Preparing for a bucket-list Canadian road trip? Lucky you!
Canada is an awesome country to explore with amazing cities, small towns, beaches, and mountains. But despite all of its amazing qualities, many of the best destinations are only accessible if you have your own wheels. Not to mention, there are some things you need to know about driving in Canada before heading out on that road trip.
As a Canadian local with plenty of experience driving abroad, I’ve noticed plenty of differences driving in Canada as opposed to other countries. And though I’d have to say driving in Canada is pretty straightforward, there are some stark idiosyncrasies that you’ll need to pay attention to. I’ll walk you through all of them in this quick guide on how to drive in Canada.
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Canada Driving Laws & Rules of the Road
Whether you’re traveling from another continent or within North America, I recommend looking up common road signs and provincial-specific laws before driving in Canada.
Even within Canada, laws, signage, and provincial rules tend to vary across the country. Not to mention, when road rules apply to a province, they are heavily enforced.
Important rules of the road for driving in Canada include:
- Canadians drive on the right hand side of the road and pass on the left
- Making full stops at red lights and stop signs is mandatory (running these could land you with a ticket)
- Pedestrians always have the right of way
- Speed limits are regularly followed and enforced with photo radar detectors
- The speed limit will vary by province and road, but the statutory speed limit is often 50 km/hour in urban areas and 80 km/hour in rural area (Source).
- Seat belt use is mandatory
- Cell phones are not allowed to be used while driving (unless hands-free)
- Driving is often not allowed on private property
- Drivers must stop (or proceed with caution) when encountering stopped school buses
- Driving with an elevated blood alcohol content is a criminal offense, though specific alcohol rules vary by province
- Right hand turns are usually allowed at red lights unless otherwise posted
License Requirements for Drivers
A valid driver’s license and proof of insurance are required for all drivers in Canada.
Before you travel to Canada, it’s smart to search whether or not you’ll need an international driving permit for your stay. USA citizens with valid licenses generally do not need an international permit for Canada driving, but it is a requirement for drivers from many other countries. Generally, you can secure an IDP before travel at your local department of motor vehicles, or similar. Check this source for more information.
Where to Rent a Car
The rental car landscape in Canada is fairly standardized. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a scammer and companies largely abide by the laws. That said, it’s always good to compare prices and agencies reviews.
I highly recommend using Discover Cars Canada to source a rental car. It’s like a search engine that will scan all the options on the market from the major rental car companies and offer up the best rates and car insurance. Discover Cars is the first place I look when searching for a rental car either at home or abroad.
👉 Wondering where to road trip in Canada? I wrote a whole guide rounding up some of the best drives and road trips in Canada. Check it out!
Car Insurance Rules in Canada
All drivers in Canada are required to carry insurance. The mandatory minimum liability insurance varies by province or territory, so be sure to check specific requirements based on where you are going in Canada.
If you already have auto insurance in the United States and are coming to Canada on a tourist visa, it is very likely that your existing policy will cover you. However, it is a good idea to call your insurance provider to make sure.
If you do not have auto insurance covering Canada, or if you want additional coverages beyond the minimums just to be safe, then you can rent through Discover Cars Canada and choose to add on the insurance option at check out.
Another option is to consider getting a travel insurance plan that covers driving in Canada. Check out our full guide to Canada travel insurance for more information. It’s always best to be prepared when traveling internationally, so travel insurance is a must. Travel Lemming loves World Nomads for our own travel insurance, but it’s important to note that you’ll likely need to select the Explorer Plan if you need rental car coverage included in the plan.
Winter Driving in Canada
It’s no secret — Canadian winters can be nasty.
We’re talking avalanches in the mountains, black ice, buckets of snow, and temperatures that, quite frankly, make it unsafe to be outside for too long.
When you choose to visit Canada is just as important as where in Canada you go through, and climates across the country vary widely. That said, if you’re not used to winter driving and are gung-ho on a road trip, then visiting Canada from November through March may not be for you.
Now, if you’ve just read everything I said above and you’re still interested in a Canadian winter road trip, then I have to give you a pat on the back.
To help you prepare, here are some of my top winter driving tips:
- Make sure you have winter tires and chain them up if driving in the mountains
- Rent a car that has all-wheel drive
- Check the road conditions before heading out (many provinces has their own site for this, just google “road conditions in XX province”
- Keep your cell phone fully charged at all times
- Know the numbers for emergency services and tow trucks
- Check the weather before heading out so you don’t get caught in unfavorable conditions
- Drive slowly and keep a lookout for other drivers (and black ice)
- Stay flexible with your itinerary — the weather can be unpredictable
- Dress appropriately with a proper parka, toque (beanie), set of gloves, and winter boots
Traffic Lights in Canada
Traffic lights in Canada are fairly on par with the rest of the world — Green means go, Yellow means a red light is about to appear and you should prepare to stop, and Red means stop.
