Sunrise over snow-capped Banff Mountain in Alberta, Canada.

Driving in Canada: What Every International Driver Needs to Know

Drive through the world’s second-largest country, Canada. Drive your own car and have worry-free travel with an international driving permit and this travel guide.

2023-12-31 · 9min read

Canada attracts more than 18 million international visitors each year. The country's appeal is easy to see, with its natural landscapes, wildlife, and cities offering an enticing experience for travelers.

While driving in Canada might appear similar to the experience in the United States or other English-speaking countries, notable differences can present challenges for foreign drivers.

For example, are you ready to navigate the unique winter conditions you're likely to encounter?

What to Expect in Canada

Is Canada good for road trips?

Absolutely! Canada is one of the best countries for road trips. Many people have taken on a Canadian road trip so you’ll find lots of infrastructure like free and paid campsites, rest stops, paved roads, gas stations, restaurants, and grocery stores throughout the country. If you’re an English speaker, you’ll have no problem getting around most of Canada.

Canada is also great for road trips because it offers something for everyone. Whether you’re into big cities, natural wilderness, water sports, hiking, biking, shopping, art, food, or something else, you can design your Canada road trip around your interests.

Riana, a travel writer based in Vancouver, shares her article, The Ultimate Cross Canada Road Trip Itinerary, on her blog, TeaspoonOfAdventure.

In urban areas, public transportation is typically the most practical and economical mode of travel. Yet, many of the country's most stunning and remote areas are simply not accessible via train or bus.

There's no need to feel frightened by driving in a new country. This guide simplifies and improves your car rental and driving experience, helping you make the most of your adventure in Canada. 

International Driving Permit FAQs

Is an International Driving Permit Necessary to Drive in Canada?

You must have a valid driver's license and auto insurance to drive in Canada. For U.S. drivers, the license and insurance from the U.S. are accepted.

However, drivers from other countries may need an International Driving Permit (IDP) in Canada, particularly if their license is not in English or French. It's important to note that IDPs must be obtained outside Canada, as those issued within Canada are not valid for use in the country.

For short-term visitors or those driving for less than 90 days, a valid driver’s license from your home country, accompanied by an IDP, is sufficient. Drivers must be at least 16 years old and should carry the vehicle's ownership documents while driving. 

How do I get an International Driving Permit in Canada?

Getting an IDP is simple, thanks to our swift online application process. Visit our website, apply for an IDP, provide your details, and submit an updated photo ID and valid domestic driver’s license.

Who is eligible for an IDP?

The IDP is available to individuals 18 or older who have held a driver’s license for at least six months. Canada's car rental companies typically require drivers to be at least 21 years old.

When is my IDP required?

When renting a car in Canada, you will need to present your IDP along with your original driver’s license. In addition, you may need to show your IDP to law enforcement if stopped.

How long is an IDP valid for?

An International Driving Permit generally remains valid for one year. However, there are options for an IDP that lasts two to three years, which can benefit frequent travelers. The validity period starts from the date of issuance, so it's best to apply for it shortly before your trip, allowing enough time for receipt.

How quickly can you get an IDP?

If you need an IDP urgently, a fast-track option is available for electronic delivery. You can expedite your IDP application online for an additional fee to receive it promptly.

Car Rental in Canada

Renting a car in Canada offers a familiar experience to those who have rented cars in the United States, with many of the same major car rental companies like Avis, Budget, and Hertz operating in both countries.

Renting directly from the airport, while convenient for air travelers, can come with higher costs due to premium location fees.

Here are some key tips to enhance your car rental experience in Canada: 

Fly-Drive Packages

Consider booking a fly-drive package from your home country, as this can often secure better car rental deals. Renting a car in the U.S. and driving into Canada, such as from Seattle to Vancouver, can sometimes be more cost-effective.

Age Restrictions

The minimum age for driving in Canada varies by province, typically starting at 16. However, you need to be at least 21 to rent a car, with a year of driving experience.

Drivers aged 21 to 24 may incur a 'Young Renter Fee' and face restrictions on car types, though membership in specific programs can waive this fee.

Required Documents

You'll need a valid driver’s license to rent a car. If your license isn’t in English or French, an International Driving Permit (IDP) is necessary.

  • You'll also need to present a passport and a return airline ticket.
  • A credit card in the same name as the driver’s license is required for the deposit.
  • For children under 18 kg, a child seat is necessary, which can be arranged with the rental company for an additional fee.

Vehicle Selection

You’ll have a variety of vehicles to choose from, mostly automatic, though manual vehicles are also available. Consider whether you need a 4WD for driving on northern gravel highways or backcountry roads.

