Moving Back to Canada from the UK
Returning to Canada from the UK would seem to be a pretty straightforward move. After all, Canada is a former British colony, we share a common national language, and both countries are progressive and have modern societies.
Whether you considering moving to Canada from England, Ireland, or Scotland, there are many similarities. But there are also many differences between the UK and Canada to be aware of. This resource is designed to help you understand how Canada and the UK are different in order to empower you to decide two things:
- If the move back to Canada makes sense for you at this time in your life. And...
- ...if the answer is "yes", how to make your move back to Canada a smooth and confident one!
Most of the questions I have received from Canadian expatriates living in the UK come from indecision around whether it makes sense to move back given their particular situation. Unlike their counterparts living in the U.S., who generally want to know the "hows" of moving back, Canadians living in the UK are more focused on the "should I move back?" question.
Let's start by looking at the commonalities and differences from the context of consideration of a move back to Canada:
Some of the commonalities between Canada and the UK:
- A tax treaty between both countries that ensures no double taxation for Canadians.
- UK Pensions can be received in Canada...and vice versa.
- Many similar systems such as telephone, internet, financial linkages, and language, make the move easy in many ways.
- Canada is a former colony of the UK and as a result has many structural similarities, such as our parliamentary system, cultural traditions shared by large numbers of people in both countries, and close treaty and political alliances.
- Similar health care philosophies. Canada has a very different system than the U.S., due to very different philosophies on health care. Our system is more like the UK's. See this site's health care in Canada page for more depth on this subject.
- A sense of mobility - people have been moving to and from Canada from the UK for literally hundreds of years.
- A strong focus on process - Americans have "the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" as their founding principles. Canada and the UK are focused more on the right to good government, as it states in the Canadian constitution.
- Expensive real estate. Perhaps this is not an admirable commonality, but Toronto and Vancouver particularly, are now "world class" cities in terms of real estate prices, right up there with London.
Some of the differences between Canada and the UK, in the context of a potential move back:
- Differences in mind frame - The UK is oriented towards its own internal culture, the cultures of Europe, and cultures further abroad. It has little to do with Canadian culture. Canada is a nice ex-colony, but not really where "life happens". For example, there are few television shows in the UK that put Canada at the centre of daily attention. Fun fact: The reverse is not true: Many people in Canada watch "Coronation Street"!
Canada's main focus is towards the U.S. in mind frame and culture. We do 70% of our economic trade with America and get most of our entertainment from America, too. Especially in these trying political times, the focus of our attention is largely on what is happening in the U.S.
This is a key differenc: To many from the UK, Canada can seem like an extension of the U.S. in terms of ways of thinking.
- Different cultures. The UK maintains an aspirational culture for most people who come to live there. They want to fit in, learn how to speak with a British accent, find their place in the UK cultural milieu, and thrill at the "culturedness" of life there.
Canada does not have this same attraction. Canada is a place you go to be safe from persecution, experience nature, have lots of social freedom, create a life for yourself, and raise your family in a prosperous manner. Some people who come to Canada retain more of their original culture than they embrace "Canadian" culture. Why? Because there is no centralCanadian culture that is a common to most regions! This country is a mix of dozens of sub-cultures. And because of the vast size of Canada, these dozens of sub-cultures can co-exist pretty happily.
The key, then, is to find your specific sub-culture - the one you want to be with - in Canada. The same, of course, is true of the UK. Life in London can be culturally extremely different from life Edinburgh, of course. You need to find where you "belong". Of course,
One reason many Canadians living in the UK have a challenge deciding if they should return is because they don't know how and where to fit into Canada after finding their "place" in the UK - a fit that is really neatly and comfortably workable for them. Moving back to Canada requires a significant cultural adjustment. Canada seems so similar, but is really quite different from the UK, and very different even between and within regions in Canada.
- Different geography. While the west coast of Canada can be as rainy as the UK in the winter, central canada can be really, really cold. Canada is a country with varying landscapes, weather, and geography types. And it is a vast country.
A real quote:
Q: "How are you going to get to Vancouver for your meeting tomorrow? [from Toronto]
The sheer size of Canada gives people a different sense of scope, perhaps, than that of people living in the UK. Cities are not as close together in Canada as they are in the UK. Canada is not close to various European centres in absolute terms, too. While you can easily fly from London on a super-cheap flight to a weekend in Paris, you cannot easily do the same between Vancouver and Paris or between Vancouver and New York.
A: "I'm going to take the overnight train."
Instead, Canada is a vast, remote, and separated place. Life in Vancouver is quite different from life in Toronto and is 3 time zones and many thousands of kilometres away by plane. Compare this to the distance between London and Edinburgh, which is less than 400km. One trip between cities in Canada is an expensive flight that takes most of a day of traveling. In the UK, a trip between cities can be a short direct flight or relaxed train ride away.
Note: Canadians do travel to the U.S. for weekend trips, but for different reasons: Seattle and San Francisco for west-coast culture, border cities for cheap food and gas, and Las Vegas for gambling and shows. These places, while of interest to North Americans, are not the same cultural experience, perhaps, as heading to Paris for the weekend.
