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An Expat's Guide to Living in Banff

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Alicia Edwards
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I know you’ve seen the iconic Lake Louise Pinterest photos of people canoeing in milky blue water with the Rocky Mountains in the background like I did. That led me to where I am now, Banff National Park in Canada!

Seeing those travel photos had me immediately add Banff to my bucket list some years ago and taking the leap to move abroad this year changed my experience completely. 

Taking a vacation somewhere and moving there are completely different. The realities and steps to moving abroad are things no traveler would ever consider. I really get to immerse myself in the culture here instead of just dipping my toes in as a tourist.

I decided to move to Banff without ever visiting- it is quite expensive to visit here just for a vacation so I decided to just hope for the best! For me, it's worked out really well. So well, in fact, that I think more people looking for a change of beautiful scenery should consider living in Banff.

Let's dive into what you should know before you make the move.

Getting Around Alberta

A happy woman posing in front of a small but tall waterfall
Hike to a waterfall by Lake Minnewanka

Banff is located on the western side of Canada in the province of Alberta. They call it the Texas of Canada! It has a cowboy culture so don’t be surprised to see a lot of cowboy boots, hats, and country music. 

Calgary is the closest major city and also the nearest airport to the national park. You have to either drive or take a shuttle bus to get into the park, which is about an hour and a half ride. It’s also about a 10-hour drive from Vancouver. 

I think people forget how big of a country Canada is. Most places are a flight away, not a drive away from each other so keep that in mind if you are considering doing a lot of travel while living here. 

That being said, I think having a car here is nearly essential. If you have the ability to drive to Banff or buy a car when you get here that will help you see so much more! 

I, unfortunately, was unable to get my car here since I live on the east coast of the USA and the drive would have cost me way too much. A 40-hour drive to be exact! But, if you're coming from somewhere closer, it'll be worth the added travel time.

There is a bus system here so if you do not have the option of a vehicle like myself you can still get around via public transportation. There will also be people you make friends with who have cars so throw them some gas money and get exploring!

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Banff National Park vs. The Town of Banff

A residential road leading to a snowcapped mountain
My walk to work in the town of Banff

I think a big misconception here I have noticed is that Banff National Park and the town of Banff are the same places. They are not. Where I live in downtown is the small walkable community but the national park as a whole is a larger place!

This is why there are lots of buses taking everyone from place to place. 

The iconic lakes like Lake Louise and Lake Moraine are about a 45-50 minute drive from the town of Banff. A lot of time tourists will not realize this until they get here. This is why if you can have a car here it will help you avoid crowded buses and give you more flexibility regarding time.

Living in the Town of Banff

The thing that’s cool about the town of Banff is you have to work in town in order to live here. Housing rules here are an attempt to keep housing available to locals. This makes it easier to find a place to live and make friends, since your neighbors will all be residents or expats living in town, too.

The town of Banff is an extremely small town so be sure that is your vibe before moving your life here. If you crave big, bustling cities, you might prefer somewhere else in Canada, like Montreal. It is very walkable in Banff. If you are living downtown, you can get to pretty much anything you might need within a 10-minute walk. 

Anything towards the edge of town is what I like to call “Banff far”- meaning it’s not actually a far walk for most people, it's just more than 10 minutes away…that is how small of a town it is. 

How to Find a Place to Live

I live in a staff accommodation from my employer in town which is another common housing option. Depending on the company you decide to work for will determine what kind of accommodation is available. 

Housing here is not cheap, I will say that. But, staff accommodations are generally less expensive than finding a place to live on your own.

Accommodation with Your Job

Staff accommodation is normally a shared room/bathroom/common area. If you move to Banff with a job, in many cases you'll have staff accommodation offered to you. If you're someone who is looking for their own room and extra privacy, you will have to shell out more money for your own room in an apartment.

I have friends who have found a place to stay from Facebook marketplace and Banff-specific Facebook housing groups. 

Living Outside of the Town of Banff

Another option is to stay in the neighboring town of Canmore. Canmore is slightly less expensive and is about a 25-30 minute drive from downtown Banff. There is a bus to and from here as well if you want to just go into town for the day, which I highly recommend! 

There are also other jobs within Banff National Park in locations such as Lake Louise which is more of an isolated location than the town of Banff. If you are more of an introvert, working at the national park or other more secluded locations like this might be a nice option to consider! 

Cost of Living in Banff

Photo by Matthew Fournier

Banff is an expensive tourist area so having a chunk of money saved before you get here and when you start working is essential. Depending on where you're moving from, you can expect higher prices than you might be used to.

Housing, aside from staff accommodations, will run you anywhere from $800-$1,500+ a month per person. Groceries here are pricier than in other surrounding areas as well so a budget is necessary to make sure you are allocating enough to cover everything you will need while living here. 

Going out to eat will run you anywhere from $20-$100+ depending on your preferences. It is pretty hard to get any meal for less than $20, even takeout, unless you are eating at places like McDonald’s or Subway. If you have access to a kitchen my suggestion is to cook your own food and pack lunch/dinner for your work breaks! This small tip will certainly save you a lot of money!

