As an American liberal who legally moved to Canada in 2004, here were my biggest surprises:
- “Canada, it’s like a whole other country!” — As dumb as it sounds, and as educated as I felt like I was, I still drastically underestimated the impacts of an international move in general:
- All the paperwork to apply for all those things you’ve “always had” in the States like Social Insurance Number (= SSN) and vehicle registration and driver’s license and brand new bank accounts and so on, in addition to the standard moving stuff like apartment hunting and setting up electricity and internet.
- If your car isn’t paid off, you can’t skip the country with it unless you settle up or sell it.
- It’s now an international call to talk to friends and family in the US, and unless you want to pay crazy roaming fees you’re going to want to switch to a Canadian mobility provider ASAP, which may also mean you need to pay off your remaining device balance
- All the goods and services you’re used to in the US? They’re all “imports” now. Unless you’re made of money you’ll have to change your buying habits to figure out the Canadian-owned department stores, clothes retailers, hardware stores, etc. Even Budweiser and Jack Daniels are now found in the “imports” section, too. And many online services (Pandora, Hulu, certain Youtube videos) aren’t licensed to work here, and many ecommerce sites (that never say “US-only” anywhere on them) don’t ship here. Some of them you don’t even figure out until you’ve gone through the entire checkout process only to have it choke on your shipping address.
- If you follow politics (as most Americans interested in becoming expats for political reasons do), you’ll find the parliamentary system in Canada very different. Expect to understand very little of the political news until you’ve had a chance to learn how it works.
- And generally, stuff just feels *different*, and the general sense of alienation you feel at first is palpable. If you moved to China it would be no surprise, but for some reason Americans moving to Canada assume it will be more the same than it is.
- You’re an immigrant now. People will point out your American-looking clothes, your funny figures of speech, your strange proclivity for imperial instead of metric units. The government will point out at every opportunity that you’re a newcomer here, and until you obtain permanent residence and citizenship, remind you not to get too comfortable since you’re only a visitor. You know all those Americans constantly asking “I don’t know why those people don’t just go back where they came from…” and “They’re taking our jobs…” and so on? At least “those people” were fleeing poverty and famine and war. Now you’re one of those people, and don’t even have a good reason for being here. Most people are nice about it, but some aren’t, especially if they’re unemployed or have an axe to grind. A lot of Canadians are bitter at Americans in general, so you have to have a thick skin and realize it’s not personal, and a lot of the time they’re criticizing Americans in general for the same things you already criticize right-wing Americans for.
- “Once you’re here, you’re here.” Every visit to the States is an international trip, and your initial immigration status (especially if it’s a work permit visa) may place limitations on when and how you can cross the border, and your income taxes definitely place a limitation on how many days you can spend out of the country and/or specifically in the US. Prepare to feel a little bit trapped at first. Oh, also, the US is one of only two countries in the world that requires you to file income taxes for life, in addition to FBAR financial reporting requirements for practically every dollar you own outside the US — you’ll come to resent this quickly, but it’s a good horror story to tell Canadians thinking about US citizenship.
- Others mentioned the metric system, and it wasn’t that per se (the adjustment from Fahrenheit to Celsius for weather reports and thermostats being the hardest), but that some measurements in general are really different. Like how car mileage is measured in L/100Km instead of miles per gallon, so it’s totally upside down, with good fuel economy being a lower number like 10 and bad economy being 20, rather than the other way around. Gas prices in $CAD/Litre also take some getting used to, especially since the prices are much higher too — you basically just have to learn what’s good again (“$1.25/Litre? I need to remember that place!”)
- If you’re a gun owner, just forget it. When Americans talk about gun ownership being a right, most Canadians view that almost as barbaric and backward as saying slave ownership is a “right” or forcing your daughter to marry the person of your choice is a “right.” Yes, there’s a process for legally owning a firearm, but if you do so, chances are very high that you’re that crazy person on the corner everyone is afraid of. It’s just simply not done here, unless you live in the Yukon and have to fend off bears.
- Winters are long and dark. Coming from many places in the US, the latitude difference is significant. I never realized I suffered from SAD until I moved here. Now it’s a challenge that haunts me 3–4 months out of every year.
- You are a racist and sexist, and Canada will prove it to you. You may be the nicest, most open-minded American you know, but it will still immediately strike you as “odd” that so many public leaders and people running for office are women, people of colour, recent immigrants, etc. And you’ll wonder why. And then you’ll realize that even in the Democrat party in the US, the huge majority of people in power are old white Christian males. But that’s part of why you’re here: It will make you a better person. But learning this about yourself can feel shameful and depressing.
- But on the flip side, Canada really gets it right, the things that many American liberals dream of. There are some “honeymoon is over” moments when you realize paperwork is always annoying, but in general, things are good. After the first little while of fighting through the healthcare registration process, for example, you’ll find the actual experience pretty nice (especially emergency room visits — no paperwork at all other than your health card, and no bill at the end), and you’ll be genuinely baffled by conservative Canadians who claim they’d like it better the American way. Those are often fun conversations (“And then they give you a book or website with the list of the 20% or so doctors in town that are eligible for you to go to under the plan, and even then, your insurance may just decide it doesn’t want to pay them half the time and there’s almost nothing you can do about it….”) Same goes for government, schools, labyrinthine American income taxes, and so on. So there are misconceptions both ways.
Best of luck.