However, there are some specifics to look out for depending on where you travel. For example, a flashing green light means something totally different in British Columbia than it does in Ontario, and a red flashing light acts as a stop sign.
When you decide what province you want to travel to, do a quick search of what the specific lights mean before you hit the road.
5 Tips for Driving During Your Trip to Canada
Tip #1 – Familiarize Yourself With the Language
Perhaps an odd first point as you’re probably reading this in English and Canada is a mostly English-speaking country, but if you’ll be driving in the Canadian province of Quebec, then prepare yourself for some slight differences.
In Quebec, the road signs are generally the same as the rest of Canada, but the province of Quebec largely uses pictograms and the text is in French.
This is because Quebec has language laws that prevent English from being used in any road signage. Check out this driving in Quebec guide for more details, which includes info on driving laws, stop signs, traffic lights, and more.
Another “language” you’ll have to familiarize yourself with (if you’re visiting from the USA, that is), is the metric system.
Canadian road signs and speed limits are all posted in metric units such as km/h. However, you’ll find that many Canadian cars clock speed in both kilometers and miles per hour.
👉 Pro Tip: If distinguishing miles from kilometers means doing math in your head, then divide the kilometer value by 1.6.
Tip #2 – Prepare for Long Distances
The second-largest country in the world, driving in Canada means long distances, spread out Canadian cities, and an extensive road network.
While I recommend sticking to one or two provinces for your first visit, you will find that if you want to cover a lot of ground, you will have to spend a lot of time in the car. To know what you’re in for, map out your route ahead of time, plan where you want to stay overnight, and remember that Canada is spread out over six time zones.
👉 Pro tip: There is a thoroughfare in Canada called the Trans Canada Highway. This highway, also known as the #1, crosses all ten Canadian provinces (including Vancouver Island and Prince Edward Island) from the Atlantic Coast to the Pacific. The Trans Canada Highway spans 7821 kilometers (4860 miles) and would take over 20 days of straight driving on the road were you to attempt it in one fell swoop.
Tip #3 – Know Roadside Assistance Numbers
Regardless of where you’re driving, having a list of Canadian roadside assistance numbers will come in super handy.
Especially in major urban areas, having a random tow truck pick you up should your car break down can be super expensive and the process can be somewhat convoluted.
Prior to setting out on your Canada trip, tack on assistance to your auto insurance — almost all rental companies will offer it. And make sure you have a fully-charged cell phone!
👉 Read Next: Before you travel, check out our list of 16 Canada travel tips — they include info on visas, weather, locations, and more!
Tip #4 – Slow Down for Pot Holes & Construction Crews
An unfortunate reality of driving in Canada is that you’ll have to keep an eye out for potholes.
Due to a yearly temperature swing of nearly 60 degrees Celsius / 140 degrees Fahrenheit (many areas in Canada experience +30 degrees in the summer and -30 degrees in the winter), road surfaces expand and contract regularly. This means that road crews are out in full swing every summer and potholes are a regular reality.
Though you won’t have to worry about potholes too much on main roads in major cities or on the Trans Canada Highway, they do tend to exist on rural highways, sideroads, and elsewhere.
Road crews are usually pretty good at sticking red flags on the side of the highway when there’s a pothole to look out for, but it’s best to keep your eyes relatively peeled.
On that note, always slow down when you see a road worker on the side of the highway. The general rule of thumb is to slow down to 60km/h, but follow any signage.
Tip #5 – Stay Aware of Large Animals
If you’ll be driving outside of the major cities, then staying aware of animals crossing the road is essential to driving safely in Canada.
Especially around dusk, animals such as deer exist in many rural areas and often dart out in front of cars without much warning.
In these situations, it’s best to slightly swerve in the direction the animal was coming from and slow down as quickly as possible.
Other animals you may come in contact with on the roads include moose, geese, ducks, and skunks.
Driving in Canada FAQ
Is driving in Canada left or right?
Canadians drive on the right hand side of the road and pass on the left. When on a double-lane highway, the same rules apply with slower traffic sticking to the right hand lane and faster traffic passing on the left.
Can you drive in Canada with a US license?
US licenses are valid in Canada. When operating a car in Canada, you’ll need to have your license, auto insurance, and registration in the vehicle at all times.
What is the age limit to drive in Canada?
The minimum age limit to drive in Canada is 16, although you must be at least 20 years old to rent a car. Drivers under the age of 25 will have to pay a young drivers fee.
That’s it for my guide on safe driving habits in Canada!
Canadian roads are perfect for exploring, and I hope this gave you a ton of inspiration for your upcoming trip.
For more help planning your trip, be sure to check out all my free Canada travel guides.