Insurance Choices

Basic auto insurance is included in car rentals, but additional coverage like a Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) and personal accident insurance is available for an extra fee. Some credit cards offer CDW as a perk, so check with your provider.

Additional Fees

Be mindful of extra fees such as one-way drop-off, additional drivers, young driver fees, and premium location charges. Charges per kilometer and higher rates for inter-provincial travel, along with taxes like the Goods and Services Tax and Provincial Sales Tax, may also apply.

Driving Restrictions

Some rental companies have restrictions on crossing provincial or national borders and driving on gravel or dirt roads. GPS tracking is commonly used, so adhere to the permitted routes.

Motorhome Rentals

For a different experience, consider renting an RV for flexibility and convenience when visiting various campsites or parks. Be aware of the specific rules and restrictions for RVs in Canada, including camping limitations and overnight stay rules. Pre-booking campsites is recommended.

Exploring the Diverse Roadways of Canada

The extensive roadway network spans over a million kilometers in Canada, ranging from the expansive Trans-Canada Highway to smaller local roads in suburban and rural settings.

Meticulously maintained by provincial governments, this network includes a few toll roads, typically near bridges and the US border. Road density increases in southern regions and around major urban centers like Vancouver, whereas in more remote areas, you might find yourself alone on the road for extended periods.

Types of Roads Found in Canada:

  • Local Roads: These roads, commonly situated in suburbs and rural areas, provide access to private properties. Characterized by lower traffic speeds, they generally feature at least one sidewalk.
  • Collector Roads: Designed to funnel traffic from local roads to larger arterial roads, collector roads often have traffic signals at intersections with arterial roads and sidewalks on both sides.
  • Minor Arterial Roads: These roads support traffic flow and sometimes offer access to specific properties. Unlike local roads, they don’t have stop signs but are equipped with traffic lights at intersections and sidewalks on both sides.
  • Major Arterial Roads: Focused on moving traffic efficiently, these roads also have controlled access points. Like minor arterial roads, they typically feature sidewalks on both sides.
  • Highways: Similar to the United States, Canadian highways are designed for faster, long-distance travel. They don’t provide direct property access and are restricted to vehicles, with no access for pedestrians and cyclists.

You may ask yourself: Why do I need an IDL when passing through all these roads? There's no way to know when mandatory checkpoints may happen, so it's always advisable to come prepared with adequate documents to present to the authorities. 

Key Differences and Safety Tips for Driving in Canada vs the USA

Crossing into Canada from the US by car might seem similar at first glance, but there are specific differences and unique challenges in Canadian driving that you should be aware of for a safe journey.

Wildlife on Canadian Roads

Canada's rich wildlife, a major draw for nature enthusiasts, can pose risks to drivers. Encounters with deer, moose, and elk are not uncommon and can be hazardous.

Driving cautiously is essential, especially in areas known for wildlife activity. Pay attention to signage indicating potential wildlife presence, particularly in the Maritime Provinces like Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, where moose are prevalent. 

Winter Driving in Canada

Winter is not exactly the best time to visit Canada, since the harsh conditions can significantly impact driving. Black ice, a common cause of accidents, requires constant vigilance.

Equip your vehicle with winter tires for improved traction; these are mandatory in Quebec during winter. Remember, rental cars may not automatically come with winter tires, so request them at an extra charge.

Precautions for Winter Driving

Given the hazards of winter driving, it's prudent to take several precautions:

  • Carry paper maps as a backup for GPS.
  • Ensure your car is equipped with snow scrapers, a working flashlight, and extra batteries.
  • Dress warmly, considering a heater for added comfort.
  • Drive defensively, especially on icy roads and during nighttime.
  • In case of breakdowns, a sleeping bag can be a lifesaver.
  • Plan your route in advance and inform someone about your travel plans and expected return time.

Key Driving Regulations in Canada

Below are some of the driving regulations you must keep in mind when driving in Canada:

Driving on the Right Side

Like in the US, vehicles in Canada drive on the right side of the road, which is convenient for American drivers entering Canada. While overall driving laws are consistent across Canada, each province or territory may have specific regulations, echoing how US states vary in their driving laws.

Understanding Speed Limits

In Canada, speed limits are expressed in kilometers per hour (km/h), not miles per hour (mph).

Urban areas typically have limits of around 50 km/h, rural roads range from 60-80 km/h, and highways usually have limits of 80-100 km/h. Note that minimum speed limits on highways are often set at 60 km/h. Speeding penalties can vary by province and are more severe in construction zones.

