If you want to travel to North America in your own vehicle as a tourist, you can choose to buy it in either Canada or the United States. Both countries allow tourists to buy and register a vehicle. But we eventually decided to buy our campervan in Canada.
There are some serious considerations when choosing where to buy your vehicle. In this article, I want to quickly share our options, so you’ll be in a better position to decide for yourself!
Your situation is probably different from ours, so before I can continue, let me paint the picture:
Rachel and I had been saving money for years to go on a big sabbatical in North America. We planned to buy a campervan so that we could live and travel in it for at least a year.
Tourist visas for Canada and the US
In our situation, we could only enter Canada and the United States on temporary tourist visas.
- For the United States, we got in using the ESTA (or Visa Waiver Program)
- For Canada, we got in using the ETA.
Both of these visas are generally the same. If you are from Europe, you can simply obtain these visas by filling in an online form. I won’t go into those details here, as there are already pretty good guides on how to get these visas.
What’s important to know is that these are temporary visas. If you enter the country using these visas, you are merely a visitor, not a resident.
- The ESTA visa in the United States allows you to stay for a maximum period of 90 days.
- The ETA visa in Canada allows you to stay up to 6 months in a single period.
The limitations of your visas
Since we wanted to travel for at least a year, our choice was determined by the restrictions of our visa.
We were able to stay 90 days in the US in a single period, and 180 days in Canada in a single period.
If we were to make it to a year, we would have to spend 2 x 90 days in the US, and 1 x 180 days in Canada.
But here’s a big factor that a lot of people forget: Buying and registering a vehicle takes time. A lot of time!
We estimated it would take us about 3 weeks to find, buy, register and insure our campervan.
In our case, it took us even longer as we had to do some work on our little campervan. All in all, it took us a full month to start looking for a vehicle before we were able to hit the road with it!
I discussed more of this topic in our article on buying vs. renting a campervan as a tourist.
When we were planning our trip, the pandemic was still in full swing. This prevented us from applying for the B-2 tourist visa in the United States. This visa is significantly more difficult to obtain, but it allows tourists to stay for 6 months in the United States in a single period!
The impact of the seasons
Seasonality can be another big factor in your decision. If you want to travel through Canada, you probably don’t want to be there in the winter.
Canadian winters are extremely harsh. We were in Montreal, Quebec in March, and temperatures got as low as -20 degrees celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit).
These are temperatures that we want to avoid at all costs, especially when traveling in a campervan.
If you’re looking to buy a vehicle and start in British Columbia, Canada, you’ll be happy to hear that the winters there are pretty mild. We found that the winters are especially mild in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island.
Why we chose to buy our vehicle in Canada and not the United States
We were ready to travel to North America in February and decided to start looking for a vehicle in Canada.
The reasons are relatively simple:
It took us a month to find a vehicle. That’s 30 days, which is 33% of your maximum stay on the United States ESTA visa. On the other hand, it’s only 17% of the maximum stay on a Canadian ETA visa.
In the end, we would rather spend (or waste) this time on a Canadian visa, which is more forgiving than the United States’ counterpart.
The seasons also played a role.
Let me remind you, we started our search for our campervan in mid-February. This meant we were ready to hit the road in mid-March, one full month later.
That meant we could spend 90 days in the United States, then enter Canada for the full duration of the summer (from June to October), and then hop back into the United States again.
This is exactly what we did.
- We entered Canada for the first time in mid-February and focuses solely on buying our campervan.
- From March to June, we traveled the East coast of the US down to the Florida Keys. We then traveled inland to Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, before crossing the border to Canada on our 87th day.
- From June to October, we re-entered Canada through Alberta and fully explored British Columbia.
- In October, we entered the US for the second time on our ESTA, effectively avoiding the harsh winter in Canada.
To be fair, we didn’t manage to stay the full 180 days in Canada. In reality, we “only” spent 119 days in Canada.
But if we had bought our vehicle in the US instead of Canada, we would have probably followed the same plan. Only now, we would have wasted 33% of our time in the US, without having the ability to stay longer.
In the end, it all comes down to your preferences. If you are more resistant to cold temperatures, you might not be influenced by the seasons as much as we were. Or if you already have a vehicle lined up and ready to go, you don’t have to worry about wasting the precious time of your visa!
I hope it’s clear by now what your options are. By sharing our experiences, I hope you’ll be more comfortable with whatever obstacles you face. Because, to be honest, doing something like this is hard. There are so many things to consider, that it can feel a bit overwhelming sometimes. That’s why we shared all of our experiences in our guide on buying a campervan as tourists in North America.
If you have any questions, be sure to let us know in the comments below! We know how hard this can be, so we want to help you realize your dreams!