Driving as a Foreigner in Canada: Essential Tips

Although there are many driving laws that are universal, driving in one country can be very different from driving in another. Canada is no exception to this claim, as Canada’s driving regulations and driving conditions require a different approach than what you may be used to in your home country.

What is different about driving in Canada? Each province has its own variation of regulations. No matter which province you are in, you will need to apply for an International Driver’s Permit if you plan on spending an extended period of time in Canada as a foreign citizen. You will also need to prepare for the fact that there are large segments of Canada that are quite remote.


It is strongly encouraged that you read this article if you are planning on driving in Canada. By the end of this article, you will know how to obtain an International Driver’s Permit, how to prepare for Canada’s sometimes treacherous roadways, and how to interpret road signs that may be drastically different from the ones that you are used to seeing.

Can You Drive in Canada With a US Driver’s License?

Yes, you can drive in Canada with a U.S driver’s license. Just be aware that you will need proof of auto insurance, as is the case in the United States. You will also need a copy of your vehicle registration. Make sure you have copies of these documents in your vehicle before you leave your home country. Avoid the unenviable task of having to prove to foreign law enforcement that you are legal to drive in your home country.

How Long Will My Foreign Driver’s License Last in Canada?

Your foreign driver’s license exists as a temporary driver’s permit in Canada. This is similar in many ways to laws requiring you to apply for a new license when you move from one U.S. state to the other. Laws regarding the transference of foreign licenses can vary by province, so you are encouraged to check out the provincial laws on this official government site.


You are always encouraged to visit official government sites with the domain “.ca” when you are planning your trips. There are numerous blogs and web sites directed towards tourists that may have outdated or incorrect information regarding driving in Canada with a foreign license.


In Ontario, for example, you are required to apply for an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) if you plan on visiting for more than 3 months. In Quebec, drivers holding a foreign driver’s license are allowed to drive for 6 months without obtaining an IDP. You will need to obtain your international driver’s permit through an organization based out of your home country.


United States citizens can obtain their IDP from the American Automobile Association (AAA). If you are currently in the US, you can apply for an IDP by visiting a local AAA branch office. You can find the nearest AAA branch office via the AAA Office Locator. Be sure to call the office first to see that they offer IDP services at their location. 


If you are already in Canada, you can apply for an IDP by mailing the address shown on this page. If you are in Canada, this process can take as much as 4-6 weeks to be completed. If you have already been in Canada more than a month, you should definitely get the ball rolling on obtaining an IDP.

Use Navigational Aids

Other than making sure that you can legally drive in Canada, the next most important step for an American planning a drive through Canada is obtaining the right navigational aids. This is important even in areas that are less remote, as Canada’s highway system is markedly different from the US interstate system.


The Frontier Center For Public Policy has noted in the recent past that Canada lacks a system of fully-grade separated roadways such as the divided highways that Americans take for granted. If you are planning on driving in Canada expect to deal with heavy traffic in the urban centers.


Outside of its condensed urban centers, Canada is largely remote. In fact, 66% of people in Canada live within 100 km (or 62 miles) of the U.S border. This accounts for only 4% of Canada’s total geographical area. If you are traveling to any area outside of this region, you will be greeted with large swaths of remote backwoods. There are even large stretches of the Trans-Canada Highway that are quite isolated.


Getting lost in these areas can be quite dangerous. You will also encounter areas with very limited cell phone service, rendering a digital GPS ineffective. Stock up on a variety of navigational aids, both digital and paper, even if you are not planning on traveling to remote locations.

Canada Map Pack Bundle

This collection of foldable paper maps, produced by National Geographic, is an absolute must if you plan on traversing the Canadian wilderness. Even if you are planning on spending most of your time in Canada near the city, you may still have the urge to take in the beautiful Canadian wilderness during the weekend. 


The bundle is split into 3 sections: Canada West, Canada Central, and Canada East. These maps are designed to be waterproof and tear-resistant. Best of all, they will give you a detailed look at the terrain without the need to be powered by satellites.

GPS Navigation System for Car

Reliable satellite navigation systems for vehicles are pretty affordable these days, as is evidenced by the price tag on this Sixpo GPS Navigation System. This GPS navigation system comes with a 7-inch screen, 256 MB of RAM storage, and 8 GB of ROM storage.

Familiarize Yourself with The Metric System

All Canadian road signs, including speed limit signs, are based off of the metric system. You can land yourself in a heap of trouble if you are unaware of this. The speedometers on many cars in America do include the speed in km/hr on a scale below the mph scale of the speedometer. Vehicles with digital speedometer displays often include the option to change to km/hr in the settings. Be sure to make the necessary changes to the settings prior to entering Canada.


You will also need to familiarize yourself with the metric scale to be able to read the distance signs on the side of the road. These signs are just like the distance signs in the United States showing how far away the nearest towns are. The only difference is the distances are in kilometers (km) in Canada. 

1 mile = 1.61 km


The metric to imperial conversion, as shown above, often gives the false sense that things are farther away than they really are. The same town that is 50 miles away, is 80 kilometers away. Remove the units from the numbers and suddenly it seems like the town is a lot farther away.


You can see how much trouble this can cause if you are thinking about speed limits. Many segments of the Trans-Canada Highway System have speed limits restricted to 100 km/hr. The 100 number may sound quite fast to an American. This value is actually equivalent to 62 mph. This is a speed restriction that would be considered quite low on many American interstates, where speed limits often are somewhere in the territory of 75 mph.

