2022-12-16T11:08:57-05:00Feb 24, 2021|

Navigating the health care system in Canada

One of the benefits for newcomers moving to Canada is access to publicly funded healthcare, which has a reputation of being world-class. Health care is delivered through each of the country’s provinces and territories and paid for through taxes. As a result, many essential doctor and hospital services are free of charge, or the cost is subsidized. Here’s what you need to know about how to navigate the health care system in Canada. 

Want to learn more about healthcare in Canada?
See Healthcare in Canada: Basics for newcomers for an overview of provincial health insurance, understanding health coverage provided by the government, and learn how to find a family doctor.

How to get started with healthcare as a newcomer to Canada 

As a permanent resident or landed immigrant, you’re entitled to apply for public health insurance in Canada. Applications need to be made in the province in which you choose to settle. In some cases, you will be eligible for coverage immediately. Other provinces require a waiting period of up to three months before you will receive publicly funded care. 

Applying for a health card

In order to receive universal health coverage, you’ll need to apply for a health card. In most provinces and territories, you’ll be asked to show a valid card when visiting a doctor’s office, hospital, or undergoing diagnostic testing. Applications for a health card are processed by each provincial government and are usually free of charge. 

Here is more information on how to apply for a health card in your province: 

Province / Territory Name of insurance Wait period Link for more details
Alberta Alberta Health Care Insurance Plan (AHCIP) No wait time How to apply for a health card in Alberta
British Columbia Medical Services Plan (MSP) Up to three months How to apply for a health card in British Columbia
Manitoba Manitoba Health, Seniors and Active Living Up to three months How to apply for a health card in Manitoba
New Brunswick New Brunswick Medicare and Drug Plans Once an application is received and  eligibility established, a letter indicating the start date is issued How to apply for a health card in New Brunswick
Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Care Plan No wait time How to apply for a health card in Newfoundland and Labrador
Northwest Territories NWT Health Care Plan Up to three months How to apply for a health card in Northwest Territories
Nova Scotia Medical Services Insurance Program Up to three months How to apply for a health card in Nova Scotia
Nunavut Nunavut Health Care Plan Up to three months How to apply for a health card in Nunavut
Ontario Ontario Health Insurance Program Normally, there is a three month wait time, but in response to COVID-19, this has been waived for any treatment pertaining to COVID-19. How to apply for a health card in Ontario
Prince Edward Island PEI Health Card No wait time How to apply for a health card in PEI
Quebec Régie de l’assurance maladie du Québec Up to three months.  If you arrive from a country with a social security agreement with Quebec, then there is no wait time. How to apply for a health card in Quebec
Saskatchewan eHealth Saskatchewan No wait time How to apply for a health card in Saskatchewan
Yukon Yukon Health Care Insurance Plan Three months How to apply for a health card in Yukon

Generally, all provinces and territories will provide free emergency medical services for people even if they do not have a government-issued health card. However, there may be restrictions, depending on your immigration status. 

How to get a family doctor

As well as applying for a health card, you’ll also want to find a family doctor for you and your loved ones. Also known as General Practitioners (GPs), they are responsible for basic health care, such as annual checkups, prescribing medication, immunizations, and arranging preventative testing, such as blood tests or a Pap smear. The other benefit of a dedicated family doctor is they will get to learn your medical history.

Get more insights about healthcare in Canada –
See Family health 101: What newcomers should know for an overview on the ways you can find a family doctor, a pediatrician for your child and get immunized in Canada.

Not all GPs will accept new patients, so you will need to find a family doctor who will. You can begin your search by:

  • Asking your family, friends, coworkers, neighbour, or member of your community
  • Contacting a newcomer service provider in your area
  • Contacting a community health centre in your area
  • Checking the provincial websites for finding a family doctor (see table below)
  • Use Lumino Health (by Sun Life) to find a family doctor, dentist, optometrist, or another health-care provider near you

The following organizations and websites may also be able to help you:

Province / Territory Helpful links to find a family doctor
Alberta Visit Find A Family Doctor or contact HealthLink Alberta.
British Columbia Contact HealthLink BC or dial 811.
Manitoba Visit Family Doctor Finder to register online or call to be connected with a home clinic.
New Brunswick Register online with Patient Connect to be matched with a family doctor.
Newfoundland and Labrador Visit Find a Doctor NL to register with a physician when one becomes available.
Northwest Territories Visit RateMDs to find a list of physicians you can contact to inquire about their availability.
Nova Scotia Apply online to register on a waitlist at the Need A Family Practice Registry or dial 811.
Nunavut Visit the Department of Health’s facilities map website to learn where to find a family doctor.
Ontario Register for a family doctor with Health Care Connect or visit the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO).
Prince Edward Island Visit provinces Patient Registry Program to register for a doctor when one becomes available.
Quebec Register for the provincial government waitlist online or find the telephone number for your territory.
Saskatchewan Visit the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Saskatchewan or visit the Saskatchewan Health Authority for a list of doctors.
Yukon Visit the government’s Find a Family Doctor site to be matched with a local physician.

