I love thinking about moving to another country. A lot of people like to daydream about moving somewhere new, living a better life.

There are some other things to think about that many of us overlook. What does it even mean to have a US passport? What rights do you have in another country? What should you know about Canada before you move? Will your Social Security vanish? What happens to taxes?

As far as social security and retirement accounts, Canada and the US recognise time you put into either system. Assuming Social Security is around when you retire, moving to Canada won’t change anything. Any retirement accounts you have in the US are still accessible, although you may not be able to contribute to them while you’re living abroad. You can, however, open Canadian retirement accounts.

Taxes? They’ll be more complicated, but we’ll get to that later. For now, just know that it’s not terribly different from living in New Jersey and working in New York.

Let’s talk about those first three questions.

Some things you should know about Canada

Canada wordmarkHere are a few things you need to know before deciding to make the move up to Canada.

Canada welcomes around a quarter of a million immigrants each year. Unlike most western nations, Canadians generally support their high per capita immigration rate. Support for immigration is increasing and all major Canadian political parties support it.

Because Canadian immigration is based primarily on a points system, immigrants to Canada are better educated and better paid than immigrants to the United States. Many of Canada’s highest educated workers were born outside of Canada.

Nearly half of Canada’s immigrants settle in the Greater Toronto Area.

Basic facts

The capital is Ottawa, Ontario

Ten provinces and three territories, making eleven co-sovereign jurisdictions

Canada is part of the Commonwealth

Toronto is the largest city

Quebec is basically a different country

Newfoundland was a self-governing country until 1949

Climate

No, Canada is not a frigid polar land.

Canada is a really big country. Most of the population is within 100 miles of the US border, so it’s not terribly different.

I’ve found Toronto to be a few degrees cooler than New York City, so the summers aren’t as brutal and the winters are a little rougher. Only in Toronto they have underground walkways and are prepared for anything, whereas, my neighbourhood in Brooklyn never got shovelled and the subway would be shut down without notice.

Vancouver’s weather is similar to Seattle. Calgary gets an average of 332 days of sun each year.

Quality of life

Canadian cities frequently place at or near the top of quality of life rankings. Canadians have a higher level of life satisfaction. Canadians get more paid time off. Parents get 50 weeks of paid leave to welcome new children. Canadians work fewer hours. Fewer marriages break up. The infant mortality rate is lower and the life expectancy is longer. Net worths are higher. Brag, brag, brag.

Canada hasn’t fixed discrimination, but overall Canadians are much more accepting. There are fewer incidences of bias and they’re less extreme. If you’re a visible minority, your odds are better in Canada. Income disparity is a problem in Canada, but a much smaller problem compared to the US.

Canada is much safer than the US. Non-violent crime rates are roughly similar, but violent crimes are much, much lower.

Canadians who live in Vancouver, Toronto, or Montreal will complain endlessly about how expensive it is. Coming from New York, I find this adorable. Canadian cities are significantly less expensive than their American counterparts. The best example is real estate, which is horrifically expensive unless you’ve ever looked at renting or buying in New York or San Francisco…or London.

If you’re not coming from a city, you may find the cost of living to be higher in Canada. The price of goods in Canada reflects the actual cost of the items, whereas, in the US, the government covers the cost of corporate pollution and wages too low for many workers to live off of.

It’s hard to compare tax rates between the US and Canada because there are so many variables. I haven’t filed taxes in Canada yet, but it sounds like it’ll be comparable. Only my taxes will include nearly all of my healthcare costs, saving me a chunk of money when compared to how much I paid per pay period for my employer based health insurance plan in the US. The thought of never calling (or faxing!) an insurance company again brings me great joy.

The US taxes your worldwide income, it’s true. Being a successful American expat comes at a cost. While living abroad, you aren’t taxed in the US on the first $95k USD of earned income. You also get tax breaks for things like housing costs. The US gives you credit for any taxes you pay in Canada. It also has agreements with Canada so you’re covered under Social Security in whichever country you end up in, with credit for your employment in both countries.

Healthcare

Canada has a publicly funded single payer healthcare system, with private organisations providing services and the government health insurance covering most costs. The government doesn’t provide any care directly and all patient information remains confidential.

