Guide To Buying A Car And Driving Across Canada

Last updated on: 33 Comments
Latoya Beach Buying A Car Van Driving Across Canada Road Trip

It is the ultimate Canadian road trip – Driving from the West Coast to the East Coast. British Columbia to Newfoundland.

An adventure that few Canadians themselves have done, but most aspire to do. For a traveller to the Great White North, driving across Canada is one of the country’s greatest bucket list items.

And the coolest, most comfortable, cheapest and most stylish way to do it is in your very own van or motorhome.

Back in 2008 we bought an ageing 1986 GMC Vandura in the happening city of Vancouver. F

ull of so much character, with her red carpeted interior, disco ball, track lighting, captain’s chairs and queen-size bed, we quickly named her Latoya, and dreamt up our Canadian road trip.

Over the course of 3 years we took Latoya from her original home in British Columbia, through the Rockies, across the prairies and into the Maritimes.

We eventually reached Cape Spear, the Eastern-most point of the North American continent on the gorgeous island of Newfoundland.

When the Trans Canada Highway ended, we only had one option – to turn around and ride all the way back to British Columbia. We never paid for accommodation once while we were driving across Canada.

We receive a lot of questions about our Canadian road trip, how easy it was buying a van in Canada as a foreigner and what to know about registration, licensing and insurance.

Here are some of the basic tips to help you get started to do this epic adventure yourself.

Buying A Car Van Driving Across Canada Road Trip
Lake reflections in Gaspe National Park, Quebec.

Buying A Car In Canada As A Foreigner

It is completely legal for a foreigner to purchase a vehicle in Canada, even if on a tourist visa.

For the most part the only thing you will need is a valid international drivers license, some money and somewhere you can put down as a local address.

It is fine to use the address of your hotel or hostel as your permanent address. Just keep in mind that any paperwork you may need in the future will be forwarded to that address.

It is fine to use the address of your hotel or hostel as your permanent address. Just keep in mind that any paperwork you may need in the future will be forwarded to that address.

What Vehicle Should I Buy?

When it comes to buying a vehicle to drive across Canada, you have a huge amount of options.

Cars, trucks, vans, RVs and anything in between. They all have their advantages and disadvantages and it is worth doing your research before you commit to anything.

We went with a large cargo van and would never have wished for anything else. Having the larger size of a van means you can easily sleep inside it, with enough room to store all your items and cooking/sleeping supplies.

Ours was decked out with a couch that folded out into a queen-size bed, insulation in the walls, comfortable chairs, lights everywhere and was so big we had room to move around.

On days when it was raining or cold and we didn’t want to pitch our tent, sleeping in the van was a welcome option. The only downside was that it went through a lot of fuel.

A RV (motorhome or campervan) is more complete, often coming with a kitchen and a bathroom inside. Although they are bigger, really stand out and harder to move around busy cities.

You cannot park a campervan anywhere without drawing attention to yourself.

Cars are another great option and will usually be cheaper. However sleeping inside a car can be a bit of an issue if you are doing it night after night for months at a time.

Not impossible, it just depends on what you are looking for in your road trip. Personally we recommend buying a van.

Lesh Revelstoke Buying A Car Van Driving Across Canada Road Trip
Lesh hugging our precious 1986 GMC Vandura – Latoya.

Where To Find A Vehicle

In Canada there are plenty of great online resources to find a car, van or RV. Check out:

Craigslist
Kijiji

Another option is to go directly to a dealership to buy your car. Doing this has the added benefit of having an expert assist you in all the paperwork, and you may even be able to receive a warranty.

However buying a car from a dealership will almost always be more expensive.

Also don’t forget to check popular backpacker hostels and ski resort towns to see if anyone is selling their car or van in a hurry. You may be able to pick up a great bargain!

Rockies Van Latoya Buying A Car Van Driving Across Canada Road Trip
Our van in front of the Rockies in Alberta.

