Vancouver, Canada Report of what it's like to live there - 06/09/14
Personal Experiences from Vancouver, Canada
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
Multiple postings prior to Vancouver.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Vancouver is just a short 2.5 to 3-hour hop from Seattle, about an hour to the Washington border. Air travel to the West Coast, U.S., is simple and quick. Travel to the East Coast typically requires a transfer in Chicago, Toronto, Denver, etc. -- non-stops are few.
3. How long have you lived here?
Lived there roughly two+ years.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Employed with USG at Consulate.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
This is an LQA post and as others note it can be very expensive and a hassle on many fronts. It can work out great and you might secure desirable accommodations that suit your personal taste, but be prepared to pony up a lot of $ up front, comply with security and other requirements, and to do paperwork and reconciliation. I loved my housing but it was a pain, too. Not sure I'll do LQA again as a result.
Consulate employees are spread throughout Metro Vancouver in a mix of houses, condos and apartments, It requires your own legwork. Those with kids tended to be on the North Shore over the Lion's Gate Bridge in either West Vancouver or North Vancouver. Some were in Kitsilano or Coal Harbour. Singles and those without families tended to be in the downtown or nearby areas like Yaletown and Kits. Commute times varied but I don't think they exceeded 30 minutes for anyone and could be as little as a five minute walk if you chose Coal Harbour. Some people rode bikes over the bridge or took the Seabus from the North Shore.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
There were Safeways and even Whole Foods there if you need that. Save-On was generally a better deal. Milk, cheese, fruit and most things are staggeringly expensive relative to the U.S. Again, many people made regular trips south of the border. There were Targets and a Costco but they weren't quite the same products for the most part and I found them more expensive by far. Still, you won't lack for anything. Granville Island has an impressive array of harder to find gourmet items (fancy cheeses, boar, pates, etc.) if you're in that market.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
More furniture, maybe? Even Craigslist in Vancouver was more pricey than elsewhere. Again, it's an LQA post. And it was a hassle leaving there for a furnished post because I then had to store everything I just purchased! Know what you are getting into and plan accordingly.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Everything. And fast food there can mean different things - fish and chips, Japadog, etc.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Insects? Most people are far more concerned with bears.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
A consulate employee traveled to the Point Roberts, WA post office facility twice weekly to drop off and pick up. I went down once myself but also mailed things from Washington on my own at times if I was in a rush. It could be a bit slow but nothing unreasonable.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Everything you can imagine is available. Pricing was similar to Virginia or slightly higher, I felt, although there are community recreation centers (very nice, as are the local libraries) with very affordable gym, class, yoga, and other fitness options.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Canadians use debit cards a LOT. You will need a Canadian bank account.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
You name it.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
You can get by with your English and some Canadian: pasta is like "past", taco is "tack," bagel is like "bag" with a soft a. Throw in a few eh's. No, I am not generalizing. Folks really say "eh."
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
I have to believe it is far better than most posts. Accommodations similar to U.S.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
All available. Prices fair to so-so.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
I used my car more than I thought I would. Bring snow tires if you have any notion of heading to Whistler in the winter or else plan to rent a car. Service and oil changes were more expensive. I went to Bellingham and beyond for my needs.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Available and priced fairly, though with my modest Telus tv/landline package it came to about US$200 per month. Adding in my cell bill (US$95) I guess that is a lot.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
I bought an iPhone on a Canadian plan. Their contract cancellation is far more friendly and civilized than in the U.S. I had a two-year contract and it worked out perfectly but if I'd had to break the contract it would have only cost about US$20.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
Easy to bring pet in. It's a very pet-friendly city.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
I don't think so, at least for professionals, but it probably depends. Check with FLO or CLO. There wasn't anything to speak of for EFMs at the Consulate that I was aware of.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Nothing major. Even the unfortunate East Hastings area isn't exactly a security concern, though I wouldn't frequent that area and some of the drug culture spills into Gastown and along Granville. Drugs and theft seem to be in the news more than anything.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Some people switched to Canadian health care but most people I knew kept their U.S. coverage and either used providers in Vancouver and/or traveled to Washington and elsewhere.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
