If you’re planning a move to Canada, you’ve got lots to be excited about. This beautiful nation is home to some of the world’s most stunning scenery (it’s known as the “Great White North” for a reason).

However, before you can daydream about mountains and lakes, you need to sort out the serious stuff like healthcare. How does Canada’s healthcare system work? Can expats use it, and do you need private medical cover? On this page, we’ll answer all these questions and more. 

If you’ve already decided that private health insurance is sensible before your move to Canada, we recommend Cigna. Helping more than 95 million customers all over the world, Cigna has the know-how to get you just the right cover.

Start building a customised plan with a free quote to protect your most important assets you and your family.

Canadian healthcare: key stats

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    Average life expectancy
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    % of Canadians with private medical cover
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    % of Canadians waiting for treatment

How does the Canadian healthcare system work?

Despite being America’s next-door neighbour, Canada’s healthcare system is very similar to the UK’s. The Canadian government uses tax income to provide “free” essential medical services. It’s basically ‘NHS Canada’, although its official name is Medicare (not to be confused with American or Australian Medicare). 

However, Canada doesn’t take a centralised approach like the UK. The country is made up of 10 provinces and 3 territories, and each provincial/territorial government is responsible for dispensing its own healthcare services. This is why the standard of care and the extent of medical cover can vary region by region. 

Another difference between Canada and the UK is that Canadian hospitals are not state-run. Almost all healthcare in Canada is provided by private companies, who are then paid by the government directly.

map showing healthcare waiting times in canada

So is there free healthcare in Canada?

Essentially, yes. Canadian residents pay for Medicare through their taxes, but the medical services are free at the point of use. 

However, Medicare doesn’t cover everything (as we discuss below), which is why private health insurance is popular in Canada. Around 66% of the nation’s population have some form of medical cover, often provided by their employer. 

According to a 2017 study by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), 28% of Canada’s annual health costs are either covered by private medical cover, or paid for “out of pocket” (more info below).

How exactly is Canada’s healthcare funded?

There is no specific “healthcare tax” in Canada, so the government uses a proper cocktail of taxes to fund healthcare, including income taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, import duties, Employment Insurance (EI), and so on. 

The same CIHI study from 2017 states that the average Canadian pays C$6,604 in taxes for healthcare each year.

The income tax rates in Canada for 2020 are as follows:

IncomeTax rate
C$0 - C$48,53515%
C$48,535 - C$97,06920.5%
C$97,069 - C$150,47326%
C$150,473 - C$214,36829%
C$214,368+33%

What does Canadian Medicare cover?

Crucially, Canadian healthcare covers only “medically necessary and hospital physician services”. However, the federal government doesn’t specify what exactly counts as “medically necessary” it’s left up to the provincial and territorial governments to decide.

Regional Medicare plans (also known as provincial health insurance plans) typically cover:

  • Emergency hospital treatment
  • Most primary and secondary care, i.e. any medically necessary services to help diagnose and treat any injuries/illnesses
  • Maternity services (including prenatal and postnatal care)

Whenever you use Medicare services, you are not billed directly (the bills go to the government), and there are no ‘deductibles’ (i.e. excesses) to pay. 

emerald lake in BC Canada

Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park, British Columbia

What does Canadian Medicare not cover?

Here’s what provincial health insurance plans typically don’t cover: 

  • Prescription medicine
  • Ambulance services (except in the Yukon Territory)
  • Dental care
  • Eye care
  • Hearing aids
  • Physiotherapy
  • Limb prostheses
  • Psychologist care
  • Chiropractics
  • Tests required for official documents (e.g. driver’s license)

Of course, this is not a perfectly accurate picture of every provincial health insurance plan, as they can vary somewhat. Many of the items on the list are covered by Medicare for children, over-65s, and people on low incomes.

Paying for prescription medicine in Canada

This is a surprising one. Canada is the only country in the ‘developed world’ that offers universal healthcare without any kind of provision (or even subsidy) for prescription medicine. This kind of provision is known as ‘pharmacare’.  

And it has a big impact on Canadian wellbeing a 2015 study from the Angus Reid Institute found that in nearly 25% of Canada’s households, there’s someone who’s unable to afford the prescription medicine they need. 

In 2017, approximately 1.7 million Canadians didn’t collect prescription medicine due to prohibitive cost, and the majority of these prescriptions were for mental health conditions. Canadians pay the third highest drug costs in the world, behind Switzerland and the US. 

If you currently rely on certain prescription medication, or expect to do so in the near future, it would be wise to get some private medical cover sorted before your move to Canada

It’s Tommy Douglas, who established the first single-payer, universal healthcare programme in Saskatchewan Province back in 1947. By 1984, the rest of Canada had followed suit.

