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How to access free health care in Canada

To access free health care, you need to apply for a provincial health card. Once you are approved, you will receive your provincial health card. The health card proves that you are covered by a provincial health care program. You will have to show your health card each time you visit a doctor or receive any medical care.

You can get an application form from:

  • A doctor’s office
  • A hospital
  • A pharmacy
  • A settlement service agency.

Or, you can apply online (see section below: Provincial and Territorial Health Care Programs in Canada).

You cannot apply for health care coverage before you arrive in Canada.

Accessing free health care is one of the reasons that Canada is known for having some of the best health care in the world. And if you’re moving to Canada, here are some important things to know about how to access free health care and the medical system. As a newcomer, knowing how to get free medical care when you’re sick, or have an accident can save you from worry and out-of-pocket expenses.

Applying for health care is one of the first steps you can take when you arrive.

Who pays for health care in Canada

In Canada, public health care is paid for through tax money. Basic health care services, like hospital visits and medical treatment, are free. All Canadian citizens and permanent residents may apply for public health insurance. This insurance can save you money and provide you and your family peace of mind when it comes to health care.

 When to apply for free health care

You should apply for health care coverage as soon as you land in Canada because there may be a waiting period before you are eligible to apply. So, apply right after you land to minimize your waiting!

 

Download our free e-book to learn what medical documents you’ll need to bring to Canada:

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 There may be a waiting period

You may have to wait up to three months to be eligible for a government health card. This waiting period applies to permanent residents in the following provinces:

  • British Columbia
  • New Brunswick
  • Ontario

To protect yourself during this waiting period, you can buy private insurance to cover you and your family from unexpected health care costs.

Do you need private health insurance?

The free health care that Canadian citizens and permanent residents enjoy gives you access to basic medical services. But, not everything is covered. So, it’s important to think about:

  1. What coverage you’ll need if you land in any of the provinces with waiting periods (British Columbia, New Brunswick, Ontario) to protect you during that time.

2. The health care needs of you and your family (for example, do any family members have health issues that have costs that aren’t covered?)

3. Do you require supplemental (or extra) private insurance to meet your health care needs (for example, do any family members have extensive health care needs?)

If you’re employed, your employer may offer a health care benefits package. Many immigrants to Canada are unaware that this is something that many companies offer their employees. A benefits package will cover some, or all of the costs for dental, medications, and other services not covered by a government healthcare program.

Canadians in every province can purchase additional private health insurance to cover services not covered by a government health care program, or an employer’s health care benefits program.

What do Provincial and Territorial health care programs cover? 

Each provincial health care program may provide slightly different coverage, so find out what is covered in the province where you live. In general, government health care programs cover things such as:

  • Appointments with your family doctor
  • Visits to walk-in clinics and some other health care providers
  • Visits to an emergency room
  • Medical tests and surgeries
  • Necessary surgery
  • Laboratory and other diagnostic procedures

Some examples of the hospital and medical services not covered by provincial health care programs include:

  • Most prescription drugs
  • Dental services
  • Eye exams and eyewear, like glasses or contacts
  • Appliances such as hearing aids, crutches, wheelchairs
  • Visits to physiotherapists, chiropractors, or similar health providers
  • Ambulance service

What to do if you lose your health card

If you lose your health care card, contact the provincial health ministry to replace your card as soon as possible. You may have to pay a small replacement fee.

It’s a good idea to carry your health card in your wallet at all times in case of a medical emergency. In an emergency, hospitals will treat you without seeing your card first but, you will have to show your card later if you want the province to cover your hospital bills.

Documents you need to apply for a health card to access free health care

To apply for a provincial health card, you’ll require identification to prove your Canadian citizenship or eligible immigration status. So, you’ll need your:

  • Birth certificate
  • Passport
  • PR card or Confirmation of Permanent Residence

It’s best to confirm what documents you’ll need with the provincial or territorial health care program where you plan to live.

Finding a family doctor

Most Canadians have a family doctor or “GP” (general practitioner), so once you have coverage, you will want to find a GP. Your GP will be your first contact with the health care system.

To find a family doctor:

  • Ask a friend or family member if their doctor is accepting new patients.
  • Check with the province’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. They will have a list of doctors accepting patients.

Doctors generally control or direct their patients’ access to most health care specialists, as well as to hospital beds.

Your family doctor will:

  • Decide which diagnostic tests you will need and generally makes the appointments for these tests.
  • Prescribe any necessary medications that you can pick up at a pharmacy of your choice.

If you have a medical emergency, go to the emergency room at the nearest hospital. For non-emergencies, you can schedule an appointment with your family doctor to get treatment or a referral to a health care specialist.

Travelling with prescription medication

You can bring a 90-day supply of any prescription medication that you currently taking to continue your treatment. However, you must:

  1. Carry the medication in the original hospital or pharmacy packaging

2. Have the original label on the packaging to show what the health product is and what it contains

3. Have a valid expiration date (for example: within 90 days of your arrival).

When you know how to access health care, you and your family can rest easy knowing that you are protected both medically and financially when you arrive in Canada.

Accessing free health care in Provinces and Territories in Canada

Click on the province or territory where you plan to live to learn how to apply for a government health card and access free health care.

Provinces:

Alberta: Alberta Health Care Insurance Plan (AHCIP)

British Columbia: Medical Services Plan (MSP)

Manitoba: Health, Seniors and Active Living

New Brunswick: New Brunswick Medicare

Newfoundland and Labrador: Medical Care Plan (MCP)

Nova Scotia: Medical Services Insurance (MSI)

Ontario: Ontario Health Insurance Program (OHIP)

Prince Edward Island: Health PEI

Quebec: Québec Health Insurance Plan

Saskatchewan: eHealth Saskatchewan

Territories:

Northwest Territories: Health and Social Services

Nunavut: Nunavut Health Care Plan

Yukon: Yukon Health Insurance Plan

For helpful information about living and working in Canada, check out our free webinars and settle in Canada with ease!