How Much Does It Cost?

Our van cost us $1600. We have friends who spent much less (sometimes only $500) and managed to find decent vehicles. Of course it really depends on what your budget is.

Realistically you should be looking at anything from $1000-$3000 for a (mostly) reliable car or van in good condition.

Latoya came completely decked out, so we never had to spend a cent to improve her. This is not always the case, but building supplies are cheap in Canada. It can really work out to be a lot cheaper than doing a road trip around Australia.

We know from experience that registration and insurance is cheaper in the provinces of Alberta and Quebec.

British Columbia was very expensive. We cannot comment on the other provinces Perhaps consider buying your vehicle to help save on some costs.

Transfer Of Ownership

Once you have found your perfect road trip vehicle, you will need to transfer the ownership into your name.

You can collect the relevant forms from the provincial road authority registry (such as ICBC, MTO, SAAQ, etc).

Once you have this you need to have both the seller and buyer fill out the form, sign it and take it back into the road registry.

You will need to pay tax on how much you purchase the vehicle for. If you are cheeky, you can always put down a lower amount to pay less tax. However this may affect the amount you receive from your insurance later if you ever need to make a claim.

It is much easier to go directly into the registry with the previous owner for the transfer of ownership.

Prince Edward Island Buying A Car Van Driving Across Canada Road Trip
Staring out over the seas in Prince Edward Island.

Registration

Once the vehicle is in your name, you need to register it. Vehicles from a different province, ones that have not been registered for a while or have been in storage will need to undergo a safety inspection to ensure it is roadworthy.

This usually involves a mechanical inspection and checking all the safety equipment (seat belts, airbags, etc). In British Columbia vehicles also need to undergo emissions testing in the Lower Mainland (Vancouver) and Fraser Valley.

If the vehicle you are looking at buying is particularly old, it may not pass this test. Consider driving it out to a rural place to register it if this is the case.

Once you have your vehicle safety inspection form (if required) and your transfer of ownership, go into the motor vehicle registry and pay the registration fee.

If there is money owing on the VIN (vehicle identification number) due to fines or any other issue, this needs to be paid before you can register it.

This is why it is a good idea to go with the seller to do this so you don’t get stuck with any additional costs.

Gaspe National Park Quebec Buying A Car Van Driving Across Canada Road Trip
Beautiful views over Gaspe National Park in Quebec.

Licence Plates

Licence plates in Canada do not come with the vehicle. Once you change ownership and registration, the plates go with the seller. They then can use them for another car or return them to the registry.

When you go into register your vehicle you will be given new licence plates. If you are getting your temporary vehicle permit they will give you a paper printout to stick in your windscreen.

Make sure you do this correctly to avoid any fines.

Lesh Gaspe Buying A Car Van Driving Across Canada Road Trip
Stoked to be out in nature during our across Canada road trip.

Insurance

Vehicle insurance is a mandatory requirement in Canada. It would also be very foolish to drive on the roads without it.

Each province has their own insurance providers and prices vary. At the bare minimum you need third party liability. On top of that are options of collision and comprehensive insurance.

Once the vehicle is in your name, call or drop into an insurance brokerage and purchase your cover.

You are able to get a temporary vehicle permit so that you can drive your car to a garage or somewhere else once you make the purchase. This temporary permit is only valid for a few days.

Revelstoke British Columbia Buying A Car Van Driving Across Canada Road Trip
Down by the river in Revelstoke, British Columbia.

Licensing

Tourists are permitted to drive a car in Canada on an international drivers licence for 6 months.

After that you need to apply for a local licence from the province you are in (not necessarily where the vehicle is registered).

Each province has its own licensing procedures. Sometimes you can just exchange your foreign drivers licence for a provincial one. Other times you may be required to undergo a complete road test.

We never bothered with getting a local licence, but it is up to you whether you want to take the risk or not.

