The practicalities of arriving in Canada from the UK
A while back I wrote about The practicalities of leaving the UK for Canada which detailed some of the things I had to sort out in order to come over to Canada. This post will go over some of the things I had to sort out since arriving and also some of the things I have learned and experienced since coming here 5 months ago. I hope that anyone in a similar position or considering such a move finds this information helpful, as I know sometimes it can take alot of searching to find answers to practical questions.
Disclaimer! Anyone reading this should understand that this is a mixture of things I have worked out for myself since arriving in Canada and my personal opinion, so take it with a pinch of salt and always do your own research. I may have gotten something wrong or things may have changed.
A little context – I have moved from Cardiff which is the capital city of Wales, United Kingdom to Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. Vancouver Island is approximately one and a half times the size of Wales, has a population density more than six times lower than that of Wales and is part of the second largest country in the world. So of course I am going to be noticing some differences! As you would expect from such a large country things change from place to place so this is mostly my experiences of Vancouver Island (and a few other places I have visited) and not the whole of Canada. By the end of my time here I hope to have a first hand experience of alot more of Canada. To get an idea of scale I found this link interesting, which gives you an idea of how big British Columbia (one of Canada’s ten provinces and three territories) is.
Work Visa / IEC (International Experience Canada)
On arrival in Canada I took my letter of introduction to the immigration desk and within 10 minutes was walking out with my year long work visa stapled into my passport. A nice and easy start which was lucky as I was pretty out of it from the flight!
Now I had my work visa I also needed a Social Insurance Number (or SIN), similar to a National Insurance Number in the UK in order to work and apply for a bank account. This was another easy one, all I had to do was take my work visa to my local Service Canada branch and within 20 minutes I had my SIN number with a SIN card in the post. I’m on a roll!
With my wok visa and SIN number in hand it was time to open up a bank account. This is where things started to get more complicated and quite different from the UK.
Firstly, Canadian banks charge a monthly service fee… yup banks charge you to give them your money (starting at around $10/£6.50 a month)! I have heard of this in other countries like Australia and New Zealand but wasn’t at all happy being faced with having to pay a fee to the banks, who aren’t exactly at the top of my favourite kind of company list.
I’m not sure why they do this here and not in the UK but I would guess it’s just because they can. I was surprised to find out that a few of the people I spoke to over here thought that banks needed to charge these fees in order to operate. Even the bank manager who eventually opened up an account for me asked me (with a straight face) how banks make any money if they don’t charge a service fee. Crazy! Also, on top of the monthly fee alot of accounts charge you $1 when you use your card more than a handful of times a month. That is for anything – $1 for cash withdrawals, store and online purchases!
When I opened up my CIBC account things were looking so peachy I also applied for a credit card. I needed to provide provide proof of my UK income which I did through my tax self assessments but was still declined a card as I am not a Canadian resident and don’t have a credit history here.
The bank account I opened is a regular chequeing account which comes with a Interac / Visa Debit card. However it appears that Visa Debit is relatively new to Canada and alot of Canadian online retailers do not accept it. I found this out the hard way after my card kept getting declined when trying to purchase things online and a couple of phone calls to my bank. So back to the credit card question… after a little more digging I am told that I can apply for a “secured credit card” which I put money up front for in order to guarantee the credit. I haven’t gone down this road yet and have been using my UK credit card for online purchases.
Pounds to Dollars
Now I have a bank account I need some money in it. I hear there are these things called jobs which do this, however for the time being I need to transfer my UK pounds into Canadian dollars. There is no way around this – it costs money. I was initially withdrawing money from my UK account using my bank card at cash machines but there is a maximum withdrawal amount of $400 plus a service fee added by my UK account. Also the banks give you a poor exchange rate as a way of adding extra fees. Once I had my bank account set up the bank managed told me I could write myself a cheque from my UK account (in pounds) and pay it into my Canadian one. I was a little dubious at first but after writing a cheque for a lump sum around a week later the equivalant amount in Canadian dollars was deposited into my account. No service fee was added but upon comparing exchange rates I discovered that the bank had taken it’s share. So you pay for the privilege of transferring currencies regardless, but doing so via cheque seems to be the most convenient and as there is no fee other than that of a poor exchange rate possibly a little cheaper.
So far I have been very happy with my free bank account with CIBC but overall I get the impression that banks here are a little behind the times compared to the UK and charge for everything (even cheque books!). I have online banking set up but in order to transfer money to another party (my house mates to pay for bills for example) I need to go in to the branch to add them as a payee if they are with the same bank, or pay a fee for an “email money transfer” if they are with another bank. Oh and you can’t use your card to withdraw money from another bank’s cash machine without paying a fee… are you getting the idea?!
Or ‘cell phones’ as they are called here, but whatever they are called using one here is expensive. I paid to have my iPhone unlocked before I left the UK as I wanted to keep the same phone but I was shocked to discover that getting a similar plan (text messaging, calls and internet) was going to be around four times the price of what I was paying back home!
Like the banks, most mobile phone providers charge for everything. Everything from internet to caller id and voicemail are extras which you must pay for and alot of the people I spoke to seem to be locked in to expensive multiple year contracts, which obviously wasn’t something I wanted to sign up for. For around $60 (£40) a month I could get a similar plan to what I was used to in the UK, i.e. no phone included – just a sim card with with a rolling monthly contract including texts, calls and internet. For me that seemed steep and more than I was prepared to pay. I considered keeping my UK SIM card and using it to just send the occasional text message but half of the time they weren’t getting through to Canadian phones (something I have only encountered since switching to GiffGaff, which is odd seeing as they run on O2 and I never had any issues using my phone abroad while with them). So after alot of research (not helped by the crazy amount of confusing terminology used by the companies) I found an affordable mobile phone provider – 7-Eleven! They have their own mobile phone arm called SpeakOut Mobile and offer a reasonably priced, feature rich service for $35 a month. Much better!
The plan isn’t really aimed at smartphones but the plan includes “unlimited browsing” which isn’t quite the same as unlimited internet due to some internet ports being blocked, but I get 3G internet on my iPhone and nearly everything works. One slight downside is that they do not provide a MicroSIM card which is required for iPhone 4 so I had to cut the full size SIM down to size myself using this hepful guide (SIM cutters are available to buy too).
I was told that the high cost of plans was due to Canada being such a big country with a low population density compared to countries like the UK – which made sense. Though I get full reception with 3G internet at the top of mountains here which I think is a little unnecessary (and much better than the UK) so I guess that is what you are really paying for!
Sources: SpeakOut Mobile
Using my UK license I was able to drive in British Columbia for 90 days using my UK license. As cars carry insurance policies here, unlike the UK where it is the driver who must be insured I was able to drive my housemates’ car legally. After 90 days I had to get a British Columbia license by exchanging my UK license for one, which involved a few easy road safety questions and a small fee. I have read that on returning to the UK the reverse process is just as straight forward… we’ll see!
Sources: ICBC License exchange
This turned into a much bigger post than expected, so I hope it helps someone out there.