No matter how much pre-trip info you gather before travelling, you will experience a bit of a culture shock—and most of the time, it makes for funny anecdotes and memories.

Here are 10 things that may come as a surprise when you’re new to Canada!

1. Sticker price not being the actual price

Your first purchase in Canada may feel like a scam because chances are, you will end up paying more than the advertised price for goods and services. In fact, this is normal—prices are always “plus tax,” and it’s only added at the cash register.

Taxes vary across the country. Generally speaking, you can expect to pay an extra 5-15% on top of the price displayed. For instance, a $100 pair of shoes is actually $115 in Quebec and $113 in Ontario. For more info, read Canadian Sales Tax 101 (GST, PST, HST). This handy calculator will also help you find out the amount of tax that applies to sales.

Eating out or going for drinks? Don’t forget to tip, it’s culturally mandatory. Canadians are less generous than Americans, but an acceptable tip is still supposed to be 15-20% of your bill. So your $10 poutine in Quebec will cost you $10.15 after tax, plus a 15% tip ($1.5)… so $11.65 (or more if you’re feeling more generous!).

The cost of living is pretty high in Canada, especially in big cities like Vancouver or Toronto. Make sure to leave home with enough money in your checking account.

Generally speaking, money matters and personal finances may be a bit of a culture shock, from the credit card and credit rating systems to the fact that talking about money is much less taboo in North America than in other parts of the world.

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2. The biweekly pay system

Okay, taxes and tips are not a good surprise. However, you may be happy to learn that your employer will probably pay you every other week.

You could get paid twice a month (for instance on the 1st and the 15 of the month) or every two weeks (26 pay cheques a year), which is basically the same thing except that you will get three pay cheques two months a year.  

Getting paid every two weeks can be a good thing for you because you will typically spend quite a bit of money when you first arrive (rent, furniture, car, winter clothing, etc.).

Note that other bills (rent, utilities, cellphone, etc.) are monthly.

3. The super flexible job market

In Canada, the job market is very flexible—you can get hired on the spot, and you can also get fired the same day. Forget about paperwork and lengthy contracts full of legalese, decisions are usually made quickly and employment terms give both workers and employers a lot of freedom. 

Note that when you quit a job, the professional courtesy is to give a two-week notice. However, it’s often a one-way “favour”, employers can (and will) escort you out if you’re no longer needed.

You may be surprised by the number of “help wanted” signs, especially in big cities. They aren’t just for show, many industries—tourism, services, retail, IT, etc.—are desperate for workers. This is great news if you’re looking for a job

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4. The sheer size of the country

Canada is huge. Like, really. The UK could fit into Canada over 40 times—we’re talking about 9.9 million square kilometres here.

In a way, this is super exciting because the possibilities are endless. You can enjoy the Atlantic and the Pacific Coast, plus mountains, prairies, lakes and more.

On the downside, getting from point A to point B will likely take hours, even days depending on how you choose to get around. And travelling in Canada isn’t cheap—plane tickets, gas, rentals, etc., add up very fast.

You won’t run out of places to go in Canada but if you’re planning to cover ground, budget accordingly.

5. Unique (and often extreme) weather

You must have heard that Canada epitomizes winter but experiencing it will be a bit of a shock no matter what! Your first snowstorm, ice storm, freezing rain warning, polar vortex and other unique weather phenomena are sure to surprise you. 

But there are other seasons in Canada, including fall with gorgeous colours in Eastern Canada, as well as summer with very hot temperatures in parts of the country.

Do yourself a favour, and download a weather app—it will come in handy, as the weather changes daily and dramatically!

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6. Cute city critters and fascinating wildlife

You will soon meet squirrels, beavers, raccoons and skunks—possibly on your first day in any Canadian city!

And if you explore national parks or the backcountry, you may spot moose, wolves, bears and more. Don’t forget to learn how to deal with wildlife because Canada is, well, rather wild outside cities.

Marine and northern wildlife also abound in some regions of the country.

For more info, read 10+ Common and Rare Animals to Meet in Canada.

7. The number of parks and lakes

Not that we counted them, but there are over 3 million lakes in Canada, the country home to 60% of the world’s lakes. They cover 9% of the Canadian territory. Amazing, isn’t it?

There are also 42 national parks covering a total territory of 224,466 km2. 

And by the way, several hundred amazing lakes are located in these national parks.

Basically, breathtaking landscapes are waiting for you all over the country!

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8. Restrictions on tobacco and alcohol use 

Smoking tobacco is culturally frowned upon (even though part of the population does smoke!). You are not supposed to smoke close to doors and windows, and lighting up on patios isn’t an option either.

Buying and consuming alcohol isn’t as straightforward as in many countries either (even though, again, Canadians do drink!). The legal drinking age isn’t just a suggestion, it’s enforced and you will be IDed. Possession of an open container of alcohol is generally against the law—basically, you can’t enjoy a beer in a park, for instance.

9. Legal cannabis

Tobacco and alcohol are best consumed in private, but in recent years, cannabis has become a completely acceptable option. You can buy cannabis in specialized stores all over Canada—hell, you can even buy it online or grow your own!

You will get used to the noticeable smell in some public places… Note that the Cannabis Act is still a work in progress, so make sure you’re aware of the latest prohibitions and obligations.

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10. The way Canadians socialize and date

Canadians are known to be polite, friendly and often apologetic (sorry, eh!). You will soon master the art of small talk and be on a first-name basis with pretty much everyone at work, including your manager.

However, many immigrants report that making real friends is harder than it seems. Canadians are friendly but it can take years (!) to meet outside work for instance, get invited to someone’s place, meet partners and kids, etc., and some friendships may feel like a networking exercise.

Dating is also a cultural minefield. Both parties decide to establish exclusivity, while in some cultures, kissing or more is de facto the first step towards an exclusive relationship.

Jade is a Quebec woman on a Working Holiday in France. This is how she explains it: 

“In Canada, every stage matters. First, you’re dating, then you’re talking about becoming exclusive, then you’re talking some more about officially becoming a couple. And it can take days, weeks or months at every stage.”

… and this is just an introduction to your Canadian culture shock! You could also add milk bags in Ontario, Quebec’s unique flavour of French, Ottawa’s “hello/bonjour” greeting, the entire concepts of small talk or networking, the reference system and more, but that’s for you to discover!


En PVT au Canada de novembre 2021 à 2023, je répondrai à vos questions avec plaisir. Pour le premier trimestre 2024, direction l'Amérique latine !

I moved from France to Canada on a WHV from November 2021 to 2023, followed then by spending the first quarter of 2024 in Latin America! Happy to answer all your questions.

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