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November 11, 2022

How to navigate the Canadian healthcare system

CIC News > Latest News > > > How to navigate the Canadian healthcare system New to Canada and unsure how the healthcare system works? We’ve got you covered.

There’s a lot to think about when you’re moving to Canada. You have to find a job, a place to live, and figure out where your kids will go to school.

You’ll also need a basic understanding of the Canadian healthcare system so that you and your family are properly covered when you arrive.

We have answers to many of the big questions newcomers often have about the Canadian healthcare system. Read on to find out how you can access healthcare as a newcomer, how much it costs, and what services the public system covers.

How does Canada’s healthcare system work?

Universal healthcare is one of the many benefits people associate with moving to Canada. But you may be asking yourself, what is universal healthcare?

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Basically, anyone who’s a Canadian citizen or permanent resident can apply for public health insurance. Taxpayer dollars fund the Canadian healthcare system, which covers approved medically necessary hospital and doctor services.

Each of Canada’s 13 provinces and territories are in charge of defining what they consider to be a “medically necessary service,” and providing healthcare to their residents.

In other words, how you access healthcare and the specific services you’re entitled to will depend on where you live.

The federal government also plays a part. It helps fund provincial and territorial health care services and sets national health standards for the system through the Canada Health Act.

How to access healthcare in Canada as a newcomer

To access public health insurance in Canada, all you have to do is submit an application to your provincial or territorial government. Any Canadian citizen or permanent resident is able to apply.

Once you’re approved, you’ll receive your healthcare card in the mail. Any time you go to the doctor, visit the emergency room or have surgery, you’ll be asked to show your healthcare card.

How long does it take to get healthcare coverage in Canada?

Each province and territory decides its own minimum waiting period. This is the amount of time you have to wait before healthcare coverage is available to you.

In some provinces, you can get coverage as soon as you arrive in Canada. In others, you may have to wait up to three months. To be on the safe side, the Government of Canada recommends buying private health insurance so you’re properly covered during any waiting period.

Province/ Territory How to apply for health card Waiting period for permanent residents’ coverage Ministry of health website
Alberta Alberta Health Care Insurance Plan (AHCIP)Date residency is established Alberta Health
British Columbia (BC) BC Services Card Up to three monthsBritish Columbia
Manitoba Manitoba Health CardUp to three months Manitoba Health
New Brunswick New Brunswick Health Once eligibility is established, a letter indicating the start date of coverage is issued New Brunswick Health
Newfoundland and Labrador Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Care Plan (MCP) Date of arrivalNewfoundland Labrador Health and Community Services
Northwest Territories (NWT) NWT Health Care PlanUp to three monthsNWT Health and Social Services
Nova ScotiaNova Scotia Health Card (MSI) Typically received on date of arrivalNova Scotia Department of Health and Wellness
NunavutHealth Care CardUp to three monthsNunavut Department of Health
OntarioOntario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) Up to three monthsOntario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care
Prince Edward Island (PEI) PEI Health CardMay be eligible for first-day coverage PEI Health and Wellness
QuebecQuebec Health InsuranceUp to three monthsQuebec Ministere de la Sante et des Services sociaux
SaskatchewanSaskatchewan Health CardsApplications usually processed within six to eight weeks after receiving applicationSaskatchewan Health
YukonYukon Health Care CardAfter three months of residencyYukon: Health and Social Services

How to find a family doctor

Many Canadians have a family doctor who treats them when they’re sick or when they need a blood or laboratory test. If you need to see a specialist, a family doctor can also give you a referral.

A benefit of having a family doctor is that they can get to know you, your family, and your medical history.

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To find a family doctor, ask your friends or family if they can recommend someone who’s taking new patients. Each province and territory also has resources and tools to help you connect with a family doctor or other primary care providers:

Alberta: Find a Doctor
British Columbia: HealthLink BC
Manitoba: Family Doctor Finder
New Brunswick: Patient Connect
Newfoundland and Labrador: Find a Doctor
Northwest Territories: Find a Doctor
Nova Scotia: Need a Family Practice Registry
Nunavut: Health Facilities Map
Ontario: Doctor Search
Prince Edward Island: Patient Registry Program
Quebec: Family Doctor Finder
Saskatchewan: Physician Search
Yukon: Find a Family Doctor

Who is eligible for free healthcare in Canada?