Imagine never having to fill out — or dispute — insurance claims again. Changing jobs or being unemployed has no impact on your coverage. You don’t have to switch doctors when your plan changes or call around to find doctors who take your insurance. There are no lifetime limits or pre-existing conditions. You won’t get hit by unexpected bills for pre-approved surgeries because someone who treated you while you were unconscious was out of network.

There are no deductibles on basic healthcare and co-pays are very low compared to what most people pay in the US. Each province runs its own system and they may have residency requirements for enrolment. In Ontario, you have to be living in the province for three months before you are eligible for healthcare (OHIP).

Patients choose their family doctor (aka GP) and the family doctor makes referrals to specialists as needed. Preventive care is encouraged. If you encounter a rare disease and a proven treatment is only available in another country, the government will pay for you to fly there and get the care you need.

As you may have heard, there can be waiting lists for treatments that aren’t urgent, although these seem comparable to similar services in the US, depending on your insurance coverage and ability to pay. You can get an idea of what the waiting times for something like cancer surgery are like. People of means who opt not to wait can receive care anywhere in the world and pay out-of-pocket. For all the criticisms, Canadians have a longer life expectancy than Americans.

People in Canada don’t die of curable diseases. The survivorship rate for serious diseases like cancer are much higher in the US than in countries with public healthcare systems, but the mortality rates are the same. That suggests people in the US are being diagnosed and treated for conditions that could have been left untreated.

The system doesn’t cover everything. You’re on your own for prescription drugs, home care, long-term care, vision and dental. Most jobs cover these with supplemental insurance. Prescription drug prices are negotiated by the provincial governments to keep costs down, leading to many Americans buying their medications from Canadian pharmacies. Mental health care is covered in some circumstances. Coverage varies from province to province. Only about 15% of healthcare costs are paid out-of-pocket.

Canada has no restrictions on abortion. Medical marijuana is legal.

Education

Education is provided for free through high school. School systems are managed by the provinces. Schooling is offered in both English and French. Canadian 15-year-olds score above Americans on the OECD’s tests.

The thing that stands out to Americans is that there are publicly funded religious schools in Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, because separate schooling was guaranteed in 1867 and it’s never gone away.

More than half of Canadians have a college degree, a rate far higher than any other country.

Canadian colleges and universities may not be as internationally known as big name US schools, but all Canadian universities provide a high-quality academic experience, while the US struggles with diploma mills and predatory for-profit colleges. Canadian schools generally have much lower tuition rates, sometimes half as much, even when US students are paying international rates.

Economy

The Canadian dollar and the US dollar are not the same, although they often have a nearly equal exchange rate. The Canadian economy has strong ties to the US economy.

Most Canadians work in the service industry. Logging and oil are big industries, along with car and aircraft production. Seafood and tech are also big, even though Canada is overshadowed by competitors in the global arena. Most of the goods flowing in and out of Canada are with the United States. China is Canada’s second biggest trading partner.

Canada’s economy fared better than the US during the recession, in part because Canada didn’t have the subprime mortgage implosion.

Canadian parliament from the Musée canadien des Civilisations in Gatineau

Canadian parliament from the Musée canadien des Civilisations in Gatineau. By Maria Azzurra Mugnai via Wikimedia.

Government

Canada is regularly ranked as the most democratic nation in the Americas.

The Dominion of Canada is a constitutional monarchy with a federal parliamentary democracy, in contrast to the federal constitutional republic government of the US. The Canadian Crown heads the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.

The head of state has been Queen Elizabeth II since 1952. The Queen appoints the Governor General based on the advice of the Prime Minister, traditionally for a term of five years.

Canadian laws are based on English Common Law, except in Quebec. It’s also guaranteed that at least three of the nine Supreme Court judges are from Quebec. All political figures are expected to be bilingual.

The main political parties are the Liberal Party, Conservative Party, New Democratic Party, Bloc Québécois, and Green Party.

What does it mean to be an American citizen?

As someone who was born an American citizen into a family that had been in America since the Revolutionary War, it was easy to take citizenship for granted. People risk their lives to come to the US and spend years and thousands of dollars to become citizens. What is it, exactly, that they’re fighting for? And what does it mean to move to another country?

I’m not going to talk about the idea of American citizenship or the hopes and dreams of the immigrants who go there. I’m going to talk about the legal rights and obligations that come with being a US citizen and the different statuses you can hold while in Canada.

