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Canada: Driver’s Licenses and Traffic Laws

Driving in Canada may seem daunting to anyone who’s ever seen a TV episode of "Ice Road Truckers". Fortunately for the average expat, driving in Canada does not necessarily mean braving blizzards or frozen lakes. Our guide gives you a brief intro to all key aspects of driving in Canada.

The Prerequisite: Your Driving Permit

The most important question for expats planning on driving in Canada is whether or not their licenses are valid and — if not — how to acquire a local permit. The legal driving age varies strongly, both by province and type of license. For a “full driver’s license”, i.e. not a learner’s permit, novice permit, probationary permit, etc., you usually need to be 16 years of age or older.

The rules for obtaining a driver’s license also differ from province to province. Even if you have, for example, a Canadian license from Manitoba and move to British Colombia, you have to trade in your old license for a permit from your current province. However, if you move to Canada from abroad, this gets even more complicated. If you have a driver’s license from the United States that has been valid for more than two years, you are in luck: in most provinces, you may simply swap it at your provincial department of transport office. This requires you to hand in your original US license, though.

If you do not come from the United States, you need to check if your country is on the list of countries that qualify you for a driver’s permit swap similar to that for US citizens. However, the bad news is that this list again changes from province to province. For instance, in Prince Edward Island, an Australian national in possession of a valid driver’s license can exchange it for a local one, but this does not apply in Newfoundland. And Nova Scotia does not seem to allow any exchanges whatsoever. So contact the provincial ministry of transport for more detailed information on the province you have moved to. If you can’t exchange your national license for a Canadian one or if you can’t provide the necessary documentation, you usually have to take a written exam, a road test, and a vision test.

Watch Out!

As in most countries, driving under the influence in Canada will be severely reprimanded. The legal alcohol limit may vary from province to province. Generally speaking, a blood alcohol level between 0.05% and 0.08% can lead to penalties such as having your license suspended for at least 24 hours. (However, young drivers and drivers with a probationary permit may be legally required to drive completely sober.)

Driving with a blood alcohol level of more than 0.08% is a criminal offense. You will be fined and demerit points will be added to your license. Again, the demerit points system is not standardized all across Canada, so ask your provincial department of transport for their driver’s handbook, which explains the general highway code and penalties for traffic violations in great detail.

Seatbelts must be worn at all times in Canada, and the proper use of child restraints is taken very seriously. Kids aged 12 and under must always sit in the back of the car, and according to their exact age, weight, and height, be supported with a booster seat, forward-facing seat, or rear-facing seat for infants. Transport Canada has more information on regulations concerning child safety. Failure to obey seatbelt laws in Canada may lead to hefty fines as well as demerit points on your license.

The use of hand-held cell phones while you are driving is illegal in all provinces.


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