The air quality = insanely good and the drinking water was wonderful. Most people seemed to lead healthy, eco-conscious lives.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
I cannot sidestep the issue of rain. It rains for several months and can be dark and could seem relentless at times. When it was sunny, though, it was unbelievably beautiful. People don't waste those days - when the sun shines, people are very active and get out to enjoy nature, parks, festivals, shopping, cafe culture, etc. It is cool to downright chilly much of the year but mostly comfortable in the later spring and early fall and is amazing most of July and August.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There were no true international schools that I know of - the type that cater to the transient expat club. I didn't have personal experience but I did hear A LOT about others' problems with schools on multiple fronts -- finding ones that would even take USG kids, onerous testing, interview and admissions procedures before arrival requiring out of pocket $, and the inability to enroll in the desired public schools without a local address (in other words before you arrive at post). I know that a few families had issues integrating/hazing, believe it or not. I would recommend doing a lot of research as it didn't sound ideal, though I think post has a "preferred" relationship with one of the North Shore schools. Maybe start there.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
I know they were available and knew at least two colleagues who lamented the expense.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
I saw kids outdoors playing all sorts of sports and heard colleagues speak of traveling teams. Field hockey, rugby, ice hockey, and box lacrosse are big, I think. I'm sure it is similar to the U.S. but if you need a particular sport it would be best to investigate beforehand. I knew of one family whose son went to the States for boarding school because the caliber of American football at the high school level was fairly weak relative to the U.S. Who knew?
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
I think mixed. Vancouver was not a cohesive community-type post (though there were some nice events at the CG's house) so if you need that support or activity offerings, you may be disappointed. Some were bored with the work, others had higher or different expectations for the post, and many were fighting the high cost of living daily and not able to partake in all the city had to offer. Again, do your research, calibrate expectations, and know what you are getting into with LQA, cost of living, etc. I will also say that several of us had trouble in our administrative dealings with Ottawa. It could seem an evil empire at times.
2. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
It's a great city for anyone though living there is expensive for all and for families I understand it can be quite challenging due to uncovered educational and extracurricular activity costs, food and gas prices, etc. I know several Canadians who even make regular trips to Washington for groceries. Eating out is pricey.
3. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
I have to believe so. The West End, in particular, is known as very LGBT friendly but the whole city seemed welcoming to all.
4. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Not sure. There was a bit of resentment brewing among old vs. new Chinese, I heard, and Vancouver has more than rolled out a welcome mat for anyone who can afford to come and park their money (if not themselves) there, making real estate and daily existence less affordable for mere mortals, but I was impressed by how calm and accommodating Vancouverites seemed to be. I wonder if it is sustainable.
5. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Traveling to Banff and Lake Louise, hiking and skiing Whistler, Bella Coola, taking the ferry anywhere - Gulf Islands, Sunshine Coast, Victoria and the rest of Vancouver Island.
6. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
You have to just get out and explore. Truth is, after traveling throughout British Columbia and soaking in the beauty you also come to realize that Vancouver itself has it all right there. I came to really like the North Shore because I am a hiker/biker/kayaker, etc. Deep Cove, Horseshoe Bay, Whytecliff and Lighthouse Parks, Grouse Mountain, Cypress, and Mount Seymour are all within minutes of your door. Options are endless on land and water.
7. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Salmon products, First Nations art, maple syrup products, Canucks attire.
8. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Vancouver and all of British Columbia = one of the most extraordinarily beautiful places on earth. It offers a nice mix of vibrant urban city with great food and decent cultural activities and every outdoor pursuit you can imagine. Yes, it rains a lot and can be dark/gloomy in winter and beyond (locals call June Junuary) but I learned to do as the Canadians: just get out and go. You can't let it stop you. Proximity to U.S. is a mixed blessing. Driving to Bellingham for affordable goods gets old but, then, I was lucky to have the option, too. Most things are very expensive in Vancouver.
9. Can you save money?
I cannot imagine in a million years how.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
How expensive it would be. That post (Ottawa?) would insist I forfeit my affordable USAA insurance plan and American license to sign on for costly BC auto insurance and licensing when every other country but the US seemed to use dip plates.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes, I enjoyed my time there. It is a beautiful city in which to live with much to offer, especially if one is into outdoor pursuits. I wasn't heartbroken when it came time to leave but I am grateful for my time there.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Bad attitude and impatience.
4. But don't forget your:
Hiking boots, rain gear, and smile.