Familiarize Yourself with Some French Phrases for Quebec

If you are planning on driving through Quebec, I would suggest that you learn some French phrases. French is the sole official language of the province of Quebec. At one point, many road signs in the Province were in French. However, starting in late 2018, the government began replacing French-only signs with bilingual pictograms.


Still, there may still be remnants of the French road sign era in Quebec. You certainly don’t need to learn the French language, but you are encouraged to at least learn some common phrases. All you really need is a simple French phrase pocketbook like the one found here.

Understanding Canadian Traffic Lights

For the most part, traffic lights in Canada are very similar to what we have in the states. Green means go, yellow means to yield or that a red light is about to appear, and a red light means stop. However, some areas of Canada can have traffic lights with some added features that we don’t see in the states, particularly in urban areas such as those found in the Province of Ontario.

Transit Priority Signals

Some urban areas have transit priority signals. These will show as a white vertical bar on a dark background and will be positioned at the very top of the traffic light above the red light. The traffic priority signals allow transit vehicles, such as busses, the opportunity to go through the intersection while the rest of traffic is stopped. 


You will not need to worry too much about this light causing you confusion because you will have a red light anyways. Still, it is good to be aware of the fact that this does exist in some places so that you will not be taken by surprise when you do see a traffic priority signal.

Put Together a Vehicle Survival Kit

As mentioned earlier, 66% of Canada’s population lives within 62 miles of the US border, in condensed urban centers. There is a good chance that your vehicle may stall out in a remote area. You will be particularly vulnerable to this during Canada’s winter months.


You are encouraged to put together a vehicle survival kit, particularly if you are planning a recreational trip to a remote area. Vehicle survival kits should at least include emergency food rations, water, and warm clothing. The Canadian government has put together a list of recommended materials for vehicle emergency kits.


The list includes:

  • Food that won’t spoil (they specifically recommend energy bars)
  • Water (plastic bottles)
  • Blankets
  • Extra Clothing
  • A first aid kit including a seat belt cutter
  • Snow and ice removal tools
  • A wind-up flashlight
  • A whistle/noise attraction device


Below I will make some specific recommendations for items that you may consider putting in your vehicle emergency kit. If you have to take medication (such as insulin), I would always recommend traveling with enough doses to cover at least a week or so of being stranded.

First Aid Kit

Every vehicle should have a first aid kit at all times. This would be a good opportunity to invest in a quality first aid kit if you don’t already have one. WNG Brands makes one of the most comprehensive vehicle first aid kits on the market. This kit includes the typical set of bandages and gauze as well as jumper cables, a seat belt cutter, a hand-driven LED flashlight, and a tow rope among other items.

Non-Perishable Foods

The Canadian government’s website getorepared.ca specifically recommends energy bars as a non-perishable food item for your vehicle emergency kit. You can buy a 16-pack of Clif energy bars for a relatively low price, as seen here.


Other good non-perishable foods for your vehicle emergency kit include nuts/trail mixes, dried fruit, and peanut butter. These are not the only foods that you can include in your kit, just make sure that whatever food you decide to place in your vehicle emergency kit is perishable.


Your kit should include an adequate supply of freshwater for the duration of the trip. Purchase plastic bottles of water, as you will want to go with a bottle that can be frozen and thawed without becoming damaged. If it is winter, you may be able to resupply yourself with water by packing down fresh snow into the bottle.

Snow and Ice Removal Tools

Snow and ice removal tools are an absolute must for driving through Canada. The winter weather is particularly harsh in Canada and you will likely need to clean your car off just about every day during the winter. This car duster brush and detachable ice scraper will help you keep you free your car of ice and snow during winter.

Flare Kit

A flare kit such as this Hokena LED Road Flare kit is an essential emergency device during long road trips. Your vehicle may become stalled out in winter weather. It may be otherwise difficult to attract attention on remote sections of the Trans-Canada Highway. If you are using flares, any passerby will know that you are in need of assistance. 

Auto Repair Tool Set

If you are traveling along the Trans-Canada Highway or other remote areas, then you are strongly encouraged to invest in a standard tool kit set that will allow you to make most emergency auto repairs, as necessary.


You should already have a spare tire and tire iron set somewhere in your vehicle, in case you get a flat tire. If you do not have these, make sure that you set yourself up with a spare before you leave for Canada.


This Deko Pro General Household And Auto Repair Tool Set will at least provide you assurance that you will be able to make emergency repairs if you become caught on a remote section of highway. Even if you do not end up using the tool kit, it will still end up being a great set of tools to have around the house when you come back home.


Consider Investing in a SEND

SEND stands for Satellite Emergency Notification Device. This a device that will give off a satellite signal corresponding to your location if you are in an emergency situation. They can be a little costly but they are an absolute must for someone who plans on spending extended periods of time in remote areas where emergency help may not be close by.


One popular example of a SEND is the Garmin inReach Mini GPS Satellite Communicator. This device allows you to send and receive texts remotely and track your journey on a map when it has been paired with compatible devices. Most importantly, the device can send out an SOS alert to an emergency response team.  


There are many remote areas, even along the Trans-Canada Highway where you may not have an adequate cell phone signal. This is particularly the case in the middle of winter. During winter traffic the traffic is lighter in many remote areas and travel can be treacherous. Anyone who plans on traveling in remote areas of Canada should consider the possibility that they may become stuck and not be able to call for help.

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