Canada’s publicly funded healthcare system is regarded as one of the best in the world, offering universal healthcare for all its residents. Roles and responsibilities for healthcare services are shared between provincial and territorial governments and the federal government. This, on top of the affordable cost of living in Canada, makes the country an attractive place for expats. 

This comprehensive guide gives an overview of everything you need to know about Medicare. In this article, we look into the key aspects of Canada’s healthcare under its Medical Care Act, its strengths, its challenges, and how to access its different services as a citizen and expat.

Introduction to Healthcare in Canada and Canadian Health Services: What Expats Need to Know

Expats living in Canada should be aware of the country’s universal healthcare, known as Medicare. It covers essential medical services to combat health disparities in society but may have wait times for non-emergency treatments. Private medical insurance may be necessary for additional coverage.

Canada’s healthcare system is publicly funded and managed by provincial and territorial governments. It as ten provinces and three territories. The provinces are Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, and Saskatchewan. The territories are Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Yukon.

Provincial and territorial plans for health and social services as well as community health centres are part of the success of Canada’s health system and positive health outcomes for many residents, which makes living in Canada so attractive for many expats.

Provincial and territorial costs and other health expenditures,  including investments in public health initiatives and pharmaceuticals, contribute to the provision of quality healthcare for all Canadians, reflecting the nation’s commitment to accessible and inclusive medical services. Hospital insurance and diagnostic services are key components, while health promotion and comprehensive health services review ensure the system’s efficiency. 

Understanding Canadian Medicare: Access, Coverage, and Eligibility

Understanding the Canadian healthcare system is crucial for newcomers and expats to ensure they receive the care they need and are adequately prepared for potential healthcare costs not covered by the public health agency Medicare.


Canadian Medicare is available to Canadian citizens and permanent residents. Each province and territory administers its own healthcare plan, so eligibility requirements may vary slightly. Typically, permanent residents are eligible after a waiting period of three months following arrival.


Medicare in Canada covers medically necessary services, including doctor visits, hospital stays, surgeries, and diagnostic tests. It’s important to note that while essential health services are covered, not all medical expenses are. Prescription drugs, dental care, vision care, and some specialist services are often not included, necessitating supplementary private insurance or out-of-pocket expenses.


Access to medical care in Canada is typically straightforward. Patients do not need to pay directly for most covered services; instead, healthcare providers bill the provincial or territorial government. However, Canadians often face wait times for non-emergency procedures and specialist consultations due to the high demand for services.

Supplementary Insurance

Many Canadians opt for supplementary insurance to cover gaps in Medicare coverage. This additional insurance can help with prescription drug costs, dental care, and other services not covered by the public system.

The Canada Health Act

The Canadian Health Act, founded in 1984, is a pivotal piece of legislation that defines the principles and structure of Canada’s healthcare. It upholds the fundamental beliefs of universal access, comprehensiveness, portability, and public administration. In addition, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) unites the medical profession in Canada to improve the health of Canadians and strengthen the healthcare system.

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Universal access ensures that all Canadian citizens and permanent residents have equal access to medically necessary hospital and physician services without financial or other barriers.

The Health Act’s comprehensiveness ensures that all necessary healthcare services are covered, although this varies slightly by province or territory. Its portability ensures that Canadians maintain their health coverage when moving between provinces. Public administration requires that the health system be operated on a non-profit basis by public authorities.

It serves as a cornerstone of the country’s commitment to equitable and accessible healthcare, emphasizing the importance of equal healthcare opportunities for all Canadians.

Who is eligible for Canadian healthcare?

Eligibility for healthcare in Canada primarily extends to Canadian citizens and permanent residents. Provinces and territories administer their own healthcare plan, and eligibility criteria may vary slightly. Its excellent healthcare is one of the many benefits of Canadian citizenship and one of the reasons why so many Americans are moving to Canada.

Generally, Canadian citizens are eligible for health services from birth, while permanent residents (or those applying for Canadian citizenship), usually qualify after a waiting period, typically three months following their arrival in Canada. Temporary residents, such as foreign workers or international students, may have limited access to Medicare, often requiring additional insurance.

As an expat, understanding these eligibility guidelines is crucial for accessing Canada’s publicly funded healthcare system and securing the necessary coverage for your specific situation.

Registering for healthcare as an expat: Steps and requirements

The following list gives an overview of registering for Medicare as an expat. Note that registration processes and requirements may vary between provinces and territories in Canada, so it’s essential to research and follow the specific guidelines applicable to your location.