Road Rules And Dealing With Police

In Canada traffic drives on the right hand side of the road. Road rules are slightly different in each province, but should never take more than a few hours to pick up.

If you are pulled over by the police they will likely just check your licence, insurance and registration. As long as these are all current you should have no problems.

BC Views Buying A Car Van Driving Across Canada Road Trip
Watching the world pass us by in BC.

Driving Across Canada

Canada is a big country. Massive in fact! To drive from Vancouver to the end of Newfoundland is over 7000km. But every mile is worth the effort.

It is only natural that a nation so large would have a diverse range of landscapes. From the forested mountains of the West to the jagged coastal cliffs of the East, and the sparse, barren Prairies in between, we truly fell in love with the Great White North.

Driving across Canada in your own car, van or RV can take you anywhere from a week to a year. Of course the longer you have to enjoy the road trip, the more you can see.

The plus side is that the slower you travel, the cheaper it can be, while giving you the chance to truly explore each region you find yourself in.

Prairies Buying A Car Van Driving Across Canada Road Trip
Driving across the seemingly-endless Prairies in Saskatchewan.

Roadside Assistance

We signed up with CAA (Canadian Automobile Association) for their roadside assistance program. It was great that we did, because our beautiful old van had a big habit of breaking down every other day.

Their premier membership is about $150 a year, and in our opinion very worth it. They also give you free maps when you stop by one of their offices. Highly recommended!

Accommodation

During our entire road trip we didn’t pay for a single night’s accommodation. We slept either inside our van, pitched our tent and camped or used Couchsurfing.

In a lot of places free camping is frowned upon. They would prefer you spend your money in a hotel or a registered campground, and you may end up getting awoken by rangers or the police. This never happened to us, but it did to some of our friends.

The benefit of having a van instead of a RV is that it is more inconspicuous. It is easier to park up in an urban area and not draw too much attention to yourself.

A lot of the time residents won’t even know someone is inside. That was a huge benefit.

Walmart will also allow motorhomes to park overnight for free. We used this option when we were in bigger cities and couldn’t find quiet streets to park on.

In more remote places we almost always found great places to camp for the night right in the middle of nature.

On the edges of rivers or on cliffs overlooking the ocean. Great places to wake up in the morning!

Sometimes you just need to drive around for a while and find back roads that lead to cool places. In a country as large as Canada, this is easy to do.

Free Camping Buying A Car Van Driving Across Canada Road Trip
Our free riverside campsite, somewhere in the woods of British Columbia.
Free Camping Quebec Buying A Car Van Driving Across Canada Road Trip
Our view from the tent one fine evening in Quebec.

What To Do For Food

If you are on a tight budget you will be looking at self-catering most of the time. We were almost broke the entire time on the East Coast, so we lived on very basic food.

We bought ourselves a little gas cooker, some instant noodles, rice and a few condiments and would cook up big meals for only a few dollars.

During the day we would snack on tuna and crackers or peanut butter sandwiches. The only times we really splurged out was when we were towns known for special food, such as poutine or seafood.

We also drank a lot of Tim Hortons coffee. You have to love Timmy Ho’s!

Gas Barbecue Cooking Buying A Car Van Driving Across Canada Road Trip
Our basic cooking setup. We got more than our fair share of use out of this gas barbecue.

Weather

I’m sure you already know this, but winter in Canada is freaking cold. Due to this, road tripping and living out of a van during the months of November to March is not really recommended unless your vehicle has great insulation and a heater to keep you alive at night.

It snows a lot on the West Coast as well. Winter tyres are a must for snow and ice driving, and these can set you back quite a few hundred dollars.

We bought good quality winter tyres and then kept them on all summer. Not the smartest idea as they can wear out a lot quicker, but we managed to get away with it.

Time your road trip across Canada to avoid the winter.

East Coast Beach Buying A Car Van Driving Across Canada Road Trip
The beaches are spectacular on the East Coast of Canada.

