The Canadian universal health care system is publicly funded. Hospitals, doctors, nurses, equipment; all are paid for by the government, using money collected through general revenue like income taxes. The health care system provides services to all residents based on need, and not on ability to pay.

Canadian citizens, as well as permanent residents, can apply for coverage under the Canadian universal health care system. If you qualify for coverage and receive your insurance, most basic and necessary health-related care will then be at no direct cost to you.

It’s important to note that in Canada, there are both federal and provincial components to the health care system. There isn’t one single plan, but a national program which is made up of provincial and territorial health insurance plans. Each Canadian province and territory has its own ministry of health and its own health insurance card. They are required to offer specific services and a pre-established level of health care coverage.

What is Usually Covered?

Generally speaking, provincial and territorial health plans cover services that are medically necessary. Coverage typically includes medical doctor’s visits, emergency room care, hospital stays, operations and routine vaccinations. Coverage can differ from one province to the next, so check with your provincial or territorial government to see exactly which services are included. Although residents can get free emergency care anywhere in Canada, it may be necessary to pay for certain services when outside of their province of residence.

What is Not Usually Covered?

Although basic health care is usually free to Canadian residents, not all things are covered under the provincial insurance plans. Visits to the dentist or chiropractor, for example, are often not included or only partially covered. Calling an ambulance is also an extra charge. Other health related items that are likely not covered include eyeglasses, prescription medication (unless over 65 years of age), medical supplies, braces, certain tests, medical certificates, cosmetic surgery and physiotherapy.

Who is Eligible for Coverage?

As each plan is slightly different, so are their rules. Health care insurance eligibility requirements are decided by each province and territory. Each plan has a minimum residency condition. Some also have a waiting period before new residents can apply. If you are new to Canada, it’s important to sign up for private health insurance until you receive your provincial coverage.

Once in Canada, you can get an application for your health insurance card. Each member of your family needs their own card. The forms are available on your province’s government website, or a local hospital, doctor’s office or immigration organization.

Private Health Care Insurance

Residents of Canada are encouraged to also have private health insurance. This insurance is for expenses that are not covered under the public health plan, or when waiting for coverage if new to the country. Private health insurance policies vary greatly. The insurance can help pay for prescription medication, eyeglasses, dental care and more. Some plans do have maximums, so carefully read what is covered and what the limits are.

Most Canadian employers offer insurance benefits to their employees and their families. Some are at no cost to the employee, as it’s an included benefit to the job. Others are only partly covered by the employer, and can cost employees anywhere from a few hundred to about one thousand dollars per year.

Options for Expats

Before arriving in Canada, consider applying for private insurance coverage. This type of policy is sometimes called “visitor to Canada” insurance. Always double check that the plan is for those who do not qualify for provincial or territorial health insurance. This type of private health insurance plan doesn’t necessarily cover all situations and services. Some, for example, won’t cover pre-existing conditions or pregnancy-related expenses.

In certain situations, temporary health insurance can be provided through the Interim Federal Health Program. This program helps protected persons, refugees and their dependents have access to health care up until they are able to qualify for public or private health insurance.

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Medical Surveillance

If you are immigrating to Canada, you may have been told you must go for medical surveillance. This means you have to report to public health authorities in the first thirty days of entering Canada. Public health authorities will check if you are in good health and arrange any necessary medical follow-ups. It’s important to follow this requirement carefully, as your immigration process can be stopped if you don’t.


The biggest advantage of the Canadian health system is the accessibility to all residents, regardless of their income, age, employment or health. No one is excluded. With its low cost or no out-of-pocket expenses, the system is available to everyone. There are generally no hospital bills, no doctor’s bills and no co-pays. For provinces and territories with health premiums, the costs are low. For low income residents, premiums can be waived.

Another huge advantage is the excellent standard of care. Canadian doctors, nurses and technicians are highly educated. Canadian health care is safe. Patients have high rates of successful recovery from procedures when compared to other countries.


One of the biggest disadvantages of the Canadian health care system is the long wait times for certain services. Although emergency situations are dealt with right away, other surgeries can require lengthy wait times. Hip replacement surgery currently has a wait time of 183 days in Ontario, or 209 days for knee replacements. Other services that typically have long wait times are MRI appointments, cataract operations and appointments to see certain specialists.


Although you don’t pay directly for your medical services, you pay for health services through a variety of ways. Some provinces charge residents a premium for their insurance plan, like in British Columbia. Others collect funds through personal income taxes, sales taxes or other sources of revenue, such as lottery tickets.

Prices vary greatly for private insurance policies. Contact a Canadian health insurance company or broker to get an up-to-date quote.