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Tips for Travelling to Canada for the First Time… From a Canadian!

So, you travelling to Canada, eh? Good for you! Whether you are travelling to Canada for the first time as a tourist, as an immigrant, or just up from the US on a short trip, there is lots of information you should know about! We breakdown helpful tips for travelling to Canada.

Now, we wouldn’t call ourselves a Canada travel blog exclusively, but we do have lots of Canadian content. After all, half of Penguin and Pia (Eric) is a die-hard Canadian born and raised! Lisa visited and lived in Canada for a few months on a Canadian Working Holiday Visa and so this post is full of some things she would have liked to know before heading over to the land of the maple leaf! So, here is our list of things to know before visiting Canada!

If you are in need of more Canada travel tips and information, perhaps a few of these posts can get you started!

By the way, if you’re travelling to Canada, there is a good chance you will want to look into buying travel insurance. For that, I’ve used World Nomads in the past and it was great. You can check here to get an idea about how much travel insurance for your trip could be. Ready to get exploring? Let’s travel to Canada!

General Information About Canada

rocky shoreline with green trees and blue lake travelling to ontario for the first time
A classic Canadian sight – a rocky shoreline to a blue, freshwater lake!

Canada is located in North America. What comes as a surprise to some is that Canada is the second biggest country in the world. Its capital is Ottawa – sometimes people think it is Toronto because that is the biggest city in the country with about 5.5 million people (in the Great Toronto Area). Other big cities are Montreal in Quebec, Calgary in Alberta and Vancouver in British Columbia.

  • Canada has a population of about 36 million people. Fun Fact: Canada has the same population as the state of California.
  • The country is huge but well over 80% of the population lives within 100 miles (160 km) of the US border.
  • There are actually two official languages in the country – English and French. French is primarily spoken in the Province of Quebec and some parts of the East Coast, while English is the main language in the rest of the country.
  • Canada is a very multicultural country and Toronto is consistently named one of, if not the most, culturally and ethnically diverse city on the planet.
  • There are 10 provinces and 3 Territories.
  • There are 5 major time zones across the country. There is also one time zone on the East Coast that is only a half hour difference so you likely don’t need to worry about it.

Visa Information to Visit Canada

girl sitting in rocks with shoreline travelling to canada for the first time
Lisa’s first time in Canada – and she needed an eTA, too!

If you are travelling to Canada, some travellers have “visa-free” travel depending on their passport. However, even with “visa-free” entry to be a tourist, many European travellers STILL need an eTA. An eTA stands for Electronic Travel Authority. It is applied for ONLINE and for 7 Canadian Dollars, and you have a number linked to your passport information.

You must have to fill out a few simple questions as a “pre-screen” and you will be granted your eTA. You do get a confirmation email with your eTA number but you don’t have to print it out. Do, however, keep that number written down or yeah, just print the email if you want to be extra secure.

Watch out for visa companies charging crazy amounts for the Canadian eTA. Here is the Official eTA Website through the Government of Canada. It cost’s $7 Canadian. It shouldn’t cost $39 CAD or 39€ (as we have found online through other services).

If your passport doesn’t allow for “visa-free” entry to Canada, you will need to apply for a Tourist Visa. You can find more information about applying for a Tourist Visa to Canada here.

A Super, Super Brief Lesson on Canadian History

Canada was originally settled by our Indigenous Peoples (First Nation, Metis, and Inuit) before European explorers arrived (French and British, mainly). Wars were fought between the British and the French colonies in Canada and wars were then fought against the Americans in 1812. We actually burned down the White House – true story. Those remaining colonies (mainly British in origin but also French-speaking Quebec) gained independence from Britain in 1867. In fact, we just celebrated our 150th birthday in 2017.

Debunking Canadian Stereotypes

canadian flag with old building and blue sky travelling to canada for the first time
Eric representing Canada when he lived in Edinburgh, Scotland!