Crossing Into The United States

As long as you have a valid licence, registration, insurance and have the appropriate visas (or can get them at the border), then you can legally take your Canadian vehicle into the United States and back again.

We never did this, but if we were to return we would do our road trip driving across Canada, hop over the border and then return via another route.

Bay Of Fundy New Brunswick Buying A Car Van Driving Across Canada Road Trip
The Bay Of Fundy in New Brunswick.

Buying a van and driving across Canada is still to this day one of our favourite travel memories.

It really made us fall in love with road tripping and was something we will always consider doing in any other part of the world.

Have you done this yourself? We would love to hear your own personal experiences and tips on driving across Canada or buying a vehicle as a foreigner.

Let us know in the comments below!

About the author

Alesha and Jarryd

Hey! We are Alesha and Jarryd, the award winning writers and photographers behind this blog, and we have been travelling the world together since 2008. Adventure travel is our passion, and through our stories and images we promote exciting off-the-beaten-path destinations and fascinating cultures as we go. Follow our journey in real time on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.

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33 COMMENTS

  1. Anon

    It’s cool that you got to see Canada. Not cool boasting about all your free accommodations. Despite not using campgrounds it is very likely that the remote sites you used were public or crown lands (often requiring fees to be paid by visitors from other countries). It makes me sad that people would travel somewhere while using the local resources and not feel some sense of duty to pay for it. Then boast about it! I’m all for people seeing the beauty of Canada but I feel it’s important we all pay our way and fare share. These funds help protect pristine wilderness and other places for all to enjoy. Not just those who feel entitled to freeload. Being ignorant of this is no excuse, a little research would provide the necessary information.

    mattias

    Hi
    Do you have any information regarding taking your vehicle into a different provinces and if you must re register the vehicle each time you enter a new province

      Alesha And Jarryd

      Depends how long you are going to be in each province. If you are travelling across the country and return to the province of your cars number plate, you will have no problem. Selling your vehicle in a different province to which your car’s registered in, then you are going to have big issues.

    tijmen

    Great tips! Thank you very much, now we are really considering this..
    We had one more question though: how much should you expect to spend on a car once you bought it, monthly, roughly speaking? (so insurence, gas, other costs?)
    Thanks in advance and all the best,
    Tijmen

      Alesha And Jarryd

      Hi Tijmen, Thank you. We were just discussing this and we are unsure, so sorry. It was so long ago (8 years ago) and way before our blogging life now. So sorry we can not help you further. All the best.

    Anonymous

    Just wanted to say thank you for a great post planing on buying a van in Canada on a 2 year work visa and you just answered every question I had

      Alesha And Jarryd

      Awesome. We are so happy to have helped. All the best

    Ozzie Saez

    Ha!! what a great story/trip!! but you already know that from the previous comments, so. My name is Ozzie and I am a Cuban born 45yo (born 1971) average self employed guy. After traveling all over the world, I realized that I don’t know my own country (USA) nearly as well as I know Spain for example. Last summer my wife and two kids drove a beatup delivery van from Barcelona (traveled around Spain first) to the Black sea(Bulgaria). The van was a friend’s Citroen. Had the option of a Land Rover Defender! the defender was our plan the whole time, but the Citroen was low key, humble and far more fuel efficient. We took the Italy to Greece route and returned directly west from the Black sea. Total of 12 countries in 2 months. We did not rush and stayed almost exclusively in campgrounds and hostels. The entire trip cost us about $8000.00 including airfare!!! We are now planning a road trip in the US or Canada and your story here makes Canada very appealing. I would be making the trip from the East coast backwards. Thank you

      Alesha And Jarryd

      So awesome Ozzie. What a trip! We loved reading this. All the best for your future road trips. Happy travels.

    James

    Awesome article filled with some great information!

    My plan is to buy a car and travel Canada too. Stopping at small towns for a few months or weeks at a time to earn some money, although, agreeing with some of the comments above, Ontario is a nightmare!

