2023-05-26T17:27:44-04:00Mar 4, 2020|

Healthcare in Canada: Basics for newcomers

One of the top reasons newcomers choose Canada as their new home is access to a publicly-funded universal healthcare system. In each Canadian province, a portion of the taxes paid by citizens and residents is utilized by the provincial government to administer health services. This enables eligible individuals to receive basic health and medical assistance for free or a fraction of the cost. 

Healthcare in Canada is administered at the provincial level, and each province operates differently. There are 13 distinct provincial and territorial health insurance plans. For instance, if you’re moving as a permanent resident, and you intend to reside in Ontario or British Columbia, you may have to wait for up to three months from the time you land until you’re eligible to receive health benefits, while if you decide to settle in Alberta, there is no waiting period and you’re covered from the day you land. 

Healthcare costs in Canada may be expensive in comparison to your home country. So, if you’re moving to a province that has a waiting period for provincial health insurance, it is recommended to purchase private insurance for the first few months. 

Here’s a list of the four essential healthcare action items you should familiarize yourself with as a newcomer in Canada:

1. Apply for a provincial health insurance card

In Canada, to get access to medical services, you need a health insurance card. Each province or territory issues these cards to its residents. As a newcomer, you have to submit an application to the provincial government to get the card. 

Consider this scenario: If you’re in Ontario, you should visit Service Ontario to submit an application, while if you’re in Alberta, you should visit Service Alberta

The websites will have addresses to physical locations and also mention the documents required for your application. You can simply walk in at the location that’s closest to you and apply for your health card. All applications need to be submitted in person. The documents required as part of your application may vary by province but largely, all provinces require proof of residency, government-issued ID, and documents proving immigration status. 

Once your application is verified, the health card is mailed to your residence. You will need to show this card whenever you visit a hospital or a doctor. 

Note: If you are residing in a province that has a waiting period to get public insurance, your timeline for eligibility is counted from the day you land in the province and not from the day you apply. For example, if you are in Toronto and you landed on March 1, 2019, but submitted an application for your health insurance card on May 25, 2019, you would become eligible within approximately 5 days. And if you submit an application in June, beyond the three month waiting period, you will be covered immediately from the time you submit an application.

2. Understand the health coverage provided

Depending on your immigration status, the government of Canada provides free emergency medical services, even if you don’t have a government health card. If you have an emergency, it is recommended to visit the nearest hospital. A walk-in clinic may charge fees if you’re not a resident of that province or territory.

Typically, provincial insurance only covers basic medical services. Items such as prescription medicines, dental care, physiotherapy, ambulance services, prescription eyeglasses may not be covered by the government, and you will have to pay out-of-pocket if you don’t have any other private insurance plan. Many employers offer some form of extended health insurance benefits to their employees to cover scenarios or situations that provincial insurance does not. So, it’s a good idea to check with your employer about these benefits and be well-informed about your options before signing the offer letter.  

Read more about how insurance works in Canada

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3. Find a family doctor

Most Canadians have a family doctor as a primary point of contact whenever they need medical care or advice. A family doctor provides you and your family with basic care, and will also be the one to provide a referral if you need to see a specialist. 

You can find a family doctor in Canada by: 

  • Asking a friend, colleague, relative or acquaintance 
  • Contacting an immigrant-serving organization
  • Contacting a community health centre in your area
  • Checking the provincial websites for finding a family doctor
  • Use Lumino Health (by Sun Life) to find a family doctor, dentist, optometrist, or another health-care provider near you
Irrespective of where you’re based in Canada, you can check out Lumino Health – a a comprehensive, easy-to-use, and searchable database of dentists, optometrists, psychologists and family doctors. You can see information such as clinic hours, languages spoken, ratings and cost information for many types of health-care providers, making it easy to find the right care for your family.

Each province has a dedicated website or webpage and a unique process to find a family doctor. For those in Ontario, the ‘Find a doctor’ page is your starting point, while for those in British Columbia, you will need to start the process by visiting the B.C. College of Family Physicians website. 

Generally speaking, once you confirm the neighbourhood where you reside and the area where you would like to find a doctor, you will be put on a waitlist until a doctor who is accepting patients is identified. In some cases, the waiting period can take several months. During this time, if you need to visit a doctor, you can go to a walk-in medical clinic. At walk-in clinics, you can usually see a doctor without an appointment. 

Read more about the basics of family health in Canada

Free medical services: 

All residents in Canada can get access to free health advice by phone or by visiting a free clinic. 

Every province and territory offers free health advice or information via phone. Registered nurses operate the phone lines 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In provinces and territories, you can dial 811 to be connected with a health-care professional. Each province or territory calls it a different name: Manitoba has Health Links, and in Ontario, this system is known as TeleHealth. The purpose of these health lines is not to diagnose illness or hand out prescriptions but instead help individuals decide if they can handle the problem themselves or if they should seek medical advice from a doctor.

If you find yourself in need of care, without insurance, and a health line suggests seeing a doctor, you can seek out community health centres (CHC) located across the country. While most CHCs accept provincial insurance, they are also an option for those who need it and are waiting for provincial coverage.

If you have an emergency health situation and need urgent medical help, you can go to the emergency department of the nearest hospital or call 911. All calls made to 911 are free. The government recommends asking your doctor if you should carry medical information with you on a medical necklace or bracelet if you have a serious medical condition, such as diabetes, high blood pressure or allergies to medication. 

