driver’s license authorized by your home province or territory. A driver’s license obtained in any of the Canadian provinces/territories is valid throughout Canada.
If you have a license from your home country
Can I drive with my foreign driver’s license?
If you have a valid driver’s license from your home country, you can use it for up to 60 to 90 days (this time varies between provinces) in Canada before applying for a Canadian driver’s license. Check your province’s specific licensing rules before arriving to know how much time you will have to get a Canadian license.
Note that vehicles in Canada have a left-hand drive and follow right-hand traffic (RHT), which means that the steering wheel is placed on the left side of the vehicle and everyone drives on the right side of the road. If you get your license converted and aren’t used to a left-hand drive, it may be a good idea to take a few courses after you move to practice driving on the right.
Converting my foreign driver’s license into a Canadian license
Visitors to Canada can get an International Driving Permit (IDP), an authorization that can be applied to a valid driver’s license within the set of countries that honour the IDP, allowing an individual to drive in those countries without undergoing additional testing. This will translate your driver’s license into English and French for use in Canada, which will make it easier to transfer your license over. Depending on the province you are moving to, and which country you are from, you may be able to transfer your driver’s license without sitting a driver’s test.
Before coming to Canada, you should get a copy of your driving history (known as a “driving extract”) from the licensing authority in your home country. Having your driving history ready to go in either English or French is helpful for applying for a license and getting driving insurance.
How to pass a driving test in Canada
Getting an official driver’s license in Canada usually consists of one written exam, and between one and two road tests, depending on your region. See the specific driving requirements for your region to confirm this process.
Here is an example of the process to get your full “G” level driver’s license in Ontario:
Most provinces and territories have a graduated licensing system, and you must be tested to move up to the next level of a driver’s license. Names of levels tend to vary across provinces. Typically licenses move from a novice level to regular driver’s license and then become more specific for driving heavy or specialized vehicles such as trucks, buses, or motorcycles. Driver’s licenses are typically good for five years, after which they must be renewed. There is usually a cost associated with all driver’s tests, test cancellations, and license renewals.
Written tests are typically performed at the licensing authority in your province or territory, and require making an appointment at the authority’s office in your community. You may be required to book at least two months in advance. Study guides are available in the form of workbooks, apps, and more to help teach you each province and territory’s specific rules and road signage. A score of 80 per cent or higher is typically needed to pass a written driver’s examination.
The road test portion typically follows between one to two years after your first written exam, during which time you should practice your driving with a licensed driver. You may also have your health and eyesight tested during your road test, as they are important factors in safe driving.
Tip: In Canada, road tests are often quite strict to ensure the safety of everyone on the road. As a result, failure rates of the first or second road tests are often quite high, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t succeed on your first road test. Driving lessons are available in packages from third-party driving companies at between $60 and $100 CAD per hour. Driving lessons are a good investment for new drivers, as driving companies are up-to-date with the newest driving rules and test procedures and will reduce your likelihood of failing your test on your first try.
Driving options in Canada: Should you buy, lease, or rent a car?
Buying or leasing a car is one of the biggest financial decisions you will make as a newcomer to Canada. No matter which option you choose, remember that you are still required to have car insurance on your vehicle.
Buying a car
You can purchase a car either new or used from a car dealership, or from anyone who is selling their car privately. This option may require more upfront payment, and you will have full ownership of the car. Buying a car outside of a dealership may be cheaper, but it can also be less regulated. Be cautious of online postings or scams.
Leasing a car
Leasing is a popular option for Canadian drivers: it is essentially a long-term rental. Instead of purchasing a car, you make a legal agreement with a car dealership to pay a fee to drive a car for a period of months or years. After this, you return the car to the dealer in good condition. This may allow you to update your car more often, as when your lease is up every few years, you can begin a new lease on a different car.
Car rentals and car share
If you only need a car for a short period of time, car rentals or car share programs could be a good fit for you. Car rentals can be made for both short-term and long-term rentals, and require insurance coverage like any other car. Enterprise, Budget, and Hertz are a few nationwide car rental companies. To rent a car in Canada, you must be at least 21 years of age and be able to provide a valid, hard copy driver’s license. If your driver’s license is from your home country and in a language other than English or French, it is recommended that you acquire an International Driver’s Permit to translate your driver’s license. You may also need to provide a credit card with the same name as your driver’s license for payment and proof of identity.
