5 Things to Know Before Visiting Canada

In America, we tend to view Canada as “America, Part II.” It’s only a few miles north. Aside from how obsessed they are with hockey up there, it can’t be that different from here, can it?

Well, yes and no. In some ways, Canada isn’t very different at all. In other ways, though, it’s a whole other world.

Whether you’re visiting your second cousin in Winnipeg, scouting real estate in Toronto, or planning a skiing trip in Whistler, here are five important things to keep in mind when visiting the Great White North.

Don’t forget your U.S. passport

Nothing reminds you that you’re not just driving to another state but actually a whole new country like having to stop at the border to present travel documents. It used to be that you could get by with nothing more than a driver’s license, but these days visiting Canada requires you to have your passport with you, or something equivalent (such as a NEXUS card).

If that sounds like a hassle, count yourself lucky. Canada requires visitors from many other countries to submit an application for an ETA Visa before they can enter the country.

There are two official languages

No, I’m not just referring to the way Canadians pronounce “about” like “a boot.” Canada actually has two official languages, English and French. What that means is that you’re going to see a lot of French signs next to the English ones.

While the majority of the population use English as their primary language, about 20% of Canadians mainly speak French. French is especially prominent in the province of Quebec, which includes such major cities Montreal, Ottawa, and (of course) Quebec City. It’s a good idea to bring an English-to-French dictionary with you, just in case.

Some shops don’t take U.S. cash

Border towns and big cities are often accommodating when it comes to accepting American currency (or at least helping you exchange your bills), but don’t count on that. There are still many businesses that only accept Canadian dollars, so keep that in mind and make it a point to know the conversion rate.

On a related note it’s worth remembering that, depending what part of Canada you’re visiting, anything you buy could come with a sales tax markup as high as 15 percent. Tourists used to be able to get tax refunds, but that program has since been discontinued.

The weather outside is frightful

The Great White North sure does live up to its name. While not all Canadian provinces are as frigid as the country’s reputation would lead you to believe (some are actually quite temperate), the fact that is located closer to the planet’s northern pole than most of America means that, even at its mildest, it tends to be a chilly place.

So dress warm and check the weather before going outside. If you’re going to be traveling during the wintertime, make sure to bring an emergency kit and be extra careful driving icy roads.

Canada uses the metric system

If you’ve seen Pulp Fiction, you know why you can’t order a Quarter Pounder in France: the metric system. Canada uses the metric system, too, which might be a culture shock for American not used to thinking about distance in terms of kilometers. You won’t see “miles per hour” signs alongside the road up north.

Be mindful of that when driving through Canada. And stay mindful when you pull over to fill up on gas, because it’s not sold there by the gallon, but by the liter. Finally, when you get to your destination and switch on the news to find out tomorrow’s weather forecast, remember the temperatures are going to be in Celsius instead of Fahrenheit.