  • Ensure you meet the eligibility criteria, typically Canadian citizenship or permanent residency, or comply with province-specific regulations.
  • Contact the provincial or territorial health authority where you live to start the application process.
  • Prepare essential documents like proof of identity, immigration status, and residency address.
  • Wait for your application to be processed and approved. This may take some time, so ensure you have temporary health coverage or private insurance in the meantime.
  • Once approved, you’ll receive a provincial health card, which is necessary to access healthcare services.
  • Familiarize yourself with what is covered under your province’s healthcare plan and consider supplementary insurance for services not included.
  • Notify the health authority of any changes in your personal information, such as a change in address or marital status.

Private Health Insurance in Canada

Private medical insurance in Canada for expats plays a crucial role in supplementing the country’s universal health system, which may not cover all medical expenses, and you may have to make out-of-pocket payments. Here are key points to consider:

  • While Canada’s Medicare provides essential services, it doesn’t cover everything. Expats often turn to additional insurance to bridge gaps in areas like prescription drugs, dental care, vision care, and certain specialist services.
  • Expats have a range of additional health insurance plans to choose from, catering to different needs and budgets. These plans offer varying levels of coverage, deductibles, and premiums, allowing individuals to tailor coverage to their requirements.
  • Some expats may have access to private insurance through their employers, which can be a cost-effective option.
  • Temporary residents and tourists can purchase travel insurance to cover emergency medical expenses while in Canada.
  • The cost of private medical insurance varies based on factors such as age, health status, and the extent of coverage. It’s essential to shop around and compare plans to find the best fit.
  • Private insurance offers peace of mind, ensuring that expats have access to a wider range of healthcare services and avoiding unexpected out-of-pocket expenses.

Expats in Canada should carefully assess their healthcare needs, research available plans, and consider extra health insurance to complement the country’s healthcare system and ensure comprehensive coverage for their medical needs.

Provincial versus private health insurance: Making the right choice

Choosing between provincial and privately insured health services in Canada is a crucial decision that impacts an individual’s healthcare coverage and costs. Here’s a comparison to help you make an informed choice:

Provincial health insurance:

  • Universal Coverage: Provincial healthcare plans provide universal coverage for essential medical services, ensuring equal access for all residents.
  • No Premiums: In most provinces, there are no monthly premiums for provincial health insurance; it’s funded through taxes.
  • Limited Coverage: Provincial plans may have limitations, such as long wait times for certain procedures and limited coverage for certain drugs, procedures, and medical services.

Private health insurance:

  • Supplementary Coverage: Private insurance offers supplementary coverage, filling the gaps left by provincial plans.
  • Customization: Individuals can select plans tailored to their specific needs, with varying levels of coverage and premiums.
  • Cost: Private insurance comes at a cost, with monthly premiums and potential deductibles.

The right choice often depends on individual circumstances. Expats, those with specific healthcare needs, or those seeking faster access to specialized care may opt for private insurance.
However, most Canadians rely on provincial healthcare plans as the foundation of their coverage, while supplementing with private insurance to address specific needs.

Accessing Medical Services: Finding a Family Doctor or Primary Care Provider


Canada has an abundance of excellent family physicians and many community health centers to ensure the country’s health system performance runs as smoothly as possible. Under Canada’s universal health coverage, finding a family doctor or physician services in Canada as an expat is an essential step to ensure access to regular healthcare services.

Follow the steps below to find a primary care provider:

  • Register with Provincial Healthcare: Before searching for a doctor, ensure you’re registered with the provincial and territorial healthcare system. This is often a prerequisite for accessing primary care.
  • Consult online resources: Many provinces offer online directories or tools to help you find available doctors accepting new patients. Websites like HealthLink BC or Health Care Connect in Ontario can be useful.
  • Ask for referrals and recommendations from local residents, coworkers, or friends who may know of doctors in your area accepting new patients.
  • Consider community clinics: Some areas have community health clinics that provide primary care services. Inquire about their acceptance of new patients.
  • Contact local hospitals, as they often have lists of family doctors and clinics, which they can share with you.
  • Walk-in clinics may not be a substitute for a family doctor but they offer immediate medical attention for non-emergency issues.
  • You can also contact the Institute for Health Information, which can provide further information.

Remember that finding a family doctor may take time, as there is often a shortage of primary care providers in some regions. Be persistent in your search and consider temporary options, like walk-in clinics, while you look for a long-term healthcare provider.

