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Canada Driving Guide 2020

Driving in Canada is not so different to driving in the USA, as long as you have an International Driving Permit and an understanding of the basic rules.

Lisa Brown

January 21, 2020

INTRODUCTION

Driving in Canada may seem the same as driving in the United States of America. After all, they’re such close neighbors you would think that the streets are virtually identical. However, there are a few major differences that make driving in Canada a little tricky for the Americans who’s never been before. Yes, they do drive on the right side of the road, but are you prepared for the amount of winter weather you’ll be driving in?

Tourism is an over $80 billion-a-year industry in Canada, with over 18 million foreigners visiting the country every year. This makes tourism a bigger industry than lumber, fishing and farming combined. It’s not difficult to understand the allure of Canada— the beautiful nature, peaceful wildlife, and bustling cities are incredibly fun to visit.

But to take full advantage of all that Canada has to offer, you’ll need a car. After all, it’s the remote regions of the country that you can’t access by train or bus that are some of the most beautiful. Don’t be intimidated by the prospect of driving in a foreign country. It’s worth taking the time to learn a few rules of the road in order to enjoy Canada for all it’s worth.

A US driving license in Canada will go a long way, but foreign drivers may need to take a few additional steps. Aside from a few laws and points of etiquette that American drivers may not know, driving in Canada is not any more difficult than driving in America. You’ll be glad you took the time to read up on safe driving in Canada when you come home with a camera full of pictures and a mind full of memories.

Renting a car will allow you to explore not just the big cities but also those all-important towns, villages and landmarks in Canada.

IS AN INTERNATIONAL DRIVING PERMIT NECESSARY TO DRIVE IN CANADA?

You need both a valid driver’s license and proof of auto insurance to drive a car in Canada, but driving in Canada with a US license and insurance are both valid. If you’re from another country, you may need to get an International Driving Permit (IDP). This is especially true if you’re driving in Canada with a foreign license that isn’t in English or French. You need to apply for an IDP outside of Canada because IDPs issued in Canada aren’t valid in Canada.

If you are visiting or driving for less than 90 days, you can use your own valid driver’s license. You will need to be at least 16 years old and carry a copy of the vehicle ownership permit with you when driving. If you plan on driving for more than 90 days, then you will need to get an IDP from your own country. An IDP is easy to get, and you can even get it online.

Who is eligible for an IDP?

Anyone who is 18 years or older and has had their driver’s license for at least six months is eligible. However, car rental in Canada requires you to be at least 21 years old.

Who do I have to show my IDP to?

You will have to show your IDP to the car rental agency along with your original driver’s license. Even though you need a valid driver’s license to get an IDP, you still need to present both in order to rent a car in Canada. You may also have to show your IDP to law enforcement in case you get pulled over.

How long is an IDP valid for?

An IDP is typically valid for one year. However, people who regularly travel overseas can get an IDP that lasts about two to three years. Because the countdown begins the day you get the IDP, you should order it shortly before leaving (while giving yourself enough time to ensure you receive it).

How quickly can you get an IDP?

If you’re in need of an IDP at the last minute, there is an option to receive your IDP electronically. You can complete an online application and fast track your IDP for an extra fee.

WHAT SIDE OF THE ROAD DO THEY DRIVE ON IN CANADA?

Luckily for the American drivers out there, the driving direction in Canada is that Canadian cars drive on the right side of the road. This is especially convenient when driving a US car in Canada across the US Canadian border. Driving laws in Canada are mostly the same throughout the country, although specific provinces or states have their own motoring rules. This is similar to the way that different states in the US have different laws for drivers.

While driving in the United States is, for the most part, the same as driving in America, there are a few major differences that may take American drivers by surprise. The biggest shock for American drivers will likely be the fact that speed limit signs are all posted in metric units. You will have to gauge your speed in kilometers per hour instead of miles per hour, which throws many people who aren’t used to paying attention to that part of the speedometer.