Canadians are not all lumberjacks, fur traders, fishermen, or hockey players. Not every Canadian knows every other Canadian – remember, there are 36 million of us.  Although, we do really love hockey or “ice hockey”. The rest of the world usually says “ice hockey” because they actually have more than one type of hockey – field hockey.

We don’t all drink maple syrup from the bottle (although Eric has been known to do that on occasion). We’re friendly and usually pretty polite. Generally, people are willing to help you if you ask for directions or need something. Canadians are patriotic, not nationalistic. This means that we are proud to be Canadian, but we don’t think that “being Canadian” makes us better than anyone else.

Paying and Tipping In Canada

Money in Canada is renowned for looking like “Monopoly” money. This is because the money is now plastic and each denomination of bill is a different colour. This is very different from U.S bills, which are all green and made from a mix of cotton and paper. Canadian money makes it easy to actually understand how much money you have at a glance.

You can get Canadian Dollars (CAD) in $100, 50, 20, 10, and 5 bills. Then we have coins which can be dollars and cents – and yes, they have funny names. A dollar coin is gold, has a loon (the bird) on it, and is called a “loonie”.  A 2 dollar coin is two colours, has polar bears on it, and is called a “toonie”. The next coin is 25 cents – called a “quarter”, 10 cents – called a “dime”, 5 cents – called a “nickel”. We used to have 1 cent and it was called a “penny” but they got discontinued in 2012 because they became basically useless.

gold canadian coin and silver gold coin on white table travel to canada for first time
Actual photo of a “loonie” and a “toonie”!

That’s another thing to know – rounding of prices. Because we got rid of the penny, if you pay for something in cash, it will be rounded up or down to the nearest 5 cent interval. If you pay by card, the amount will be paid for as exactly the amount. So don’t be surprised if your coffee at Tim Horton’s costs 3 cents more when the cashier cashes you out!

In Canada, tipping is expected when service. Generally, tipping is 15% of the bill but it is not uncommon to tip to 20% for great or outstanding service. Sometimes, if you eat out as a larger group (usually of 6 or more) the tip may get added automatically so if you are unsure just ask your server. Even if service is bad, you would still tip a lesser amount – perhaps 10% – but not tipping anything can be seen as rude.

If you are at the bar, tipping is also recommended but it certainly depends on the setting. If you order a beer and pay with cash, you’d toss a coin (loonie or toonie) on the bar as a thank you for quick, friendly bar service.

Plugs/Electronics Used in Canada

In Canada, we use the North American-style plug. That’s the two-prong style like in the United States. Sometimes, there is a third prong and that is for “grounding”. This means that if you are travelling to Canada from Europe, you’ll need to buy an adapter for the kind of plug you have to fit Canadian outlets.

As for voltage, we use 120 volts in wall outlets which you can find in coffee shops, airports, and USB chargers in more and more long-distance buses. Many electronics these days can handle a range of voltages but bringing a European appliance that runs on 230 or 240 volts and plugging it into a lesser voltage Canadian wall outlet means that might not work as well/at full power. Check the label of your electronics for the supported voltages.

If your electronic isn’t compatible for a 120-volt plug, then you will need to buy BOTH a voltage converter AND an adapter. Buying a travel adapter that can handle different voltages can save you some worry. You can find one exactly like that here. It even includes USB ports for charging smaller electronics (cameras, phones, etc).

Weather and Climate in Canada

blue and red chair on the beach with blue sky travelling to canada for the first time
The autumn is Eric’s favourite season – but each season in Canada has its good side!

Canadian weather is all over the place. No, seriously – we wrote a whole guide on the best time of the year to visit Canada and it was a nightmare! Canada so large that the climate and weather will vary depending on where you are and at what time of the year. Ontario, for example, has four distinct seasons – and the temperature can go from -30 degrees Celsius in the winter to +35 degrees Celsius in the summer. Ontario is also notorious for humid summer heat as opposed to dry summer heat. This means that even in the shade, you still sweat!

