A popular destination for students from around the world, Canada offers globally recognized, exceptional academic institutions, boasting world-class scholars, cutting-edge research, and sophisticated technology. The result? Top-caliber, in-demand graduates equipped with both theoretical and practical expertise. More than 100,000 students from around the world are welcomed to Canada’s public and private universities each year, drawn by the consistently high quality of education and the country’s cosmopolitan communities and campuses. Here’s a comprehensive guide to everything you need to know about Canadian higher education, how to apply for admission, and what to expect when you get there.
Canada has more than 200 degree-granting academic institutions, the majority of which are in the country’s most heavily populated provinces, Ontario and Quebec. Whether students are looking for a small, intimate campus community or a large, comprehensive institution offering undergraduate, postgraduate, or professional-level degrees, Canada has it all, with more than 10,000 programs to choose from.
Canadian universities offer bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral, and professional degrees in the fields of medicine, health science, law, business, education, and many more. A Canadian bachelor’s degree is typically a four-year program, fully equivalent to degrees from the United States and from other Commonwealth nations, and the academic year typically goes from September until late April, with a more limited course selection in the summer term (May through July). Well-prepared students have access to numerous program options, leading to internationally recognized degrees in virtually every discipline in the arts, humanities, life and physical sciences, health sciences, business, engineering, education, environmental studies, and more.
Higher education in Canada is the responsibility of provincial (not federal) government. Each of Canada’s 13 provinces and territories establishes, funds, and assures the quality of public universities within its jurisdiction. In addition, approximately 90 of Canada’s universities are also recognized through membership in the national Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), headquartered in Ottawa, the nation’s capital.
Educational value and opportunities
Spending more per capita on its education system than any other country in the world, Canada’s focus on quality academics provides students with affordable, portable, and career-focused degrees. The cost of study in Canada is also considerably less than in the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Research of global significance is conducted in Canada’s major universities, and not just at the graduate level. Increasingly, students are invited to participate in research projects as part of their undergraduate experience. Some of the most sophisticated laboratories, research facilities, and extensive libraries in the world—in fields as diverse as particle physics and international law—are in Canada’s top-tier universities.
Universities offer a variety of accommodations for students—some on campus, some off campus—but all offer sports facilities, gymnasiums, stadiums, and playing fields. They also provide safe, supportive campus environments; outstanding professors; and friendly classmates. Canada has one of the world’s highest rates of postsecondary degree completion, with both domestic and international enrollment rates growing steadily each year. In keeping with the increasing international student population, Canadian universities are continuing to expand the global aspects of their academic offerings through both course content and opportunities to study abroad.
Undergraduate admission to universities is primarily based on academic merit, and graduation from a recognized academic secondary school and proof of proficiency in either English or French is mandatory. Each institution has specific academic prerequisites and achievement standards for admission. Many programs will have more competitive requirements, including specific courses and higher grade point averages as well as standard aptitude tests, portfolios of work, or auditions. Since top-tier Canadian institutions are competitive, meeting the minimum requirements will not guarantee admission.
Students applying to a Canadian university will need to have graduated from an accredited college preparatory program. Many Canadian universities recognize enriched programs, such as the International Baccalaureate Diploma, Advanced Placement exams, the General Certificate of Education, or the baccalauréat français, with first-year transfer credits on a course-by-course basis. Standardized tests such as the SAT or ACT may also be a requirement for those following a US-style curriculum.
Most university programs are taught in English, and evidence of English proficiency is standard. Typically, proof of English as your first language or a set number of years of schooling in English prior to admission is required. Students may also demonstrate their proficiency by meeting stated minimums on one of the internationally recognized proficiency tests of English such as the TOEFL or IELTS.
How admission requirements differ from US universities
As a rule, Canadian universities do not require application essays, teacher references, or lists of extracurricular achievement in addition to academic achievement. However, some institutions may invite students to provide a personal statement, and others may ask for supplemental applications for more competitive programs. Programs in the visual or performing arts may require submission of a portfolio or an audition. Additional information may also be required for scholarship consideration.
How to apply
Except for provinces that have central application centers—like the Ontario Universities’ Application Centre and the Post-Secondary Application Service of British Columbia—most Canadian university applications can be completed online directly from each university's websites.
After you’re admitted
Upon arrival to Canada, international students are often welcomed by university representatives at the airport and invited to attend various social and academic orientation activities to help ease the transition to a new and unfamiliar country. To further aid the adjustment and support students’ academic journeys, most university campuses provide convenient and affordable on-campus housing, counseling and disability services, career counseling, study skills workshops, and international student clubs. All institutions provide access to gymnasiums, sports facilities, libraries, food services, computer labs, and quiet study areas.
Living in Canada
Canada is the second-largest country in the world in terms of landmass and has a population of more than 38 million people. Made up of 10 provinces and three territories—with six different time zones among them—the country’s land accounts for 25% of the world’s wetlands, 10% of the world’s forests, 7% of the world’s renewable freshwater supply, and the world’s longest coastline.
