How to Move to Canada, You Know, Just in Case

Clear skies, flattened curves, can’t lose.

PHOTOS: Jacobs Stock Photography Ltd/DigitalVision/Getty & Istvan Kadar Photography/Moment/Getty; DESIGN: GRACE HAN/THRILLIST

On election night in 2016, Google searches for “move to Canada” spiked so aggressively that the Canadian Citizenship and Immigration website crashed, marking the first of many, many things that broke after Donald Trump was elected. Well, Canada, we hope you upgraded your servers, because 2020 already has a lot of people gazing northward toward a land with cleaner skies, calmer discourse, flatten curves, and publicly funded health—and election day is a few weeks out.

Last election’s “welp, time to move to Canada” refrain felt a lot more jokey. Today, it’s aspirational. Maybe you’ve heard about all the reasons to fall in love with Toronto, or discovered that the Canadian Rockies are in fact superior to our own Rockies. Perhaps you’re drawn to Saskatchewan’s river valleys or British Columbia’s indigenous wine country. Maybe you really love hockey, or want to put that semester of French to use. Or maybe you just want to get the hell out of the US but want life to feel at least relatively similar. Regardless, chances are Canada and you would get along great.

It’s not going to be as easy as just walking over the border. Right now, just visiting the country is complicated: Land borders are closed, and American tourists are required—COVID symptoms or no—to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. (Don’t believe us? Ask the American who faces a $570,000 fine plus jail time for breaking quarantine by Banff National Park.) Right now, permanent residency and immigration applications are also backed up like a zamboni stuck behind a moose on the Queensway.

But that doesn’t mean it’s out of reach. If you’re serious about relocating up north, here’s what exactly it’ll take to get you there.

Flatiron Building, Toronto | Diego Grandi/shutterstock

I do want to move to Canada! Where do I start?

First things first, you should have a rough idea of how long you want to live in Canada -- less than six months? More than six months but still on a temporary basis? Forever and ever amen? Will you be there for work, study, or marriage? Once you have an idea of the basics, take 10 minutes or so to check your eligibility via this handy online tool. If full Canadian citizenship is your endgame, you’ll still need to become a permanent resident first.

How many provinces are in Canada?

Canada has 10 provinces and three territories. Depending on your intended method of entry, you might already know where you’re going to live, or you might have no idea whatsoever. The first thing you should probably figure out is whether or not you want to live in French Canada. Do you speak French? Do you want to speak French? If you can’t answer either of those with an enthusiastic “oui,” then you should probably live in non-French Canada. Québec is great, but Canada is a very, very big country.

montreal, canada | EQRoy/shutterstock

Ok, so what’s required to move to Canada? Do I need to have a job first?

Not necessarily, but it sure will make things easier. It boosts your odds of being granted Express Entry, and it allows you to apply to a Provincial Nominee Program if that’s what you’re after. What does any of that stuff mean? Glad you asked.

The easiest way to move to Canada (if you qualify): Express Entry

If you have more than a year of Canadian full-time work experience, there’s a good chance you’ll be eligible for Express Entry. The application takes place entirely online, and is usually processed within six months, though, as with all things in the COVID age, things might move slower. Other methods of immigration are pretty much guaranteed to take longer than this one, so if you qualify for Express Entry, this is definitely the best route to go. The whole process costs between $1,500 and $2,000 total. Express Entry is open to skilled foreign applicants, usually younger, who have taken one of the following official language tests in either English or French:

International English Language Testing System (IELTS)
Canadian English Language Proficiency Index Program (CELPIP)
French Certification Exam, or Test d'Evaluation de Français (TEF)

When you apply, you’ll be assessed on a scale of points that goes up to 1,200. The first 600 come from your skills, education, work experience, and whether you have a spouse in Canada. The other 600 come from things like having Canadian degrees/diplomas/certificates (always a plus), as well as job offers, siblings with permanent Canadian residency, a nomination from a Canadian province (more on that in a sec), and proficiency in French. You can learn more about how to get your credentials assessed here.

Banff National Park, Alberta | Matteo Colombo/Digitalvision/getty images

And the Provincial Nominees Program

This route is less common, but if you can demonstrate that you have the necessary education and work experience, you can try for a PNP. Certain provinces might be looking to fast-track specific “streams” of immigrants to fill specific needs, such as students or skilled workers with areas of expertise in which the province has a shortage. So if you have a full-time offer in, say, the tech industry, you might be able to snag a nomination from British Columbia, which happens to be looking to expand that sector.
To start, make sure you’ve checked your eligibility using that same handy online tool from the beginning of the article. Then —assuming you are indeed eligible—reach out directly to the government of the province you’re hoping will nominate you.

