Getting Around in Canada: A Newcomer's Guide to Public Transportation

Last updated: 23 July 2023

CV Public Transit Page

Learn to navigate Canada's diverse transportation landscape with our in-depth guide. We cover everything from public transit to ride-shares, making your journey through Canada a smooth one.

Navigating public transport in Canada can be straightforward, with options varying depending on the specific city or region. Read on to learn more about the country's public transit systems. 

Table of Contents


    In this detailed guide, we'll explore the varied landscape of public transportation in Canada, providing an overview of the options available. This guide covers all aspects of local public transport including buses, trains and subways, as well as important information, best practices, and tips to using public transport in Canada. Additionally, we will discuss ways to travel between cities and across provinces, as well as how to use taxis and ride-sharing services.

    What types of transportation are available in Canada?

    In terms of domestic travel within Canada, newcomers will be able to avail all of the following modes of travel, depending on the length of their journey:

    • Air: To fly in Canada, you will need either a piece of photo identification issued by the federal, provincial, or territorial government, or a foreign passport. All major cities have regularly scheduled flights to and from many places; however, if you wish to visit a small town or rural area, you will need to firstly fly to the closest main airport, before renting a car or taking a train / bus to your desired final stop.
    • Rail: Canada has a well-connected rail network across the country; tickets are usually cheaper when purchased in advance. Tickets can be obtained from Via Rail Canada or at a train station.
    • Bus: Bus travel is often the most affordable way of travelling between cities, as well as being the only way to get to small towns / rural areas that aren’t within driving distance. Most bus lines have air conditioning and a restroom onboard. The largest network of bus routes is operated by Greyhound and its partners; tickets can be obtained via your local bus station.
    • Ferry: Ferry boats are a common mode of transport in coastal regions of Canada such as British Columbia and the Atlantic; often carrying both passengers and vehicles. Information and tickets can be obtained from ferry companies in your area.
    • Car: Whether private vehicle, car rental, or ride-sharing application like Uber and Lyft, driving is one of the most popular ways to travel around Canada, especially given the country’s scenic highlights, and generally good infrastructure.

    What is the structure of public transit systems in Canada, and how do payment systems work?

    Most cities and large towns in Canada have an accessible public transportation system, with one or more of the following modes:

    • Buses;
    • Trains;
    • Subways;
    • Light-rail trains; and
    • Streetcars (trams).

    It is recommended to research these options prior to deciding on a residence location. The bus is the most widespread form of urban transit in Canada; other cities may provide more public transportation services.

    Additionally, depending on the distance that you are travelling, you may need to utilise more than one kind of transportation. A transfer to a different type of transportation is typically easy to achieve.

    To utilise public transit, one must buy a ticket or transit pass. Transit passes allow for an unlimited use of the services for a designated period, usually at a more economical cost than purchasing multiple tickets. Tickets can be bought from convenience stores, major transit stations, or from the bus driver (if you have exact change as required).

    More detailed public transportation information is available by calling a transit information line, visiting the website of a city’s government, or going to an information kiosk at a primary transit station.

    What are the common etiquette and rules when using public transit?

    As a country famous for its politeness, there are certain common guidelines and general cultural values to riding public transit in Canada (especially as it pertains to other riders). Many of these cultural values are common around the world, and self-explanatory, however deserve to be outlined:

    • Value on time-consciousness: Like many countries around the world, those utilising public transport usually are doing so to meet some kind of end (usually moving to and from work). Making sure that you are not hindering or inconveniencing people on a time crunch is often an unspoken rule on public transit;
    • Personal space: Personal space is a key consideration when travelling on public transport in Canada. While this is likely observed all around the world, many cities and population centers in other countries can have a culture of cramming people together as both time and space is often of the essence. This is not observed in Canada—even during peak hours for public transit, Canadians regularly take the time to ensure that they have their own personal space, and are not encroaching on the space of others;
    • Equality & Egalitarianism: Everyone is largely treated the same in Canada, with freedom of religion, speech, and assembly—however there is also a belief that people should be afforded help based on where they especially need it. This can sometimes be a tricky balance, but in the context of transportation can be reasonably navigated.

    Based on these cultural values, some best practices on public transit in Canada include:

    • Not blocking entrances/exits to public transit that people will need to access;
    • Not entering a public transit vehicle (be it car, train or bus, etc.) while people are exiting;
    • Not overly crowding in areas with strangers, in an effort to respect the personal space of others; and
    • Treating others equally and with respect, but also not being above this to lend a hand where needed (i.e.: not having to give up one’s seat just because another person is waiting, but also not being above giving your seat to someone who may need it more, such as an elderly person, or someone who is injured).

    What should I do if I'm lost or need assistance while using public transit?

    There are multiple options available for anyone who is lost on a public transport system. The most obvious of these is to talk to someone working at the transit system, be it a bus driver, ticket checker, or customer service representative at an information kiosk.

    In situations like the subway or train, where an operator or customer service person isn’t freely available, it can often be advised to simply ask one of your fellow passengers for help.

    Lastly, if trying to navigate yourself, most public transit systems in Canada have online and in-person maps, which can be used to help plan your trip and reorient yourself if lost. There are additional (online) tools that many transit systems offer to make trip planning easier, which can also be consulted at this time. Many transit systems also have a helpline which can be accessed through phone or text, and which can be of great help.

    When should I use the emergency button on public transport? What qualifies as an emergency?

    An emergency is defined as a dire or unexpected event that requires prompt action in order to protect life, health, or property.

    In the context of public transport, any situation that fits these criteria can be just cause to use the emergency button in your public transport system (every mode of transport has one). Newcomers should carefully consider (within available time constraints) whether their situation does fit into this description, as using the emergency button without due cause can result in hefty fines.

