TOEFL vs IELTS: Which Language Test Should I Take for Canada?

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What English Language Test should you take?

You’ve made the decision to study in Canada and gain educational, cultural, and perhaps even some part-time work experience, all while attending a college or university in a country you’d like to end up living and working in. A big question you now have to consider is: what English Language Test should you take?

Please note that you don’t need a Language Test to obtain your study permit for Canada. However, you do need proof of acceptance at a Designated Learning Institute in Canada which will require proof of English language skills. This is where you could need Language Test results in order to be accepted at a Canadian school – excluding most universities in Quebec where French language skills are a requirement – aside from a handful of English institutions like McGill or Bishop’s University.

You also don’t need a Language Test for a work permit either, but most Canadian employers will want some kind of proof of your English ability.

In other words, if your language skills are good enough to get you accepted to a post-secondary institution in Canada, that’s all IRCC needs for a study permit, as far as language skills are concerned.

Let’s assume you’re not going to study in Quebec and will definitely be attending a school in English for your post-secondary studies in Canada. As of now, you have 3 main options as far as English Language Tests:

A few years ago, IELTS may very well have been your top choice with CELPIP as a Canadian home-grown option. But in today’s volatile and uncertain world, you need a plan B. Just in case you can’t get into your favourite Canadian school or you decide to study elsewhere for any number of reasons, like much milder winters in Australia, for example.

And if you consider that an English Language Test is an investment of time, effort, and money on your part, you really have to consider which test is the more widely accepted one in the English-speaking world (or even some non-English speaking countries in the EU, for example).

Because, as an international student looking for the best place to study, you want a test that will be accepted at a large number of post-secondary institutions in various English-speaking countries.


Yes, it is a perfectly good way to get one of the key qualifications you need in order to immigrate as a permanent resident to Canada. But if you’re unsure whether you’re going to be studying at a top university in Canada, Australia, the UK, or the USA, for example, you better ensure your language skills will be recognized around the world. CELPIP won’t help you with that in countries other than Canada.

So, for international students, the choice boils down to TOEFL versus IELTS. Let’s first dive into the details of each exam.


IELTS (International English Language Testing System)

Beginning in 1980 as the English Language Testing Service, created by Cambridge English Language Assessment and the British Council, it is now the most popular English Language Test worldwide, reportedly having 3 million tests taken in 2017. It is currently run by the following organizations:

  • Cambridge Assessment English
  • The British Council
  • IDP: an international student placement organization active in the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand
  • IELTS Australia.

There is are two modules (versions):

  • Academic module: for admissions to universities/colleges
  • General module: for work experience and/or immigration.

The overall structure of both modules is similar, but the content differs somewhat in some of the sections.

The IELTS exam is structured as follows:

  • Listening Section: running 30 minutes with 10 minutes additional time to transfer your answers.
  • Reading Section: running 60 minutes with multiple choice and other question formats.
  • Writing Section: running 60 minutes with 2 writing tasks.
  • Speaking Section: running 11 to 14 minutes in a live interview format.


What version of IELTS do I need to take?

For admission to post-secondary institutions you will need to take the Academic version which has different reading and writing sections, compared to the IELTS General (which you instead take for immigration purposes like a PR visa for Canada).


What IELTS scores do you need?

IELTS is scored out of a total of 10 points.

Although it varies from institution to institution, a good rule of thumb is that you need a 6.5 average score across all 4 skills (reading, listening, writing, and speaking) with none lower than 6.0. (It is different for PR.)

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How tough is IELTS?

There’s a lot to do in the time given to you, but perhaps the writing section tends to result in the lowest grades for test takers. They’re tough on writing and perhaps a little more forgiving with the speaking part which is done in person with an examiner. Reading and listening are somewhere in the middle as far as difficulty goes.


Where is IELTS recognized?

Just about everywhere, including increasingly in the USA. Thousands of institutions in the U.S. are now accepting IELTS as a valid language test (along with TOEFL of course). But some schools in the USA still require you to take TOEFL.


Is IELTS a paper or computer-based exam?

It’s both, but COVID-19 has changed the planning and locations for the test. Go here to see how to take the test from a list of countries. Go here to learn about as test you may be able to take online on your own pc, called the IELTS Indicator.


What’s IELTS Indicator?

It’s a new and simplified online version of IELTS you can take on your pc at home that measures your ability in the 4 basic skills just like the regular test, but it is not quite the same test. While some universities are now accepting IELTS Indicator results as their language test, others may require you to do the regular IELTS test, assuming the area where you live has test locations up and running or makes the test available again.

The fee for IELTS Indicator is US$ 149 and must be paid online.


How much does IELTS cost?

The most recent fees are available when you click on a specific country at the link above. A few examples of IELTS fees in various countries in their local currencies are given below.

Country IELTS – Academic Fees (in local currency)
Brazil BRL 900
Egypt EGP 3,400
Hong Kong HKD 2,150
India INR 14,000
Jordan JOD 160
Korea KW 260,000
Nigeria N 75,000
Pakistan PKR 30,000
Taiwan NTD 7,200
Canada CAD 319 (309 in Kitchener ON)


TOEFL (Test Of English as a Foreign Language)

The Test of English as a Foreign Language is specifically designed for an academic environment and is run by Educational Testing Services (ETS), a private non-profit organization. The test was developed in the early ‘60s by a number of organizations in the USA and first used in 1964. Since 1973 it has been run by ETS.

