Key takeaways:

  • Getting a Canadian chequing account can help you manage your money and avoid transaction delays, and a savings account to build your emergency fund.
  • If you use a credit card responsibly, you can build your Canadian credit score.
  • A monthly budget will help you prioritize your spending so you can pay your bills—and have fun.

As a student and a newcomer to Canada, you have a lot of decisions to make, and not just which classes to take. Studying abroad can be expensive. During your program, you'll need a place to live, a way to get around town, and money for meals, clothes and entertainment— and all of this is on top of your books and tuition.

That's why financial literacy is so important. But don't worry, you're far from alone. Canada's world-renowned universities, cultural diversity, and welcoming environment attract hundreds of thousands of international students every year — in fact, more than 550,000 study permits were granted to international students in 2022 alone.

So, for you and the other 549,999 people with money questions, we've put together this guide. Read on for the best information and tips about budgeting, wisely spending and saving your money so you can enjoy your Canadian experience both inside and outside the classroom.

The importance of financial literacy

When you have the information that you need to make informed decisions about your money, you can become financially literate. This means that you understand things like how to:

  • Make a budget
  • Bank
  • Save
  • Handle debt

But as an international student, you'll also need to know about a financial system that might be very different from the one in your home country.

Canadian banking 101

As an international student, you'll live, study and possibly work in Canada for a significant period of time. You'll need a way to manage your money so you can keep track of what you have, pay your bills and build your savings.

One challenge for international students is the extra paperwork and fees you have to take care of — all while banking in a new country with a new currency. In this section, we'll talk about bank accounts, credit cards and investments for international students in Canada.

Canadian bank accounts

International students can get a Canadian bank account — and should. Using a bank account from your home country might delay transactions, but using a Canadian bank account can give you fast and easy access to your money.

It's common for banks in Canada to charge fees on their accounts, but there are exceptions. The Student Banking Advantage Plan is part of Scotiabank's StartRight® Program1 for newcomers and international students. With this no-monthly fee chequing account, you get unlimited debit transactions and Interac e-Transfer transactions so you can pay for things at stores or even to people directly from your bank account. It also includes unlimited international money transfers so you can send money home. 

To set up this account, book an appointment at a Scotiabank branch. You'll need to bring your identification, your student visa or temporary resident visa (TRV), and proof that you're enrolled in a Canadian school.

Credit cards

If you want to rent a car or make a larger purchase, you'll need a credit card.

A credit card is also one of the easiest ways to build your credit score and, in Canada, having a credit score is important. A good credit score can help you get a cell phone, open a line of credit or even rent an apartment. All of these become more difficult if you have a bad credit score, or none at all, and your credit history from your home country doesn't count.

That's why you should consider (responsibly) using a credit card. This means paying it off on time, every time. While it's best to pay the balance in full every month, if you have to take on debt, make sure you pay at least the minimum amount required to keep a positive credit profile.

One challenge for international students is that some companies won't issue a card without a Canadian credit history. The Scotiabank StartRight Program offers international students a variety of credit cards, like the Scotiabank Scene+ Visa card  with up to $5,000 credit limit without any Canadian credit history.2

Plus, when you use the card, you earn points you can redeem for things like food at participating restaurants and movies. Your Friday nights just got more affordable!

With a bit of planning and the help of a bank, international students can build their credit.

Creating and managing your monthly budget

Now that you have an overview of how banking works in Canada, it's time to make a budget. Your budget is your money plan. It helps you stay in control of your finances, while making sure you have enough for the things you need and want, like saving up for a new phone or a fun trip with friends.

To build a budget, list all your monthly income sources, like savings or money from a part-time job. Make sure health insurance, travel, currency exchange fees and permit fees are in your budget. Then, list your monthly living expenses, like rent, food and bills, plus clothes and entertainment. Don't forget tuition fees and books. You can simplify this process with an app like Scotia Smart Money by Advice+.

As an international student, the cost of living in Canada might be higher than you're used to so you might have to adjust your budget. Notice that some of your expenses (like tuition) are needs, while others (like that new pair of jeans) are wants. If your expenses are more than your income, you'll need to adjust, starting by reducing the amount of money you put towards your wants.

Make sure you have some extra money for a few luxuries every month, though. It's much harder to stick to a budget that doesn't allow for any fun.

Making money

There are several ways an international student can make some money while studying in Canada. 

Work a part-time job

Some students take part-time jobs to gain experience and help with expenses. Even though you're in Canada on a study permit, international students are allowed to work up to 20 hours per week.3

If you're looking for a part-time job, start at the university. Co-op positions are like internships, and they can help you gain experience in your field of study while you make money. Also check the student services office at your school and government of Canada hiring programs.4

There are a few things to be aware of when working in Canada. Different provinces and territories have different minimum wages. For example, if you're working in Saskatchewan, the least you can be paid hourly is $14, but if you're working in Ontario, the minimum is $16.55.5

Also, there are regulations for things like how many hours you can work, whether you get paid more for working more, and whether you get paid on holidays, so it's a good idea to look up the rules where you live. Finally, money will be taken off your paycheque for taxes. (Yes, international students have to file tax returns while in Canada, and it's important to do so on time to avoid paying penalties.)

Apply for scholarships, grants, or bursaries

A scholarship is financial aid awarded to students based on things like academic performance and extracurricular activities, while grants and bursaries usually also consider financial need. You don't need to pay this money back. Go to your university financial assistance office to find out what might be available to you, and to learn how to apply.

Saving money

Being skilled at saving money is as important as making money. Luckily, there are plenty of ways for students to get discounts or even freebies and improve their financial situation. Here are just a few:

  • Find affordable housing: Rent will be one of your biggest expenses so saving a few bucks here can make a huge difference. If you're planning on living on-campus, ask about being a resident assistant or supervisor. These peer leaders coordinate activities in residence and often get free or discounted accommodation or a meal plan as part of their pay. If you're living off-campus, look for shared accommodations.
  • Take the bus: Owning and driving a car in Canada is expensive. You'll have to pay for insurance and gas as well as any repairs and maintenance — on top of the purchase price. Students get discounted monthly transit passes everywhere in the country. Walking or biking is an even better option.
  • Use your student card for discounts: Most colleges and universities have partnerships with local businesses to offer students discounts on everything from meals to products and services.
  • Use your school's facilities: Most colleges and universities have on-campus gyms, libraries and counselling services that are available to students for free.
  • Shop second hand: Thrift stores, where you can buy everything from clothing to sports equipment to furniture used and for a fraction of the price of new, are extremely popular in Canada. You can also save a lot of money by buying your textbooks used, and when you're done, you might be able to sell them to another student.

Financial assistance

If you find you need more financial help to complete your program of study in Canada, you can apply for a loan or line of credit with a Canadian bank. For example, Scotiabank offers a Personal Line of Credit for Students, which allows you access to funds if and when you need them. You'll only have to pay on the interest (not the principal) while you're still in school and you get a 12-month grace period after graduation. Like with a credit card, responsible use of a line of credit can increase your credit score.

Bottom line

As an international student, managing your finances can be a challenging experience, but with proper planning and a good level of financial literacy, it's possible to live within your means and make the most of your time studying in Canada.

Ready to get your finances on track for your future? Come in and speak to a Scotia advisor today