    What are the requirements for driving in Canada, and how can I obtain a Canadian driver's license?

    To legally drive in Canada, all drivers must have their valid driver’s license on them at all times; this document is issued by the government of the specific province or territory it pertains to. The process for obtaining this license differs in each region, although typically includes a written test covering both road rules and driving – for which there are online resources and special lessons available to assist with the preparation. Permanent Residents should be aware that there are certain variations that offer them the potential to expedite the process of obtaining a Canadian driver’s license.

    Additionally foreign drivers who have a valid international driver’s licence are able to use this as authorisation to drive for up to two months, depending on the province in which they are residing.

    To learn more about getting your driver’s licence as a newcomer, obtaining car insurance, and more, click here.

    What should I know about active transportation, such as cycling or walking, in Canadian cities?

    Active transportation, like cycling and walking are popular in Canada, especially in metropolitan centres like Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, and particularly in the summer and spring time. One important thing to note is that weather can often be the biggest hinderance to active travel—be it excessive amounts of snow, or strong winds. If walking during the winter, it is always advisable to dress appropriately.

    Depending on the distance you need to travel this can be a great way to get to your destination in a way that can benefit your health. Additionally, some cities in Canada have city-wide bike rental services, with pick-up and drop-off stations widely spread.

    How does provincial travel work, including air, rail, and bus travel?

    Due to the size of the Canada, and the spread of its population, there are many options for those looking to travel around the country from one province to another.

    Airplane is one common method, especially for very long-distance travel. Likely many of these flights may go to and from smaller airports in each province, as opposed to the bigger international airports (i.e.: Toronto Billy Bishop airport, as opposed to Toronto Pearson). Click here to find our dedicated webpage on arriving to Canada's airports

    Another common method is to use Canada’s extensive railway system to take the train. Services like ViaRail offer travel packages that go all around Canada and have extensive reach. Though this can often be a much longer journey than by air, travelling costs, and scenic landscapes can often be a bonus.

    Lastly, there are bus services that operate between provinces. One popular example is the Greyhound bus, which has selected locations across Canada (with a much more extensive network in the U.S.). There are also other services like GO Transit, which offer similar services with a Canada-wide focus.

    Newcomers should be aware that while province to province travel usually does not require all the necessary travel documents that international travel would, it is usually recommended to have this identification on your person, to ensure that no confusion arises with travel authorities.

    How does inter-city travel work in Canada?

    Perhaps the most common form of inter-city travel within the same province is by bus.

    Due to Canada’s political infrastructure (with levels of government existing at the municipal, provincial, and federal level), different municipalities often have their own bus systems and authorities. While much of this is still governed by the provincial regulations that those cities fall under, this can be important to understand, as often you may need to make transfers from one regional bus system to another.

    Depending on how far you are travelling, train can also be a viable option for inter-city travel. While this can be challenging during peak travel hours (usually towards the start and end of the workday), the train tends to be much faster than buses, with a similar price point. Some inter-city train networks even connect to a city’s subway system, making transit even simpler.

    Lastly travellers in Canada will also have the option of renting a taxi or using a ride-share service (more on this next).

    What options are available for taxi and ride-share services, and how do they operate?

    Like many countries around the world, Canada has an extensive taxi network that spans major cities and neighbourhoods. Most of these taxi services tend to focus on a specific region or city of service, and so newcomers may find it beneficial to search taxi services with those terms, if they are looking to hire a taxi. While taxi prices are metered, and largely fair, they can often be pricier as well.

    In addition to taxi services, ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are also quite popular in Canada, with service availability in all major population centers, and their surrounding areas. These services can be especially popular in wider regions of big cities, which can be more spread out and have less subway and/or bus accessibility.

    How is transportation accessibility ensured for individuals with disabilities?

    As part of an inclusive and egalitarian ethos, Canada looks to make public transport accessible to anyone, including those with specific challenges in availing them.

    For example, if an individual has mobility challenges, many buses in Canada have descending platforms which can help accommodate these challenges. In addition, there are often designated seating for passengers who may require more space to access public transport (for example those in a wheelchair, who may need the extra room just to enter the vehicle).

    There are also other considerations that many public transport services make for those with disabilities, for example having priority seating sections, visual cues for each stop, ability to bring service animals into vehicles, and auditory announcements for those who may be visually impaired.

    If you are worried about specific accommodations that you may need to travel, it is usually a good idea to call ahead to the transit service, and confirm they have provisions that can meet your needs.

    What should I know about navigating transportation during the winter season?

    As always, winter weather in Canada can be a challenge to navigate for everyone, with public transit systems being no exception. Apart from the obvious considerations around what to wear, winter can sometimes bring added challenges to your commute.

    Most pressingly, turbulent winter weather can commonly cause delays (and occasionally even cancellations and detours) of public transit systems. While this can be a regular occurrence, most services take this into consideration when planning for winter months and aim to maintain schedules to the best of their ability.

    Further (smaller) challenges also arise in winter. For example, the thick snow covering that often accompanies winter months can add minutes to any walking travel—in addition to often causing delays on the road and rail systems, as often snow needs to be cleared before travel is safe. Additionally, as most public transit systems feature heating, it is common for residual snowfall on one’s boots to melt as the journey continues (in short, wet floors are not an uncommon occurrence on winter public transit).

    However, there are some contingencies as well. Many bus stops feature heated areas, which can be accessed by anyone waiting (these are sometimes kept open later during winter months as well, to accommodate the cold). Buses and taxis also make the shift from summer to winter tires, as colder months and snowfall can often bring less traction.

    Overall it is recommended to plan for possible delays, and accessible contingencies, when using public transport during winter months.

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