The West Coast, like Vancouver, experiences a maritime climate – like in the UK. The summers never get too hot, the winters don’t get snowy. Vancouver experiences rain in the winter months from November to April. In the Rocky Mountains, the summer can be hot and the winter blankets them in a fair amount of natural snow.

Atlantic Canada (far East Coast) enjoys ocean breezes and sunny summers but brutal winters. Climate and weather really varies so be sure to look at where you want to visit and in what month to best prepare for the temperature and conditions!

Public Transportation in Canada

The biggest difference between Canada and Europe is that Canada doesn’t make use of public transport (specifically regional trains) in nearly the same way. This is partly because the country is so large and things are very spaced out – it wouldn’t necessarily make sense.

In Canadian cities, there is usually a metro and bus system that is pretty good to get you around the whole city – Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, etc. Outside the cities – that’s a tough one. Like I said, Canada is large. As such, neighbourhoods outside of cities sprawl for ages and ages. Between towns outside the cities, there can be vast expanses of farmland, forest, or other landscape. Point is – to get around – you need a car.

We have some regional trains – these only exist in city centres to bring people into and out of the cities (eg. Toronto). They don’t take you anywhere else, and they certainly don’t connect the whole country. We also have regional buses (Greyhound, GO Bus in Ontario, etc) but these only get you so far. Fares are cheap, but people don’t utilize the buses like they rely on cars.

We have a national train system and company (ViaRail) what does cross the country. However, it can be very expensive to take the train. Even short routes between Toronto and Montreal (5 hours approx by train) can be hundreds of dollars. As a visitor, the rental car and the price of gas are going to be cheaper than the train and you’ll have the autonomy to drive where you want once you get there. We talk about rental cars in the driving section down below!

Language Spoken in Canada: English and French

blue sky and city buildings montreal travelling to canada for the first time
Downtown Montreal from the top of Mont Royal. You can speak English and French here.

If you’re travelling to Canada the first time, you’ll very quickly find out that we have two official languages: English and French. That said, there are certain places where you wouldn’t need to use the other. For example, you would basically never speak French in Toronto, and in parts of rural Quebec, you won’t find an English speaker. Montreal is a bilingual city and you can get by in English easily.

If you are from abroad and you speak English and another language that is not French, there is a chance you will find someone who speaks that language in a city like Toronto – but don’t count on it. It’s not uncommon to hear multiple languages in a coffee shop in Toronto.

That said, one time in a coffee shop in our neighbourhood in Toronto, there was a woman with her two kids speaking German. When one of the kids dropped something, Lisa helped out and spoke in German. The woman was super surprised and happy to hear German from a stranger. Many tour operators conduct their business in multiple major languages and many attractions or museums have multiple languages provided. It’s best to check websites for attractions beforehand if you are unsure.

Renting a Car & Driving in Canada

Driving in Canada is done so on the right. We use a weird mix of the metric system and the imperial system but when it comes to driving it’s all metric. We measure gasoline in litres and distances in kilometres. The speed limit on most major highways is 100 km/hr but the usual driving speed is between 110-120 km/hr.

Smaller highways and regional roads can be 80 km/hr or even 60 km/hr, while roads in cities and smaller neighbourhoods at 40 km/hr or posted at 25 km/hr for school zones. Just watch for signage. It’s usually pretty clear what the speed limits are.

Canada has all the major rental car brands like Enterprise, Budget, Hertz, or Avis. The minimum age to rent a car differs by province but is generally around 21 or as high as 24/25. It’s a common practice and you’ll find them at airports and in many of the larger centres and even smaller towns have a rental a car depot for pick-up and drop-off. If you want to rent a car in Canada, you can check out RentalCars.com for the latest prices across companies in Canada.

Safety While Travelling in Canada

white wooden lifeguard with tower and blue sky and water travelling to canada for the first time
Head to Toronto’s East End “The Beaches” for beautiful walks and lifeguard stations.

Generally, Canada is a very safe country. The country is politically stable and Canadians enjoy many freedoms. That said, you will always need to take the usual precaution when travelling. In bigger cities, pick-pocketing can and does happen in tourist areas.

