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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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.
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
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:
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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.
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.
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.
If you need to pay a medical bill in a different currency, you could save with Wise. Send an international payment for up to 6x less than using your regular bank — or open a free online Wise Multi-currency Account to hold and manage dozens of currencies from your smartphone or laptop.
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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 Canada||Healthcare in the US|
|Healthcare is offered through a public universal care system for all, and supplemented with private health insurance according to personal choice||Healthcare may be supported by government for low earners and seniors, through employer health insurance or personal health cover|
|Mainly free at the point of access||Much 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 earners||Patients 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 country||Higher costs per person on average|
|Patients must be referred for specialist care by a general practitioner — this can mean a relatively long wait||Shorter waiting times for specialist care|
|How to get assistance|
|Contact your local health ministry|
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.
- Canada - Health care card
- Ross University - US vs Canadian healthcare
- Canada - Finding doctor and dentist
- CIC - Free newcomer services
Sources checked on 10.11.2021
This publication is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to cover every aspect of the topics with which it deals. It is not intended to amount to advice on which you should rely. You must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content in this publication. The information in this publication does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from TransferWise Limited or its affiliates. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.
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