Every province and territory offers free health advice or information from registered professionals 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Dial 811 in your province to be connected with a health-care professional.

What is the process for seeing a specialist doctor in Canada?

If you require the services of a specialist, such as a cardiologist or a dermatologist, you will first need a referral. Typically, the referral will come from your family doctor. However, you may also be referred by a health practitioner at a walk-in clinic. Referrals from a GP prevent specialists from being overbooked with patients. Once the specialist receives the referral from your family doctor, someone from the specialist’s office will contact you directly to schedule your first appointment. Generally, referrals to specialists will be covered under your universal healthcare plan in your province, with the exception of voluntary treatments or surgery, such as plastic surgery. 

Within Canada, wait times for a referral from a family doctor can be lengthy. According to the Canadian Medical Association Journal, an Ontario-based study found that the average wait time for a patient referral to a specialist was seven weeks for urgent referrals and 11.3 weeks non-urgent referrals. Wait times will also probably vary depending on where you live and the type of specialist you need to see. 

What is the process to get additional medical tests in Canada?

If you require additional medical tests, such as bloodwork, an x-ray, a mammogram, or an ultrasound, a request will be made by your family doctor, a specialist, or a physician at a walk-in clinic. The health practitioner will provide you with the proper requisition form and any additional instructions, such as whether you need to fast before getting blood work done. 

Healthcare labs are available in many communities and are sometimes part of larger family medical practices in major cities. The doctor who referred you should be able to advise you on where you can get testing done. Alternatively, you can call 811 or visit your provincial healthcare website for more information. 

Additional tests should be covered under your provincial healthcare plan, provided they are medically necessary. If you need urgent medical testing, such as an x-ray for a broken bone, it’s advisable you visit your nearest emergency room. 

Out of province medical care 

While your provincial health card will provide you with free health coverage where you live, you should still be able to receive coverage in other provinces or territories. This is because Canadian provinces have a reciprocal agreement that allows them to bill each other for medical care if Canadians are travelling. The exception is Quebec, where a reciprocal agreement doesn’t exist, and you may be required to pay for services upfront, then apply for a refund through RAMQ. 

If you settle in a province where there is a waiting period prior to accessing healthcare, the government of Canada recommends you have adequate private health insurance to cover your healthcare needs during that time.

Can you have a health card in two Canadian provinces?

As you can’t be registered as a resident of more than one province simultaneously, you cannot be issued a valid health card for more than one province. 

What are the options for patients who require specialized care? 

Healthcare in Canada includes providing intensive care units (ICUs) as part of its health care services for residents. An ICU is where critically ill patients receive life-supporting attention. Hospitals have general ICUs but may also offer specialized ICUs for cardiac, trauma, or burn care, as well as pediatric and neonatal ICU units. 

For residents of Canada who require end-of-life care due to a life-threatening condition or serious illness, palliative care services are available. Palliative care is usually offered at hospitals, long-term care facilities, hospices, or at home. These services are provided by each province or territory. 

What healthcare costs are covered by the province?  

Generally, each province or territory will cover the cost of medically necessary health services for residents enrolled in their health care plan. This includes consulting a physician or family doctor, required diagnostic testing, and hospital stays in a standard ward. 


  • Visits to a family doctor or physician
  • Medically required diagnostic services and tests
  • Psychiatric care 
  • Hospital visits and procedures, including medication and accommodation in a
  • Ambulance transportation between medical facilities 
  • Annual eye examination for children aged 18 and under or adults aged 65 and older
  • Midwifery services 
  • Vasectomies and some gender reassignment procedures  
  • Bariatric surgery for individuals eligible under the Weight Wise program 
  • Oral and maxillofacial surgery 

British Columbia

  • Visits to a family doctor or physician enrolled with MSP
  • Diagnostic services and tests, such as x-rays, at an approved facility 
  • Maternal care provided by a midwife or physician
  • One annual eye exam for children aged 0-18 years or adults aged 65-years and older
  • Medically required eye examinations for adults aged 19-64 by an ophthalmologist or optometrist
  • Medically required dental surgery that needs to be performed in a hospital
  • Orthodontic services related to severe facial abnormalities


  • Visits with a physician
  • Medically required diagnostic tests such as x-rays at an approved facility
  • Eye exam every two-years for anyone under the age of 19 or 65 years and older
  • Hospital visits including surgery, anesthesia, medicine, accommodation, and meals in standard ward
  • Dental procedures that require hospitalization
  • Occupational, speech, and physiotherapy services at a hospital
  • Dietetic counselling
  • Up to seven chiropractic visits per year

