Living in Canada – A Guide for PhD Students |

Living in Canada – A Guide for PhD Students

Written by Mark Bennett

As one of the world's largest and most diverse countries, Canada offers plenty for international postgraduates to see and do. Whether you fancy hiking in unspoilt wilderness or checking out a ski resort, there's plenty to keep you occupied when taking a break from a PhD study in Canada.

Canada is also diverse in other ways, with a multicultural - and multilingual - population, cosmopolitan cities and a famously liberal and tolerant society. You'll be sure of a warm welcome during your degree.

This page explains what life is like for PhD students in Canada, with information on accommodation, living costs, work opportunities and more.

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Student life

There's no two ways about it: Canada is a big place (the second-largest country in the world, in fact). However, much of northern Canada is wilderness - perfect for a hike (or perhaps even a research trip) but not likely to be where you spend most of your time during PhD study. Instead, like most residents, you'll probably find yourself living in the southern part of the country.

So, what's student life like in Canada?

Culture and tourism

Canada's ten provinces are highly diverse, both geographically and culturally. They range from the rugged prairies and forested mountains of British Columbia and Alberta through the lakes and rivers of Ontario and Québec to the maritime regions of of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

There's a lot to take in and you probably won't see all of it during your PhD (at least, not if you plan to finish your thesis on time). But, wherever you're based, it's a safe bet that you won't be far from attractive national parks and famous landmarks such as Niagara Falls, Lake Ontario, the Hopewell Rocks and Ellesmere Island.

Canada's university cities are also historic cultural centres with a range of famous landmarks. Some, such as Old Québec City and Montreal's Notre-Dame Basilica date back hundreds of years. Others, such as Toronto's striking 550 metre high CN Tower, are more modern.

Sport and leisure

Home to 25% of the world's wetlands, 20% of the world's wilderness and 10% of its forests, few places can match Canada when it comes to experiencing the 'great outdoors'. Unsurprisingly, hiking, mountaineering and sailing (whether on the Great Lakes or at sea) are popular pastimes, as are skiing and snowboarding in the winter months.

Of course, the country is also famous for some of its indoor sports, particularly ice hockey; the North American NHL was founded in Montreal and Canadians make up almost half of the league's players. Other popular sports include lacrosse, basketball and Canadian football (not to be confused with American football).

Food and drink

If you're familiar with American (US) cuisine, you'll find that food and drink in Canada is fairly recognisable. The menus in most restaurants, diners and cafes will include hamburgers, french fries and other well-known dishes.

Look a little closer though and you'll come across plenty of national - and regional - specialities. These include pancakes and maple syrup (of course) as well as poutine (a seasoned dish of fried potatoes, cheese and gravy) and bannock (a baked or fried bread served with various toppings). Seafood and game are also popular in regions that take advantage of their abundant local produce.

If you're looking to relax or celebrate after a hard day of research you'll be able to choose from a range of locally produced ales and wines.


The population of Canada is relatively small (especially when compared to its vast size). This means that housing in most of the country's major cities is easier to find than you might expect for such a popular study abroad destination.

You'll normally have two types of accommodation available to you:

University dormitories

Most Canadian universities have their own halls of residence located on their campus or in neighbouring areas of the city. This accommodation usually involves renting a personal or shared room in a hall with communal facilities.

Prices will depend on the type of accommodation and what it includes, but information should be readily available on your university's website.

This option is ideal if you're looking to meet other students and get to know the campus together. However, peace, quiet and privacy can be more valuable during a PhD than it might be for neighbouring undergraduates - make sure you know which sort of students you'll be sharing with.

Private rentals

Most university cities offer properties rented to students by local landlords and Canada's are no different.

This accommodation will take all sorts of forms, from private flats to shared housing. You can expect to pay around CAD $400-800 per month (USD $295-585) to rent a room in a house, or CAD $900-2000 (USD $660-1,460) for an apartment in a high-rise building (this can be up to CAD $3,000 or USD $2,190 in major cities such as Toronto).

It's worth being aware of which utilities are (and aren't) included with your rent. In particular, you should pay attention to fuel costs. Canadian winters are generally very cold and you'll want to ensure your heating is affordible.

Your university won't be directly responsible for the quality of private accommodation in its local area, but it will probably maintain a list of reccomended local landlords.

Living costs

Canada offers a high standard of living in modern cosmopolitan cities with good facilities and low crime rates. The cost of living in the country is broadly comparable to other western countries such as the USA, Australia and the UK.

International students in Canada are required to have at least CAD $10,000 per year as part of their visa requirements, but the total cost of living in the country is likely to be higher than this. Your own expenses will vary depending on your needs, your lifestyle and, to some extent, the city or province you live in during your PhD.

Prices in Canada

The following table lists the cost of some typical items and expenses for students in Canada:

Student Cost of Living in Canada - 2023
Restaurant Meal CAD $20.00
Cinema Ticket CAD $14.99
Monthly Travel Pass CAD $100.00
Monthly Utilities CAD $181.38
Based on crowdsourced data published by Numbeo.

Working during your PhD

You can work in Canada as an international PhD student for as long as you have a valid study permit for your degree. You won't normally need a separate work permit, but your employment will be subject to some restrictions:

  • Working on campus - You can work on your university campus without restriction during your PhD. This allows you to carry out teaching or work for other services such as libraries, student unions, retail and entertainment facilities, or similar.
  • Working off campus - You can work for employers outside your university campus for up to 20 hours per week during term time (with no limit during holiday periods). You must be studying full time and not be subject to any specific restrictions as part of your study permit.

You'll need to apply for a Social Insurance Number (SIN) in order to work in Canada. This also entitles you to receive benefits and other services.

See the official Government of Canada website for more information on working whilst studying in Canada.


The Canadian currency is the Canadian Dollar (CAD $), not to be confused with the US Dollar.

Various Canadian banks offer student accounts, with some providing specific services for international students. Opening one will make it easier for you to manage money during your stay, including payment of university fees and receipt of income from employment or PhD funding.

Most student accounts are available for free, but some may charge fees for additional services.


Despite its vast size, most of Canada's major cities are located in the south, within 300km of the border with the USA. They are connected by an effective public transport system.

Rail travel

Passenger trains on the Canadian railways are operated by Via Rail. Stations are located in all major university cities and student fares and discounts are available on most services.

Air travel

International airports are located in all Canadian provinces, with the largest being Toronto Pearson International Airport. Flights operate between Canada and most other major airports and this is usually the simplest route into Canada at the start of your PhD.

Be aware that if you don't plan to arrive in Canada by plane, you may need to bear this in mind when applying to enter the country. The Electronic Travel Authorisation (eTA) you will use to enter Canada will normally assume you are travelling by air.

Inner-city travel

Canada's larger cities have their own metropolitan transport services, including subways, busses and other options. Check with your university for advice on suitable routes and potential student discounts.

Be aware that some traffic and road-use regulations vary between individual Canadian provinces. This is particularly important if you own and operate a car during your PhD.

Find a PhD in Canada

Ready to start browsing some current PhD opportunities in Canada? Alternatively, you can look at our other guides to PhD study abroad.

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Last Updated: 07 December 2022