We just moved our family from Utah, USA, to Montréal, Québec, Canada. I entered Canada on August 18, 2021 by car, and my wife and daughter entered a few days later by air. The process actually began on April 27 when I got my acceptance letter to the Université de Montréal as a master’s student in the Département d’informatique et de recherche opérationelle. After a few days of scrambling to find out if I would be able to study there without knowing French (turns out you can as a grad student at DIRO!), I started the process of applying to enter Canada and live in Québec as a student.
The Canadian government’s travel website is really quite good, and kept well up-to-date during COVID-19. Unfortunately, UdeM’s international student office (BEI) was not a great resource. Their phone number connects you to a recording telling you to email them, and their email response time is anywhere from one day to four weeks. That’s fine for most students, but we met just enough edge cases that there was a lot we had to figure out on our own.
Certificat d’Acceptation du Quebec (CAQ) and Canadian visas
As soon as we were sure I’d be able to study at UdeM, I submitted my application for the CAQ. This is a requirement for all students and temporary workers looking to enter Québec, in addition to the permit issued by the Canadian federal government. Normally, you are required to receive your CAQ before applying for the Canadian study permit, but due to COVID-19 I was allowed to apply as long as I submitted proof that I had applied for the CAQ. Both of these processes worked out for me without any issues.There’s a really useful Reddit thread (Libreddit) where people share how long they had to wait for their permits to come back.
This isn’t very clear on the Canadian immigration website, but as a US citizen the study permit is the only documentation you need to enter Canada (apart from your passport of course). You do not need an electronic travel authorization (eTA) or visitor visa.
If my wife had wanted a work permit, she would have applied for the CAQ and submitted her Canadian work permit application with mine. My wife and daughter did not need to apply for any permit beforehand, because they qualified as “reuniting with family” and were issued a visitor permit on arrival. I’ll explain more about that in the next section.
UPDATE 2022-02-08: We now wish we had applied for my wife to get a work visa, because being here on just an extended visitor permit means she doesn’t have a Social Insurance Number (SIN), can’t put her name on a Canadian bank account, doesn’t get any credit history in Canada, and can’t sign up for the Communauto car share service. She also won’t be able to take the free French courses that are sponsored by the Québec government for immigrants. On top of that, her status as an extended visitor complicates things everywhere we have to prove Canadian immigration status. Finally, there’s the obvious fact that having a work permit would give her the flexibility to find a job if she wanted.
UPDATE 2022-09-03: I’ve now converted my program into a PhD, which meant that I need to apply for a new CAQ. This is because, unlike the Canadian study permit, the CAQ is program-specific. I’m still waiting to get my renewed study permit which I applied for back in April, but I’ll be able to use that study permit during my PhD.
crossing the border
We looked into other ways to get our stuff to Montréal, but shipping a small container was >$5000 and even a U-Haul was going to cost ~$3000. We decided to buy a cargo carrier for the car instead, and we managed to fit everything except large items (desks, sofas, chairs). Then we could use the money we saved on shipping to buy new stuff here.
I drove our car across the border through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel:
They tell you online to bring all sorts of documents: proof of vaccinations, marriage certificates, bank statements, inventory of the items I’m bringing, etc. But they didn’t ask me for any of these at the immigration office. If I remember right they only asked for the study permit acceptance letter with the barcode, my passport, and my ArriveCan confirmation code. They came back ten minutes later with an official study permit document stapled into my passport, and I was good to go.
The rest of the family flew from SLC to YUL. At the time of writing you still need a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours before arrival to Canada, and they check for this when you board your first plane. So it’s not enough to get a test that promises results within 72 hours; to be safe you probably want one that promises results within 24 hours.
In order to enter Canada to reunite with family, my wife needed the marriage certificate, the birth certificate for our daughter, and a copy of my study permit (which I sent her after getting it at the border).
The process at the Montréal airport was a bit stressful because it wasn’t immediately clear to the immigration officer what kind of visa they needed, since neither of them were going to be working or studying. He eventually gave each of them a visitor permit valid for the same period as my study permit. We’ll need to renew their permits when I renew mine. Université Laval has a useful page documenting the options for bringing family members with you to Québec.
As a student your home driver’s license is good for the duration of your stay in Québec, but otherwise it needs to be exchanged for a Québec license within 6 months of arrival (see the SAAQ website). Luckily as Americans there is a straightforward process for exchanging our licenses for Québec ones, and we didn’t even need to take a test. Be sure to schedule that quickly though because those types of appointments will be booked out like a month in advance.
Originally we planned to keep our car, and we learned too late that this meant we should have exported the car at a customs office in Detroit before crossing, and then applied for a temporary import at the Canadian border. Since we’d already entered Canada with the car, that was going to mean driving back to the US, getting the car inspected and exported, re-entering Canada, applying for a temporary import into Canada, and registering the vehicle and getting auto insurance in Québec. All of this extra effort and cost (plus some convincing from Not Just Bikes and 5kids1condo) led us to decide to sell our car and sign up for a car share service instead. I’ve actually lost 15 pounds in the last two months just by biking to school. 👍🚴🚆
UPDATE 2022-05-11: We’re 8 months car free and still loving it. We use Communauto for short trips and traditional car rental services for longer trips.
