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Visiting Canada and Canadian Tourism

Over 18 million foreigners visit Canada every year making tourism an over $80 billion-a-year Canadian industry — bigger than lumber, fishing, and farming combined. So why not join in?

Why come to Canada?

Canada is a large, diverse country with a lot going for it, but most tourists are drawn to a few of the same things:

Nature — Canada is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, full of picturesque forests, mountains, and lakes that make it a fantastic place for camping, hiking, or just wandering around and admiring.

Winter Sports — Canada’s snowy climate and mountainous geography has produced no shortage of must-visit parks and resorts for anyone interested in skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, or any other activity best enjoyed in the cold.

Cities — Canada is home to several large, modern cities that anyone with a taste for urban life will be able to appreciate.

Cost — The Canadian dollar is generally quite weak in comparison to other currencies, which make it a very affordable option for people without too much money in their travel budgets.

The rest of this chapter deals with general information about traveling to Canada. For more information on things to see and do in Canada’s four most popular tourist destinations, please see the specific chapters on British Columbia tourism, Alberta tourism, Ontario tourism, and Quebec tourism.

Security checkpoint at Toronto's Pearson International Airport.
Serjio74/Shutterstock

How to Visit Canada

Customs and Visas

Canada does not treat all international visitors the same; citizens of certain countries will have an easier time entering Canada than others. All foreign visitors to Canada, however, must bring a valid passport from their home country.

Residents of the United States have the easiest entry to Canada, and don’t require anything other than a passport to get in. Residents of Great Britain, western Europe, and a few other countries have to obtain an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) before they can enter. This is a very easy process that only takes a couple of minutes and should be done online before you leave. Once completed, an ETA lasts for five years or until you get a new passport.

Residents of countries not covered by the ETA program can only visit Canada after obtaining a short-term visitor’s visa. Applications can be done online, through the mail, or at an overseas Canadian consulate. They take a couple weeks to process and usually cost around $200. For more information, see the Government of Canada’s visitor eligibility questionnaire.

It is illegal for anyone, from any country, to enter Canada to work or live without first obtaining a long-term visa, which are much more complicated to apply for, and take many months to be approved.

Crossing the Canadian Border

Anyone entering Canada from a foreign country by land, sea, or air — including Canadians themselves — are required to have an interview with a Canadian border guard at their point of entry so it can be determined they are a safe and legal visitor. Exactly how long and invasive this interview will be depends very much on where you are coming from, why you want to visit, whether you have completed any authorizations you may need, and how clearly you communicate these facts. It pays to be honest, cooperative, and informed.

It should be remembered that while foreigners enjoy various legal rights after they enter Canada (see below), no foreigner has the right to get into Canada just because they want to. Canadian border guards have the power to deny anyone entry to Canada for any reason. Possessing a criminal record, a history of subversive political activity, dangerous diseases, suspicions of drug trafficking, or just broadly suspicious behavior are all common grounds for refusal of entry to Canada.

In the years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 Canadian security forces have been extra vigilant about terrorist threats, particularly from the Islamic world. Would-be visitors from the Middle East or parts of Africa, or those with a history of visiting such places, may find themselves subject to increased scrutiny.

Bringing Goods to Canada

It is illegal for foreigners to bring products into Canada to sell without first going through the complex procedures for engaging in international commerce. If you cross the border with more stuff than a reasonable person would assume you need for a trip, the authorities may conclude you are probably intending to illegally sell goods. The only exception is a maximum $60 worth of “gifts.”

Tobacco and liquor products are counted separately, and foreigners can bring a fair bit of both into Canada. The current tobacco limit is quite generous; you can bring up to 200 cigarettes, 50 cigars, and 200 grams of tobacco, if you so choose. The liquor limit is stricter: you can only bring 1.5 litres of wine, 1.13 litres of another liquor, or a 24-pack of beer. Bringing food products into Canada is generally a hassle, as there are very specific rules and limitations for just about every type.

Dangerous goods, like guns, other weapons, and fireworks can be imported, but have their own particular rules. A few very specific things are likewise banned in Canada for safety reasons and are thus illegal to bring into the country, such as certain kinds of kites and baby products. A complete list can be found on the Canadian Government’s official prohibited consumer products list. It’s also illegal to import what the government describes as “obscenity and hate propaganda” which includes any movies, books, comics, or magazines that contain, in the opinion of the border guard, overly hateful, perverted, gory, terroristic, or violent content.

