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How To Buy A Car In Canada As A Tourist (Or A Campervan)

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Let me start this post by admitting I was a little scared about buying a car for our Canada and U.S.A. road trip.

We had never owned a car before, not even back home in the Netherlands. After all, why waste money on a car in a tiny country where you can reach everything by public transport.

That meant, however, we had no clue what to pay attention to when buying a car. Let alone buying a car we intended to drive all across North America…

Fun fact: we ended up driving 25.000 kilometers during our in 5 month road trip!

Moreover, we didn’t intend to use our car solely for transportation, we intended to live in it fulltime. That’s the reason we decided to get a small van, which we could easily convert into a small camper van.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s start at the beginning…

How to buy a car or camper van in Canada as a tourist/foreigner

Red campervan in front of Badlands landscape

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Do your homework

To get said (camper) van, I did some research. Okay, a lot of research. Fine, I obsessed about getting the perfect car for weeks;-). Yup, that’s me, I love to make checklists and Excel sheets, preferably a combination of those.

Now that I have successfully bought and sold a car in Canada, I want to share everything I learned with you!

I learned a lot about the process and will walk you through it step by step. Because it may be scary to buy a van in Canada, but it’s not actually that complicated!

Note: I personally feel it’s only worthwhile to buy a car if you plan on making an extended road trip. While it’s definitely cheaper to buy a car instead of renting one, buying and selling it takes time.

Time you may not have when you are planning a one month holiday. If you are traveling for less than 6 weeks I recommend renting a car or campervan instead.

Yes, that’s more expensive but does save you the ‘hassle’ of going through the steps described in this post.

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The 4 steps to buying a car in Canada as a foreigner

  • Step 1: Find the perfect car
  • Step 2: Transfer ownership and get the car registered
  • Step 3: Get the vehicle licensed and insured
  • Step 4: Hit the road!

Keep in mind we bought our car in Vancouver and the process of buying a car described in this post only applies to British Columbia. In BC, steps 2 and 3 can both be done at ICBC, making it even more straightforward to buy a car as a tourist.

However, every state in Canada has its own rules and regulations so it’s very important to check these before you fly to Canada to buy a car!

Red campervan with mountains in backdrop Canada

Step 1: the best websites to find your perfect car or camper van

Obviously, the first thing to do is to find the perfect car or camper van. As said before, we lived in our van for five months. Therefore, it was important there was enough room to build a comfortable bed.

We also wanted some storage space but didn’t want a big van (as you can read in my New Zealand post, I’m not that good at parking). We ended up buying a pretty red GMC Safari from the year 2000 and named her VANessa.

It may be silly to get attached to a car, but I miss our VANessa so much… She took us to amazing places, gave us a roof over our head and a cozy place to sleep.

25.000 kilometers in Canada and the USA and not once did she let us down. I don’t think I’ll ever love a car like I loved our bright red house on wheels. But I digress…

Small converted campervan at campsite in Canada

The best websites to look for a car in Vancouver are:

Red GMC Safari van parked at campsite

Which car fits your travel plans?

Things to keep in mind when buying a van in Canada are how and when you will use it. Do you plan to do a lot of off-road driving during your Canada RV trip? Where do you plan to travel to? Which season(s) are you traveling in? Will you be sleeping in the car? How much space do you need?

For example, you wouldn’t want to buy a car like the one we bought if you plan to drive to the Northern Territories, The Yukon, or other places in Canada in winter. You’ll surely be better off getting a strong 4×4 truck with proper tires and snow chains;-).

Red Safari van in Saskatchewan

View several cars and buy the one you like the most

Once you have decided what type of car you want to buy and have found several options on the sites mentioned above I recommend viewing several cars.

As I mentioned, we had never owned a car before and didn’t know at all what to inspect during a car viewing and test drive.

Luckily, Google knows everything and we found some helpful checklists as not to look like complete idiots during our car viewing appointments. You can find useful lists here and here.

Of course, it’s always a bit of a gamble to buy a used car… That being said, if you are looking for a car in Vancouver feel free to send me an email. I have some useful and trustworthy contacts that I’m happy to share!

It’s also smart to have the car you want to buy checked by an independent mechanic during a pre-purchase inspection. This usually costs between $100-$200 but it can potentially save you hundreds of dollars, as you really don’t want to buy a car that breaks down in the middle of your road trip.

Safari van on road trip in North America

Step 2: Transfer ownership and get the car registered

In British Columbia, you can get the vehicle registered, licensed, and insured at the same time at ICBC. On their website, you can find the office nearest to you. The best thing to do is to go to ICBC with the seller of the car.

The seller should provide you with:

  • The original vehicle registration, with the owner’s signature on it.
  • A transfer/tax Form (APV9T), which the seller should have already filled out partially (there is also a part you’ll have to fill out).

With these forms, you can acquire ownership of the car. Once you have transferred ownership you have to register the vehicle. You need a Canadian address to register the car.

We used our Airbnb address in Vancouver for registration. I was a bit apprehensive about this but no documents are ever sent to the address and you will need to provide a valid Canadian address to ICBC.

GMC Safari red van in Badlands landscape and rocks

Step 3: Get the vehicle licensed and insured

The next step is to get your car licensed and insured, you can also do this at ICBC. I didn’t know this before, but in Canada, the license plates belong to the seller.

That means you’ll have to buy new license plates if this is the first time you are buying a car in Canada. For us it was, so we got new plates.

Tip: when we sold the car we kept one license plate as a unique souvenir!

View of Safari van on mountainous road in North America

The final step is to get your car insured, car insurance is mandatory in Canada! Important things to consider are the coverage of the third-party liability insurance and whether or not to add additional insurance for collision and comprehensive.

