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A Comprehensive Guide about Living in Calgary

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  • Andrey Vasilyev

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Life in Calgary

At a Glance:

  • Calgary offers a wealth of outdoor activities and stunning scenery, as well as numerous parks and green spaces in the city.
  • In the low-lying areas of the city there is a flood risk, but you can use the Flood Hazard Map to identify which areas are safer.
  • The Alberta Health Care Insurance Plan (AHCIP) provides coverage for all healthcare services for all permanent residents of Alberta. Expats are also covered if they can show that they will be staying there for longer than a 12 month period.
  • The standard of education in public schools is very high.

Astounding Nature during All Four Seasons

Thanks to its location and the two rivers running through the city, expats living in Calgary have plenty of opportunities to enjoy nature. The city offers beautiful walks along the river banks and numerous green spaces, such as the Olympic Park, Edworthy Park, Elliston Park, Nose Hill Park, the Weaselhead Flats, and many more. Additionally, there are also quite a few golf courses in the city itself.

Nested along the Elbow and Bow Rivers and established at the edge of the wide and open prairie, the city is also only an hour’s drive away from the Canadian Rocky Mountains. There, expats living in Calgary can enjoy various outdoor activities, from skiing in winter to hiking in summer.

During your life in Calgary, you will experience very distinct seasons with both winters and summers usually clear and sunny. In fact, Calgary has the most hours of sunshine when compared to other cities in Canada! As such, summer days are long, and temperatures typically range in the mid-twenties or more. Winters in Calgary, on the other hand, can get — as one would rightly expect from a Canadian city — extremely cold with temperatures known to drop below minus 30°C on occasion.

However, expats living in Calgary need not fear, for milder winter days with temperatures up to 10°C or more are just as common — thanks to the westerly “Chinook” winds and the fact that the weather is prone to change quickly. Nevertheless, with snowfall sometimes as early as in September, expats moving to Calgary should not forget to pack their long underwear and make the most out of winter: take advantage of the numerous local opportunities for winter sports, from tobogganing to cross-country skiing.

Fun Activities en Masse

Winter sports are not the only leisure activities that you can participate in while living in Calgary, though. The city and its surrounding countryside have — next to the aforementioned parks and golf courses — a number of fun and recreational places to offer. The Calgary Tower, for example, is one of the tallest buildings in the city. As such, it serves as a widely visible landmark and visitors to its observation deck or restaurant can enjoy a 360° view of Calgary.

Calaway Park, on the other hand, lies less than half an hour’s drive west of the city and is the self-proclaimed largest outdoor amusement park in Western Canada. It has more than 30 rides, various live shows, as well as street performers; making for a great day out, particularly for expats who are living in Calgary with their family.

Even further afield to the west, but all the more beautiful for that, expats living in Calgary will find the beginnings of the Canadian Rockies and such natural gems as Elbow-Sheep Wildland Provincial Park, Peter Loughheed Provincial Park, as well as Canada’s oldest national park, Banff National Park. In these stunning natural surroundings, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to camp, hike, climb, mountain bike, ski, or even go horseback riding.

Back in Calgary itself, there are also lots of things to do. From night clubs and nearly 20 indoor ice rinks, to arts centers and museums, as well as comedy clubs, there’s bound to be something for everybody who is living in Calgary. And every July, Calgary goes back to its Wild West roots during the Calgary Stampede, a 10-day outdoor cowboy festival. During this event, Calgary does its best to live up to its nickname as “Cowtown” with various parades, a rodeo, and much more.

Safety in Calgary: Beware of Floods!

Expatriates who are about to start life in Calgary will be glad to hear that there is a relatively low crime rate, and police statistics show that it declined further in 2016. Even Downtown East Village — the city’s neighborhood that was once declared the Skid Row of Calgary due to the prevalence of prostitution, homelessness, and illegal drug use — is currently turning over a new leaf with the help of major investment and development in the area.

There is, however, a certain flood risk for quite a number of low-lying areas in the city, as the severe floods in 2013 have shown. Heavy rainfall, as well as snow melts in the Canadian Rockies, can cause a number of problems, from sewer backup and basement seepage to plain overland flooding of whole neighborhoods. Therefore, expats should make sure to also factor in the flood risk while searching for their new home and preparing for life in Calgary. The government of Alberta has released an interactive Flood Hazard Map.

Healthcare and Education in Calgary

Alberta’s Public Healthcare System

Canada’s public healthcare system, called Medicare, with its nationwide standards of coverage as defined by the Canada Health Act, is the basis for various territorial and provincial health insurance plans. In Alberta, healthcare services are thus covered and managed by the Alberta Health Care Insurance Plan (AHCIP). This plan provides coverage for all permanent residents of Alberta, provided they are physically present for at least half the time in a 12-month period and are not already obtaining benefits in another territory, province, or country.

Expats and their dependents are typically also covered, as long as they show commitment to live in the province for at least 12 consecutive months and, in the case of temporary workers, were granted a permit with a minimum duration of six months. Get in touch with the AHCIP for information and help regarding your individual situation.

If you are eligible, don’t forget to register for the AHCIP within three months of your arrival. Once you’re successfully registered, you will get your Alberta Personal Health Card.

The AHCIP covers the costs of medically required services at hospitals or doctors’ offices, excluding expenditures for medication (outside of hospitals or nursing homes), ambulance services, and treatments by dentists, naturopaths, acupuncturists, as well as some treatments by specialists (e.g. optometrists).

Make sure to talk to your employer about additional health insurance coverage or think about taking out a private health insurance policy yourself if you want to be insured against such additional costs.