Canada also has a tipping culture like the US does so keep that in mind if you are not from a place where tipping is the norm. You'll need to account for that in all prices from bars, restaurants, or other service-based expenses.

Other common things like getting hair, nails, waxing, etc. done will also be on the expensive side so if you have physical appearance upkeep you regularly do keep that in mind. I personally like to get my nails done so I budget for that.

Banff does have a decent amount of access to shops in town should you want/need to go shopping. There is a mall where you can get clothes, technology, food, coffee, etc. There is also a grocery store in town with a good amount to choose from. Just remember to bring your reusable bag!

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Job Hunting

It's easy to find a job in Banff if you are looking for something in the customer service realm. Most foreigners here have come to work in Banff so finding a job as a non-Canadian isn't too outrageous of a dream. With it being a tourist town, most jobs are in hospitality, food service, or retail.

There are other jobs but they are much harder to come by. I work retail and food service here.

Jobs here also pay more than in other places I have worked in the States. Average pay is somewhere between $15-20 per hour (plus tips depending on your industry). 

IEC Working Holiday Visa

One of the easiest ways to move to Banff and legally get a job is to apply for the International Experience Canada (IEC) Working Holiday Visa. This is the visa I'm currently on. If you meet the requirements and only plan to live in Banff for a year or two, this visa is your best bet.

The requirements for the Canadian Working Holiday Visa are:

  • Be a citizen of one of the 35 pre-approved countries
  • Have a valid passport for your entire stay in Canada
  • Be aged 18-30, although with some nationalities you can be up to 35 years old
  • Have CAD$2,500 in your bank account
  • Have health insurance

If you don't meet these requirements or are interested in moving to another country that offers a Working Holiday Visa, check out Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.

Things I Wish I Knew Before Moving to Banff

Photo by Andy Holmes

Canadian phone plans are expensive

Unlimited data is not really a thing here like it is with American phone plans. I pay about $55CAD a month for 8GB of data. Almost every place here has free wifi but I was not accustomed to needing to ask for a wifi password everywhere you go.

I have used all my data every month living here so far even using wifi as often as I can so keep that in mind.

Tapping your credit/debit cards is the norm here

America is slowly but surely getting the tap feature on our cards but here they do not take your card for purchases. They have wireless debit machines so you pay for everything by tapping or inserting your card. You will not have a server take your card away from your table at a restaurant to pay or a retail worker swipe your card for you.

It was so interesting being at a bar and not running a tab (although some bars do running tabs). They just hand you the debit machine and you never hand over your card. Also, Apple/ Google Pay is everywhere so I rarely keep my physical card on me which is a nice change, no losing your card after one too many cocktails! 

Bring your own seasonings

I know this may seem strange to bring up but truly if you like to cook and you are coming from a country where they are not expensive, pack them in your luggage! I could not believe how one bottle of seasoning at the grocery store will run you anywhere from $8-15. Where I’m from in the US I can get seasoning for $1 a bottle! So when I took a vacation back to the US, I stocked up and brought them back to Banff.

Things To Do in Banff

There are so many things to do in Banff you can always find some kind of activity. During the winter months, there is skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, etc. The ski resort Sunshine Village is the main attraction so if you enjoy winter sports this would be an ideal place for you.

During the summer months, there is hiking (too many trails to finish in just one summer honestly!), horseback riding, canoeing, kayaking, whitewater rafting, swimming, biking, and much more!

If you're someone who likes spending time outdoors and getting plenty of fresh, mountain air, you'll love living in Banff. The national park and surrounding area really are some of the most beautiful in the world. That being said, the town itself is a lot of fun and ideal for those that enjoy a lively restaurant and bar scene.

The town of Banff is a party town so there is always a special going on at the many bars here. Almost every night of the week, there's something going on: Taco Tuesday, Wine Wednesday, Trivia night, Sunday Funday- this is the big one (it’s local’s night so you will see it the busiest then). There are also happy hours at many of the bars with so many beautiful rooftop patios. 

Embracing Canadian Culture

a woman in a cowboy hat posing for the camera holding a beer
In Calgary at Stampede Festival

Making Friends

Making friends in Banff was pretty easy for me being an extroverted person living in a house with 10 people. I also work in social environments so most of my friends came from work and also by meeting friends of friends.

Banff is a small town so you'll start to recognize people the more you go out. It is definitely a young town so for all my older expats out there keep this in mind. 

Legal Drinking Age

The legal drinking age in Alberta is 18 and I find that people here are generally in the 18-23 age range. This part has been the most difficult challenge I still struggle with. I am 27 and being at a bar with teenagers is definitely a culture shock for me. It has taken me some time to find my own crowd. I have younger friends as well but it is definitely a notable difference in the social life aspect here. If you are in that age range though I highly suggest working a season or year-round here.

Dating

Dating here is also a challenge for me considering the most common age range here is much younger than me. If you are university to newly post-grad age, I think you will find it more fitting if you are in the dating scene here. There are definitely people of all ages but it is something that has been harder to get used to! 

Is Living in Banff Right For You?

I hope this has helped in your decision to move to Banff! As a transient expat community with workers and tourists from all over the world, you will be sure to find a community. Cheers! 

Hero photo by Jaime Reimer.

xx,
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