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.

Trigger warning: This post is very Toronto-centric.

1) Bank

The first step to doing anything in Canada is to get a bank account. There are plenty of good banking offers for newcomers

Since most refugees don't arrive with passports, make sure the branch you're talking to is fine with the identity papers that the newcomer does have. Branches that are newcomer friendly include: 

When you've found a branch that will open an account, remember to bring all your IDs - including a few of the important papers you received at the airport. 

If you need proof of address for your Service Ontario appointment, ask for mailed receipts. And then cancel this mail service after a few months, to avoid paying the fee. A month or so after setting up your account, you can also download your account statements if you switch to online banking. But a signed lease (real or fake) does just as nicely for proof of address.

You need a bank card (which takes 7-10 days to arrive in the mail) to order a health card, at Service Ontario which is another reason to do this as soon as possible. Ask them to mail you one with your name on it, since some Service Ontario locations will accept this as a secondary ID, once you've signed the back on it.

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

TIP #1: 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!

TIP #2: Go to a store that offers multiple phone plans and companies, to extend your options. One of these is Wireless Wave in the basement of the Eaton Centre. And ask the staff member to test your phone to make sure it works with that phone carrier, since phones from Asia, for example, often don't work with all our Canadian phone companies and their technology.

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. The best time to go is on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday mornings. Otherwise the lineup can take hours. You can also apply for your SIN number online.

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. And if you get SIN numbers for the kids, you can open bank accounts and enrol them in an RESP plan. RESP stands for Registered Education Savings Plan, and if you set one up, the money deposited there is tax-free, and the government will contribute to it through the Canada Education Savings Grant.

TIP #1: 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.

TIP #2: Go to the Service Canada at the Gerrard Square Mall for faster service, especially in the morning. This is the location:  1000 Gerrard St E Floor, 2nd, Toronto, ON M4M 3G6. Note that they're closed on weekends and close every day at 4 pm on weekdays.

TIP #3: Once you get your kids SIN numbers (see Step #3), you can open accounts for them and get them signed up for Registered Education Savings Plan, with free top-ups from the government through the Canada Education Savings Grant.

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

Okay: head's up! Service Ontario is where your journey to getting Canadian ID probably begins, so there are a lot of details and challenges to pay attention to. Basically the world is made for people with passports, and if you're a refugee without a passport, get ready for some challenges. Especially if you go to Service Ontario before you get your PR card.

The first and biggest reason to visit Service Ontario is to get your Ontario health card. Apply by going in person to a Service Ontario location in person.  The best time to visit a Service Ontario location is Tuesday morning, when it's least crowded. Check out these health programs and benefits available to you once you have your provincial health card.

TIP: If you can make it to downtown Toronto, the Service Ontario at 33 Victoria Street is the best of them all. They allow you to order a healthcard with just your landing and PR papers and some kind of proof of residency - no bank card needed! They can also order an Ontario ID card without a PR Card. Ask for Julie, who sits at the desk on the far right.

What you'll need to apply: a photo ID (such as your PR card or passport, if you have one) + proof of address (such as a lease or a mailed bank statement or a letter from the building management). And remember to sign the lease! You're not allowed to sign it on the spot, or use an electronic signature. Also the lease should be dated after you arrived in Canada, and not before.

In terms of ID, some Service Ontarios will also accept a debit card with your name printed on it in place of a PR card or passport - it's a matter of luck if they do accept it or not.  If you want a debit card with your name printed on it, you'll have to ask the bank for such a thing, and it will take a week to arrive in the mail.

The other reason to go to Service Ontario is to apply 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.  Here's where to study for your G1 in order to get the first version of the driver's license,

If getting your driver's license is some ways off, you can apply for your Ontario photo ID card, which looks like a driver's license and serves as a handy ID in the mean time. You can apply for an Ontario photo ID with the following three documents: 1) Your health card 2) Your single journey photo ID 3) Your PR paper. If the staff member at Service Ontario says it can't be done, ask them to call the head office (it's actually the same office that issues driver's licenses) and you'll get a "yes" to this request after all.

And once you have both your health card and Ontario photo ID card, you can apply for your G1, the first step to getting your driver's license. Got that? Debit card > Health card > Ontario photo ID card > G1 driver's license.

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. The employment program Achev, with offices throughout the GTA, can also set up a language assessment, and without the long wait of the YMCA. The assessments are done through their Peel region office, but it's all online, so location does not matter so much.

