An overview of health coverage in Canada
As Canada’s universal health care is paid for through taxes, health services are largely free or for a fraction of the cost. The health care system itself is administered at the provincial level, and each province operates differently. There are 13 distinct provincial and territorial health insurance plans. With a provincial health insurance card, you don’t have to pay for most medical services.
Each province or territory issues health insurance cards to its residents. And depending on where you live, there may be a wait time before you can apply for a health insurance card. For example, in British Columbia, there is a wait time of up to three months before you are eligible for a Medical Services Plan (MSP). However, if you live in Alberta, there is no wait time before applying for a health insurance card.
Each province or territory covers the cost of medically necessary health services for residents enrolled in their health care plan. This includes visiting a physician or family doctor, medical testing (such as blood work or an x-ray), and hospital stays in a standard ward. Additional medical services available under universal health care will vary from province to province. For example, Manitoba offers seven chiropractic visits per year and Nova Scotia covers basic dental care for children aged 14 and under.
Why is it important for international students to get health insurance?
All international students studying in Canada are required to have health insurance. Several Canadian provinces will provide health insurance to international students under their provincial plan, but not all do. While all provinces and territories in Canada will provide free emergency health services to individuals who don’t have a health card, these services are restricted.
If you aren’t eligible for health care and don’t have health insurance, you will have to pay out-of-pocket for health-related expenses. And these services can be very expensive. While you may only pay $120 CAD to see a doctor at a walk-in clinic, you could have a bill of $1,000 CAD for an emergency room visit and $3,700 CAD for acute care in a standard ward. Depending on where you go for treatment, you may be expected to pay for costs upfront.
It’s easy to see how a medical emergency could cost you thousands of dollars. No one plans to get sick. But should the worst happen, you want to be prepared.
Unexpected healthcare costs can throw your budget off course. If you’re purchasing private health insurance, be sure to account for the monthly premium cost in your budget. You can also use Arrive’s Cost of Studying in Canada calculator to estimate your monthly expenses as a student.
Provincial health coverage for international students in Canada
Some provinces provide coverage to international students under their provincial health insurance plan, while other provinces and territories require you to register for private health insurance.
Here is a breakdown of each province and its study requirements to qualify for universal health care:
Other health care options for international students
If you are planning to study in Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Yukon, or are in your first year of studies in Nova Scotia, you should get health insurance coverage. The following options are available:
Student health insurance offered by public universities
The university or college you attend may have its own health coverage plan. Depending on the post-secondary institution, these plans can be mandatory or optional. The coverage provided will depend on the insurance company they use, but it should include visits to a doctor, hospital stay, diagnostic testing, ambulance, and emergency medical care. It may also include dental as well as eye and vision care.
Contact your college or university or visit their website to see if they have a health insurance plan available for international students.
If you are studying in Manitoba
International students are required to have primary health coverage under the Manitoba International Student Health Plan (MISHP). This plan will cover you for eligible medical services such as visits to the doctor and x-rays, as well as hospital stays.
If you are studying in Ontario
International students studying are required to have mandatory health coverage under the University Health Insurance Program (UHIP). UHIP will help cover the cost of medical services and hospital stays while you are in Canada.
Private health insurance
If you aren’t eligible for provincial health coverage and your post-secondary institution doesn’t offer a health insurance plan, you can apply for private health insurance. A basic health insurance plan will cover you for services such as ambulance, prescription drugs, hospital stays, and depending on the program, a percentage of dental costs.
Depending on the insurance provider and the package you choose, you may be required to pay a small part of your health expenses (deductible) out-of-pocket. Compare monthly premium costs, deductibles, and coverage while choosing an insurance package. The cost of private health insurance may vary based on pre-existing medical conditions and at-risk behaviours such as smoking. Be sure to include the cost of premiums and other emergency expenses in your monthly budget.
Want to learn more about planning your finances as an international student in Canada? Download our guide for tips that’ll help you prepare for financial success.
Getting add-on insurance
Even if you are covered by the province you are studying in, it’s a good idea to get add-on insurance to cover items not included under universal health care, to protect you before you arrive, or if you take a vacation during the summer break.
Pre-arrival travel coverage
It’s likely you want to arrive in Canada and get settled before you begin your studies. As international students are required to have valid medical insurance while in Canada, it’s important to take out insurance before you arrive in Canada and at the beginning of your stay, especially if your province has a wait period for health insurance.
Look for travel insurance that covers you for flight disruptions, trip cancellation, loss of luggage, and medical expenses. You should also check to see if your insurance policy covers you for COVID-19 related medical expenses.
If you are planning to travel outside of Canada, including a brief visit to the United States, consider buying travel health insurance before you leave. While a valid health card will cover you for basic services in another province (such as a visit to the doctor), you will not be covered in the U.S. Make sure you’re covered for emergency medical needs, flight delays or disruptions (if you are flying), or vehicle coverage (if you plan to drive).
The OmbudService for Life and Health Insurance (OLHI) has a tool to help you find health, life, and travel in Canada.
You may also be able to find insurance through your credit card company or financial institution. For example, RBC offers insurance plans specifically tailored for international students and visitors to Canada.
International students in Canada are usually required to get health insurance for the duration of their stay. Prior to your arrival in Canada, it is important to do your research to determine whether the province you will stay in offers provincial health coverage to international students, or if health insurance plans are available through your university. In provinces like Ontario, where provincial health coverage does not extend to international students, you may need to apply for private health insurance.