    So, I’ll be heading to Quebec to try my luck there instead. (Insurance seems to be alot cheaper there!)

    However, can anyone shed some light on using a hostel as a permanent address? Also, if I am staying in another province for a few months at a time, will I have to keep registering my car to adhere with that provinces laws?

    Thanks in advance for any information given!

    James

    George Paget

    A good tale of the road. Thanks. We Canadians need to be encouraged to see our wonderful land.
    I travel in my little Pontiac Vibe. The money I save on fuel I can occasionally teat myself to a hostel or hotel. With a small piece of plywood I can create a comfortable sleeping platform so I am cozy, warm and dry.
    Call me Mr. Cheapo but I am a happy camper.
    Now, having read your tale I have resolved to do Canada. I might even drive up to the Arctic Sea and drive down the McKenzie river on the ice road. Its very cool I hear.
    Bon voyage George

      Alesha And Jarryd

      Canada is a stunning country! And sleeping in your car doesn’t make you Mr Cheapo! We never paid for accommodation driving across Canada – just meant we had more money for activities (and Tim Hortons coffee)! Drive safe mate 🙂

    Lee and Rachelle

    Awesome post! Thank you.
    We are looking to travel around Canada from 18months in two years time.
    Any advice on what type of vehicle you recommend for all year travel inc a trip to artic?
    We are from the UK so any advice on places to visit is really really appreciated

    Chad

    Wow ! great article i have been casually searching the net for advice on this very topic and yours was the best by far. My wife is Canadian but has lived in Australia most of her life we recently visited family in Ontario and now plan on moving over to Canada. But i was inspired by friends of ours who had spent the last year living the van life in the USA and suggested we do the same in Canada really get to see it all before picking a place to settle in.
    Your post covered so much but i was just wondering what kind of work you picked up ? and if any one had more info on van life when in a major city area also any more advice on coming from Australia to Canada what is the best strategy for buying a van. We have family in Ontario but i would love to start on the west coast and make my way East any thoughts

    Leigh McAlpine

    Hi, this is great post, thanks!
    One thing, you mention above that you can use your hotel or hostel as a local address. Is this for insurance purposes and does the address have to be in the state you buy your car in? We want to land in Toronto and get a car straight away but will be in a hostel at the start.
    Any advice welcomed.
    Leigh

    Sean

    Just wanted to say thank you for a great post planing on buying a van in Canada on a 2 year work visa and you just answered every question I had

    Daniel

    Excellent article. May I ask. What do you do for internet on the road?

      Lesh Jazza NOMADasaurus

      In Canada we just stopped off at McDonalds and public libraries to use the free wifi. I’m sure these days you could buy a great data plan from a local phone provider and use that.

    Jessica @finelinetravels

    This is a great post! I’m so impressed that you you made it all the way across the country without paying for accommodations! As Canadians, we always complain that it is so expensive to travel within our own country, but you guys are proof that it can be done on a budget!

    We’ll be driving from Newfoundland (HOME!) to Alberta this summer when we get back to Canada, what were your favourite stops along the way?

      Lesh Jazza NOMADasaurus

      Favourite spots were definitely Cape Breton Island, the Bay Of Fundy in New Brunswick, PEI, Gaspe Peninsula, Northern Ontario. The middle is quite plain compared to the Maritimes, but still pretty cool. Happy road tripping Jessica!

    Dariece

    Hey Guys!

    An excellent guide to our beautiful country 🙂 We’ve hardly seen any of Canada, but that’s the way it goes it seems – we could tell you more about China than Canada.lol.

    Timmy Ho’s is a staple for sure and super cheap! The only thing I would add would be to watch out for bears and moose! It’s vital to keep all food in your vehicle and in airtight containers. Did you guys encounter any wildlife?

    We’re both from the Okanagan Valley, 5 hours inland from Vancouver, did you go through that area? We’d LOVE to show you around there. We also lived in Calgary for like 6 years, did you stop by there?