Specialist Care: Referrals, Wait Times, and Appointment Booking

Specialist medical care is an integral part of Medicare, but accessing it can involve specific processes and considerations:

  1. Referrals: In Canada, you usually need a referral from a primary care provider (family doctor) to see a specialist. This referral ensures that you receive appropriate care and that specialist services are used efficiently.
  2. Wait Times: Wait times for specialist appointments can vary significantly depending on factors like your location, the type of specialist needed, and the urgency of your condition. While some procedures may have shorter wait times, others can be longer, leading to concerns in some cases.
  3. Priority Cases: Urgent or life-threatening cases receive immediate attention, ensuring timely care. However, non-urgent cases may experience longer wait times, highlighting the need for efficient triage systems.
  4. Appointment Booking: After receiving a referral, you’ll typically contact the specialist’s office to book an appointment. Be prepared to provide your referral letter and personal information.
  5. Second Opinions: You have the right to seek a second opinion from another specialist if you have concerns about your diagnosis or treatment plan.

Understanding the referral process and being patient with wait times is crucial when seeking specialist care in Canada. Healthcare professionals prioritize patients based on medical needs, aiming to provide quality care to all.

How to Get Prescription Medication and Cover Costs

If you’re in a Canadian hospital (and you’re eligible for government healthcare), prescription drugs are provided at no cost under the Canada Health Act. If you’re not in hospital, however, it’s up to your province or territory to establish prescription drug prices which can vary from territory to territory.

Generally speaking, you’ll get your prescription medication via the following process:

  • Visit a healthcare provider and get a prescription for your medication. This can be a family doctor, specialist, or nurse practitioner.
  • Take your prescription to a local pharmacy, where pharmacists can provide advice and dispense your medication.
  • Check if you have prescription drug coverage through provincial plans, private insurance, or workplace benefits. Some groups of people, like seniors and low-income individuals, may receive comprehensive public coverage.
  • If you’re not covered, be prepared to pay for the medication out of your own pocket. Consider discussing generic or lower-cost alternatives with your pharmacist to save money.

By understanding your coverage and speaking with healthcare professionals, you can access necessary prescription medications while managing expenses in Canada.

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Mental Health Support: Resources and Assistance for Expats

Mental health support in Canada is crucial for expats adjusting to a new life. Canada offers a wealth of resources and assistance to help expats navigate the challenges of mental health care and mental well-being. Canada’s Medicare provides access to psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists, often covered by insurance or provincial health plans.

Additionally, numerous non-profit organizations and support groups specifically cater to expats, offering a sense of community and culturally sensitive mental health services. Online platforms, telehealth services, and crisis hotlines further ensure accessibility.

Canada’s commitment to mental healthcare makes it an inclusive and supportive destination for expats seeking professional assistance and a sense of belonging during their journey in the country.

Maternity Care and Parental Services: Navigating the System as an Expat

Navigating Canada’s maternity care and parental services as an expat can be both a rewarding and somewhat complex experience. Canada boasts a robust healthcare system that includes comprehensive maternity care. As an expat, you are typically eligible for these services, provided you meet certain residency requirements.

Canadian maternity care includes prenatal and postnatal care, hospital or home births, and access to skilled healthcare professionals like midwives and obstetricians. The country also offers generous parental leave benefits, allowing new parents to balance work and family life.

To access these services, expats need to register for their province’s healthcare program and fulfill any waiting period. It’s advisable to begin this process early in your pregnancy to ensure seamless care. Additionally, familiarizing yourself with local resources, support groups, and community services can greatly enhance your experience.

Pediatric Care: Healthcare Options for Expat Families

Expat families relocating to Canada can rest assured that the country offers top-notch pediatric care to ensure the health and well-being of their children. Canada’s universal healthcare system covers a wide range of services for children, including routine check-ups, vaccinations, and treatment for illnesses and injuries.

As mentioned above, the first step for any expat or expat family is to register for territorial or provincial healthcare. Once registered, you can access pediatricians, family doctors, and healthcare facilities for your child’s healthcare needs.

Pediatric specialists, such as pediatric surgeons, neurologists, and allergists, are also available if required. Moreover, Canadian cities often have world-class children’s hospitals that are renowned for their expertise and research in pediatric medicine.

Navigating pediatric care as an expat family can be seamless with proper enrollment and understanding of the local healthcare system. It reflects Canada’s commitment to ensuring that all children, regardless of their background, receive high-quality medical care.

Dental and Vision Care: Understanding Coverage and Expenses

Dental and vision care are essential aspects of overall health, and understanding how these services are covered and the associated expenses in Canada is crucial for residents and expats alike. In the section below, we’ll explore the details of dental and vision care within the Canadian healthcare system.

Dental care

Dental care in Canada is a vital component of overall health and well-being, but it operates independently from the country’s publicly funded healthcare system. Dental services are primarily provided through a combination of private practices, employer-sponsored insurance plans, and government programs for specific populations, such as children and low-income individuals.