Because the United States has no public health insurance and thus no social security agreement with Québec’s RAMQ, we had to get private insurance for our time in Canada. UdeM requires all international students to get health insurance through their student plan unless
- you are covered by such a social security agreement,
- you get health insurance from a scholarship, or
- you are here with your family and have a family coverage plan through one of the listed providers.
If you find family insurance that works for all of you, there are certain requirements the policy has to meet to qualify you to be exempt from the student insurance. BEI didn’t have these requirements on their website, so I’ll list what I found so far in my emails with them:
- The total reimbursable amount of the policy must be at least equivalent to the UdeM medical insurance which is CA$700,000.
- The insurance must reimburse 100% of reasonable and customary health care including hospitalization fees.
Unfortunately, after looking super hard we never found anything but travel insurance that would cover us while we’re temporary residents. Travel insurance usually doesn’t cover anything routine, like check-ups. This means it makes more sense for us to keep regular student insurance for me and travel insurance for my wife.
Update: Kids are now always covered by RAMQ no matter the parents’ immigration status. You can register kids for RAMQ by signing up for a phone interview here.
Our American phone plans include free roaming in Canada, so we decided to keep them for our stay here. The only downside is that many Canadian phone plans charge extra to communicate with American numbers, and since the US and Canada share a country code (+1) it’s not immediately clear to people that our number is American. This has lead to situations where we don’t get important information because a Canadian caller is unable to reach us.
I recently discovered a cool tool called MySudo that solves this problem for us. MySudo lets privacy-minded people create digital profiles with burner email addresses and phone numbers, to prevent the collection of their personal info by data aggregators. For CA$1.29/month you get one such profile, and crucially you can choose a phone number in the US, the UK, or Canada.
The amount of calling and texting is limited, so we only give the number out when we have to. But conveniently you can install the MySudo app on multiple devices, so incoming calls ring on both of our phones. It’s worked pretty well for us so far.
Before coming to Canada we made sure we had a couple of credit cards with no foreign transaction fees. We still had trouble a few times with our cards being declined, but Visa’s fraud detection models seem to have gotten used to our new location now. We still needed a Canadian bank account to pay for things that require an Interac transfer (tuition, rent, and utilities), and we’ve discovered several instances where we can’t use our American cards because the system doesn’t like our American cards having a Canadian billing address.
To get a bank account, you need a Social Insurance Number (SIN) from the government of Canada. You can’t get this on a visitor permit, so this is another reason we wish we’d gotten an open work permit for my wife when we were first applying. You can fill out a form online to start the process, but the response time is several weeks. You can also go in person to a ServiceCanada office and get it the same day, which is what I tried to do. For me there was some kind of problem on the immigration office side, and I ended up needing to submit for it the regular way there in the ServiceCanada office. So it was a while before I got that in the mail, and then I was finally able to schedule an appointment with Scotiabank to open an account.
There are a lot of options for getting our money transferred from our American account to our Canadian account, each with their own fees and rules. So far the lowest-cost option seems to be a transfer with Wise.We use the direct debit option instead of a wire because our bank charges $30 for wires. If you do a transfer there you should use my referral link (we’ll both get discounts!).
The Université de Montréal’s student association (FAÉCUM) offers a daycare called Le Baluchon. Emails are sent out before each semester offering student-parents the chance to sign up for slots at the daycare, but we emailed later than the deadline and still managed to get some spots. And it’s very affordable—$5.50 for a half-day (4.5 hours) or $11 for a full day (08h-17h). We’ve heard it can be pretty difficult to get a spot at a daycare, so as a member of UdeM this was probably our best bet.
In just a few months we’ve gotten pretty good at reading road signs and getting the gist of documents in French, but we’d like to get comfortable communicating in French as well. Fortunately, Québec has a ton of resources for French learners. For example, I’m currently attending a free weekly French conversation workshop at a community center up the street from our apartment.
The Québec government also sponsors free French courses to help integrate immigrants into Québec society. The courses are run by various local non-profits and educational institutions.They also offer financial assistance under certain conditions (one of which being that you have a social insurance number). I took a 12 hour/week course starting in July, and I received offering CA$25 per 3-hour session. The courses are in high demand, so you’ll have to watch the registration page of the institution in your area to make sure you can get registered. Registration usually opens several months in advance of the start date, and fills up within a week or so.
To be clear, it’s not necessary to know French to live in Montréal.But I think you really do need to learn French if you want to self-actualize in Montreal. We’ve been able to function just fine, especially since we live in a neighborhood with a large English-speaking population. In our neighborhood, the store clerks speak to you in English first, and switch if responded to in French. But this is not the norm in most of Montréal, let alone the rest of Québec. And even in our situation, you need to be comfortable with a little bit of confusion when you go out and have to read signs or interact with people. Learning French is also essential if you want to be social outside of the immigrant community.
The government here provides a lot of cool community services for free/cheap that are a lot more expensive in other places we’ve lived. For example, community pools have free swim periods that are completely open to the public. You just walk in, no pass or registration needed. There are also community centers like CELO where you can participate in classes and activities, some (like French conversation workshops) at reduced rates.
In addition to the French courses, the government also funds non-profits to help immigrants understand the institutions in Canada and more specifically Québec. We had a free meeting at ALAC where they were able to answer a lot of our questions about paths to permanent residency.