Implication: I would argue that the UK is more "human scale" than Canada - it is a place where all manner of trips, experiences, and people connections feel possible because distances are not that great between places.
How might this factor affect those moving back to Canada from the UK? It might mean that Canada can impart a sense of isolation and separation that could lead to a feeling of disconnection and loneliness upon return. And I would suggest that this is not a factor to take lightly if you value close connections to family and friends and easy access to a variety of cultures.
- Different systems such as electricity (220v), taxes, driving (left side of the road), etc. Education systems are a central difference, too. The UK school system is much older, more "structured", and wider reaching than in Canada. What I mean by this is that the aspirational culture of the UK, mentioned above, is fully supported by, and integrated with, the educational system. In Canada this can be confusing to many newcomers as they expect a more consistent and culturally focused experience than what Canadian schools actually offer.
A Canadian public school teacher, teaching in the UK, shares these perspectives:
I worked as a teacher in the Alberta school system before working as a teacher in the Uk system for 10 years. I would pick Alberta’s school system in a heartbeat. There is a huge class divide here in the Uk in terms of education. A private education does offer a more sophisticated option but state schools certainly do not. The curriculum was stable and well planned in Alberta. In the Uk, it continuously changes according to whichever education minister is in power which causes immense problems for both staff and students. Recruitment is such an issue that many students outside of London end up taught by supply teachers for subject such as maths and sciences. However, the biggest drawback to me is that the Uk system builds a sense of failure in most students from a very young age. Everything is about a test. The Canadian approach is more wholistic building confidence, breadth of subject knowledge (more like the ib program) and other important skills like teamwork and creativity. Canadian students consistently outrank Uk students on international Pisa testing. If there is one thing that is drawing me back to Canada, from an educator's perspective, it is the wish for a Canadian education over a Uk based one.
- Different cost structures such as in travel, insurance, and rentals. If you are moving back to Canada to retire and have a quite limited income picture, be careful to choose a place in Canada where you can live the kind of lifestyle you wish, without feeling limited by your means for what you enjoy most.
M. Williams shares his experience moving back to Ontario in 2017:
My first shock occurred 3 days after I arrived in June -- a dental emergency ended up costing me $1000 of which my travel insurance paid half. (Lesson - make sure you have travel/medical insurance and check that it covers dental). If my teeth had been injured I would have received full payment but root canal is not fully covered.
My second shock occurred this week (November 2017) -- the cost of car insurance!! Wow!!! In the UK, I paid roughly $350/year fully comprehensive. I've been getting quotes here in Ontario from between $1200-1700 per year! (4-5X higher!)
I've semi-retired and am living on a modest pension so this is not an insignificant cost. And, I need a car in order to get around. (Third shock is the shocking lack of affordable and convenient public transport that I was used to in Scotland -- and over 60s were given bus passes which allow you to travel free anywhere in Scotland + 1/3 off rail fares.)
If anyone has advice about cheap car insurance, I'd appreciate it.
How does this help you understand whether to move back to Canada?
Perhaps the following three questions can help with clarity on moving back, and whether it makes sense for you:
- Are you deeply embedded in the UK culture and society? If yes, removing yourself from the UK culture and trying to establish yourself in Canada may be a shock...and perhaps an big shock one that could take years to come to grips with. One client I worked with was so torn between very close cultural and social ties in the UK and his desire to move back to Canada that he decided to stay in the UK.
- Canada is a vast place. It is not a "hop, skip, and a jump" away from Paris, per my example above. While the UK is more costly to live in than Canada, wages and salaries in Canada are much lower, on average. This makes it harder to live an easy-flowing international lifestyle in Canada. If you live an urban, sophisticated, European-connected life in the UK, are you willing to give up the geographic accessibility and lifestyle you have now in order to live in Canada?
- How are you oriented? Toward creating your own life and culture or toward fitting into another? If you are a free thinker and love creating your own life amid tremendous physical, mental, and social freedom, Canada is for you. If you want to quickly plug into a culture that fits who you are and that gives you a sense of social/cultural security, the UK is perhaps a better choice (assuming the UK culture is the one you want to be part of!)
Feedback shared with me by someone considering moving back to Canada:
My biggest concern is whether or not I can fit in after living away for 30 years. All my friends and professional contacts are in the UK. Also, I still have a son and grandson here too. But my brothers and sister, nieces, nephews, cousins live in Ontario (family) although I have few friends there anymore and very few professional contacts. But the desire to return to be near family was strong...Most of all I want to get re-acquainted with family but can I adapt to the culture after so long away??
A final note: UK expats, emigrants to Canada, and Canadian returnees from the UK have in recent years created stronger ties to each other in Canada. There is a "British Canadian Newspaper", for example, published here. And UK style pubs are in every major city in Canada. So, despite my challenging questions above, there are ways to move back to Canada and stay connected to British culture and interests.
