Welcome Home

So you've arrived in Canada! Last night you took pictures and hugged a bunch of semi-strangers at the airport, and saw the city through a car window. Maybe you had a welcome party and got shown to a new bed. And now you've woken up and there's are so many things you need to do to feel like your real life in Canada has begun.

No stress: people in Canada are rather nice, or at least professional, making that first week or so of appointments feel fairly easy and rather enjoyable. And if you find yourself sitting in a chair, waiting, use the time to chat and get to know the nice folks who helped get you to this fine country.

Trigger warning: This post is very Toronto-centric.

1) Bank

The first step to doing anything in Canada is to get a bank account. Remember to bring all your IDs - including a few of the important papers you received at the airport. Your travel permit and temporary PR card are legitimate ID, and should be accepted as such everywhere. So don't worry if the passport from your home country has expired.

Note that the best banks for newcomers, in terms of being friendly and responsive, are TD or CIBC, and some branches of Royal Bank.

Once you're at the bank, apply for a credit card, which you will need for a phone. Since you don’t have a credit history, you may need to apply for a secure credit card, where they hold your money and give it back.

Bonus tip: Ask for mailed receipts, since you need proof of address (plus a PR card) later on, when you apply for a health card. And then cancel this mail service after a few months, to avoid paying the fee.

2) Phone

If you're like every newcomer ever, the first thing you'll want to do is call your family and friends and let them know how you're doing in this strange country called Canada.

And while it's okay to use wifi for the first few WhatsApp calls, eventually you'll want to leave that Starbucks. Plus you'll need data to get around (hello, Google Maps).

One way Canada can be different from other countries is we tend to get monthly plans that last a year or so - as opposed to using SIM cards or pay-as-you-go. For the sake of saving money, most newcomers go for Freedom Mobile, which doesn't work well outside of Toronto but is affordable and - depending on location - may accept you as a new customer even without a PR card. Each location is different, with different rules, so you may want to ask what's possible.

The other popular and cheap ones are Fido and Virgin mobile.

And you may want to upgrade your phone while you get your plan, since that's often part of the offer package. Also, your old phone may not work in this country! Get the phone guy to check the phone chip to make sure

Bonus tip: lf you’re going to buy a phone, the best deals are from Black Friday - that's late November - through to the day after Christmas!

3) Service Canada

If you didn’t get a Social Insurance Number as part of your package of paperwork that you arrived with, visit a Service Canada office to get one. This visit usually only takes an hour.

Bonus tip: Apply for tax credits as soon as you can - don't wait until you file your taxes. Just the GST / HST credit alone could give you $443 if you are single, $580 if you are married or living common-law, or $153 for each child under the age of 19. Just fill out the form, sign it and send it to your nearest tax centre. For bigger families, the Canada Child Benefit can be a huge lifeline. You can apply once you have a bank account.

And if you are diagnosed with PTSD or another disability, you can apply for the disability tax credit, which has its own set of benefits, including a special kind of RRSP that the government will add to.

4) Online address

If your correct mailing address wasn’t listed in your PR forms at the airport, go online and correct it. You want to be sure that your PR card, which will arrive in a month or so, goes to the right address.

5) Service Ontario

The best reason to visit Service Ontario is to get your Ontario health card. Which is jumping ahead in time a little, since you can only get a health card once you receive your PR card, which typically arrives in the mail a month after you arrive - or 2 to 3 months, during COVID. You'll need a PR card + proof of address (such as a mailed bank statement) = for your health card. And you can only apply by going in person to a Service Ontario location in person.

Bonus tip: Check out these health programs and benefits available to you once you have your provincial health card.

The other reason to go to Service Ontario, in the mean time, is to ask for either a driver's license or an Ontario ID card, which looks like a driver's license but is for non-drivers. If you come with a valid driver's license, you may be able to convert it to a local one. If not, you can start down the long path to getting one: earning your G1, G2 and finally full G license. You can buy the book to study for your license at any Canadian Tire.

Bonus tip: The best time to visit a Service Ontario location is Tuesday morning, when it's least crowded

6) English Classes

Book at appointment to do a language assessment test at the YMCA. Once you complete it, they will tell you the nearest ESL program if you need one. They're going to only recommend the free programs at the local LINC schools. And they're going to ask you to start classes right away.

So you might need to prepare ahead by doing your own research into the best educational programs. The one that most newcomers we know take is English for Academic Purposes at George Brown College. Apply as early as you can for this program through the Ontario Colleges website. The program is rigorous - the only one more intense is the one at the University of Toronto - but produces results.

Once you get to level 6, you can apply to the 'enhanced English learning program' offered by the Toronto school board. It's free and it helps prepare you for a job in a range of fields.

7) Orientation

Discover local stores, public transportation. Find out where to buy the groceries you like (you may need to ask another newcomer to find out). Get a Presto card. This is fun, so enjoy it.

8) Doctor

Go to a walk-in clinic. Most family doctors won’t take you until you get a health card, but you can start looking now. A good way is to ask your new Canadian friends - do any of them have a doctor that's taking new patients?

In the mean time, a walk-in clinic. There is one at 1 Oak Street that is quite good, despite the horrible online reviews.

If you're LGBTQ+++, try Sherbourne Health. If you need mental health counselling, there's the good people at the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture - a much gentler place than the name implies. But call early, because the appointments can take over a month to secure.

Don't let the pain of finding a family doctor drive you to a life of drug abuse.

9) Dentist

Many newcomers arrive with neglected teeth. The good / bad news is, Canada has great dental - but at high prices. There's a clinic staffed by U of T students and a similar one at George Brown College, offering good dental care at about half the price. There's something called "Canadian Dentists for Refugees" with a website so bad it looks like it's defunct.

Bonus tip: If you’ve got kids, apply for Healthy Smiles as soon as you arrive, since processing time is 6-8 weeks.

10) Housing

Unless an 'offer of a free apartment for one year' was part of your settlement agreement, you'll probably want to look for your own place to stay soon after you arrive. The rental market in Toronto is tight, so the search may be long.

Ask around to see if anyone has a connection that will help ("My friend has an awesome place he's renting out") or the search will be long and the competition fierce. You may need a member of your settlement team to be your guarantor, since you don't yet have a rental or credit history.

Pay close attention to costs, of course, since a low vacancy rate means high rents. And the closer you live to a subway line (or ideally, downtown) the better, in terms of accessing jobs and social services – and your new friends!

Bonus tip: Get a printed, signed lease, even if it’s for a place that you won’t stay in long term. A lease - they come in a standard format in Ontario - may be needed for some forms of ID, as well as for your Rainbow RAP cheque, if you came under that sponsorship program.

Feel Canadian yet?