In Need of a Doctor?

If you find yourself in need of emergency services (e.g. police or fire department), dial 911. This emergency number is available 24/7.

Keep in mind, however, that ambulance costs are not covered by the AHCIP, so if at all possible, make your own way to one of the city’s hospitals or health centers when in need of urgent care. Well-known hospitals and health centers in Calgary are:

  • Foothills Medical Centre
  • Peter Lougheed Centre
  • Rockyview General Hospital
  • Sheldon M. Chumier Health Centre
  • Alberta Children’s Hospital
  • South Health Campus
  • South Calgary Health Centre

Please note that the South Calgary Health Centre, for instance, does not provide 24h emergency services. This is the case for the majority of health centers in Calgary, with Sheldon M. Chumier the noted exception. Hospitals, on the other hand, operate around-the-clock.

For everyday medical services, make sure to find a family doctor early on, for their referral will be necessary if you are planning on seeing any type of specialist. You can use the online tool for finding local physicians, as provided by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta.

Children Are in Good Hands

You can look up licensed childcare programs in your neighborhood with the Childcare Look-Up Tool from the Alberta Human Services. Expatriates in Calgary can also send their kids (around age 5) to the kindergarten of their designated school or enroll them in an alternative program at, for example, a bilingual school. Refer to the Calgary Board of Education’s website for more information on kindergartens in Calgary.

Where to Send Your Kid to School

There is no single, nationwide school system in Canada, but Canadian public schools nevertheless retain a very high standard of education. Funded through taxes, public schools are free for all residents, including expat kids. As such, only relatively small costs may crop up, e.g. to cover additional educational materials or field trips.

The Calgary Board of Education (CBE) offers a comprehensive overview of public schools in the region, which can be filtered by either grade or area. The overview includes detailed information on the schools, their main program(s) and any “unique points”, such as language immersion or sports programs.

Typically, you cannot simply pick one specific school, though, as school placements are dependent on your address in Calgary and the availability of space and programs. Requests are, however, taken into consideration.

Similarly to public schools, Catholic schools are also funded mostly through donations and taxes. Check the website of the Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD) for more information and an overview of Catholic schools in Calgary.

With about 25% of local students classified as English Language Learners (ELLs) by the CBE, supporting non-native speakers in improving their English skills is considered very important. As such, many of both the CBE’s and the CSSD’s schools provide English Language Learning (ELL) assistance in one form or another.

Read on to learn more about international schools and institutions of higher education in Calgary and to get information on your local transportation options.

Calgary: More on Education and Transport

Schooling: International or Private?

With the Lycée Louis Pasteur and the Calgary French & International School (CFIS), Calgary has two international private schools that offer French Immersion programs. However, sending your children to one of these, or any one of the other private schools in Calgary, can cost you a pretty penny: From kindergarten to 12th grade, annual tuition fees typically start at around 6,500 CAD and can easily go up to 16,000 CAD or more.

Top-Notch Universities

With around ten different colleges and universities, Calgary certainly has a lot to offer those seeking further education. Large and well-known institutions of higher education in the city include:

  • The University of Calgary
  • Mount Royal University
  • Bow Valley College
  • SAIT Polytechnic

The Best Ways of Reaching Calgary

Many expats will travel to the city via Calgary International Airport, which has flights serving major cities in the US and Canada, as well as some destinations in East Asia, the Caribbean, and Europe. Alternatives to flying include taking a bus, traveling by train, or driving to Calgary via the Queen Elizabeth II Highway or the Trans-Canada Highway.

Intercity bus services are readily available from Greyhound Canada or Red Arrow. Passenger train services, on the other hand, are nowadays more of a luxury journey than a feasible mode of transportation, with prices for a two-day trip from Vancouver to Calgary starting at more than 1,500 CAD.

Getting Around and About

In Calgary itself, using trains to get around is much cheaper. The local LRT network with its so-called C-Trains includes two lines that cover the city from the south to the northwest (Red Line) and from the west to the northeast (Blue Line), respectively. A third line is currently in the planning phase.  These train lines are further supplemented by an extensive bus network.

On the website of Calgary Transit, you can get the latest news (e.g. on detours), check routes and fares, as well as plan your trip. At the time of writing in November 2017, fares ranged from 3.25 CAD for a single ride to 101.00 CAD for a monthly pass. Keep in mind that you will not get back any change when paying in cash on a bus and that you will need coins for ticket booths.

Need a Taxi?

Rates for taxis in Calgary are regulated by the city’s Livery Transport Service and prices are the same for all taxi companies. At the time of writing, taxi rates consisted of:

  • a starting fare of 3.80 CAD (or alternatively 8.30 CAD for departures from the airport)
  • 0.20 CAD per unit

A unit is either 120 meters of your journey or 21 seconds of waiting time, whichever comes first. Tipping your driver around 10 —15% of the fare is also customary.

Highly Recommended: Get a Car  

In Calgary, as in the majority of Canada, most people prefer to use their own car to get around, and only 17% opt to use public transportation for their daily commute instead. With fuel prices relatively inexpensive and prices for a new vehicle starting at around 12,000 CAD, it is hardly surprising that approximately 80% of Canadians own a car to get around.

After importing or buying a car, make sure to insure it, get it registered by one of the Alberta Registry Agents in Calgary, and always keep your insurance and registration documents with you while driving.

For more information on owning a car and driving safely, especially in winter, take a look at our Relocation Guide on Driving in Canada.

Alternatively, you can also use the more than 800 km of on-street routes and pathways to get around the city by bicycle. You can check the current pathways and bikeways map on Calgary’s official city website.

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