Flying in Canada vs the US

Last summer I had a co-op term in the states, so I took that opportunity to learn to fly and got my Private Pilot License, under the impression that flying in Canada will be more or less the same as in the US. And for the most part it was, but there are quite a few differences, too, and I couldn’t find a page that summarizes everything, so I wrote one. A lot of it is just simple terminology differences, but there are some procedural differences, too, and how people are used to doing things differently –

1. In the US, we aren’t allowed to switch frequency from tower to ground after landing without tower telling us to do so (“Citabria 06G, contact ground. Good day.”). If the tower controller forgets (very rare), I usually ask them “Tower, request frequency change to ground”/”Frequency change approved. Good day.”. In Canada, people usually switch to ground immediately after taxi-ing off the runway without telling anyone.

2. No flight following in Canada. In the US, ATCs provide a very useful service on workload-permitting basis to VFR aircrafts – flight following. Basically, we tell them where we want to go, and they track us on their radar and give us traffic advisories and terrain warning, etc. Perhaps more importantly, if something happens to the flight, they can immediately initiate search and rescue based on your last radar position. This service is not provided in Canada :(.

For Canadian pilots, if you ever fly to the US, requesting flight following usually goes like this –

After leaving tower airspace, request frequency change to departure TRACON (this is not actually legally required, but a “social nicety” so if the tower wants to talk to you, s/he won’t have to say something 3 times only to find out that you are not with him/her anymore) –

“Reid-Hillview Tower, Citabria 06G, request frequency change to departure.”

“Citabria 06G, frequency change approved. Good day.”

Then switch to the TRACON frequency (equivalent to “Terminal” in Canada) –

“NorCal Approach, Citabria 1806G, 5 miles south of Reid-Hillview, request.”

“Citabria 1806G, NorCal Approach, state your request.”

“Citabria 06G is 5 miles south of Reid-Hillview, 2500 ft, request flight following en-route to Castle via over Hollister.” – destination and route

“Citabria 06G, squawk 1234, squawk ident.’

“Citabria 06G, radar contact 7 miles south of Reid-Hillview.”


Then every once in a while we’ll get a traffic advisory from them, sometimes with a vector for avoidance –

“Citabria 06G, additional traffic 12 o’clock, opposite direction, same altitude, Boeing 747. Fly heading 090.”

“090. 06G”

“Citabria 06G, traffic no factor, resume own navigation.”

Then once you are close to destination airport, they will switch you to tower (don’t have to say your position again because TRACON will pass that to the tower) –

“Citabria 06G, contact Castle Tower 118.175. Stay on squawk. Good day.”

3. In Canada, all flights more than 25nm from the point of departure requires us to file a flight plan. There is no such requirement in the US. In the US, you can fly VFR as far as you want without a flight plan (though it’s a good idea to either file a flight plan or get flight following, for search and rescue purposes).

4. In the US, the Private Pilot License includes night flying and VFR OTT privileges. In Canada it doesn’t (they require additional ratings). In the US high performance aircrafts (>200hp engine like the Cirrus SR22) and complex aircrafts (flaps + variable pitch props + retractable gears) require additional endorsements. In Canada there’s no high performance endorsement up to airplanes that require a type rating (mostly Cessna Citation class light jets but also some very high performance piston airplanes).

5. In the US, pilots usually read back all clearances IFR-style, even when flying VFR. In Canada, most pilots only read back restrictions (“clear to land runway 25, hold short of runway 12-30″/”hold short of 12-30”). In general, American ATC is more verbose than Canadian ones. It’s pretty common to get a take-off clearance like this when flying from San Jose through San Francisco –

“Reid-Hillview Tower, Citabria 1806G, ready for departure.”

“Citabria 1806G, Reid-Hillview Tower, left turn-out departure approved, remain clear of San Jose International class C until in contact with San Jose Tower, runway 31L, clear for take-off.”

… and we would just read everything back.

6. In Canada, when an aircraft leaves a tower controller’s airspace, either the controller or the pilot is expected to terminate contact –

“Bay Tower, Diamond FPME is cleared to the east.”

“PME roger, radar service terminated.”

In the US, tower controllers try to give pilots traffic advisories for as long as possible in their radar range (usually until the aircraft leaves radio range), which is pretty nice. For very short training flights, sometimes I even remain on the departure tower frequency until ready to contact destination tower.

