American Traveler's Guide to Canada

 With TBEX coming up in Vancouver, it got me to thinking about doing this post that I have wanted to write about for a while. Over the past year and a half, I have spent almost 6 months up there.  Usually, Americans do not think of Canada as a destination because of the higher airfares, especially when an advanced purchase ticket to Toronto from the east coast can cost the same amount as the deals to Asia.  I'm not going to talk about the cities, as each of the cities I've been to has a completely different flavor and can not really be summarized without doing a full destination summary.  I'm going to be focusing on the things that are good to know.


For those traveling around the world, these things are fairly basic, though with some local terminology and banks.  They use the Canadian Dollar (CAD) and follow a denomination principle similar to Europe, with dollar and two dollar coins and the higher denominations are brightly colored bills.  The dollar coin is called the loonie, in reference to the bird that is printed on the back side.  The two dollar coin is sometimes referred as the toonie.  

As is common for foreign travelers, avoid the currency exchanges.  They rip you off when there are much cheaper options for changing money.  Because of its proximity to the US most bank branches will exchange US Dollars for Canadian Dollars at very reasonable rates.  It is also easy to use your debit card to withdraw money.  I have had great success avoiding ATM fees as many banks do not charge a fee to use their ATM.  The only major bank that I encountered that charged ATM fees is RBC.  TD Canada Bank, ScotiaBank, and BMO do not charge fees, however you do need to make sure that your card is a part of the appropiate debit network, as these ATMs tend to be either Visa or Mastercard.  Thus I was able to get cash for only 1% currency exchange fee, and no ATM fee.  Because of this, when I travel to Canada, I do not bring cash to exchange, and instead just withdraw it from an ATM.


Driving is very similar to the US, and there are only two main differences, related to how things are measured.  Speed is in kilometers per hour, and gas is sold in litres.  Both are fairly straightforward, but it can look weird when you are filling up your car at what seems like a low price, but instead ends up being much more expensive.  While different provinces have different detailed laws, following US laws will generally keep you safe.  If you need more details, you can easily look up the local driving laws in the local province you will be driving to.

Cell Phone Service

The good news is that aslong as you are with a major US cellphone provider, you will have service in Canada.  The bad news is that it can be expensive.  Some carriers allow you to purchase an add-on for Canada calling, and will include texting in Canada in your standard texting plan.  If you plan on using your phone heavily, you may want to consider getting a Canadian cell phone.  Unfortunately the plans are nowhere near as generous as in the US.  

Canadian pre-paid plans do not include nationwide calling, and your plan minutes will only work on calls to the local area that you are in.  Thus if you are in Ottawa trying to call a Toronto number, then you will be charged long distance rates.  There are some values on data plans, however that depends on the carrier that you choose.  If you are using an unlocked SIM card for a AT&T compatible phone, then you should go with Rogers or Fido (though Fido has much more generous plans).  Wind Mobile follows the T-mobile bands.  Virgin Mobile, Bell, and Tellus follow the CDMA standard for their pre-paid plans, and you will have to purchase a phone from them in order to activate your plan.  

To refill the value on the phone, you can pick up cards at almost any grocery or drug store, as well as electronics stores and outposts of your chosen carrier.


Shopping style is very similar to the US, just some of the major stores are different.  You will not find Macy's, JC Penny, or even Target (at least for a couple more years).

 For your discount department store needs, you shop at Zellars, a Canadian discount store exactly like K-Mart and Target.  The mainstream department store is The Bay (La Baie in Qubec).  Both companies are owned by Hudson's Bay Company and participate in HBC rewards, which you can register for and earn benefits.  While they will not ship rewards to a US address, you can redeem points for gift cards to the stores.  HBC is also the official outfitter of the Canadian Olympic Team, and has Canadia Olympic stores within their flagship Bay stores.  Holt Renfrew is the extremely high end department store, and has a small number of locations in major cities.  

While you may find a Sears store in the local mall, this is not the regular Sears you find in the US.  These Sears stores carry higher end brands such as Calvin Klein and Kenneth Cole.  They also still have the Sears Catalog which you can pick up at almost any location to make your parents happy as they can remember the times when they used to shop from the Sears catalog. In some cities, you can find a 6 or 7 story store in the center of downtown.  

