Importing your car & driving in Canada


Canada has a large network of highways that unite the large majority of the population. In order to drive a motor vehicle in Canadian highways, you need a valid drivers’ license, a vehicle that can be owned, rented, imported, etc.

An International Drivers License obtained in a foreign country can be used in Canada to drive. If you are spending under a year in Canada, an International Drivers License is sufficient. If you intend to obtain permanent residency in Canada or stay for several years, you need to get a Canadian drivers license.

There are different rules for getting a drivers license in different provinces. In most provinces, there is a Graduated Licensing System, where 3 tests have to be done over a certain time period (usually 2 years) to obtain 3 levels of license in order to qualify for the full driver privilege. For instance, in Ontario, there are G1, G2 and G levels for automobile drivers. G1 is the written test, G2 is the 15 minute (approximately) test on the city streets and G is the final, city streets and highway test that lasts approximately 45 minutes. There is also a time limit during which a full G license must be obtained. It is 5 years in Ontario (other provinces it may vary). To obtain any level of license, you should go to the provincial Ministry of Transportation.

If you come from the USA and have held a full driver license (not for minors) for a period of two years, you may be eligible to swap your USA license for a Canadian one. Note that in this case, you will need to surrender your American license in order to obtain the Canadian one.

If you are from another country, you may be eligible for an automatic G1 or G2 license depending on the Ministry of Transportation policy. In Ontario, contact the Ministry of Transportation Ontario  for more information.


Canada is a large country, so residential and commercial areas tend to be spread out over relatively large distances. For many areas outside of the centre of town, it is likely that you will require a car to travel to and from wherever you want to go. Before purchasing or renting one, consider other transportation options and evaluate your budget in order to determine how much you can spend.

Buying or selling

There are several different options for buying a car: new/used, for cash or leased. You can purchase from a private seller, a dealer, an auction, or from companies selling vehicles form their fleet. To purchase a new car, go to a major dealer (i.e. VW, Toyota, Acura, GM) and find the car you like, negotiate the price, buy then register it. A dealer will usually register and deliver a car to you for a fee (around C$1,000 – expensive, consider picking up and registering yourself). You can either pay for cash, get finance, lease or lease buy-back (a form of rental that allows the lessee to purchase the car after the lease contract expires for a predetermined value). Dealers offer flexible financing terms for new vehicle purchases. Recent university and college graduates can get discounts on the purchase price of C$500 and up if the dealer has a Graduate Discount Program.

If you want a used car, you can buy it privately from another individual and save some tax. In Ontario, sales tax on private sales of vehicles is 8%; 15% for dealer sales. However, you will probably need to pay in cash or draft from a private seller, so there are no financing options. You will be able to get finance from most used car dealers (be careful as the interest rate can be very high rates). Local banks also offer car loans and the rates tend to be better than you will get from a dealer.

To register a vehicle you have purchased, you need the following:

  • Drivers License
  • Emission Test (Drive Clean in Ontario)
  • Safety Certificate (confirming that the vehicle is fully operational for driving and road-worthy)
  • Vehicle ownership paper that is signed, dated and has all the other information filled in
  • Ontario Used Vehicle Information Package (required only if private sale)
  • Valid Insurance for the car that needs to be registered
  • Sales Tax (8% of sales price in Ontario for a private sale)
  • License Plates
  • Validation Sticker (available for periods of 1 and 2 years in Ontario)

Most dealers will complete the entire registration process for you for a fee.


Sometimes renting a car can be an option that is worth considering. There are several large national rent-a-car companies with a wide choice of vehicles. In addition, there are smaller, local rental companies that are generally cheaper, but have older vehicles.

If you rent, ensure that you inspect the vehicle for any damage prior to renting it. Check the mileage corresponds to what is on the contract. Get insurance. Driving a rent-a-car without insurance places the burden of liability on the renter.

Importing a car

If you wish to import a car, first you have to contact the provincial ministry of transportation to see whether the vehicle can be imported into Canada under the current transportation regulations. In Ontario, visit the Ministry of Transportation website  to find out more about importing regulations. In brief, if you wish to import a vehicle to Canada, it has to be of certain age and it has to conform to the Canadian transportation safety standards. Import taxes in addition to provincial and federal sales taxes must be paid.


Under the Traffic Act, insurance is mandatory for all vehicles. Not having insurance is punishable by strict financial penalties. For example, in Ontario, driving a vehicle without insurance may result in a penalty of $5,000 for the first offence and more for a second or third offence.

Insurance can be obtained from numerous insurance brokers. Some financial and other institutions also offer insurance plans. Many employers have group insurance plans for their employees. For foreigners, it is usually more expensive to get insurance since they do not have insurance history with a Canadian insurance carrier. Sometimes, letters confirming that a foreigner had car insurance in the country of origin can help save some money when obtaining insurance in Canada. However, this practice varies across insurers.

Maximum alcohol levels

Drinking and driving is a BIG “no-no” in Canada. Each province has a different alcohol level allowance in the bloodstream of drivers. If you are caught driving above such level, you may end up in jail. Check each province authorities or with the Canadian Auto Club of your preference (i.e. www.caa.ca) to find out about legal maximum alcohol levels in your blood while driving. The best thing to do is stick to soft drinks if you’re driving!

Further reading

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