One thing that is very much the same is the rules governing passing other cars on the road. You always pass on the left, and trucks are barred from driving in the far left lane. Because RV rentals are so popular for tourists in Canada, this is an important thing to keep in mind to avoid getting ticketed on the road. It is also advisable to stay in the left lane when stopped at a red light to allow cars to turn right on red if need be.

If you forget or make a last minute decision that you want to rent a car while you are in Canada, it is possible to get an IDP through a premium fast track service, and it will be sent to you electronically in just a few hours.

WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW ABOUT CAR RENTAL IN CANADA?

Renting a car in Canada is pretty similar to renting a car in the United States. Major car rental companies are the same as the ones in the US, including Avis, Budget, Hertz, and more. Often times you’ll find that renting a car from the airport is the easiest way if you’re flying into Canada. However, this can be more expensive as you may be charged a premium location fee.

The quickest and cheapest way of navigating Canadian cities is to use public transportation. Traffic congestion is about as bad in Canadian cities as it is in most American cities. While there are various forms of transportation available to get you around cities and between towns, a car is necessary to really explore the best places Canada has to offer. There are a few tips you’ll want to bear in mind to get the most out of your car rental.

1. Consider a fly-drive package from home

The cost of renting a car may vary based on factors such as the time of year, type of car you’re renting, and how long you’re renting it for. Booking a fly-drive package from home can get you the best deal on car rental. You can also potentially get a better deal if you book well in advance. You may also want to rent a car in the US instead because car rental is usually cheaper there. Flying into Seattle and driving into Vancouver may be the cheaper option if you’re visiting western Canada.

2. Know the age restriction

What is the driving age in Canada? The driving age in Canada varies from province to province, but most places have it set at 16 years of age. However, the minimum age to rent a car in Canada is 21 years of age. You also have to have a minimum of one year of driving experience to qualify to rent a car. If you’re between the age of 21 and 24, you will also be charged a “Young Renter Fee” in addition to your rental rate. You may also be restricted to specific car classes if you’re within this age range. You can potentially avoid the added fee if you’re a member of certain programs.

3. Bring the proper documentation

In order to rent a car in Canada, you must present a valid driver’s license. If your driver’s license is not in English or French, you must also have an IDP. You may also be required to show your passport and a return airline ticket when you’re picking up your car. They will also require a credit card for the deposit, and it must be in the same name as your driver’s license. If you’re traveling with children under 18 kg, they will require a child seat fastened with a seat belt. You can request one in advance from most car rental companies for an extra fee.

4. Consider what type of car you want

Bigger rental companies will offer you a choice from a really wide range of vehicles. Most of the cars you’ll rent in Canada will be automatic, although some will have a manual transmission. The biggest consideration you’ll face is whether or not you want a 4WD. A 4WD will be really handy if you decide you want to drive the northern gravel highways or backcountry roads, as these will require a bit more traction. A 4WD does cost quite a lot more than a regular car, so only choose this if you absolutely need it.

5. Pick your insurance wisely

Auto insurance is a requirement to drive in Canada, and basic insurance is automatically included when you rent a rental car. Driving in Canada with US insurance is an option if you have car insurance, but most Canadian car rental companies will offer you a collision damage waiver (CDW) and personal accident insurance as well. However, they will charge you an added fee for this additional coverage. A CDW will cover losses from the theft of or damage to a rental car. You can potentially get CDW for free by using your credit card to pay for the rental, as certain credit card companies offer that as a perk.

6. Beware of extra fees

There are several extra charges that can help you rack up a significant bill for your car rental. These include fees for one-way drop-off, additional drivers, and drivers under 25. You may even be charged a premium location fee for renting at places like airports. If you don’t get unlimited kilometers, you may be charged by the kilometer. You may also be charged a higher rate if you’re traveling outside the province you rent the car. There are also certain taxes that may be added to your bill including the 5% Goods and Services Tax and the Provincial Sales Tax.

