Since publishing this report, we have received so many questions from readers that we decided to publish an updated version with more details and updates.
That is the most frequent question I hear from Canada’s snowbirds, who will be making close to one million out-of-country trips this coming season. The rules are not the same for all provinces.
How long you can stay out of the country depends on two things: your own provincial rules on medicare eligibility, and how long your host country (for most snowbirds that’s the United States) allows you to stay as a visitor. These are two separate sets or rules, and they don’t necessarily coincide.
Let’s deal with the provincial rules first. All provinces, except Ontario and Newfoundland, require you to actually live in your home province for at least six months plus a day (183 days in most years) in order to be considered a permanent resident of that province, and therefore qualified for provincial health insurance (medicare) benefits. That means actually residing in your home province and being able to prove it, if necessary, not simply owning a residence there and living in Portugal, Mexico or California for eight or nine months. That means you are allowed to be out-of-the province for half a year less a day—182 days. (Caution: once you are out of your province, that 183-day clock starts ticking. So if you ordinarily live in Manitoba and want to stay with family in Ontario for a month before leaving for Florida, you will only have five months left to spend in the Sunshine State.)
Ontario allows you to be out of the country for 212 days (seven months) and Newfoundland for eight months without risking loss of your medicare benefits.
If you stay out of your province longer than that, you risk losing your “residency” and with it your medicare benefits, and you will then have to re-instate your eligibility by living in your province for three straight months (without leaving) before you get those benefits back. And you will have to be able to prove that you have complied.
Since there are no provincial border police, you can expect a certain flexibility in how these rules are applied and I know of quite a few people who bend the rules to get a few extra days here or there. If it becomes an issue with your provincial authorities (that is, if your neighbor snitches on you and you are caught) the provincial authorities might well average out your out-of-province stays for the past two or three years to see how you measure up against that six-month threshold. They will not likely prosecute you if you are over by a few of days in one year. But as a general rule, it’s best to simply add up how many days you have been out of the country in a given year in total, and stay within the limits.
The other set of rules are set by your host country and have nothing to do with the medicare eligibility rules in your home province. The U.S. rules are also somewhat flexible, but you best understand them. Generally, you are allowed to stay in the U.S. for up to six months without a visa (more about this later) so long as the border agent allowing you in feels you have the wherewithal to support yourself, that you intend to return to Canada within that six month limitation, that you do not intend to stay in the U.S. permanently (illegally), and that you have a “greater connection” to Canada than to the U.S. If he feels you are manipulating the rules and actually living more in the U.S. than in Canada he can deny you entry and there’s not much you can do about it.
If you overstay that six-month allowance and are seen to be doing so by border agents you will likely be put on a restricted list and denied entry to the U.S. for a number of years. It’s too complicated to list the restrictions and penalties here—just, don’t do it.
If you do overstay and you are seen to be more of a U.S. resident than a Canadian one, you may well be required to pay taxes in the U.S. as well as in Canada and you don’t want that.
Travelling back and forth across the border has become a little more complicated over the past few years, but it is still relatively easy for Canadians due to certain dispensations the U.S. offers its northern neighbor. In effect visitors from Canada are “deemed” to be travelling into the U.S. on a visitor’s visa even if you don’t have the paperwork to prove it. But if you want to stay longer than six months, you will have to apply for the real thing and that is a more complicated process—not for discussion here.
How do you prove your legitimacy and your domicile and your residency to a curious border agent?
Get a passport. And if you don’t already have one, shame on you. This is the 21st century and if you want the privilege of being able to travel to foreign countries (and remember, it is a privilege and not a right) then accept the obligation of being able to prove who you are.
And remember most of all, that once you leave your province and enter another country, your medicare benefits stay behind and you become responsible for paying for your own medical costs. You will be lucky if your provincial medicare pays 10 cents on the dollar of any foreign hospital bills you generate.
That’s what out-of-country travel health insurance is for.
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