    Thanks for a very informative guide, very useful. Great to know about WalMart as well! haha.

      Lesh Jazza NOMADasaurus

      Canada is beautiful! And we drank our weight in Timmy Ho’s coffee over the years, that’s for sure! We did come across some wildlife, but surprisingly it was mainly in Newfoundland. We did see two grizzly bears wrestling outside of Field, BC, which was pretty sweet.

      We spent 1.5 years living in Revelstoke, road tripping around Central BC. We’re very familiar with the Okanagan Valley – so beautiful! We also stopped by Calgary a few times as well. The Stampede is a fun time! Would love to get on a big road trip with you guys one day!

    Chris

    Thanks guys, this is brilliant! Very detailed. Anybody reading this should be aware that rules differ between provinces, for example Ontario motor vehicle authority (in Toronto) told me “If you are planning to purchase a vehicle in Ontario, please be advised that you cannot register the vehicle in Ontario without an Ontario Driver’s Licence and an Ontario address; additionally having insurance coverage from an Ontario insurance company.” So, very different to British Columbia (Vancouver) which you describe above. Also, the rules regarding the requirement for an international driver’s license vary. In Ontario, as long as you are there less than 3 months, no international driver’s license is required (BC allows 6 months driving without an international driver’s license).

      Chris

      Also…

      British Columbia has a reciprocal agreement with some countries regarding driver’s license. See http://www.icbc.com/driver-licensing/moving-bc/Pages/Moving-from-another-country.aspx, under Reciprocal countries. As an Australian, you can exchange your Australian driver’s license for a BC driver’s license.

      But you don’t need to have an International Driving Permit to register, license, and insure a vehicle in BC. See http://www.icbc.com/driver-licensing/visit-dl-office/Pages/Accepted-ID.aspx

        Lesh Jazza NOMADasaurus

        Thanks for that Chris!

        Kristin Ng

        Hi Chris! I am an international student from Singapore and I will be heading over to London Ontario for exchange from Jan 2017 to April 2017. I was thinking of getting a car as I want to go for many road trips in the semester and after but I heard getting a car in Ontario is tedious. Should I rent or buy a used car in London Ontario, Canada? Any other options? I heard of lease takeovers but I would prefer not as my road trip may end in another part of Canada. Also, as a student, my main concern is budget. You seem very knowledgable in this area, would appreciate your help on this matter. Thank you in advance! 🙂

      Lesh Jazza NOMADasaurus

      Thanks for the update on rules in Ontario. Didn’t realise you need a provincial drivers licence for there. Cheers Chris!

    Nina Travels

    Great post! How is with selling after the trip ends? Would love to hear some more information about this too 🙂 I know it can be done easily if you have time to wait for a buyer, but what if you fly home directly after the roadtrip?

      Lesh Jazza NOMADasaurus

      Throw your car back up on Craigslist and put a poster up in a few hostels. You should have no problems! Otherwise you may just have to take it to a dealer and take whatever they offer if you are short on time.

    Katie

    Very helpful, I travelled through Europe and down the west coast of the US in a van and loved it. Did you guys travel the whole three years or stop and work places on the way?

      Lesh Jazza NOMADasaurus

      We stopped off and worked in places along the way. Couldn’t afford to travel the whole 3 years without stopping. I bet the West Coast of the US was awesome! We’re thinking of doing Europe when we get there this year. Where did you buy your van there? Thanks for reading Katie!

        Katie

        West Coast was very awesome! We actually bought our van off a guy in camping ground in Portugal when the van we were travelling in died. He was going to sell when he got back to London in a couple of weeks but agreed to meet us in Barcelona in a couple of weeks instead and handed over the keys. Gumtree is usually the best way to buy a van in the UK, not sure about buying anywhere else in Europe

          Lesh Jazza NOMADasaurus

          Very cool! I definitely think a van will be on the cards for us in Europe.

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