Traveling Inside Canada

Laws for Foreigners

This should hopefully go without saying, but foreigners have to obey Canadian laws while in Canada. Those who do otherwise can be charged, arrested, sentenced, and imprisoned just like Canadians. At the same time, the legal protections granted to Canadians by the Canadian Constitution also apply to foreigners visiting the country. This includes the right to avoid self-incrimination, the right to consult a lawyer, and the right to dispute before a judge any charges or fines imposed by a police officer.

Canada has extradition treaties with more than half the world’s countries, meaning foreigners who commit a crime in Canada but leave the country before they are caught or punished can be caught by local police and forced to return to Canada to face justice (and vice-versa). Only in very rare situations will a foreigner accused of a crime in Canada be tried and punished for it by their own country’s justice system.

Getting Around in Canada

Air travel

Flights within Canada are notoriously expensive, with the average domestic flight costing at least $300, plus airport fees and taxes which usually add an additional $40 or so. The country has only two national airlines, Air Canada and WestJet, and no budget or discount airline. Flights to northern Canada, and especially within northern Canada, are extremely expensive, often a thousand dollars or more, and to get to certain remote regions travelers must use a specialty northern airline or a chartered flight.

Every major Canadian city has its own international airport, and many smaller cities too. There are also several considerably smaller regional or domestic airports that exclusively service flights between Canadian cities. Most of Canada’s big city airports are located around 20 kilometers from their city’s downtown core, or about a 30 minute drive. Vancouver and Toronto have trains that go directly from the airport to downtown.

Trains

The railroad played an important role in Canadian history, but trains have now become among the slowest, most expensive ways to travel the country. Today, train travel is generally only used by people who really hate flying, really like trains, or really want to spend a lot of time admiring the Canadian wilderness out the window.

VIA Rail is the primary passenger train service, offering routes from Vancouver to Toronto, Toronto to Montreal, and Montreal to Atlantic Canada, with stops in all significant cities along the way. A cross-country Canadian train ride will take about four days and cost around $500-$800.

VIA Rail’s Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal stations also offer connecting trips to the United States, via Amtrak. Several provinces also have limited train service to some of their more remote areas. Cruise-like luxury train services are provided by Royal Canadian Pacific for those willing to pay.

A Via Rail passenger train takes a break in Blue River, British Columbia.
joseph s l tan matt/Shutterstock

Public Transportation

Most large Canadian cities have relatively sophisticated public transportation systems, with some combination of bus, light-rail train, monorail, subway, street car, and ferry services that can be used to navigate most of the downtown core and surrounding areas. The exact combination of services will vary from city to city (as will the cost of tickets and passes). In most cases, public transportation does not travel to rural areas, though some rural communities may have their own public transportation system.

Quality of Life in Canada

Healthcare

Though Canada offers generous public healthcare insurance, you have to be some form of long-term, legal Canadian resident before the government will pay for your hospital visits or operations. Non-residents will be billed full cost for any medical service performed while in Canada, which is why it always pays to get travelers’ medical insurance.

Canada has some of the world’s cleanest tap water and strict laws to ensure the cleanliness and safety of any meat, dairy, or poultry products sold at restaurants or grocery stores.

Staying Safe in Canada

Canada is generally a safe country, but it has some dangerous places. Every large Canadian city will have a couple of “bad neighborhoods” where criminals tend to congregate and locals generally avoid — particularly after dark — for fear of being harassed, robbed, or assaulted. Unfortunately, these neighborhoods can often be located close to tourist areas, and may seek to take advantage of the obviously confused or foreign. At the same time, most serious, violent crime in Canada tends to occur between people who know each other. Visitors who act confident and use caution and common sense should have little to fear.

Leaving belongings unattended in any public place is generally considered a high-risk activity, and though some businesses may store forgotten items in a “lost and found” collection of lost property, the police — and indeed, most Canadians — will generally be unsympathetic to victims of theft caused by inattentive behavior. People generally lock up their homes, cars, and bicycles before leaving them unsupervised.

The police can be called anytime in Canada by dialing 9-1-1 on the telephone. Canadian police are obligated to treat crimes committed against foreigners exactly the same as crimes against Canadians.