Frequently Asked Questions


Is it easy to apply for government health coverage, how long does it take to get the health card?


When you land you will be given an envelope containing the forms you need to fill for your PR Card – i.e. the Permanent Resident card as well as your Health coverage card. Again, health services are provided individually by the Provinces and each Province has different rules of how you access these services. In BC and Ontario your health care coverage does not start for 180 days so do get health insurance for you and your family as it can be expensive paying for services privately. If you are landing in another Province than those we spoke of, you can expect to receive your health services card within 10 working days.


How do I get my PR Card, Health Card after landing in Canada? Is it easy to apply for health coverage?


When you land you will be given an envelope containing the forms you need to fill for your Permanent Resident (PR) Card as well as your Health coverage card. Again, health services are provided individually by the Provinces and each Province has different rules of how you access these services.

In British Columbia and Ontario your health care coverage does not start for 180 days so do get health insurance for you and your family as it can be expensive paying for services privately. If you are landing in other provinces, you can expect to receive your health services card within 10 working days.

You can read more about how to access free healthcare in Canada here.
For more information, tools, and free webinars about living in Canada visit our Settling in Canada resource page. We’ll help you to settle in Canada successfully!


I am a bit confused about the health care system, having just come here a few months ago. Can you explain the system to me?


As a newcomer, it will take 90 days or three months for you to get medical coverage through several provinces, including Ontario and B.C., so private coverage is critical during this period. Check in your yellow pages or online for companies that offer private health care coverage.

Most Canadians have a family doctor or “GP” (general practitioner), so once you have coverage, you will want to get a GP.  Your GP (or primary care physician), will be your first contact with the formal health care system. Here are some tips on finding a GP.

Ask a friend or family member if their doctor is accepting new patients.

Check with the province’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. They may have a list of doctors accepting patients.

Look in the Yellow Pages of your local telephone book under “Physicians & Surgeons” and cold call to see if they are accepting patients.

Doctors generally control or direct their patients’ access to most health care specialists, as well as to hospital beds. It is also your doctor who decides which diagnostic tests you will need and generally makes the appointments for these tests. Your doctor will also prescribe any necessary medications, which you will then pick up at a pharmacy of your choice.

In other words, with the exception of a medical emergency — in which case you head for the emergency room at your nearest hospital — you will need to visit your primary care physician to obtain treatment or a referral for treatment for any kind of illness or medical problem.


I’m unclear on what is free in Canada’s health care system and what isn’t. Can you explain what the different costs are?


Under Canada’s health care system, all medically necessary hospital stays, including those needed for treatment of an illness or surgical and maternity services (such as childbirth, prenatal, post-natal and newborn care, and treatment of complications surrounding a pregnancy) are covered, as are the prescription drugs while in hospital.

You will also not be asked to pay the clinic, hospital or physician directly, and there are no deductibles or fees levied on any specific insured service. However, there are some services that are only partially covered, depending on the province, and therefore require a fee for service from the patient. And there are some “uninsured” services, meaning they are not covered at all.

Some examples of services not covered by any plan in Canada include:
medical examinations requested by third parties (such as for employment, insurance or driver’s licence)
cosmetic surgery that is not medically necessary
dental care
vision care
limb prostheses
wheelchairs
prescription medication
podiatry and chiropractics.

With the exception of the Yukon Territory, ambulance service in Canada is generally not fully covered by the health insurance plans of any province or territory. The only exceptions are when it is necessary to transfer a patient from one hospital to another. Some provinces have capped the costs of an ambulance ride, but in other provinces, ambulance service can be very expensive.

Certain groups of the population, however, such as seniors, children, and those on social assistance, may be able to obtain these extended health services through a Pharmacare program provided by their province.

Canadians in every province, however, can purchase private extended health insurance to cover some of these uninsured health services not included in the national health care plan. Some employers also provide extended health care benefits to their employees that cover some of these costs.


Can I bring my prescription medicines to Canada?

Travel with prescription medication prepare for Canada
 

This is a common and important question: can I bring my prescription medicines to Canada?
 
The short answer is yes, you can bring prescription medicine to Canada. This will allow you to continue the medical treatment that you are currently following. But, be sure to follow guidelines defined by Health Canada related to prescription medicines.
You can bring medication that is prescribed to you or anyone that you’re responsible for who is coming to Canada with you.
 
You can bring:
a single course of treatment, OR
a 90-day supply (whichever is less).
You cannot import prescription medicine by mail or courier.
Once in Canada, you will need to visit a Canadian doctor to refill or get a new prescription. You cannot use a foreign prescription in Canada.
 
If you’re travelling to Canada, be sure to download our essential checklists and remember to bring your important medical documents.

Tips:
 
Pack your medications (prescriptions and essential over-the-counter (OTC) drugs in your carry-on baggage to avoid theft or loss. This includes any medical equipment such as syringes, needles, inhalers, etc.

Keep prescription medicines in the original container with the label that indicates what the drug is. Do not put medications in unmarked containers.

Be prepared to answer questions about your medications at the airport and border crossings. You do not require information from your doctor about your medical condition, but it may be helpful.

Carry a photocopy of your doctor’s prescription.

Once in Canada, you will need to visit a Canadian doctor to refill or get a new prescription. You cannot use a foreign prescription in Canada.