You can read more information about third-party liability insurance here, basically, it means the amount of money the insurance company will pay if you cause an accident. The standard coverage is 200.000CAD, we choose to upgrade our third-party liability insurance to 1.000.000CAD.

Collision coverage means the insurance company will pay for any damage to your vehicle, even if you caused the accident yourself. We choose a 500CAD deductible, meaning we would have to pay the first 500CAD in case of any damage, the insurance company would cover everything over 500CAD.

Comprehensive coverage means the insurance company will pay for things like a chipped windshield, vandalism, or hitting an animal. Again, we choose a 500CAD deductible.

In total, we paid 1361CAD to ICBC. This included the sales tax (for buying the vehicle), registration fees, costs for the license plates, and 6 months of insurance. When we sold the van we got a one-month refund for the insurance (we only had our car for 5 months).

Important budget tip: if you owned a car in your home country, bring a claim history letter from your car insurance company. If you are lucky you can get a significant discount on your insurance in Canada!

Van driving through rock tunnel

Step 4: Hit the road!

Now that you are the proud new owner of a car in Canada it’s time to hit the road! In my opinion, North America is one of the best places in the world to make a road trip.

The scenery is phenomenal, the roads are in excellent condition, there are plenty of beautiful (free) campsites (check out the free iOverlander app), and traveling, in general, is very easy.

How to buy a camper van in Canada: in conclusion

I hope this post has given you an idea of the steps involved when you plan on buying a car in Canada as a non-resident. If you have any questions, leave a comment below or send me a message!

Read my other Canada post for more Canada travel inspiration:

This post was updated in June 2020.

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Sam

Wednesday 23rd of March 2022

Hi Lotte! Super helpful, thank you. Did you need a separate insurance policy for your time in the US? Or did the insurance you bought in Canada cover that? Thanks!

Lotte

Sunday 10th of April 2022

Hey Sam,

Apologies for my late reply, I've been on holiday myself;) Glad to hear you found the article helpful! The Canadian insurance covered US as well but as mentioned in the post we choose to upgrade our third-party liability insurance to 1.000.000CAD because we wanted to be sure we were covered in case of an accident.

Hope this helps! Enjoy your trip:-) Lotte

Duncan

Monday 24th of August 2020

Sounds so simple in BC. I have had an altogether different experience in Ontario, finding it impossible so far to get anyone to insure a car on a foreign or international driving license. Buying a vehicle, no problem, but the insurance even if you go to a site that specifically talks about foreign driver insurance, no one will touch you.

Lotte

Saturday 29th of August 2020

It was very simple in BC indeed. I'm so sorry to hear it's so difficult in Ontario:-( Insurance is a must so it must be very annoying to be able to buy a car but not get it insured, rendering it pretty much useless...

Megan straker

Tuesday 11th of June 2019

Hi! This post is great and has really helped me understand the whole process of buying a car! You mentioned you had contacts in Vancouver? I am looking at buying a car in vancouver. I'm 25, haven't bought a car before and I'm by myself so i feel very underqualified to buy a car! Would you be able to email me the contacts you have in vancouver? That would be great! Thank you.

Lotte

Thursday 13th of June 2019

Hi Megan,

I'm so happy to hear that! I also didn't feel very comfortable buying a car, as I know nothing about them and had never owned one before. I would love to share my Vancouver contact with you, however, due to GDPR regulations I cannot use your email address unless you send me a direct message via my contact page: https://www.phenomenalglobe.com/contact/. Sorry, regulations... Just send me a message and I'll reply asap!

Lotte

Marie

Monday 6th of May 2019

Gosh, thank you so much for this article! I've been dreaming to hit the road for like a decade (and it has now become an actual plan), but I've been drowning myself in articles and articles of how bad it can go, how complicated it is, the administration stuff, all the possible problems... So the sentence "Because buying a car in Canada may be scary, it’s not actually that complicated!" was exactly what I needed to hear before going to bed tonight and go on with the research tomorrow :D Thank you!

Lotte

Tuesday 7th of May 2019

Hi Marie,

You are most welcome, how wonderful you'll be making the road trip around Canada you've been dreaming about for so long!

I'm very happy to hear that my post ad quote have given you some insight into the process of buying a car in Canada as a foreigner. Feel free to send me an email if you have more questions:-)

Lotte

Chloe

Sunday 7th of April 2019

Hi Lotte, This is such an amazing blog! We will be travelling to do a 4 month road trip across Canada and US in August. This has really helped us with our planning so far. I have a couple of questions which would help us with our budgetting and planning. I will send you an email to request the details of your contacts in Vancouver. We are landing in Vancouver but selling in Montreal so a little bit tricky but hopefully doable. We're prepared to not get much/anything back for the car/van. I know ICBC say you can apply for a refund by post, did your refund come as a cheque or did they refund straight on to your card at the office? Did you do your car buying and selling in cash, how did you go about getting so much cash out and did you do it all in one go?

Lotte

Sunday 14th of April 2019

Hi Chloe,

Thank you for your kind words! I'm happy my posts have helped you plan your Canada/USA road trip:-) I have no personal experience selling in a different state, I think it's possible but requires a bit more work and possibly you have to pay additional taxes.

Regarding your questions: - ICBC refunded onto our credit card in their office (it took a couple of days before the refund was visible on our card). - We did both buying and selling in cash. We always make sure to carry several bank cards on a trip so we used all of them (3 cards in our case) to get the maximum amount of cash on a day. It took us 2 days to get enough for the total payment.

I hope this helps! Have a great trip:-) Lotte

PS I haven't received your email yet, but when I do I'll send you my Vancouver contacts asap!