Car share programs are common in larger cities, and provide easy-to-use short-term rentals for less than a dollar per minute. Car share programs often have designated parking spots around their cities where you can leave the car for the next person when you are finished with it. Here are a few popular car share services:
- Enterprise Carshare (Toronto, Mississauga, and many university campuses)
- Zipcar (Many cities in British Columbia and Ontario)
- Communauto (Edmonton, Halifax, plus many cities in Ontario and Quebec)
- Turo (Across Canada)
- Evo Car Share (Vancouver)
It is illegal to drive a car in Canada without valid car insurance. There are several types of car insurance to cover you for various motor incidents. Liability coverage is mandatory for all motor vehicles in Canada. Your liability coverage will help to cover the cost of your legal expenses if you are at-fault in a car accident, as well as any damage inflicted on the body, vehicle, or property of another person. Collision coverage is optional; it provides financial help to you if your own vehicle is damaged. Comprehensive coverage is a third commonly purchased form of insurance that protects drivers against loss from nonoperational actions (e.g. your car gets keyed, broken into, damaged by weather, or more).
How much does it cost to insure a car in Canada?
Car insurance costs are typically on a sliding scale, depending on:
- Your age
- Your driving record
- The type of vehicle you drive
- How often you use your vehicle
- Where you live
Different insurance companies may have different prices. It is a good idea to contact multiple insurance providers to make sure you get the best rate. Some provinces have government-run insurance programs, like ICBC in British Columbia, where they have a monopoly over that province’s car insurance.
Driving laws in Canada
Driving laws in Canada are generally strictly followed, and you can receive serious punishment for breaking driving laws in ways that endanger yourself and others. Take the time to learn your province or territory’s driving laws. You can find these laws in each province’s driving guide:
- Alberta’s Driver Guides
- British Columbia – ICBC Drive Smart
- Manitoba Driver’s Handbook
- New Brunswick Driver’s Handbook
- Newfoundland and Labrador Driver’s Handbook
- Northwest Territories Basic Driver’s Manual
- Nova Scotia Driver’s Handbook
- Nunavut Driver’s Manual
- Ontario Driver’s Handbook
- Prince Edward Island Driver’s Handbook
- Quebec Driver’s Handbook
- Saskatchewan Driver’s Handbook
- Yukon Driver’s Basic Handbook
Rules of the road in Canada
Here are a few universal driving rules across Canada that you should know if you plan on acquiring your driver’s license:
- You and your passengers must always wear a seatbelt while driving.
- Speed is measured in kilometres per hour (120 km/hr is typically the fastest speed allowable, and only on certain highways, 50 km/hr is the regular city speed, while it may be lower in certain urban zones).
- Drive on the right side of the road.
- Pedestrians always have the right of way.
- Cyclists must also follow the rules of the road, but drivers must be aware of them.
- If your lane is clear, you may take a right turn on a red light. This move is prohibited in the city of Montréal, and anywhere where signs have marked that the turn is illegal.
- Full stop at stop signs; at a four-way stop, take turns driving through in order of arrival at the stop.
- No distracted driving is permitted, including mobile phones.
- Driving while intoxicated is punishable by law.
- It is legal to pass on the right or the left, but passing on the left is generally more common and predictable, making it a safer choice for passing.
Winter driving in Canada
Many places in Canada get snowy and icy in the wintertime, which can make for dangerous road conditions. Winter tires, ice scrapers, a full gas tank, and increased awareness are all best practices for winter driving in Canada.
Demerit points on your license
All drivers start with zero demerit points on their license and gain demerit points for violating driving laws. The number of demerit points you receive depends on the severity of your offence. For example, in Ontario, you will receive seven demerit points for failing to remain at the scene of a collision, but only two demerit points for failing to use your turn signal. Once you have reached the number of demerit points that your province or territory deems unacceptable, you could have your license suspended or taken away. New drivers have less tolerance on their license for demerit points.
What to do if you get in a driving accident
If you have an accident with another vehicle, property, or pedestrian, you must stay at the scene until you speak with the police and are permitted to leave. Call 911 for police and ambulance services if you are in an accident.
In an accident with another person, you should exchange the following information with that person:
- Phone number
- License plate
- Driver’s license number
- Insurance company and plan number
You should always keep your driver’s license card and insurance papers with you while driving in case you get in an accident or pulled over for violating driving regulations.
Gaining a Canadian driver’s license has many steps and involves costs, time, and knowing your province or territory’s specific driving guidelines. If you intend to drive in Canada, you can use the tips and guidelines in this article to start working towards getting your Canadian driver’s license. Soon after, you can jump in your car and hit the road to work, school, or even a road-trip vacation to another province.
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Clem Leveau-Vallier Head of Marketing
Clem Leveau-Vallier is a marketing professional with corporate and start-ups experience and a passionate supporter of newcomers to Canada.