7. Know where you’re allowed to drive

Certain car rental companies restrict where you’re allowed to drive their rental cars. For example, some companies won’t allow you to drive across borders into other provinces or into the United States. They’ll track your route through your GPS, so be careful. Most of the major car rental companies also won’t let you drive on gravel or dirt roads. You will be taking on the risk and be liable for damage if you choose to do so.

8. Consider renting a motorhome

Renting an RV may be one of the best ways to travel to Canada. An RV will give you convenience and flexibility when checking out different campsites or parks. Be careful of the rules pertaining to driving RVs in Canada as certain areas have time and length restrictions. You may also not be allowed to camp on private property, national or Provincial Park, or wilderness areas. You may find overnight stays to be limited outside of rest areas and certain mall car parks, so be sure to reserve spaces in advance.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

DRIVING IN CANADA VS USA – WHAT DO YOU NEED TO KNOW TO STAY SAFE?

While you might be able to drive right to Canada from the US without noticing much difference, there are a few differences between driving in Canada vs. the US. You’ll need to know a couple of things to stay safe on the road and avoid getting pulled over. These are a few hazards and road characteristics that foreign drivers aren’t aware of.

Wildlife – Canada is known for its beautiful and diverse wildlife. In fact, this is what attracts many of the tourists who flock to Canada to experience nature in its uninterrupted form. But, the wildlife does represent a certain danger to drivers on the road. Deer, moose, and elk can all potentially be a hazard to cars, and driving slowly is a necessary bit of caution you need to exercise to stay safe.

There are usually signs that tell you when there might be a wildlife presence. The Maritime Provinces of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia both have an overpopulation of moose, so it’s important to be careful when driving around corners to ensure the safety of both you and the wildlife.

Winter driving – Winter weather is one of the biggest factors that makes driving conditions more difficult. Keep a vigilant eye out for black ice, because it’s known to cause many accidents. While you can’t really avoid black ice, you can stay safe by getting winter tires for your car. Winter tires will give you a better grip than regular tires. They are also mandatory in Quebec in the winter months, so make sure that you comply with the law to avoid a fine. If you’re renting a car, it won’t necessarily come with winter tires. You have to request them for an extra charge when you book the car.

Taking precautions – Because driving in winter weather can be pretty dangerous, you’ll need to take a few precautions in case you run into car trouble on the road. Bring paper maps as a backup for your GPS, and don’t forget snow scrapers for your windshield as well as a flashlight with extra batteries. You’ll want to dress warmly and potentially bring a heater. This can make driving a lot easier in those frigid temperatures.

Driving defensively is the best way to make sure you don’t run into trouble. Keep an eye out for black ice or other dangers, and try not to drive at night. If your car does break down, a sleeping bag can save your life, so be sure to pack one. Be sure to plan your trip in advance and tell someone where you’re going and when you should be back.

WHAT TYPES OF ROADS DO THEY HAVE IN CANADA?

Canadian roads measure over one million kilometers and are made up of roads as big as the Trans-Canada highway and as small as the local roads found in suburban and rural areas. These roads are maintained to a high standard by the individual provincial governments, and a couple of toll roads exist mainly near bridges or the US border. The network of roads is a lot denser in the south of Canada as well as near major cities like Vancouver. When you’ve traveled outside of major cities, you might be the only vehicle on the road for quite some time.

Here are the major road types in Canada:

Local roads

These roads provide access to private property. They are usually found in either the suburbs or the rural parts of Canada. They are known for having low traffic speed and for requiring at least one sidewalk.

Collector roads

These are made to connect traffic to larger arteries. Collector roads are usually signaled at intersections with arterial roads and require sidewalks on both sides of the road.

Minor arterial roads

Minor arterial roads are mainly designed to facilitate the movement of traffic. They also sometimes provide access to certain types of property. There are no stop signs on these roads, but they do have traffic lights at intersections. They also require sidewalks on both sides of the road.

Major arterial roads

These are mainly designed for traffic movement but they’re also subject to access controls, which means you’ll have to wait before entering the flow. Usually, these have sidewalks on both sides of the road.

Highways

These are the same as American highways. They don’t provide property access and are off-limits to pedestrians and cyclists.

WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST DRIVING RULES IN CANADA?

There are a few rules of the road that all Canadians know that foreign drivers may not. Some of them are similar to laws in the US, but many are specific to Canada. If you’re not aware of the rules of the road, you may end up getting ticketed for something you didn’t know you were doing wrong. We’ll go over some of the biggest driving rules in Canada and share a few tips to help you avoid that costly fine.

Buckle up

Like in the US, everyone in the car needs to wear a seatbelt. This is true regardless of age, and children under 18 kg require a car seat. You’ll be subject to a hefty fine if you’re caught breaking this law, not to mention the fact that a seatbelt is a basic safety precaution that can save your life.

No smoking with minors

Smoking while driving is legal in Canada, although there have been certain legal efforts to try to ban it. Smoking with a minor in the car is illegal in many provinces, however. These include British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and more. Because this law is so widespread in Canadian provinces, it’s safest just to comply with it everywhere to avoid getting a ticket.

Cell phones must be hands-free

It is illegal to text while driving in Canada, and it’s also illegal to talk on the phone without hands-free technology. If you get caught, the fine you receive will depend on the province you’re in. You’ll also receive demerit points, which will stay on your record for two years from the date of the offense.

Daytime running lights

Every Canadian car comes equipped with headlights that automatically run during the daytime. This is really helpful if you’re renting a car from a Canadian rental company, as many provinces require you to have your headlights on in the daytime. If you’re driving your own car into Canada, make sure you check the laws of the province you’re visiting. Or to be safe, you can just leave your headlights on during the day in every province.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

HOW DIFFERENT ARE THE LAWS BETWEEN PROVINCES?

Canadian provinces are similar to US states in that each one has a few laws regarding driving that are unique to their own province. For example, the legal driving age in Canada varies between provinces. This can be a headache for tourists who are looking to drive across Canada without having to memorize a bunch of different laws for each one. However, there only a few laws that are specific to each province that you’ll need to watch out for if you’re a US citizen driving in Canada.

British Columbia

British Columbia has a couple of laws that are a little oddball, but they’re enforced nonetheless. When going downhill, it’s illegal to put your vehicle in neutral. While some drivers do this in order to save a little bit of gas mileage, it is outlawed in British Columbia. The Motor Vehicle Act states that when traveling downgrade the driver can’t coast with the vehicle gears in neutral or the clutch disengaged.

Another interesting law in British Columbia imposes a $167 fine on anyone who blocks the left lane. The law states that if you’re in the left lane and another vehicle approaches in that lane, you must exit the lane if it’s safe to do so. Drivers who violate this law are subject not only to the fine but also up to three demerit points.

Montreal

On the island of Montreal, you are not allowed to turn right when the light is red. While this is legal in other provinces such as Quebec, Montreal specifically outlaws this. There are some intersections in other provinces that disallow a right on red, but a sign prohibiting it will mark these.

Ontario

In Ontario, any driver that is pulled over for speeding at 50 km/h above the speed limit may have their car confiscated, towed and impounded for up to a week. While most people may not ever speed at quite an extreme rate, it can be tricky near highway construction zones where the speed limit temporarily dips. Be cautious and abide by the posted speed limit or you may find yourself without a car.

Alberta

Alberta is known to have many inconspicuous photo radar units that are constantly monitoring speed on the highway. Very often a police unit will be monitoring from care parked on the side of the highway, but they also monitor speed while driving. Because radar detectors are illegal in a lot of provinces, you should avoid speeding to keep from getting an expensive ticket.

Quebec

Quebec has one quirky little law that will add two demerit points to your driving record if you’re found violating it. Under Quebec’s laws and regulations, you are not allowed to break suddenly without cause. While this may seem like an unnecessary law, it’s important to drive as steadily as possible to avoid getting ticketed.

WHAT ARE THE TRAFFIC SIGNS LIKE IN CANADA?