In the major cities, it is common to find a large mall in the center of the city.  These usually connect flagship stores of The Bay and Sears, and will include many flagship locations of other Canadian retailers.  Even if you do not plan on shopping, it is worth going to these centers just to experience the atmostphere of all the people around.  Also a good way to grab a quick bite from one of the food court resturaunts.  

The bookstores provide a wonderful opportunity to pick up different versions of books you may be interested in.  They carry a mix of american published titles, but also titles printed for the UK.  Thus you can actually pick up a UK copy of the Harry Potter series in just about any of the major bookstore locations.  

There are also a large number of local chains that provide unique shopping opportunities and chances to pick up interesting gifts that are not available in the US.  One warning though is that you need to have or purchase your own supply of reusable bags, as in many cities there is a $.05 charge per plastic bag that you get with your purchase.

Prices are also quite a bit higher, and you should keep in mind the exchange rate when making your purchases.  You will also encounter a higher sales tax than in most of the US (Ontario has a Harmonized Sales Tax of 13%).  


While there is a strong nationalistic streak among Canadians, there is also a strong celebration of heritage.  Canada has imbraced the immigrants, and has a very strong ethnic dining scene.  You can find just about any sort of food in the major cities, and a lot of it is quite good.  The ethnic establishments are not restricted to certain sections of the cities, and will often be mixed within the more traditional dining options you may be familiar with.  

If you are one who likes to stay with more comfortable brands, be aware that even though the chains have the same name as a US chain, they are not the exact same.  They may have a slightly different menu and use different ingredients to produce a different taste.  One common dish added is Poultine, which is gravy and cheese curds on top of french fries.  It is an interesting dish and part of the Canadian experience.

Alcohol is tightly regulated on the provincial level, and you can not just go to a grocery store and pick up whatever liquor you want.  Although you can pick up alcohol at a duty free store, for the most part you must go to a provincial liquor store in order to even get a 6 pack of beer.  In some provinces, the strength of mixed drinks are extremely regulated by devices that will pour out exact 1 oz. shots, with stiff penalties for serving more than the proscribed amount.  You can order doubles, however you will also be paying for them.


Canada is a wonderful country.  While the destinations are too different to go into too much detail on this high level guide, I hope that I have been able to give you an idea on the general things you need to be aware of.  

Canadian Parliament the Monday after the Canada Day celebrations

CN Tower (from in front of Union Station) lit up for Christmas


A very nice and helpful post, Nick.

Thanks for the summary, Nick. As a Canadian, it's interesting to hear an American's perspective on our country.

One small correction: poutine consists of fries, cheese curds and gravy. Fries and gravy is called....fries and gravy. Poutine was mainly a Quebec thing, but has gradually creeped across Canada over the years. (By the way, in Canada you will be offered both ketchup and vinegar for your fries, the best of both the US and the UK).

I can add some more information on beverages for your readers:

While alcohol may be more controlled, note that the drinking age in most provinces is 19 (18 in Quebec). Also, in Quebec, supermarkets can sell some wine and beer.

"Tea" (without a qualifier) is hot tea -- Canadians usually don't say "hot tea". Iced tea is hugely popular but is always the equivalent of the "sweet tea" of the US south, almost never the unsweetened version of the north, which I've always found strange, geographically.

"Double-double" refers to how you take your coffee at Tim Horton's, not a burger at In-n-Out.

And when your bladder is full, ask for the washroom, not the restroom. (It's interesting -- I've noticed that most places in the U.S. say restroom, but for example, Chicago says washroom too.)

Nick May 30, 2011 at 06:18 pm

Thanks I've corrected that section. I've avoided talking about Tim Hortons since it is obvious to anybody that has spent time up there that they add something to the coffee that turns everybody into Tim Hortons addicts :P

Nathaniel May 30, 2011 at 09:54 pm

Timmy Ho's had a strawberry filled Banana Donut while I was there in April.. It was wonderful.. Mmmmmmm.