So is healthcare in Canada any good?

Compared to the standard of healthcare in the US, yes Canada’s is very good. Canadians spend less per capita than their American neighbours, while performing far better for a bunch of factors, such as life expectancy, infant mortality, obesity rates, and so on. 

On a global level, Canada’s healthcare system performs fairly well. According to a 2018 study published by the Lancet (and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Canada has the 14th best healthcare system in the world. 

However, waiting times are a weak point for Canadian Medicare. A study by the Fraser Institute found that the median wait time for ‘medically necessary’ treatment in 2019 was 20.9 weeks 124% longer than the median wait time in 1993 (9.3 weeks), when the annual study began. 

As published in the New York Times in 2019, nearly one in five Canadians report having to wait at least four months for elective surgery.

How many people have health insurance in Canada?

Given the issues that Medicare faces (particularly with prescription medicine costs and lengthy waiting times), it won’t surprise you to hear that around 66% of Canadians have some form of private medical cover

Private health insurance policies in Canada usually cover things such as prescription medicine, ambulance services, dental care, eye care, physiotherapy, and so on. 

About 80% of Canadians with medical cover are part of an employer-based ‘group health insurance’ scheme, meaning the other third have their own personal policies. However, Canadian employers are not legally required to offer group health insurance, so if you’re moving to Canada for work, be sure to check whether your new employer provides medical cover. 

If you don’t expect to receive any employment-based health insurance or you want something more extensive (some group health insurance policies can be fairly limited) it’s advisable to sort out some cover before you go. 

That’s why we’ve partnered with Cigna for private medical insurance in Canada. With four levels of annual cover to choose from and extra modules for more flexibility, Cigna will sort you out with a plan that suits your needs.

Start building a customised plan with a free quote to protect your most important assets you and your family.

Who is eligible for free healthcare in Canada?

Quite simply, Medicare in Canada is available only to residents of Canada. 

A resident of Canada is ‘a person lawfully entitled to be or to remain in Canada who makes his/her home and is ordinarily present in the province, but does not include a tourist, a transient or a visitor to the province.’

If you’re moving to Canada on a permanent basis (and/or on a work visa), you can apply for a Medicare health insurance card in your province. This will typically take three months to be issued, but once you’ve got it, you’re covered by your province’s Medicare plan. 

During this three-month wait for a health insurance card, it’s wise to have some short-term private medical cover. If you find yourself in hospital needing treatment, you’ll be billed for it even for emergency care.

Do tourists get free healthcare in Canada?

No, tourists in Canada cannot use the public healthcare system. If you’re just visiting Canada for a holiday or a short stay, it makes sense to have private medical cover or travel insurance.

a view of the Toronto skyline

A view of the Toronto skyline, Ontario

Is private health insurance worth it in Canada?

The importance of having private medical cover in Canada obviously depends on your situation. If you’re young, fit and healthy, then you might not be inclined to take out any extra insurance, but it could be a worthwhile expense if:

  1. You take regular prescription medicine
  2. You are elderly
  3. You’ll be travelling between Canadian provinces/territories a lot (explained below)
  4. Your Canadian employer doesn’t offer any kind of group health insurance
  5. Your Canadian employer’s group health insurance isn’t extensive enough
  6. You’re used to receiving medical treatment privately, and wish to continue doing so.

What are the benefits of private healthcare in Canada?

  • If it’s a case of choosing between a personal health insurance plan and your company’s group health insurance plan, it can often be better value to go it alone. Be sure to investigate what your employer is offering, and find out exactly what you’ll be paying for it. Amanda Frank (writing for Monster) goes into more detail here
  • You’ll avoid the lengthy waiting times associated with Medicare. Having to wait for treatment is at best a huge inconvenience, and at worse a very serious issue.  
  • You won’t be subject to the restrictions of some provincial health insurance plans. Most provinces/territories only support residents within their own borders, meaning if you end up in an accident outside of your ‘home region’, you’ll have to pay up. Private medical cover means you won’t have to foot bills in other parts of the country. 
  • It’s likely you’ll be able to stay in private rooms, and in nicer hospitals.
  • Most importantly, you’ll have peace of mind that you have an extra safety net.

How much does health insurance cost in Canada?

On average, healthcare premiums for a family in Canada are around C$157 per month (according to research by Monster). For an individual male it’s C$47 per month, and for an individual female it’s C$80 per month. 

The average annual cost of private health insurance in Canada is C$756 per person (based on the 2017 CIHI report), which equates to C$63 per month. 

However, these are just averages. To find out exactly how much private medical cover will cost you in Canada, you can start building a plan with Cigna today.

Advice for expats moving to Canada

Hopefully the Canadian healthcare system is now a little less hazy for you. Check out more of our Canada pages before your big move!