Seat Belt Use

Canada mandates the use of seat belts for all passengers, similar to the US. Children under 18 kg must be in a car seat, and failure to comply with these regulations can result in substantial fines.

Restrictions on Smoking

In many Canadian provinces, such as British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, it is illegal to smoke in a car with minors present. Given the widespread nature of this law, it's advisable to adhere to it in all provinces to avoid penalties.

Cell Phone Usage

Using a cell phone without hands-free technology while driving is prohibited across Canada. Penalties for this offense include fines that vary by province and demerit points on your driving record, remaining on your record for two years from the offense date.

Daytime Running Lights

Most Canadian cars are equipped with automatic daytime running lights. While some provinces require headlights during the day, it's a safe practice to keep them on regardless of your location.

If you're driving your car in Canada, check the specific laws of the province you're visiting or, for simplicity, just use your headlights during the day in all provinces.

Variations in Driving Laws Across Canadian Provinces

Similar to US states, each Canadian province has its set of driving laws, which can be slightly challenging for tourists planning to drive across the country. While there are a few province-specific regulations to be mindful of, the differences aren't overwhelmingly numerous.

British Columbia

In British Columbia, there are a couple of distinctive driving laws. It’s illegal to coast downhill in neutral; drivers must keep their vehicles in gear. This rule aims to ensure that drivers maintain control of the vehicle at all times.

Additionally, there’s a specific law for left-lane driving. If you’re in the left lane and a faster vehicle approaches from behind, you must move over if it's safe. Failure to do so can result in a $167 fine and up to three demerit points.


Unlike in other parts of Quebec and Canada, turning right on a red light is prohibited in Montreal. While some intersections in other provinces may have similar restrictions, they are marked.


In Ontario, drivers caught speeding 50 km/h above the limit may face immediate vehicle impoundment for up to 7 days. This is particularly important in highway construction zones, where speed limits can decrease significantly.


Alberta frequently uses unobtrusive photo radar units for speed enforcement on highways. Police units may monitor speed from parked vehicles or even while in motion. As radar detectors are illegal in many provinces, adhering to speed limits is crucial to avoid fines.


Quebec enforces a unique rule where abrupt, unjustified braking can lead to a ticket and two demerit points on your driving record. The law emphasizes the importance of steady and predictable driving behavior for safety.

Understanding Traffic Signs in Canada

Navigating Canadian roads might feel familiar to American drivers, but there are some key differences in traffic signs and rules to be aware of:

Turning Right on a Red Light

Except in Montreal, turning right on red is allowed in Canada, provided no signs prohibit it. However, complete caution is required for pedestrian safety.

Drivers must come to a complete stop and give right-of-way to pedestrians, especially when pedestrian signals are in play or when the light is green without crossing signals.

Flashing Green Lights

Canada utilizes both standard and flashing green lights. While the standard green light functions as it does in the US, a flashing green light indicates you have the right-of-way to make a left turn.

This can be particularly useful in busy intersections, but everyone has to be aware of this rule to prevent sudden stops that could surprise trailing drivers.

Lane Directions

In cities, road signs often indicate the permitted directions for each lane. These signs will clarify whether you can turn right, straight, or left, offering guidance that might otherwise be indicated on the road surface in the US.

4-Way Stops

At 4-way stops in Canada, the first vehicle to stop has the right to proceed first. If two vehicles arrive simultaneously, yield to the vehicle on your right. Making visual contact with other drivers can help clarify intentions at these intersections.

French Language Signs

Road signs are predominantly in French in many parts of Canada, especially Quebec. Familiarizing yourself with basic French road terminology can be helpful, particularly for navigating Quebec.

Wildlife Warnings

Canadian road signs are similar to the US but may be less visible. Keep an eye out for signs, especially those warning of wildlife crossings, which are common in rural areas.

Canada's Drunk Driving Regulations

When vacationing, indulging in local cuisine and drinks is part of the experience. While it is encouraged to try Canada's craft beers, it's crucial to be aware of Canada's stringent drunk driving laws to ensure safety and legal compliance: 

Drunk Driving Regulations in Canada

In Canada, the legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit is below 0.08 mg/ml. Exceeding this limit is considered a criminal offense, carrying penalties such as arrest, fines, and potential jail time.

Ontario implements a "warn range" for BAC levels between 0.05 and 0.08 mg/ml, which could lead to severe consequences. Zero tolerance applies to drivers under 21, commercial drivers, and novice drivers (with G1, G2, M1, or M2 licenses), meaning no alcohol in the bloodstream is permitted while driving.