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? If not, sign up for this Province of Ontario website that will connect you to a doctor in time.

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.

And if you're coming as a (former) refugee, you probably have access to Blue Cross coverage through the Interim Federal Healthcare program for your first year in Canada - even after you get your health card. Check out the full list of benefits available to you,  and find a local health or dental provider who accepts this coverage.

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. The good news is that some dental work is covered through the Blue Cross coverage that comes with the Interim Federal Healthcare Program, which lasts for the whole first year after their arrival. IFHP covers X-rays and initial exam, and fillings up to $1,000. It does not cover root canals, cleaning, crowns and a bunch of other stuff. In downtown Toronto, the Sherbourne Dental Centre takes IFHP,  and provides friendly service.

If you’ve got kids, apply for Healthy Smiles as soon as you arrive, since processing time is 6-8 weeks. Use the IFHP coverage until Health Smiles kicks in.

Otherwise 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. 

If you're a sponsor or just a volunteer, remember to submit this document which allows you to represent the people you're helping.

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 RAP cheque, if you came under that sponsorship program.

11) PR Card

You'll need to take a new photo for your PR card, since any picture you used to Canada won't be accepted. You can get these done at a photo studio, or even at a Shoppers' Drug Mart or Walmart. But show the photographer these specs, to make sure they get them right - especially the info at the back. Here's the full explanation.

Where to send it:

By mail:

Case Processing Centre — PR Card

P.O. Box 10020



Or by courier:

Case Processing Centre – PR Card

49 Dorchester Street

Sydney, NS

B1P 5Z2

12) Employment

After all the initial settlement steps are done, the next big challenge is probably finding work and building a career. That's more of a.long term project, which is why it falls outside the top 10. And it involves learning about the local economy and the opportunities in it, as well as education, training and possibly apprenticeship opportunities. So too much to tackle here! 

But in the mean time, sign up for Achev Employment Services for newcomers. They will send you an email to follow up and complete the registration. After that, you can take advantage of their full range of services, which include resume advice, interview coaching and career counselling. You can also check out our own guides to writing a Canadian resume and perfecting your LinkedIn profile. Access Employment does much of the same stuff.

Many newcomers who lack formal education due to barriers in their home country - and in the country where they were refugees as well - are drawn to the skilled trades. As any homeowner knows, these jobs pay quite well and the work is in high demand. 

BOTTOM LINE: If you need to get your career started in Canada, you should go to school. These bridging programs are helpful.

13) Travel loan and travel document

After a year of arriving in Canada, you'll be expected to start paying back your travel loan for the flight that got you here, twelve months after you arrive. Call 1-800-667-7301 to arrange repayments. If you wish to become a private sponsor, you may be asked to repay your loan in full. 

If you're like most people, you probably also want to order a travel document so you can visit your family after so long. You can order one as soon as you have your PR card. This is where you download the form. Note that you'll need a guarantor with a big job title, like doctor or university professor, who can claim to know you for one year. If that's not possible, there are groups like the Afghan Women's Organization that can organize it for a small fee. And the application will cost you another $120.

If you do have travel plans, remember not to visit your country of origin, or any country where you were a refugee, since that could hurt your application for citizenship later on.

14) Taxes

Then there's financial stuff to do, like  filing your taxes, something you can and should do even if you haven't made an income. There are lots of settlement agencies that will help you do your taxes for free, like this one at Woodgreen. You can start booking your appointment as early as February, and they fill up fast. If you want to do it yourself. Turbo Tax makes it quick and easy, and so does Wealth Simple

Remember you need to indicate they had no income previous to coming to Canada ( worldwide income ) not completing this form can delay refunds. Example - refugee arrived March of that year - they spend 2 months outside Canada therefore must account for any income earned.

15) Other tasks and benefits

There's lots of other programs you should enrol for, including Child Care Benefit, Canada Learning Bond, Ontario Electricity Support, Canada Dental benefit (for kids), dental exams, eye exams, and get a social worker to help with important stuff like getting the kids in school. 

You're also likely to want to get your driver's license, so start practising for the written test through free websites, like this one, in Farsi/Dari.

And 3 years after you arrive, time to apply for citizenship. Here's a guide on how to prepare.

Too much? Here's a settlement checklist to make it easier.

And now you're on your way.

Feel Canadian yet?