4. Learn more: Healthcare in Canada by province

Now that you’re familiar with the basic overview of how healthcare in Canada works, let’s look at each province and territory to understand their healthcare plans in detail. All provincial insurance plans have the same basic standards of healthcare and share common features. However, there are some subtle differences that may be important to note regarding how long it takes for health coverage to take effect and what exactly is covered.


  • Provincial insurance name: Alberta Health Care Insurance Plan (AHCIP)
  • Eligibility for permanent residents: Coverage begins from the date residency is established (typically, the date of arrival). 
  • Coverage: Includes full coverage for medically necessary physician services, some dental and oral surgical health services, and hospital visits and stays. Partial coverage for podiatry and optometry services.
  • Free health advice by phone: Dial 811 or access Health Link.

British Columbia

  • Provincial insurance name: Medical Services Plan (MSP)
  • Eligibility for permanent residents: Coverage may start three months after your arrival date.
  • Coverage: Includes services by physicians and midwives, dental and oral surgery performed in a hospital, necessary eye exams, x-rays, and some orthodontic services. Other services that may be covered include supplementary benefits such as acupuncture, chiropractic, massage therapy, naturopathy, physical therapy and non-surgical podiatry.
  • Free health advice by phone: Dial 811 or access HealthLinkBC.


New Brunswick

  • Provincial insurance name: New Brunswick Medicare and Drug Plans
  • Eligibility for permanent residents: Once a completed application form is received and eligibility is established, a letter indicating the actual start date of the New Brunswick Medicare coverage is issued and followed by a New Brunswick Medicare card.
  • Coverage: Includes physician’s services, certain specified surgical dental procedures, and most hospital services. 
  • Free health advice by phone: Dial 811 or access Tele-Care.

Newfoundland and Labrador

  • Provincial insurance name: Medical Care Plan (MCP)
  • Eligibility for permanent residents: Coverage begins from the date of arrival.
  • Coverage: Includes physician’s services, hospital visits, surgical, diagnostic and therapeutic procedures, pre- and post-operative care, complete maternity care, radiology interpretive services, and certain surgical-dental procedures.
  • Free health advice by phone: Dial 811 or access 811 HealthLine.

Northwest Territories

  • Territorial insurance name: NWT Health Care Plan
  • Eligibility for permanent residents: When your application has been approved, you will receive a NWT Health Care Card in the mail. Considering processing and mailing time, it takes about six weeks from the time of application for your health care card to reach you.
  • Coverage: Includes basic hospital and medical treatment. 
  • Free health advice by phone: Access Tele-Care NWT at 90 sites across the territory. 

Nova Scotia


  • Territorial insurance name: Nunavut Health Care Plan
  • Eligibility for permanent residents: Health coverage may become effective on the first day of the third month, provided you meet all eligibility requirements.  
  • Coverage: Includes the cost of physician and hospital services. 
  • Free health advice by phone: Services not available. 


  • Provincial insurance name: Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) 
  • Eligibility for permanent residents: Previously, newcomers were required to wait for up to three months for OHIP coverage unless they qualified for immediate coverage. However, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, this wait period has been waived off.
  • Coverage: Doctor visits, hospital visits and stays, medical or surgical abortions, eligible dental surgery and optometry, podiatry, ambulance services, and travel for health services if you live in northern Ontario. 
  • Free health advice by phone: Dial 1-866-797-0000 / 1-866-797-0007 or access Telehealth Ontario.

Prince Edward Island

  • Provincial insurance name: PEI Health Card
  • Eligibility for permanent residents: Coverage begins from the date of arrival.
  • Coverage: Includes childhood immunizations, primary care such as diagnosis, treatment, education, disease prevention, and screening, and in-patient or out-patient hospital services.
  • Free health advice by phone: Dial 811 or access 811 Telehealth.


  • Provincial insurance name: Québec Health Insurance Plan 
  • Eligibility for permanent residents: Waiting period of up to three months from arrival date.
  • Coverage: Includes medical procedures, anesthetics, medical examinations, eye drops, diagnostic mammogram, urine and glycemia tests, and vasectomy. 
  • Free health advice by phone: Dial 811 or access Info-Santé 811.


  • Provincial insurance name: Saskatchewan Health Cards
  • Eligibility for permanent residents: Health Card applications are usually processed within six to eight weeks after the application is received — not including mailing time.
  • Coverage: Includes all medically necessary services provided by physicians (inpatient and outpatient services), physiotherapy or occupational therapy, screening mammography, immunization services, sexually transmitted infections (STI) treatment, HIV testing, services for treating alcohol and drug abuse problems, mental health services, problem gambling services, and some supplementary health services.
  • Free health advice by phone: Dial 811 or access HealthLine 8-1-1.


  • Territorial insurance name: Yukon Health Care Insurance Plan (YHCIP)
  • Eligibility for permanent residents: Coverage normally becomes effective three months after the date you establish residency in Yukon.
  • Coverage: Includes hospital and medical services, and certain dental-surgical procedures. 
  • Free health advice by phone: Dial 811 or access HealthLine 811.

As you settle-in in Canada, one of the things on your checklist should be to familiarize yourself and learn more about healthcare coverage offered by the province or territory you reside in. The things you need to do to get a health card and understand the process to be followed should you need medical assistance. Being well-informed can help you make a healthy transition to Canadian life.