Routine dental check-ups, cleanings, and minor procedures are typically covered by private insurance plans or paid for out-of-pocket. While some provinces offer dental care for children and low-income adults, coverage can vary significantly. As a result, many Canadians and expats may face dental expenses that are not fully covered, making it essential to explore insurance options or budget for potential costs to maintain good oral health.

Vision care

Vision care is also an integral part of healthcare, but like dental care, it is largely separate from the publicly funded healthcare system. Routine eye exams and prescription eyewear are typically covered through private insurance plans or paid for by individuals. Some provinces may provide limited coverage for eye exams, especially for children and seniors.

Expats in Canada are encouraged to explore vision care insurance options to offset the costs of eye examinations, glasses, or contact lenses. Annual eye check-ups are essential for maintaining eye health, and understanding coverage and expenses is vital to ensure optimal vision care while living in Canada.

Rehabilitation Services

Rehabilitation services in Canada play a crucial role in helping individuals recovering from injuries, surgeries, or other health conditions to regain their independence and quality of life. These services encompass physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and more, with a focus on personalized treatment plans tailored to the individual’s needs.

Rehab services in Canada are not universally free; they are typically covered by provincial healthcare plans to varying extents. Coverage may require eligibility criteria or private insurance.

Managing Chronic Conditions: Support and Treatment for Expats

Managing chronic conditions as an expat in Canada involves accessing a well-established healthcare system designed to provide comprehensive care and support. However, for specific treatments, medications, or therapies related to chronic conditions, additional private insurance or paying expenses yourself may be necessary.

Expats, and especially those who retire in Canada, can benefit from a network of specialists, support groups, and community resources to help manage their conditions effectively. Understanding the healthcare system, insurance options, and available support services is crucial for expats seeking to manage chronic health conditions successfully in Canada.

Healthcare Costs and Billing: Understanding Medical Expenses

Understanding healthcare costs and billing in Canada is crucial for both residents and expats to avoid any surprises when it comes to medical bills. As Canada’s healthcare system is publicly funded, most medically necessary services, including doctor’s visits, hospital stays, and surgeries, are covered. These services are generally billed directly to the provincial healthcare system.

However, as explained above, certain medical expenses are not covered, such as prescription medications, dental care, and vision care. Individuals are responsible for these costs either through private insurance plans, employer-sponsored benefits, or paying for them yourself.

Expats should ensure they have adequate medical insurance coverage to address these gaps in the publicly funded system. The cost of private medical insurance varies depending on the extent of coverage and the insurer.

Understanding healthcare billing codes and processes can be complex, but healthcare providers and insurers often work together to streamline the billing process for patients. Keeping accurate records of medical expenses and understanding coverage limits is crucial for managing healthcare costs effectively in Canada.

Language and Cultural Considerations in Canadian Healthcare

Canada is a diverse nation and is well-known for its inclusivity of all nations, cultures, and religions, and this also extends to its healthcare system, where language and cultural considerations are integral aspects. Interpretation services are often available to assist patients with limited English or French proficiency.

Moreover, culturally sensitive care is encouraged, with healthcare professionals trained to understand and respect cultural differences, dietary preferences, and religious beliefs that may impact treatment decisions. This approach fosters trust and ensures patients receive care that aligns with their values and needs.

Canadian health and medical facilities aim to create inclusive environments that celebrate diversity, making it more comfortable for patients from diverse cultural backgrounds to seek and receive medical care while preserving their unique cultural identities.

Finding Pharmacies and Filling Prescriptions: Practical Tips for Expats

After you’ve located your nearest pharmacy and noted its opening hours (as they may vary from pharmacy to pharmacy), consider some or all of the following points, if applicable to you:

  • Ensure your prescription is valid in Canada; consult a Canadian doctor if needed.
  • Provide your healthcare card and prescription to the pharmacist.
  • Your prescription drug may be covered through the provincial plans, or you may have to pay for it privately. Speak to your doctor to find out.
  • If you have to pay for your prescription, you may want to compare prices between different pharmacies and generic versus brand-name medications.
  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist about potential drug interactions or side effects.
  • Consider setting up automatic prescription refills.
  • Keep a record of your medication schedule.
  • In emergency situations, access urgent care or hospital pharmacies for immediate needs.

Accessing Healthcare in Rural or Remote Areas: Challenges and Solutions

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Accessing healthcare in rural or remote areas of Canada poses unique challenges due to geographical isolation and limited medical infrastructure. Residents often cope with extended travel distances to reach healthcare facilities, but this sometimes results in delayed care and potential health risks.