Whether or not you can get free healthcare as a newcomer depends on your status and how long you’ve been in Canada. A basic requirement for health insurance coverage is that you have to live in a province or territory and be physically present at least 183 days out of the year.

Typically, Canada’s universal healthcare covers the following groups:

Permanent residents
International students with a study permit
Foreign workers with permits
Protected persons and refugees
Temporary residents (special cases)

If you aren’t a citizen or a permanent resident, you need to work or study in Canada for at least six months before you can apply for healthcare.

In the meantime, if you get sick or hurt, the government won’t cover most medical treatments you get. To avoid costly medical bills, you should look into private health coverage before you come to Canada.

Note: If you’re in Canada under the Canada-Ukraine authorization for emergency travel (CUAET), you might be able to get public health care depending on the province or territory you’re living in. If your province or territory offers public healthcare under CUAET, you need to apply for a healthcare card.

What does Canadian healthcare cover?

With your healthcare card, most healthcare and emergency medical services are free of charge. For instance, in Ontario, if you have a medical reason to receive a service or treatment, OHIP covers the following services:

Family doctor appointments
Visits to walk-in clinics and other healthcare providers
Visits to the emergency room
Surgeries and medical tests

Public healthcare covers mental health treatments from a psychiatrist within a hospital. But if you want to go and speak with a private psychologist, this isn’t covered. You’ll need private health insurance or you’ll have to pay out-of-pocket with your own money.

Some employers, including Scotiabank, offer mental health coverage as part of their employee benefit package.

There are free mental health supports for people who are having a crisis, as well as for children, older adults, Indigenous peoples and other special groups.

Your province or territory may also offer “additional benefits” that target certain populations, including children, seniors and those on social assistance. These programs vary between provinces and territories.

What is not covered by Canadian healthcare?

Health services that the publicly funded healthcare system generally don’t cover include:
Hearing and vision care
Dental care
Prescription drugs
Ambulance services
Independent living (home care)

There are some exceptions to this rule. For instance, in Ontario, those 24 years and under who have OHIP coverage and aren’t covered by a private plan can get OHIP+. This program provides free access to more than 5,000 prescription drugs, including medicines like antibiotics and inhalers for asthma.

Many Canadians have private health insurance coverage through their employer or a private insurance company to help pay for services public healthcare doesn’t cover. Scotia Insurance® offers health and dental coverage to Scotia Group Customers or their spouse to help pay for things that aren’t covered by employers or provincial healthcare plans. Remember, without added insurance, you’ll have to pay out-of-pocket.

Pros and cons of the Canadian healthcare system

Having access to a basic level of healthcare coverage is one of the amazing benefits of living in Canada. But this doesn’t mean the healthcare system is perfect. Like most things in life, there are pros and cons to the Canadian healthcare system.


Universal access. Any Canadian or permanent resident can use the public health care system for medically necessary health care services.
Special services for special needs. Many provinces and territories offer special services for people with special needs, including children, seniors and those on social assistance.
Education programs. The Canadian government funds educational programs to raise awareness among Canadians to prevent injuries and health issues.


Wait times. Since access to Canadian health care services is based on need instead of being able to pay, there are often long wait times for non-emergency surgeries.
Availability of care in rural areas. Canadian healthcare funding is based on population. As a result, towns with fewer people receive less funding so the range and growth of services offered may limited. Often, people who live in small towns have to travel to bigger cities for more complicated health issues.
Lack of dental and prescription drug coverage. While there are special programs to help certain groups get funding for dental and prescription drug coverage, these services aren’t available to everyone free of charge.

Healthcare in Canada

Public healthcare is a safety net for Canadian citizens and permanent residents. Even though it isn’t perfect, you can find comfort as a newcomer in knowing that you and your family will be able to get the care you require, when you need it, without the burden of healthcare costs.

To help you prepare and save for an unexpected medical event or any type of emergency, book an appointment to speak to a Scotiabank advisor.

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