Resources for returning to Canada from the UK
Retiring in Canada
A common question I hear from clients moving back from the UK:
"Can I move my pension to Canada?
When I clarify with them their goal in asking this question, I hear: They would like to move their entire state pension lump sum value to Canada to be paid to them in regular monthly payments by the Canadian government, not the UK government.
The answer: No.
Great idea, and it would simplify your monthly payments nicely, but you cannot move your whole pension as a lump sum to Canada.
Of course, when you move back to Canada you can receive your monthly pension payments, in GBP, to your bank account in Canada. You will have to deal with the conversion costs every month (fees and changing value of the GBP/CAD currencies) and there are some wrinkles, such as your pension won't "increase" every year because you don't live in the UK. The official UK Gov site on this. It can be a bit hard to decipher the actual impacts of moving to Canada from this site, but trust that you won't be double-taxed on your pension income.
There is now a dedicated "Retiring in Canada" resource page on this site! Here you will find resources and tips covering the whole process of preparing for and making the move back to Canada to retire. I created it in response to the growing number of returning Canadians who are returning to Canada from the UK, U.S., Australia, and further abroad to retire here.
Moving your belongings
Unless you plan to bring a few suitcases and boxes with you by air, a 20' or 40' container works well. The sea route between the UK and North America is direct and
well-serviced by shipping companies, making a move to eastern and central Canada (Toronto, Ottawa, etc.) a pretty standard and modestly priced move.
What to bring:
Due to shipping costs, low-value items and those that won't be of use in Canada (appliances that run on 220v, for example) are not worth shipping.
Some general items that are worth shipping to Canada with you:
- higher value furnishings and rugs
- books, entertainment collections
- laptop computers
- kitchen dishware, cutlery, etc.
What not to bring:
- vehicles - sorry, but non-U.S. and Canadian vehicles cannot be imported.
- appliances (different voltage).
- very low value items that can be purchased inexpensively in Canada.
As mentioned above, Canada and the UK have a tax treaty and so you won't have major problems sorting out your taxes when you move back to Canada. Your return will entail advising investment, pension, and tax authorities in the UK, with attendant paperwork to fill out, but again, there should not be a signficant tax implication to you as a result of your return.
If your situation is complicated I do recommend getting professional advice from a tax accountant in Canada who specializes in international taxes.
This may be a bit tricky. The UK economy is very different than Canada's and our respective currencies will not move in a predictable pattern between each other. Here is a 4 year graph of the GBP-CAD exchange rates, created using data courtesy of CanadianForex.ca:
As of the latest upate of this chart, the GBP is below 2014 levels vis a vis the CAD due to BREXIT impacts, indicating that this is not a particularly good time to convert your funds to CAD if you are planning on moving back soon and plan on moving your money to Canada permanently. It is anticipated that ongoing fluctuations will be the norm for some time as BREXIT negotiations impact real and perceived implications for people and organizations.
Some foreign exchange considerations:
- Will you be affected by fluctuations in the GBP/CAD exchange rate in the medium or long term? Many people have pensions that they cannot move to Canada and many also own property and/or investments in the UK that they intend to keep for 3-10+ years. This obviously makes foreign exchange rates of concern. As the graph above indicates, the ongoing economic uncertainties in the UK can have a major impact on your CAD income over time. Taking the time to think through the implications of foreign exchange rates in your situation, with the help of a financial/investment advisor, is in your interest. Moving back to Canada should come with feeling financially safe and secure for the future.
- How long are you willing to keep a large amount of money in GBP, such as what you from the sale of a home, before you wish to convert some or all of it to CAD for your new life in Canada? The short term is uncertain. And if you can wait for years because you don't need the money until quite a ways down the road, the decision gets more complicated because the future relationship between the GBP and the CAD is quite uncertain as well. Trying to "time the market" for better exchange rates is a challenge even for investment experts. One strategy that professionals use that may be of value is to convert smaller lump sums of money at regular intervals rather than one big one. This is called "cost averaging". It generally is a lower risk approach than trying to time the market.
- Don't transfer money to Canada through your bank! If you are exchanging GBP to CAD and sending it Canada, in one or more large transfers, in preparation for moving back, use a dedicated foreign exchange company. They can save you hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on large transfers compared to doing bank to bank transfers.
For companies recommended by other returning Canadians, see the Foreign Exchange resource page on this site - "Part 3: Transferring Money to Canada..."
Your ideas, considerations, and experiences?
Please share your ideas, thoughts, and experiences relating to returning to Canada from the UK. Your input will really help others who are considering the move as well. A big thank you on behalf of the many people you will be helping!
This page up to date as of May 2018.
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A happy client:
Just to update you - we landed and sailed through customs! So thank you so much for all of your advice...It was a thoroughly pleasant experience...
... this is to say thank you for everything. Your advisory has been so incredibly helpful and saved us considerable time and removed room for error.
With best wishes,
Feedback from a UK visitor to this web site:
Thank you for your informative site. I should have signed up for your support. I am ready to throw our belongings in the Atlantic I am so fed up with trying to figure everything out.