Visiting First: a Wise Investment

Books, articles and advice from friends and family can help, but there is no better way to prepare for immigrating to Canada than visiting your future home in person.

If you can afford it, coming to Canada as a tourist may be one of the best investments you can make prior to taking the next step. You will get a real feel for the country and will be able to form your own opinion, rather than relying on those of others. You will also pick up tips that will better prepare you for your move, says Christine Wong, Team Leader, Mountain Site, Settlement Services in Hamilton, Ontario.

Wong says that most newcomers she meets have never been to Canada before they immigrate, but people who have the chance to visit as tourists first can gain a lot. Wong immigrated to Canada 20 years ago and came to the country first as a tourist. In her office, she answers questions from visitors about the job market and the education system. People also want advice on how to prepare if they are working in regulated professions.  

"If they are really serious about migrating to Canada," Wong says, "they need to spend at least one month. They need to see the area where they want to live, and talk to Canadians. Not just Canadians born here, but immigrants who came here, and ask them about the challenges, the struggles they've been through. Because people will paint a nice picture of coming to Canada, but the reality may be something else that they never think of when they arrive. So they have to get information from the new immigrants, and the immigrants who have been here many years.

"People coming for one or two months often stay with family or friends, but if they don't have relatives here, they usually stay in hotels. In this case they don't stay long, probably one or two weeks," says Wong.

Even that short time can be helpful. Olive Wahoush only had two weeks to visit Canada. She stayed with friends and managed to do a lot. Wahoush is originally from Northern Ireland but had been living with her husband and four children for a few years in Pakistan. Even though it took money from their savings, Wahoush and her husband decided to visit first. "We felt that to relocate a family of six, if it wasn't going to be a "fit", it would be a major expensive mistake."

One of the benefits of coming as a tourist is that you will see your chosen city up close. Canada is a huge country and things as important as weather, language, job opportunities, city sizes, cultural activities, and schools vary from place to place. Vancouver is not St. John's. Calgary is not Montreal. Small towns differ too.

Even within provinces there are big differences. Before their visit, Wahoush and her husband had narrowed down their choice but hadn't made their final selection. Ontario appealed to them but people warned them that northern Ontario could be very cold. Their children had not known anything but desert heat, so the climate change would be very drastic. "But here in southern Ontario we have a hot summer," Wahoush says. They considered Toronto and Hamilton. "We spent two days in Toronto, one for meetings with people that I might have been working with, and the second day to do the touristy stuff. It's quite overwhelming, the size of the city and the underground shopping and stuff like that. We found people very friendly, we found it very busy, but it didn't look like a city we'd comfortably live in, whereas Hamilton did. There are distinct neighbourhoods in Hamilton with a village feel."

The "tourist stuff" can be very useful because as it gives you a taste of the local lifestyle – an important consideration for your day-to-day happiness. What do you enjoy doing in your free time? Will you be able to do that in or near your chosen city or town? Wahoush, who enjoys biking, visited conservation areas like Christie Lake and Fifty Point, and went to Niagara Falls and downtown Toronto "just to get a feel for the arts and the cultural stuff that was available." She came in December. "Christmas here was so different from what I've experienced. We went out for hayrides and stuff like that."

They also experienced their first Canadian winter, although, as Wahoush says, "I think we felt a little misled because the snow was very light and there wasn't much until after we left. I think we were here until the 14th or 15th of December. We certainly got a sense of the cold. I had never experienced anything like that before, nothing beyond a minus 9." Temperatures during their stay were about minus 18 with the wind chill factor. "I had never heard the expression 'wind chill' in my life," says Wahoush with a laugh.

They also made a point of taking local buses. "We were very impressed with public transit and we got a feel for what it would be like to come without a car, because we figured we'd be without a vehicle for a time."

"We were smarter about what we could freely leave behind because we could replace it here – and probably less expensively. We also knew what we absolutely needed to bring with us. It just felt less intimidating when we arrived. We'd already done that customs thing and come through and had an idea of where we coming to," says Wahoush.

Is she glad they made the trip as tourists, even if it reduced their savings? Definitely! "If you're able to come in the off-peak season and get a good deal on the ticket, I absolutely recommend it," she says.

You can find visa information for tourists on the Citizenship & Immigration web site http://www.cic.gc.ca under the "Visit" section.