Answering six common questions about healthcare in Canada for new permanent residents

Vimal Sivakumar
Published: February 10, 2023

Newly landed Canadian permanent residents (PR) are afforded the same healthcare services as citizens born and raised in this country.

Here are answers to some of the most common questions new Canadians have about healthcare in Canada.

Is Canadian healthcare free?

Healthcare in this country is funded through the taxes that all Canadian citizens and PRs pay annually. In most cases, health services are free for all Canadians at the point of use, although certain medications (ex. prescription drugs) and treatments will require the recipient to pay out of pocket.

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For clarity, the Canadian government notes online that while healthcare in Canada is publicly funded, “medications [from] a pharmacy are not free. [Public health insurance often] won’t cover medication, so you may have to pay for it yourself. You also may be eligible for coverage through another insurance or drug program.”

How do I induct myself into the healthcare system? Do I need a Health Card? If so, where can I get one from? How long does it take to arrive?

All Canadian citizens and Permanent Residents need a health card to access healthcare services in Canada. This document will verify to a doctor or medical professional that the health card holder is registered with the healthcare system in their province or territory.

The application process for a health card varies by region, and there is no shared process used among the provinces and territories across Canada. For example, obtaining a health card in Ontario will require the applicant to visit a Service Ontario location in person. Meanwhile, Alberta allows health card applicants to apply in person or by mail. Health card processing times also vary by province/territory.

Click here to learn more about applying for a health card, including application information specific to each province/territory across Canada.

When am I eligible for public health care?

In Canada, a health card provides the holder with access to public health insurance in their province of residence and financial coverage for applicable health services. These are typically basic and emergency care services such as the hospital.

Eligibility for public health insurance does not, in some cases, happen immediately after becoming a PR in Canada. Instead, some provinces and territories require public health insurance applicants to wait up to three months for their benefits to begin.

The following lists the wait times for public health insurance coverage in each province/territory:

British Columbia (BC): 2 months + any remainder of the month after residence in province is first established

Alberta (AB): 3 months

Ontario (ON): No waiting period

Prince Edward Island (PEI): 3 months

Quebec (QC): Up to 3 months

Manitoba (MB): Up to 3 months

Saskatchewan (SK): 3 months

New Brunswick (NB): 3 months

Nova Scotia (NS): 3 months

Newfoundland and Labrador (NL): No waiting period

Nunavut (NU): 3 months

Northwest Territories (NWT): 3 months

Yukon (YU): 3 months

What about private health insurance? Do I need both?

On top of public healthcare, there are several reasons that private health insurance may also be beneficial.

The first reason that private health insurance is beneficial is what is noted above, the waiting period imposed on public health insurance in Canada. In this case, private health insurance would provide coverage for an individual’s healthcare needs during the waiting period. Additionally, private health insurance would allow insured persons to be covered for needs that are not usually handled by public insurance. These include things like dental work and visits to certain medical specialists such as a chiropodist (foot).

Should I get a family doctor and how do I find one?

Family doctors, also called general practitioners or family physicians, are basic health providers that many Canadians visit when they need medical care. Although there are walk-in clinics and hospitals (for urgent care) that people can visit for medical needs, a family doctor is the preferred choice of many Canadians due to appointment scheduling and the continuity of care. In other words, family doctors allow patients to avoid waiting in lines by scheduling appointments in advance and providing a consistent care experience because the patient will meet with the same doctor for every appointment.

Finding a family doctor in Canada can be a long journey because family doctors often decide for themselves whether they want to accept new patients at any given time. A good starting point for finding a family doctor would be recommendations from friends and family or getting help from a settlement services provider.

Oftentimes, an online search of family doctors in a local area (using a postal code) will also return results of different family doctors close to where someone lives. From there, a review of the website for a given family clinic will usually reveal if a doctor at that clinic is accepting new patients. Calling the clinic and asking when that doctor is available, then going in to meet with that doctor, can jumpstart the journey toward finding a family doctor for new Canadian PRs.

The following links can help new Canadian permanent residents start looking for a family doctor in their province/territory:

BC: BC College of Family Physicians

AB: Alberta Health Services

ON: Government of Ontario

PEI: Government of PEI

QC: Government of Quebec

MB: Government of Manitoba

SK: College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan

NB: New Brunswick Medical Society

NS: Nova Scotia Health

NL: Find A Doctor NL

NU: Government of Nunavut

NWT: List on RateMDs.com

YU: Government of Yukon

Note: Simply calling clinics and inquiring about a family doctor may also be a viable strategy if online research does not return any results

What happens when I need to visit a doctor/hospital in an emergency? What are the documents I must have with me? Can I just walk in?

When a person is experiencing a medical emergency, they need to visit the emergency department at the nearest hospital. It is important for all patients to bring their health cards and personal ID with them. Upon walking into the hospital, an employee will provide further direction to the patient based on the severity of their condition and the patient will eventually be seen by a doctor.

Learn more about healthcare in each province/territory

While some aspects of healthcare are consistent across the country, healthcare systems tend to vary depending on the province or territory. For a breakdown of healthcare plans and details in each province/territory throughout Canada, the federal government provides a webpage with links to each regional ministry of health here.

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