Driving in Canada is also very safe – different cities have more aggressive drivers (Montreal) but it’s nothing too crazy. Once you’re in the country, you’ll drive for ages and have roads with far less congestion. If you are driving, be sure to know how to change the spare tire, and have the number for CAA (Canadian Automobile Association) on hand if you ever need roadside assistance.

In the mountains and backcountry (especially in national parks in Western Canada), there are lots of dangerous wildlife (like grizzly bears) that you need to be aware of. Canada, in general, is full of amazing hiking trails through lots of remote areas and hiking trails that can be dangerous if you are unprepared for the terrain and the climate.

Water is another big thing in Canada – since there are so many lakes, rivers, and waterways. Boating safety (canoeing, kayaking, motor boats, and the water sports) should be done correctly and with the right gear. In nature, waterways, dams, and waterfalls need to be respected. In the winter time, check for signs or ask locals about ice on lakes and waterways. Even if ice looks safe to walk on, you have no idea how thick it is.

Canadian Slang

There are lots of different sayings, phrases, and terms you might want to know before you go. This way, you’ll be prepared for any conversation or situation that comes your way.

One of the biggest things that Canadians do actually say is “eh”. Eh is used at the end of a sentence or statement to bring emphasis, agreement, or to ask a question or opinion. For example, you might say to someone “The Leafs [Toronto Maple Leafs] had quite the game last night, eh?” With the “eh”, the person is asking for confirmation of what you said about the Leafs and/or your opinion on the game. Some other Canadian slang words that you might here:

  • Clicks – short for kilometres. “The park entrance is just about 2 click down the road”.
  • Timmies – short for Tim Horton’s. This is a very Canadian brand and is a popular donut/coffee shop.
  • Double Double – a coffee ordered with two cream and two sugars at Tim Hortons.
  • Timbit – a small donut at Tim Horton’s. They are really good – go grab a “10 pack of Timbits”
  • Toque – is a winter hat with a pom pom (or not). You might call it a “beanie”.. it’s a toque.
  • Pop – is the word for soda or for soft drinks. Pepsi is pop. Sprite is pop. Fanta? That’s pop.

Cultural Need to Knows – Small Talk and “Sorry!”

One of the things that surprised Lisa (as a German) about Canada was the amount of small talk that happens. Now, it’s not like Canadians won’t shut up – but compared to Germans, we talk quite a bit more. Waiting in line for food, on the subway, waiting for the ATM, you name it – people do tend to chat!

People can be particularly chatty at the cash register or in the gas station. So, if you want to get to know what the locals are like – feel free to strike up a conversation if you think the situation allows for it. You never know what you might find out!

Another thing that you will find is that Canadians apologize – a lot. We tend to say sorry often – and for things that we don’t really need to be sorry for. If you bump into someone on the street, it’s typical that both people will say sorry regardless of how was at fault! I’ve even bumped into a bar stool or other object and instinctively said “sorry”. I’m not even kidding.

Canadians aren’t actually truly sorry for faults or for bumping into people – “sorry” is used as more in a way that states that “I’m aware that other people exist in the community around me”. It’s more of a collectivist thing, I guess – but I don’t mind!

And there you have it – our guide on travelling to Canada for the first time! Obviously, we couldn’t cover every aspect of your Canada trip but we tried our best to get you ready with useful things to know. In another post, we’ll cover as Canada itinerary to help you actually plan your trip route. Canada is a beautiful country that is amazing to explore. I haven’t even seen most of it myself – and each time I write a post it makes me want to play tourist in my own backyard! Someday soon – it’s on the list!

As always, Happy Canada Waddlin’, eh?
-L&E

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Must-Knows When Travelling to Canada

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Known in my social circles as "the wanderer", I'm primarily the English voice behind Penguin and Pia. While I make a living as the Content Creator and travel writer, I'm fortunate to travel the world with my adventure buddy @lisutravels. You can follow our adventures through my personal accounts and Penguin and Pia.

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