Front of a US PassportUS citizens have the right to

  • Live and work in the United States and cannot be deported
  • Leave and enter the United States (without residency requirements, like permanent residents have)
  • Vote in federal elections (states can put additional restrictions, like barring felons, or allowing non-citizens to vote)
  • Run for election in a public office, such as the senate

US citizens can

  • Receive federal assistance
  • Get protection and assistance from the US Consulate when abroad
  • Sponsor relatives for US citizenship or visas
  • Grant citizenship for their children, even when born abroad

US citizens have the duty to

  • Serve on a jury
  • Enlist in the military in times of the draft
  • Pay taxes on your worldwide income, regardless of where you live

The US allows dual citizenship, meaning you can be a citizen of multiple countries. In order to stop being a US citizen, you have to formally renounce your citizenship in person at a US Embassy. This process can sometimes take months and costs over $2k, plus taxes on everything you own at the date of renunciation. You’d then get a Certificate of Loss of Nationality to prove your renunciation, should anyone ask. While it’s wise to have citizenship in another country before you renounce your citizenship, it’s not required.

Statuses in Canada and the rights that come with them

Everyone in Canada is protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

US citizens can open bank accounts in Canada, buy a home, or enroll in courses lasting less than six months without any special status.

Your rights as a visitor, student, temporary worker, or resident in Canada would be the same, regardless of where you’re from. The only difference is whether or not you require a visa and how long that visa is for. Visitors from many countries don’t require a visa to visit Canada.

Visitor to Canada

US passport holders can visit Canada for up to six months without a visa. They can also engage in business covered by NAFTA. US citizens are exempt from the requirement to have an electronic travel authorization. You may have to:

  • Provide detailed information about the reason for your trip and your plans
  • Undergo a search
  • Prove that you’re the guardian of any kids you have with you
  • Prove you have enough money for your trip

You can bring your own personal baggage and vehicles into Canada, but you may owe taxes on anything you leave in Canada. If you declare goods when you arrive and take them with you when you leave, you won’t owe duty, but may be required to leave a security deposit for those items.

You can be turned away at the border for any number of reasons. You need to be in good health, have proper travel documents, and convince the immigration officer that you will leave Canada within six months.

Any US citizen can visit Canada, so long as they’re not inadmissible.

Temporary Worker in Canada

Temporary workers in Canada are protected by Canadian laws and must pay taxes.

Learn how you can become a temporary worker in Canada.

Canadian permanent resident

Canadian permanent residents

  • Can live, work, or study in Canada
  • Are able to get most of the same benefits as citizens
  • Must pay taxes and follow all laws at the federal, provincial, and municipal levels
  • Can’t vote or run for public office
  • Can join the Canadian armed forces
  • Can’t hold certain jobs that require high-level security clearance
  • May be deported if convicted of a serious criminal offense

Healthcare in Canada is managed at the provincial level, so while you’re eligible, you may need to meet other requirements such as living there for a certain amount of time.

Canadian permanent residents can risk losing their status if they don’t live in Canada for two years out of every five, calculated on a rolling basis.

You’ll need to carry your US passport and your PR card when traveling outside the country. Allowing the card to expire doesn’t mean you’ve lost PR status.

Learn how you can become a permanent resident in Canada.

Canadian citizen

You can apply to become a Canadian citizen after living in Canada four years as a permanent resident. As a US citizen, you can be a dual citizen of both countries.

Canadian citizens have the right to

  • Live, work, or go to school in Canada
  • Vote in federal, provincial, territorial, or local elections, unless they’ve been living outside of Canada for more than five years
  • Express yourself, gather peacefully and groups, and practice your religion freely
  • Enter, remain in, or leave the country
  • Be treated with the same respect, dignity, and consideration regardless of personal characteristics
  • Have information presented, participate in government, and receive services in either English or French

Canadian citizens can

  • Join the armed forces
  • Benefit from social welfare programs, such as healthcare, which may have residency requirements
  • Eliminate discrimination and injustice, help others in the community, and protect our heritage and environment

Canadian citizens have the duty to

  • Respect the rights and freedoms of others
  • Obey Canada’s laws and pay taxes
  • Participate in the democratic process by serving on a jury
  • Respect Canada’s official languages and multicultural heritage

New Canadian citizens get the Cultural Access Pass, allowing you to visit cultural institutions for free during their first year of citizenship.

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