7. In the US, tower can clear pilots to land in sequence –

“Citabria 06G, number 3 following Cessna on 2 miles final, runway 31R, clear to land.” – that means the pilot is automatically cleared to land once s/he sees 2 airplanes land.

In Canada, they will only give pilots landing clearance once they are number 1 to land, which is kind of unnerving at first because in the US I would apply take-off power and go around (missed approach) if I still don’t have landing clearance on final. In Canada it’s pretty common.

8. At uncontrolled airports in Canada, the standard recommended approach is to descend to circuit height (pattern altitude) on the non-circuit side, cross mid-field perpendicular to the runway at circuit height, and join mid downwind.

In the US, the standard procedure is to go out to the pattern side, descend to pattern altitude, and join mid downwind from 45 degrees (the leg is called “the 45” in traffic announcement).

9. At a lot of airports in Canada, there’s an “inner tower” and an “outer tower”. Unless ATIS says “outer tower frequency not in use”, arriving aircrafts are expected to call outer tower first (callsign still just “tower”) for approach sequence, and will then be switched to inner tower on final. The reverse happens on departure.

I have never heard of anything like that in the US. Even very busy airports like San Francisco International only have 1 tower.

10. In the US, it’s very common to be “cleared for the option” (which means the pilot can land, go around, do a low approach, or do a touch and go). I haven’t heard it in Canada. Maybe just because I usually only ask for landing clearance though.

Also, in Canada, tower controllers expect aircrafts to report downwind abeam the runway numbers, even though they don’t tell you that. In the US that’s not customary. We just keep flying the pattern and only remind the controller if s/he forgets to give us landing clearance (they usually give it automatically before the plane is turning base).

11. In Canada, uncontrolled airports usually have a “mandatory frequency” (MF), which is just a standard traffic advisory frequency, but it’s required (so planes with no radio cannot operate at those airports). In the US, radio at uncontrolled airports is always optional, on the frequency called “common traffic advisory frequency” (CTAF). Basically the same thing, except it’s optional. They can both be UNICOM (have a fixed base licensed but not FAA/TC-appointed operator) or MULTICOM (for air-to-air comm only).

12. This is a minor point, but usually in the US airport diagrams would have a designated “transient parking” zone. So if when visiting a new airport, after landing, we can just request taxi to “transient parking”, park the plane there and go have fun. Not sure how that works in Canada since airport diagrams here don’t usually have a transient parking place. I think people usually park at FBOs (which are inconveniently not marked on airport diagrams).

13. A lot of small airports in Canada don’t have METAR, which is kind of annoying. They still have ATIS on the phone, though. In the US, even tiny uncontrolled airports have METAR.

There are enough differences that I would recommend flying with an instructor once or twice if you have not flown in a country before, just to get used to how people do things, etc. Air traffic controllers in both countries are usually very nice and helpful, so don’t be afraid to talk to them if unsure of anything!

This list is by no means exhaustive. There are differences not covered (cloud clearance requirements, oxygen at altitude requirements, etc). I only wrote about ones I thought are the most important.


With a US license, you can fly a US-registered airplane in US and Canada. With a Canadian license, you can fly a Canadian-registered airplane in US and Canada. Presumably this applies to all ICAO countries.

To fly a Canadian-registered airplane with a US license, there are 2 ways.

1) Get a “foreign license validation”. Takes about 1 week (doesn’t require Canadian medical). No exam required, just filling out a form. Can exercise all FAA privileges in a Canadian airplane. Only lasts 1 year (can reapply every year). Technically they are not supposed to give it out to people with a Canadian permanent address (because this is designed for foreign visiting pilots), but they didn’t mind when I asked for one. I think it’s a don’t-ask-don’t-tell thing.

2) Get a Canadian PPL through conversion. Takes about 3 months and a very easy 20-questions written exam (no flight test required). I studied for it for about 2 hours, and passed. The exam is designed to test differences between US and Canadian regulations. Air spaces, minimum clearance requirements, etc. No need to get any additional study material. Just read the sections mentioned on that page. Both TC AIM and CAR are available for free online from TC. There’s nothing on aircraft systems, weather, etc. Much easier than the PPL written.

Right now I’m flying with a license validation while waiting for my Canadian PPL (I passed the exam already).

I’m not sure what it would take for a Canadian pilot to fly US airplane (because I got my US license first), but I’m assuming it would be similar. There’s definitely no flight test required because of the bi-lateral license conversion agreement between Transport Canada and FAA.