Police Enforcement of Drunk Driving Laws

Police officers can conduct roadside breath tests if they suspect alcohol consumption. Refusing this test can result in harsher penalties. If there's a reasonable belief that a driver's BAC is over the limit, the police may conduct further testing at the station. Physical sobriety tests can also be administered roadside.

Penalties for Drunk Driving

Failing a sobriety test with a BAC in the 0.05-0.08 mg/ml range can lead to penalties like a 3-day license suspension and a $250 fine for first-time offenders, with increased penalties for subsequent offenses.

A BAC over 0.08 results in a 90-day suspension, a $550 fine, a $281 license reinstatement fee, and vehicle impoundment for 7 days.

Dealing With Police Checkpoints

If pulled over by the police, here are steps to ensure a smooth interaction:

1. Pull Over Safely: Quickly and safely pull over when signaled. Park safely, preferably off the road, and remain in your vehicle with interior lights on. Roll down your windows and keep your hands visible on the steering wheel.

2. Stay Calm and Courteous: Maintain calmness and politeness throughout the interaction. If you disagree with the officer, stay composed and avoid abrupt movements.

3. Comply with Instructions: If suspected of drinking, you may be asked to perform a field sobriety test. Comply with all instructions and avoid lying, as this can be considered an obstruction of justice. Disputes over charges can be addressed later in court.

4. Know Your Rights: While police can stop you without specific reasons, you have rights, including the right to remain silent and to refuse a vehicle search without consent. You're also entitled to contact a lawyer before complying with any requests. Recording the interaction is permissible, but you must not obstruct police duties.

See our International Driving License packages for expedited processing of your IDP and to avoid any traffic violation including the lack of documentation. 

Emergency Numbers

When driving in Canada, it's crucial for tourists to be aware of the following emergency numbers:

1. 911 - This is the primary emergency number for police, fire, and medical emergencies. It's a universal number across Canada and should be used in cases of immediate danger or life-threatening situations.

2. 511 - You can dial this number in most provinces for road and weather conditions.

3. Non-Emergency Police Number - It's advisable to have the local non-emergency police number on your phone. This number is used for incidents that require police attention but are not urgent emergencies (e.g., minor accidents without injuries or stolen property).

Remember, 911 should be reserved for genuine emergencies. For non-urgent assistance or inquiries, using the appropriate non-emergency numbers is recommended.

Check out this list of emergency numbers per province.  

Top Destinations in Canada

Discover the diverse and enchanting landscapes of Canada with our curated list of the top destinations to visit. Each destination offers a unique blend of natural beauty, cultural richness, and adventure.

Banff National Park, Alberta

Immerse yourself in the breathtaking beauty of the Canadian Rockies with stunning mountain landscapes, turquoise lakes, and abundant wildlife.

Vancouver, British Columbia

A vibrant city with a mix of urban and natural attractions, offering diverse cultural experiences, scenic parks, and access to the Pacific Ocean.

Quebec City, Quebec

Step into the charm of Old Quebec with its cobblestone streets, historic architecture, and a rich blend of French and Canadian culture.

Niagara Falls, Ontario

Witness the awe-inspiring natural wonder of Niagara Falls, where powerful cascades captivate visitors from around the world.

Jasper National Park, Alberta

Another gem in the Rockies, Jasper National Park boasts glaciers, lakes, and an abundance of wildlife, providing a serene escape into nature.

Toronto, Ontario

Canada's largest city offers a dynamic urban experience, featuring iconic landmarks like the CN Tower, diverse neighborhoods, and cultural attractions.

Whistler, British Columbia

A world-renowned destination for skiing and outdoor adventure, Whistler also charms visitors with its alpine village atmosphere.

Montreal, Quebec

A cosmopolitan city known for its festivals, arts scene, and culinary delights, Montreal blends modernity with historic charm.

Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia

Experience the stunning landscapes of the Cabot Trail, explore quaint coastal villages, and enjoy the rich Celtic heritage.

Churchill, Manitoba

Known as the "Polar Bear Capital of the World," Churchill offers the rare opportunity to witness polar bears in their natural habitat and the mesmerizing Northern Lights.

Get an IDP to Explore the Beauty of Canada

Canada's captivating wildlife, diverse landscapes, and friendly locals await you. Now that you're familiar with the country's driving regulations, it's the perfect time to obtain an International Driving Permit. Embrace this chance for an authentic Canadian adventure, best experienced from behind the wheel!

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