Getting to know Canada

Canada is a big country! In fact, we are the 2nd largest country in the world (by area). There’s so much to see and experience when you move here. If you’re like most international students, we know you can’t wait to explore Canada’s vibrant cities, charming towns and breathtaking natural beauty.

But first, it’s time to learn some basics about Canada: our climate, time zones, business hours, tipping, holidays and more.

Canada: Our land and climate

Mountains. Flat grasslands. Deep forests and countless lakes. Rocky shorelines with oceans to the north, east and west of us. There is much to know about Canada’s land and climate. You might also wish to explore the Atlas of Canada to view maps of Canada.

Canada’s climate varies, so your experience will depend on where you choose to live in the country. Summers can be hot and beautiful across Canada. Spring and fall are just perfect for getting outdoors.

During the winter months, many parts of Canada get cold enough for snowy white winters, while other regions (such as the west coast) are milder.

Go north, and you’ll find 24-hour sunlight in summer. There, you can also experience the colourful, awe-inspiring Northern Lights in winter.

When you live in Canada, you quickly learn to plan for the climate no matter what time of the year it may be. The best way to do so is to stay informed about the weather in your region of Canada. You’ll find it’s often one of our favourite topics of conversation!

Weather forecasts and people around you will refer to wind chill and humidex. Here’s what you should know about these terms:

Wind chill in the winter

Sometimes called the wind chill factor, wind chill is a way to measure temperature based on the effect of wind. High winds blowing on a cold day lower the temperature and it feels even colder. For example, a day of -5°C with a wind of 20 km/hr will feel like -12°C. The -12°C temperature is the wind chill for that day.

Humidex in the summer

Charting the humidex is a way to measure heat based on the effect of moisture (humidity) in the air. A high level of humidity on a warm summer day makes the day feel hotter. For example, with a humidity level of 85%, a day with 25°C temperature will feel like 34°C. 

UV index

UV index readings offer information about the risk of exposure to the sun. When you live in Canada, it’s a good idea to watch the UV index so you can protect your skin and eyes if the index is high. A reading of 6 to 7 means a high risk of harm from unprotected sun exposure. If you plan to be out in the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun’s rays are the strongest, wear sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat or cap and UV-blocking sunglasses.

Time zones

Canada has 6 time zones: Pacific (PST), Mountain (MST), Central (CST), Eastern (EST), Atlantic (AST) and Newfoundland (NST). The time difference from coast to coast is 4.5 hours. In other words, when it is 3:30 p.m. in Newfoundland, it’s 2 p.m. in Toronto, 12 p.m. in Calgary and 11 a.m. in Vancouver.

Canada’s 10 provinces and 3 territories observe Daylight Savings Time, which is when clocks are turned forward by 1 hour on the 2nd Sunday in March and turned back on the 1st Sunday of November every year. This is often referred to as “spring forward” and “fall back.” There are exceptions: most of Saskatchewan and small parts of British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Nunavut and Quebec do not change their clocks.

Business and store hours

Government offices and most offices of doctors, lawyers and other professionals are usually:

  • Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Monday to Friday
  • Closed on weekends (Saturday and Sunday)

Some medical clinics have extended weekend hours.

In small towns and cities, stores that sell clothing and groceries, as well as drugstores, are usually open:

  • Open 9 or 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday to Saturday
  • Have shorter hours or closed on Sunday

In Canada’s big cities, stores are likely to be open longer hours every day of the week. For example,

  • Grocery stores may be open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. (some are open 24 hours a day)
  • Drugstores may be open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. (some are open 24 hours a day)
  • Shopping malls may be open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week

The closing time for bars that serve alcohol varies from province or territory. Restaurants set their own hours. Some may only be open for breakfast and lunch. Others may open in the late afternoon and only serve an evening meal.

Tipping

In Canada, people tip service providers such as bartenders, waiters, hairdressers, concierges, spa service providers and taxi drivers. A tip is a sign of appreciation for the service you receive. It’s not included on your bill. You can ask friends or other students about when it’s a good idea to tip. Generally, tips range from 10 to 20 percent of your total bill.

Canadians do not tip professionals, such as a dentist, doctor, lawyer or accountant or anyone in a government office.

Holidays

Canada has national statutory holidays, which are celebrated nationwide and are paid days off work for most employees. These include:

  • New Year’s Day – January 1
  • Good Friday or Easter Monday – spring (date varies)
  • Canada Day – July 1
  • Labour Day – first Monday in September
  • Christmas Day – December 25

The provinces and territories of Canada recognize other public holidays, but these can vary across the country. It is best to check online or with people in the province or territory where you reside. They may include:

  • Family Day – falls on a Monday in February
  • Victoria Day – the Monday before May 25th (Queen Victoria’s birthday)
  • Civic Holiday – first Monday in August
  • Thanksgiving – second Monday in October
  • Remembrance Day – November 11th
  • Boxing Day – December 26th

Canadians celebrate other special occasions that are not official holidays without paid time away from work, such as Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Father’s Day and Halloween. Canadians of different faiths also observe events in their religious calendars.

Alcohol

It’s legal to drink alcohol in all provinces and territories. Here are the facts you should know about alcohol in Canada:

Legal age

The provinces and territories set the legal age for drinking. In Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec, the legal age is 18, while it’s 19 in all other provinces and territories.

Sales of alcohol

Provinces and territories regulate where alcoholic drinks may be sold. You can purchase alcohol from government-run stores, although private liquor stores exist in some provinces. You can purchase beer and wine in grocery stores in some parts of Canada.

Drinking and driving

Be aware of the laws around drinking and driving in Canada. It is illegal to have more than 0.08% of blood alcohol concentration in your body while driving a vehicle. New drivers are not allowed any level of alcohol, so be sure you know the laws in your province if you’ll be driving.

Electricity

Electricity in Canada is also known as power. It’s also called hydro because much of Canada’s electricity is generated by hydro-electric sources (river water). Appliances use 120 volts and you’ll need a plug type B. Plugging an appliance into an incorrect voltage outlet can cause an electrical fire. If you must bring appliances from home that uses a different voltage, you’ll need an electrical converter. You can purchase one at home or in Canada.

Driving in Canada

You’ll need a driver’s licence issued by the government of your province or territory to legally drive a car in Canada. Keep it with you when you are driving. You may drive anywhere in Canada with your licence.

If you are staying in Canada for less than 3 months, you may be able to use a valid driver’s licence issued by your country while you are in Canada. Check with the province or territory where you’ll be living while you’re in Canada. If you are staying longer than 3 months, be sure to get an international driving permit (IDP) from your home country.

Learn more about driving in Canada and the requirements in each province and territory.

Important facts about driving in Canada

Which side of the road?

All traffic drives on the right side of the road. This applies throughout North America.

Do I need a seat belt?

Yes, across Canada, the driver and all passengers in the front and back seat of a vehicle must wear a seat belt. Infants and toddlers must be strapped into a safety seat that uses the vehicle’s seat belt system.

How fast can I drive?

In towns and cities, speed limits are usually 40 to 60 km per hour. In school zones, the speed limit may be 30 km per hour. On major highways, the limit is 100 or 110 km per hour.

Do I need to register my vehicle?

All cars, trucks and motorcycles must be registered with the Ministry of Transportation in that province or territory.

Do I need to buy insurance for my car?

Yes, you must buy insurance for each vehicle you own.
Be sure to carry your insurance certificate in the vehicle. 

Can I turn right on a red light?

You can turn right on a red light if your intersection does not have a sign that prohibits a right turn. On the island of Montreal, Quebec, you cannot turn right on a red light.