A Health Insurance Primer for International Students Applying to Canadian Schools

In 2018, more than 572,000 students from 168 countries were enrolled in Canadian schools ranging from secondary to postgraduate levels—16 per cent more than the previous year and 154 per cent more than in 2010. And there are more to come.

The reason for such phenomenal increases: Canada’s highly regarded, quality educational system; its reputation as a tolerant and non-discriminatory society; and the lure of Canada as a permanent home after graduation.

In fact, 60 per cent of international students surveyed by the Canadian Bureau of International Education (CBIE) plan to pursue permanent residency in Canada upon graduation. And there is every reason to welcome them, as in 2018 Canada’s GDP benefited by an estimated $21.6 billion from international student tuitions and fees, living costs, family visits, entertainment, and so on. (Aside from survey data collected by CBIE, all other figures cited are from official Canadian government sources).

But if you’re one of those aspiring students, you need to realize that Canada is a huge and diverse country. It does not have a universal or monolithic educational system as schools are largely subsidized by their provincial governments, and the rules, admission requirements, and fees differ from one province to another. 

The one constant factor is that regardless which province you choose for your education, you will first need a study permit and a student visa from the federal government to make any application to any school. I recommend, as a first step, you check out the basic ground rules at on the Canadian government’s website.

In addition, there are non-academic concerns that need to be addressed early on in your financial planning and school selection process, chief among them being the need for appropriate health insurance that fits your specific needs in the particular province you have chosen to pursue your studies. This can be confusing if you try to navigate it on your own. Best to connect with Canadian-based insurers who specialize in private health insurance tailored for students’ needs and who know the territory. 

Health insurance is mandatory—but not simple

Health care in Canada is very expensive, and though all Canadian residents have access to high-quality, comprehensive, government-administered insurance, foreign students are not always eligible for these health benefits. And except for a few narrowly defined situations, you may have to endure a mandatory three-month waiting period before any benefits are active—during which private insurance is necessary. That’s where connecting to Canadian-based insurers is so important.

First, understand that Canada does not have a single unified health system that covers all of its residents universally. Instead, health insurance is a provincial responsibility and the rules of coverage, fees, and residency requirements differ from province to province—although the coverage provided in all plans is quite comprehensive and covers virtually all medically necessary services, preventive as well as emergent.

How do international students fit into Canada’s health insurance matrix?

Most provinces will allow international students to join their public plans, but the conditions vary. In British Columbia, the province with the second-largest cohort of international students, the monthly fee for enrollment in BCMS as of January 2020 will be $75, but only after a three-month residency waiting period.

In Saskatchewan, international students are eligible to apply for a health insurance card (free) so long as they have the appropriate study permit and visa. But there may still be a waiting period of up to six weeks or more for processing—during which private insurance will be required.

In Alberta, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Nova Scotia, similar access to public provincial plans is available, in some cases for a monthly buy-in fee, in others no fee. But here too, a three-month waiting period or an application processing delay will require private insurance.

In Ontario, the province that hosts almost half of Canada’s international students, the public Ontario Health Insurance Plan is unavailable to them. Public universities require their international students to enroll in a UHIP (University Health Insurance Plan) while private universities and colleges provide private insurance for their students. The UHIPs require an annual fee and provide coverage that is somewhat similar to the public OHIP. But many conditions apply, so it’s wise to work with brokers who know the student’s territory.

Quebec, which is home to the world-renowned McGill University, has fashioned bilateral social services agreements with several European countries allowing their students to enjoy the benefits of the public Quebec insurance (Régie de l’assurance maladie du Québec). For those outside of these treaty arrangements, private insurance is available. 

And in Prince Edward Island, international students are not eligible for the public insurance plan but private insurance is available to them, as it’s ultimately available to any student, traveller, or short- or long-term visitor.

The Canadian education landscape is a great mosaic, as young people from virtually every country in the world are realizing. But like everything great, it’s not always simple. Get help when and where you can.


Are you an international student? Let us help you feel at home while you study abroad. We cover all your health insurance needs, give you easily accessible resources for navigating the healthcare systems, provide physical and mental wellness support through the Stay Healthy at School program, 24/7 claim services should you need assistance, and much more. For individual student travellers, get a quote here
https://www.studyinsured.com/studyinsured/en/category/international-students/compare . For more information or for a group quote, call us at 1-855-649-4182 or email us at studentteam@studyinsured.com.

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