Health care in Canada: your full guide

Gabriela Peratello

If you’re a US citizen living in Canada — or if you’re considering a move north of the border to live, work, study or retire, you’ll need to know about the Canadian healthcare system. This guide covers all the key questions: is health care in Canada free? Who is eligible for universal health care in Canada? Do you need to buy extra health insurance? All that and more, coming right up.

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We’ll also touch on how expats living abroad can save money with Wise and the Wise Multi-currency Account.

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How does health care work in Canada?

First up, it's important to note that different provinces and territories in Canada might have slightly different approaches to how the Canadian universal healthcare system works in that area¹. You’ll need to double check all the rules for your location with local authorities to make sure you’re clear on what is and is not covered, and how health services are made available in your area.

That said, emergency medical treatment is available for free throughout Canada. If you have a medical emergency, call an ambulance or visit your nearest hospital.

Emergencies aside, you’ll need to have a public health insurance card to access medical care for free. Public health insurance is available for all Canadian citizens and permanent residents, although there may be a waiting period before you are given your card if you’re a new arrival in your province or territory.

Who’s eligible for Canadian universal health care

Free Canadian universal health care is available for:

  • Canadian citizens
  • Canadian permanent residents
  • Eligible refugees and refugee claimants
  • Eligible protected persons, under the Interim Federal Health program

When do you need extra health insurance?

If you’re new to Canada you may not be eligible for free universal health care. Even if you have been granted permanent resident status there may be a wait period of up to 3 months before you can get your health card. You’ll need extra health insurance to cover you during this interim period.

It’s also important to note that the Canadian universal health care system doesn’t cover every single type of health care cost. You might choose to buy extra health insurance — or you may be able to get additional cover through your employer — for:

  • Prescription medicine costs
  • Opticians appointments and eye care
  • Dental care
  • Physiotherapy
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Is health care free in Canada?

On to a couple of important — and commonly asked — questions: is healthcare free in canada? And, is surgery free in Canada?

Canadian citizens and permanent residents are entitled to health care cover under Canada’s public health insurance system. This means that most emergency and essential medical care is free. However, there are variances in the cover offered from one province or territory to the next, and there are also some important costs which are seldom covered by public health.

When it comes to surgery, as an example, you’ll find that almost all essential surgery, and even some elective procedures, are likely to be free in Canada. However, your provincial health insurance plan may not cover a private or semi private hospital room, which you may consider essential for your recovery. And in many cases, your public health insurance won’t cover the prescription medication required after your surgery.

So while it’s fair to say that many health care costs in Canada are covered for eligible citizens and permanent residents, it’s not exactly true that healthcare is entirely free. Buying additional medical insurance can still be a smart move, even if you have a public health insurance card already.

Health care for foreigners and expats

If you’re an expat in Canada — or plan to visit for a short trip — you may need additional health insurance cover to make sure you’re not hit by hefty medical bills if you suffer an illness or injury.

Emergency care is usually free to all in Canada — foreigners included — but routine care, planned treatment, medications and even a hospital room will probably cost you. The exception here is if you’re an expat holding Canadian permanent resident status. In this case you may be entitled to public health insurance which unlocks Canada’s universal health care system for free. Check out the process for getting a Canadian health insurance card in your province, to cut your medical bills.

Is health care free in Canada for foreigners?

The Canadian public health insurance system is designed for Canadian citizens and permanent residents. If you’re a foreigner living in Canada without permanent resident status, the chances are you’ll need additional healthcare insurance for all but emergency treatment.

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What are the main differences between US and Canadian health care?

Let’s take a look at some of the contrasts in Canadian health care compared to the medical services we’re used to in the US²:

Healthcare in CanadaHealthcare in the US
Healthcare is offered through a public universal care system for all, and supplemented with private health insurance according to personal choiceHealthcare may be supported by government for low earners and seniors, through employer health insurance or personal health cover
Mainly free at the point of accessMuch care has to be paid for upfront
Public care is paid for through taxes — higher earners therefore may pay more in relative terms compared to lower earnersPatients pay for the services they need only, through insurance, copay and upfront billing
Lower costs per person on average — the Canadian government can negotiate costs on behalf of the entire countryHigher costs per person on average
Patients must be referred for specialist care by a general practitioner — this can mean a relatively long waitShorter waiting times for specialist care

Important information

Emergency number911
How to get assistance
  • In an emergency call 911 or go to your nearest hospital
  • Get a family doctor through your local community health care center, or attend a walk-in clinic in your area³. You can also contact newcomer services in your area for advice on local doctors and health practitioners⁴
Contact your local health ministry
    Check out health care information by province and territory here:

    Now you’re equipped with all the basics you need to know about healthcare in Canada. Use this guide to get more details for the area you’re headed to — and don’t forget to check out Wise for simple ways to cut costs when you live an international lifestyle.


    1. Canada - Health care card
    2. Ross University - US vs Canadian healthcare
    3. Canada - Finding doctor and dentist
    4. CIC - Free newcomer services

    Sources checked on 10.11.2021

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    This publication is provided for general information purposes and does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from Wise Payments Limited or its subsidiaries and its affiliates, and it is not intended as a substitute for obtaining advice from a financial advisor or any other professional.

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