Traffic signs in Canada are mostly the same as they are in the US with a few notable exceptions. An American driving in Canada will want to watch out for these:

Turning right on red

Outside of Montreal, it’s legal to turn right at a red light unless there’s a sign prohibiting it. Turning right on red in Canada requires extra caution in order to exercise your responsibility to keep pedestrians safe. Before making your right turn, you must stop your vehicle completely. Pedestrians will always have the right-of-way if there is a pedestrian crossing light that allows them to cross. If there’s no pedestrian crossing light, they will have the right-of-way when the light is green.

Flashing green light

In Canada, there are two green lights: the standard green light and the flashing green light. The standard green light is the same as it is in the US in that you are able to drive straight through an intersection but must yield to oncoming traffic if you’re trying to turn left. If the light is flashing green, however, you have the right-of-way to turn left. This can be really handy for crowded intersections where turning left is a nightmare. But if you don’t know you have the right-of-way, you may be a danger to the person driving behind you who doesn’t expect you to stop suddenly.

Right turn, left turn, straight ahead…

When driving in the city especially you’ll often see road signs indicating where your lane is taking you. This can tell you where you’re allowed to go in any situation. For example, a sign can indicate that you must turn right or continue straight but that you aren’t allowed to turn left. While in the US you may be used to seeing this painted on the lane itself, in Canada you’ll want to keep an eye out for signs that indicate this information.

4-way stops

Many times in Canada you’ll come across an intersection that’s a 4-way stop. In this situation, the first car to stop is the first car to go. If two cars arrive at once, then you yield to the car to your right. To ensure the safety of yourself and the other vehicle, try to make visual contact with the other drivers on the road if you intend to go through the intersection.

Brush up on your French

Many of the road signs in Canada are in French, so you may want to look up a few key phrases before you hit the road. This can help you to navigate highway exit signs, especially the ones in Quebec. Many road signs in Quebec are only written in French, so keep that in mind if you plan on doing most of your driving there.

Keep an eye out

While the signs and symbols used in Canadian road signs are pretty much the same as they are in America, they’re a lot less conspicuous than they are elsewhere. You’ll want to keep your eyes peeled for signage while driving in Canada to stay aware of any potential hazards such as wildlife crossing.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

WHAT ARE THE SPEED LIMITS IN CANADA?

The biggest difference between speed limits in Canada and US is that speed limits in Canada are measured in kilometers per hour instead of miles per hour. Urban areas usually have a speed limit of 50 km/h unless there’s a sign posted stating otherwise. The speed limit for rural roads outside of towns is about 60-80 km/h, and the maximum speed limit on highways is 80-100 km/h. There is also a minimum speed limit on the highways, however, which is 60 km/h. Watch out for speed limit signs and you should have no trouble sticking to the speed limit.

Fines for people caught speeding in Canada will vary by province. You can pay as little as $40 for going 10 km/h over the speed limit in Ontario, but you’d pay $227 for the same offense in Quebec. Fines get doubled in work zones, so be careful of your speed when traveling where workers are present. You’ll get demerit points on your record as well if you speed in Ontario, with 3 points added for 16-29 km/h over the limit and 4 points added for 30-49 km/h over the limit.

HOW DO YOU GET DRIVING JOBS IN CANADA?

Getting truck driving jobs in Canada is pretty simple. You need a valid license and a clean driving and criminal record. You’ll also need to do a medical screening, train and pass a written test. The best way to begin is to enter the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. This will get you access to the country. You can then apply to the Provincial Nominee Program such as the “Long-Haul Truck Driver Project”. You can then be nominated to be considered for residency. Working a driving job in Canada is an excellent way to explore Canada’s beautiful roads and nature while making an excellent living.

WHAT ARE CANADA’S REGULATIONS ABOUT DRUNK DRIVING?

Being on vacation usually means trying the local food and beverages, so it can be understandable that you may want to try some of Canada’s craft beers or a Newfoundland screech. However, Canada is fairly strict when it comes to drunk driving, so it’s important to know what constitutes being over the limit and what you may be subject to if you’re found to be driving under the influence in Canada.

How much is too much?