Canada is not only known for its natural beauty but also for its vibrant metropolitan areas and tight-knit communities. Multiculturalism is enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Canada is a democratic country that values all races, ethnic groups, and religious faiths, and it supports two official languages: English and French.
Career and social opportunities
Canada major urban centers are also modern hubs for business, fashion, fitness, and entertainment. It’s truly at the forefront of global relevance, with Vancouver’s booming film industry and forward-thinking sustainability efforts; Calgary’s energy sector and annual Stampede; Montreal’s niche in aerospace and apparel; and Toronto’s financial district, Waterfront Marathon, and world-renowned International Film Festival.
All four seasons
While the entire country experiences all four seasons—with generally warm summers, snowy winters, and pleasant springs and falls—the specific weather conditions within each season vary significantly from one end of the country to the other. Students can make the most of Canada’s changing temperatures by getting outside and participating in various seasonal sports, from hockey and skiing in the winter to hiking and mountain biking in the spring and fall to jogging, swimming, soccer, and baseball in the balmy summer months.
Related: Video: Going to College in Canada
Financing your international education
Depending on province, institution, and program, tuition fees at Canadian universities can vary significantly. International students should also be prepared for fluctuations in the international exchange rate that could impact the price of their tuition over the course of a four-year undergraduate degree. For international students, studying at a public university or college in Canada is relatively affordable compared to similar institutions in the United States or the United Kingdom. The cost of living is also generally lower in Canada, offering students exceptional value in relation to the quality of education. Nevertheless, a Canadian education is an investment, and Canadian universities expect that international students and their families will take primary responsibility for the costs of their tuition and living expenses. Students should be aware that international undergraduate tuition fees vary frequently by program.
All Canadian universities offer some form of scholarships and financial assistance to their students, but with differing levels of funding available. And more than half of the universities offer entrance scholarships to their first-year students, both domestic and international, based on academic standing. At most institutions, international students will also be permitted to compete with Canadian students for other merit-based awards once enrolled, including donor-based awards and prizes, faculty-recommended awards, and other forms of recognition based on academic achievement.
Need-based funding for international students covering both living costs and tuition is much less common than academic scholarships but is available at some schools. Students with Canadian citizenship and permanent residents can apply for Canadian government loans, while American citizens and permanent US residents can apply for FAFSA funding to all Canadian academic programs, provided the institution is recognized by the US Federal Department of Education.
To ensure international students are maximizing their academic funding, they should look into options in their home countries by researching scholarships provided by government and private organizations or companies. When beginning this search, some Canadian resources students will find helpful include the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, the Canadian Bureau for International Education, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
Permits and visas
International students enrolling in programs longer than six months will be required to obtain a study permit before entering Canada. Permits can be applied for upon acceptance to a Canadian university. Additionally, a temporary resident visa is required for nationals of certain countries. Residents of a number of countries must also undergo a medical examination before they can enter Canada.
Upon arrival to Canada
When entering the country, students will also need a valid passport, a letter of acceptance from a Canadian institution, a certificate of language proficiency, a health certificate (in some cases), and proof of financial means to support themselves while in the country. Additionally, students studying in Quebec must obtain a Certificat d’acceptation du Québec before arrival to Canada. Refer to the Citizenship and Immigration Canada website for further details and application forms. Forms should be submitted together with supporting documentation and application fees to the nearest Canadian Embassy, Consulate, or High Commission.
International students on a Canadian study permit are allowed to work part-time on campus without a work permit, but one is required for off-campus employment of up to 20 hours per week during the academic year and full-time during school breaks.
Cooperative education and work-study opportunities
Students can take advantage of the many co-op programs, internships, experiential learning, and volunteer opportunities that are available at most postsecondary institutions in Canada, all of which provide real-world skills and hands-on training to prepare students for life after graduation. Some universities also allow international students to participate in work-study programs, which provide a wage subsidy to campus employers willing to hire students. Typical opportunities might include working at university food service outlets, libraries, and bookstores or as assistants to faculty or staff on special projects.
Canadian work experience is highly desired by multinational companies that actively recruit on Canadian campuses. After graduation, international students can apply for a work permit that will allow them to remain in Canada to work full-time for up to three years. New government policies are in place to make it easier for out-of-country graduates who wish to call Canada their permanent home. Graduates from Canadian universities have access to the country’s increasing job opportunities, competitive wages, excellent living standards, and employers that excel in industries such as aerospace, business, digital media, manufacturing, medicine, engineering, and renewable energy.
Bolstering its academic reputation, Canada ranks high on the United Nations’ list of the very best places in the world to live and work year after year. The country’s diverse population and welcoming culture makes Canada a particularly attractive choice for international students wanting to study abroad. Since the quality of postsecondary education in Canada is consistent from coast to coast, students need not worry about making a bad decision when selecting a Canadian university to attend—they are all held to the same quality standards, so it simply comes down to determining the best fit for you.
Canada isn’t the only country to consider If you’re set on leaving the country for college. Use our College Search tool to explore schools in the UK, China, and more.