Self-employed? That’s cool too

If you intend to be self-employed in this next chapter of your life, you’ll need to show you have at least two years’ relevant experience in the field in which you intend to self-employ. That experience needs to also be pretty current, from within the five years preceding the date on which you first apply, and classified as either a cultural activity or athletics ie. a freelance journalist, sports star or musician. You’ll need to undergo a medical exam by a Canada-approved physician, whom you can find here; and get a police certificate, which you can learn about here.

QUEBEC, CANADA | Rob Crandall/shutterstock

The process in Québec is a bit different

In terms of PNPs and self-employment, Québec gets to do its own thing when it comes to selecting immigrant applicants, independent of the Canadian federal government. Rather than having a PNP, Québec uses a separate process of skilled worker-selection. You apply to the provincial government directly for what’s called a certificate of selection, or Certificat de sélection du Québec. You’ll need a medical exam conducted by a Québec-approved physician (whom you can find through the same link as the one under the “self-employed” section) and a police certificate (also same). After your application to Québec is approved (congrats!) you can then apply to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) for permanent resident status.

Let’s talk about green-card marriages!

If you have family members already living in Canada, you probably don’t need us to tell you that they can sponsor your immigration into the country, but yes, they can sponsor your immigration into the country.

Family sponsorship includes spouse sponsorship! If, hypothetically, you were to marry a Canadian citizen or permanent Canadian resident over the age of 18, they could also sponsor you as a permanent resident. You’d need to prove that you’re very much in love and aren’t just using a marriage certificate as a piece of paper that’ll get you into the country, a thing people do successfully all the time.

You prooobably aren’t aiming for a start-up visa, but … just in case

This option won’t apply to most of you, but if you can prove that you already have a qualifying business it’s worth considering. To obtain a start-up visa, you’ll need a Letter of Support confirming an investment of at least $200,000 from one of 21 venture capitalist groups OR $75,000 from one of nine angel investor groups. In addition, you’ll need to be accepted into one of 30 eligible incubator programs. You can find all those groups and more information here.

Oh! Is cannabis legal in Canada?


LisaBourgeault / shutterstock

OK, I’m sold. What are the best places to live?

Most people end up in one of Canada’s three largest cities: Toronto (Ontario), Montreal (Québec), or Vancouver (British Columbia). But there are many other options. Here’s a breakdown of some of Canada’s most popular urban centers.

Toronto, Ontario: Canada’s largest city has everything you could ever want: jobs, world-class restaurants, great music (not just Drake), and awesome beaches. The thing is, living in Tdot can cost you an arm and two legs with rent for a one-bedroom hovering around $2,000 Canadian ($1,500 US), if you’re lucky.

Vancouver, British Columbia: This west coast city is just plain gorgeous. It has the Pacific Ocean, epic coastal mountains, and legendary skiing only 30 minutes away. But Vancouver’s rent is around the same as Toronto’s and buying is untenable for the vast majority.

Montreal, Quebec: Montreal is Canada’s at its liveliest (don’t @ me Toronto), with a joie de vivre unparalleled in the rest of the country and probably the US, too. It also has some of the cheapest rent in any major Canadian or American city. However, if you don’t speak French you’ll struggle to find a job, and Québec bureaucracy can be a nuisance.

Ottawa, Ontario: The national capital isn’t as sleepy as it once was, but you can still expect this government city to shut down its trendy restaurants around 10pm for the most part. The trade-off is great year-round access to nature (think excellent biking and cross-country skiing) in nearby Gatineau Park. It’s also cheaper than Toronto and Vancouver, though the pandemic has caused housing prices to spike.

Halifax, Nova Scotia: This east coast city isn’t only about kitchen parties and smoking weed, although they’re certainly part of it. Halifax is laid back with a serious Irish vibe, but unless you’re into fishing the work opportunities are slim. But it’s cheap, and if you’re willing to live elsewhere in Nova Scotia you can nab an entire oceanfront estate for the price of a condo in Toronto.

Calgary, Alberta: Known as the Texas of Canada, Alberta is a land of oil money, conservatives and cowboys. But its largest city also has Banff National Park, which is just an hour and half drive from Calgary. Recent trouble in the oil sector alongside the pandemic has sent rent and home prices down, so now could be a good time to give this mid-sized city a try.

Quebec City, Quebec: Si tu ne me comprends pas, Québec n’est pas pour vous. If you didn’t understand what I just wrote, this 400-year-old city might not be for you. If you do speak French, however, Quebec City is Canada’s most beautiful city architecture-wise and you can cop a sweet place there for very little coin.

MORE:    Here’s more intel on our favorite Canadian cities

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Kastalia Medrano is a New York-based journalist. Follow her @kastaliamedrano.
Joel Balsam is a freelance journalist and travel guidebook writer whose work can be found in National Geographic Travel, Time, The Guardian, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure. Follow him @joelbalsam.