New Brunswick 

  • Medically required services provided by a physician 
  • Hospital visits including nursing services, medication, surgery, accommodation, and meals in a standard ward 
  • Certain medically required dental procedures performed in a hospital 
  • Physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and audiology performed at a hospital
  • Radiotherapy 
  • Medically required diagnostic tests such as x-rays at an approved facility

Newfoundland and Labrador 

  • Visits with a physician 
  • Hospital visits including diagnostic tests, surgery, and anesthesia, pre-and post-operative care
  • Maternity care
  • Radiology interpretive services
  • Certain dental surgeries performed in a hospital 

Northwest Territories 

  • Medically necessary services provided at a hospital, inpatient or outpatient clinic
  • Hospital visits including nursing services, diagnostic tests and x-rays, medication, surgery and anesthetic facilities, accommodation, and meals in standard ward
  • Radiotherapy, occupational therapy, and physiotherapy provided at an insured facility
  • Detoxification services at an approved facility 

Nova Scotia

  • Consultations with a family doctor, physician, or specialist 
  • Diagnostic services except those available under Insured Hospital Services
  • Services at a hospital including all necessary surgical services, standard accommodation, and meals 
  • Obstetric, prenatal, and postnatal care 
  • Treatment for fractures and dislocations 
  • Physical examinations, pap smears, and other preventative testing
  • Medically necessary diagnostic services
  • Basic dental care for children age 14 and under 
  • Vision test for children aged nine and younger, or adults age 65 and older once every two years
  • Supervision of home dialysis


  • Consultations with a licensed doctor or physician 
  • Maternity care, including prenatal and postnatal care
  • Eye examinations, treatment, and operations provided by an ophthalmologist 
  • Hospital services including ICU stays, nursing services, diagnostic procedures and x-rays, surgery, and medications, room, and accommodation in standard ward 
  • Radiotherapy, occupational therapy, and physiotherapy treatments at an insured facility 


  • Visits to a family doctor or walk-in clinic
  • Hospital stays including medical practitioners, diagnostic tests, medications, hospital stay, and meals in a standard ward 
  • One eye exam every 12 months for anyone 19-years and younger or 65-years and older
  • One eye exam for anyone between 20-64 years of age if they have a specific medical condition, such as glaucoma or diabetes mellitus
  • Dental surgery that needs to be performed in a hospital
  • Travel to access health services if you live in northern Ontario
  • Ambulance services, except a $45 CAD co-payment 
  • Partial cost of podiatry services, up to $135 CAD per year with a registered podiatrist, as well as $30 CAD towards x-rays 

Prince Edward Island

  • Consultations with a physician
  • Primary care including dental care for children, chronic disease prevention, and treatment
  • In-patient and out-patient hospital services 
  • Public health nursing 
  • Home care, palliative care, and long-term care
  • Mental health services, additional services, and drug rehabilitation programs


  • Visits with a family doctor or general practitioner 
  • Diagnostic and therapeutic procedures
  • Psychiatric care 
  • Surgery and anesthetic 
  • Vaccinations under the Quebec Immunisation Program 
  • Vasectomy 
  • Certain radiology services 
  • Optometric services for children aged 17 and younger, or adults 65 and older
  • $25 CAD reimbursement for eyeglasses or contacts for children aged under 18
  • Annual and emergency dental examination, x-rays, fillings, tooth or root extractions, and endodontics for children under the age of 10
  • Certain oral surgeries performed at a hospital


  • Visits to a family doctor or physician
  • Medical services through hospitals, community agencies, private clinics, or special care homes 
  • Laboratory services and diagnostic procedures
  • Access to mental health services 
  • Physiotherapy or occupational therapy
  • Mammogram screening for women aged 50 to 69
  • Immunizations for children and influenza vaccine for all residents aged 6 months and older  
  • Drug, alcohol, and gambling addiction treatment 
  • Home care services including case assessment, home nursing, and occupational therapy 
  • Treatment of STIs and AIDS testing
  • Medically necessary dental surgery 


  • Visits with a physician or medical specialist 
  • Hospital services at publicly funded hospitals, including physicians including meals and accommodation in a standard ward, x-rays and other diagnostic services, nursing services
  • Radiotherapy and physiotherapy performed at a hospital 
  • Maternal care during pregnancy 
  • Dental surgeries carried out in a hospital
  • Air and ground ambulance transportation within the province
  • Dental, drug, and optical program for children
  • Chronic disease and disability benefits program
  • Hearing services 

Once you settle in Canada, make applying for a health card a priority. That way, you can access free public health care. It’s also important to also learn about what coverage is available and how to access medical services ahead of time so that your new life in Canada is a happy and healthy one.