For the most part, driving in Canada is very similar to driving in the United States, but there are some slight differences in the laws and provincial rules of the road that vary between the countries—especially in that speed is measured in kilometers (not mile) per hour and that there are no right-hand turns on red lights allowed in Montreal (however, you can turn right on red in the rest of Quebec).
Driving Requirements in Canada
You need a valid driver's license and proof of auto insurance to drive a car in Canada. A driver's license and insurance from the United States are also valid in Canada for up to six months (at which point you may be required to exchange it for a Canadian driver's license). However, visitors from other countries are advised to get an International Driving Permit (IDP) if they plan to stay for longer than 6 months and will need to purchase insurance to rent a car.
Checklist for Driving in Canada
- Driver's license (required)
- Proof of auto insurance (required)
Rules of the Road
Individual driving laws can vary by province or territory in Canada, but for the most part, the basics for driving in Canada remain the same regardless of region—and are often quite similar to driving in America, such as driving on the right side of the road. However, there are some major differences between the rules of the road in the United States and Canada.
- Speed limits: In Canada, speed limits are posted in metric units. Common limits include 50 kilometers per hour (31 miles per hour) in cities, 80 kph (50 mph) on two-lane highways, and 100 kph (62 mph) on most highways.
- Road signs: Depending on what province you're in, road signs will be in English, French, or both; for instance, in Quebec, some signs may only be in French.
- Seatbelts: Everyone in the car is required to wear a seatbelt, regardless of age, and car seats are required for children until they are 9 years old or 145 cm tall.
- Smoking: Many provinces, including British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan, and Yukon Territory, have banned smoking in cars where minors are present.
- Cell phone use: Celluar devices must be used "hands-free" when driving
- Carpool/HOV Lanes: Some provinces have introduced HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lanes in dense urban areas with heavy traffic. These lanes are restricted to use by cars with at least two people and may be marked with diamonds or otherwise.
- Toll roads: Toll roads do not play a significant role on Canadian roads; drivers pay tolls on some bridges crossing into the U.S.A and there is one in Nova Scotia. In Ontario, 407 Electronic Toll Road (ETR) alleviates the heavy congestion on major corridors between Toronto and outlying areas, especially Hamilton. Stopping to pay at a toll booth, however, has been replaced by an automatic system where a photo of your license plate is taken as you merge onto the 407. A bill reflecting the distance traveled on the 407 is sent to you later, or applied to your car rental bill.
- Alcohol: Driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) is a serious offense in Canada and can result in a driving suspension, vehicle impounding, or arrest. Canada's blood alcohol standards are very strict. It is a criminal offense to drive with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent. Those registering a lower BAC are charged under provincial and territorial traffic acts. Refrain from drinking and driving when you're in Canada and opt for a taxi or public transportation.
- Right turn on red: Montreal is the only place in Canada that does not permit right-hand turns on a red light. The rest of Quebec allows right turns on red, unless prohibited by a traffic sign.
- In case of an emergency: The Canadian Automobile Association offers roadside assistance in case of a breakdown while driving in Canada.
Driving in Canada in Winter
Don't underestimate how challenging driving a car during the Canadian winter can be. Heavy snow, black ice, and white-out conditions wreak havoc on the most experienced drivers.
Check weather conditions for your destination in Canada before traveling and decide if winter driving is something you're ready to undertake. If it is, be sure to have a charged cell phone with emergency numbers programmed in and pack a car travel kit including things like a blanket, ice scraper, flashlight, and sand or kitty litter for traction. In some cases, like driving through mountains, snow or tire chains may be necessary for maximum traction.
Major Cross-Country Highways in Canada
When driving from coast to coast in Canada you may be taking the Trans-Canada Highway, a transcontinental federal-provincial highway system that travels through all 10 provinces of Canada. The Trans-Canada Highway travels between Victoria, British Columbia, and St. John's, Newfoundland, and is the world's longest national highway—4,860 miles long (7,821 kilometers). Travelers intent on driving as quickly as possible can complete the journey across Canada in approximately a week, but there is much to see and do along the Trans-Canada Highway.
The Yellowhead Highway also travels across Canada farther to the north from Graham Island off the coast of British Columbia via Saskatoon and Edmonton to Winnepeg and is 1,777 miles long (2,860 km).