Throughout Canada, the maximum blood alcohol concentration (BAC) that you’re allowed to have is just under 0.08 mg/ml. Anything 0.08 mg/ml or above is a criminal offense that comes with severe punishment including arrest, fines and potential jail time. Ontario has even stricter laws, with a “warn range” for BACs between 0.05 and 0.08 mg/ml which may come with serious consequences if you’re found to be in it.

If you’re 21 or under, you’re a commercial driver or you’re a novice driver of any age (with G1, G2, M1, or M2 licenses) then you’re subject to a zero-tolerance rule. This means that you aren’t allowed to have any alcohol present in your blood when you’re driving.

Can the police check to see if I’ve been drinking?

The police are allowed to make you do a roadside breath test if they suspect you’ve been drinking alcohol. If you refuse to do a breath test, you can receive a harsher penalty for impaired driving. If they have reasonable grounds to think you’re over the legal limit, they can take you to the police station to do a breath test there. The police can also ask you to do a physical sobriety test on the side of the road.

What is the penalty for drunk driving?

If you’re found to be in the “warn range” of 0.05-0.08 mg/ml and you fail a roadside sobriety test, you can be subject to penalty. First-time offenders get a 3-day license suspension and a $250 penalty, while second and third-time offenders receive longer suspensions and heftier fines. If your BAC is over 0.08, you get a 90-day license suspension, a $550 penalty and a $281 license reinstatement fee. In addition to this, your vehicle will be impounded for 7 days.

WHAT DO I DO IF I’M STOPPED BY THE POLICE WHILE DRIVING IN CANADA?

If you’re ever pulled over by the police while driving, you need to know the appropriate steps to take to stay calm and comply with their orders. The more compliant you are, the more likely you are to get off with a warning rather than a fine. Here are a few tips to make the process go as smoothly as possible.

Pullover

You need to pull over as quickly as possible when the police signal you to. Make sure that you park safely, as you don’t want to endanger yourself or the officer by stopping in the middle of the road on a busy highway. After pulling over you can stay in the car with the interior lights turned on. Be sure to roll down the windows and keep both of your hands on the steering wheel in view of the officer.

Stay calm

Remain calm and polite at all times. Continue to comply with the police officer even if you feel like he or she is being unfair. Getting angry will only exacerbate tensions, and abrupt movements or fidgeting can make the officer suspicious and think you’re looking for a weapon.

Follow orders

If they suspect you’ve been drinking, they may require you to undergo a field sobriety test. Comply with any orders given and refrain from lying, as doing so can be considered obstruction of justice. If you don’t agree with any charges you receive, you can fight the ticket later in a court of law. If anything happens that you feel is unfair, note the officer’s name and badge number to complain later. Fighting at the moment will only result in things working out worse for you.

Know your rights

That being said, you do have several rights that you’ll want to keep in mind. While the police are allowed to pull you over for no reason in Canada, you are protected from unreasonable use of power by the police. You have the right to remain silent if you don’t want to answer questions, and you don’t have to let them search your car if you don’t want to. You also have the right to call your lawyer before agreeing to anything or giving your permission. It is not prohibited to record the police, but you can’t willfully obstruct them. They can’t stop you from filming them or take your phone or camera, and it’s illegal for them to delete any recordings you took.

Get Your International Driver's Permit in 2 hours

An IDP is a legal requirement to drive or rent a car in several foreign countries. It is also a United Nations regulated travel document for your safety and ease of travel.

ENJOY THE BEAUTIFUL NATURE OF CANADA

Canada is famous for its rich and beautiful wildlife, its neighborly people and its breathtaking landscape. Driving in Canada is the best way to experience the country the way real Canadians do. You might be intimidated by driving in Canada for the first time, but the tips you’ve read in this article will help you navigate the road smartly and safely. Enjoy your vacation and drive in Canada without fear.

Don’t believe everything you see in the movies. Italian drivers might have a few bad habits, but aggression is definitely not one of them, so drive with a smile on your face and enjoy the open road.