To address these issues, telehealth services have gained in popularity, connecting patients with medical professionals via video consultations. Mobile clinics bring essential health services directly to remote communities, overcoming accessibility issues. Furthermore, government programs incentivize healthcare professionals to practice in underserved areas.

By combining telemedicine, mobile clinics, and incentives for healthcare providers, Canada aims to bridge the healthcare gap and ensure equitable access to medical services for all residents, regardless of their location.

Health Insurance for Temporary Residents: Exploring Options

Temporary residents in Canada have several medical insurance options to consider. Many provinces offer special health plans for this group, covering essential medical services. Additionally, private insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage for various healthcare needs, including emergency medical care and prescription medications.

It’s crucial for temporary residents to research and select a suitable insurance plan that aligns with their specific visa requirements and personal health needs to ensure they have access to necessary medical care while in Canada.

Tips for a Smooth Healthcare Transition: From Your Home Country to Canada

Transitioning to Canada’s healthcare system from another country can be a smooth process, also thanks to electronic health records, with some essential tips:

  • Understand the extent of healthcare coverage provided by your province and identify any gaps that may require private insurance.
  • Enroll in your province’s healthcare plan as soon as you arrive to ensure you have access to essential services.
  • Locate a family doctor or primary health care clinic to establish a relationship for routine check-ups and referrals.
  • Know the emergency contact number (911) and the nearest hospital in your area.
  • Ensure you’re up-to-date on vaccinations recommended in Canada.
  • Keep copies of medical records and prescriptions for easy reference.
  • Research nearby pharmacies, clinics, and specialists for your specific healthcare needs.
  • Stay informed about healthcare updates, including any changes to healthcare policies or coverage for newcomers.

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Preventive Care and Wellness Programs: Staying Healthy in Canada

In Canada, preventive care and wellness programs are pivotal components of the healthcare system, promoting overall health and well-being. Health Canada encourages a proactive approach to health, emphasizing regular check-ups, vaccinations, and health screenings. The government also supports various wellness initiatives, such as smoking cessation programs and healthy eating campaigns, to reduce the risk of chronic diseases.

Residents and newcomers are encouraged to take advantage of these resources, ensuring they stay healthy and active. By prioritizing preventive care and participating in wellness programs, all people living in Canada can proactively manage their health and contribute to the overall well-being of their communities, aligning with the goals set forth by Health Canada.

Key Take-Aways from Canadian Healthcare

Canada’s publicly funded healthcare system and public health insurance are a great way to ensure that healthcare services are accessible to everyone, regardless of their income or individual circumstances. Canadian citizens and permanent residents are entitled to free public healthcare, while tourists and visitors are not. However, anyone in Canada can seek private healthcare.

To get the most out of the Canadian healthcare system, make sure you understand your eligibility. If you’re a permanent resident, you should have full access. Be mindful that certain services, such as dental and vision care, as well as some rehabilitation services, are not included in the publicly funded system.

Frequently Asked Questions About Healthcare in Canada

Is healthcare free in Canada?

The Government of Canada ensures it is free for all citizens and permanent residents. This includes free emergency care for all undocumented immigrants and free non-emergency care for those who are pregnant women or children. In practice, however, barriers to healthcare remain for undocumented immigrants.

How long do you have to live in Canada to get free healthcare?

You must have lived in Canada and had a permanent resident status for at least three months to become eligible for Canada’s universal healthcare.

How good is the medical care in Canada?

Canada’s health care system is known for its quality and accessibility. It offers universal coverage for essential medical services, promoting overall well-being and providing care that is generally considered of high standard.

Is healthcare in Canada as expensive as in the US?

It is generally less expensive for residents due to its publicly funded system. In contrast, the United States has a largely private healthcare system, often resulting in higher costs for medical services and insurance.

Can Americans get healthcare in Canada?

Americans can access Canada’s medical care, but it is not covered by Canada’s public healthcare system. They usually need to pay out of their own pocket or have private insurance that covers healthcare services while visiting or residing in Canada.

How does free healthcare work in Canada?

Canada’s healthcare system provides residents with universal coverage for medically necessary services. Funded by the Canadian tax system, it offers access to doctors, hospitals, and essential treatments without direct costs at the point of care, ensuring equitable access for all citizens and permanent residents.

Who pays for medical care in Canada?

It is funded through a combination of federal, provincial, and territorial taxes. The federal government allocates these funds to cover the cost of essential medical services for all residents and permanent residents.

How much is free medical care in Canada?

According to national health expenditure trends, total health spending in Canada was expected to reach C$331 billion in 2022, or C$8,563 per Canadian, according to the Canadian Institute for Health information. About 24 percent is provided by the Canada Health Transfer, the federal program that funds healthcare for provinces and territories.

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