TOEFL IBT (internet-based test) is an entirely computerized test which, before COVID-19, was run at officially designated test centres and done entirely on a computer provided at one of these test centres located around the world. Because of COVID lockdowns ETS have recently made a TOEFL Special Home Edition test available with very specific requirements for the home pc an applicant uses and the room (or environment) in which they can take the test.

In either case, your speaking part is done by speaking into a microphone rather than talking to a live interviewer as is the case with IELTS.

(See below for the paper-based TOEFL test which is only available at limited locations where there is no internet available.)

The structure of TOEFL is as follows:

Section Time Questions Tasks
Reading 54-72 min. 30-40 questions Respond to questions
Listening 41-57 min. 28-39 questions Questions about lectures or discussions
Break 10 min.
Speaking 17 min. 4 tasks Familiar topics & multiple source questons
Writing 50 min. 2 tasks Integrated & Independent tasks

In the speaking section and the integrated writing task, you will see tasks involving more than one source; for example, an announcement and a discussion about that announcement or a text and a criticism of that text.


What version of TOEFL do I have to take?

Although there is a paper-based test you will most likely take TOEFL IBT and, as said before, it is designed for admission to educational institutions. There is no TOEFL “General” test as there is in the case of IELTS.


What TOEFL Score Do I Need?

TOEFL is scored out of a possible 120 points.

Each section is scored out of a possible 30 points so your total score will be out of a possible 4 x 30 = 120 points. Your scores are valid for 2 years and are generally sent to your TOEFL account 6 days after you take the test. Here’s how your scores are interpreted:

Skill Level
  • Advanced (24 – 30)
  • High intermediate (18 – 23)
  • Low intermediate (4 – 17)
  • Below Low intermediate (0 – 3)
  • Advanced (22 – 30)
  • High intermediate (17 – 21)
  • Low intermediate (9 – 16)
  • Below Low Intermediate (0 – 8)
  • Advanced (25 – 30)
  • High intermediate (20 – 24)
  • Low intermediate (16 – 19)
  • Basic (10 – 15)
  • Below basic (0 – 9)
  • Advanced (24 – 30)
  • High intermediate (17 – 23)
  • Low intermediate (13 – 16)
  • Basic (7 – 12)
  • Below basic (0 – 6)

Most Universities will require an overall TOEFL score of at least 90/120 but you should always check with the university you plan on attending to see both:

  • Whether they accept TOEFL (if the school is outside the USA) and
  • What the minimum overall and individual section scores required by your school are.


How difficult is TOEFL?

Until recently, TOEFL exams were perceived as fairly strenuous to take but the results students got tended to be better than expected. In other words, the TOEFL test was graded somewhat more leniently than IELTS was.

That seems to have changed, starting sometime in 2019. Whether this is temporary or not and the result of the restrictions imposed by the COVID pandemic and the reported problems with the TOEFL Special Home Edition, or rather a deliberate policy change as far as grading, is hard to tell. Nevertheless, at this point it may very well be that TOEFL is now as or slightly more difficult (as far as getting an acceptable grade) than IETLS.


Where is TOEFL recognized?

TOEFL is not quite as widely accepted around the world as IELTS is, but it is gaining more and more acceptance, especially as an academic language test for university admissions. It is not accepted as a language test for permanent immigration to Canada, for example.

Here is where TOEFL is accepted as of September 2020:

  • Australia – both universities and Australian immigration authorities: The TOEFL Special Home Edition cannot be used for post-study work visas (nor for skilled immigration).
  • New Zealand – both universities and immigration authorities in New Zealand: As with Australia the Home test cannot be used for post-study work visas nor for skilled immigration to New Zealand.
  • Canada – universities accept TOEFL but not immigration authorities.
  • UK – while TOEFL is accepted by British universities, UK immigration authorities do not consider TOEFL what is called a Secure English Language Test (SELT) and it is suggested you use IELTS with British immigration authorities.
  • Europe – if you are planning on taking an English-language program in the EU, go here to see if your institution accepts TOEFL. Otherwise, you should use IELTS.


Is TOEFL available as a paper test?

Yes, it is. However, around 98% of test TOEFL test takers take the IBT or internet-based test. TOEFL IBT is generally available as a computer-based test in specially licensed centres around the world, but as stated above, there is also now a home version that you take on your personal pc called the TOEFL Special Home Edition.

Please note that the TOEFL Paper-based test is only available in locations where no internet service is available, so if your location has internet then you will have to register for the TOEFL IBT test and find your nearest TOEFL test centre.


How much does TOEFL cost?

  • The TOEFL IBT test fees vary by location but generally are around US$200 or slightly higher.
  • The TOEFL Paper-based test costs US$180.
  • Please note that there are additional fees for things like additional test reports or score reviews, for example.



In the end then, which test should I choose? TOEFL vs IELTS

Which test you decide to take might depend on what country you are planning to study in. (You might be more likely to take TOEFL if you’ll be studying in the U.S. for example.) And what your future immigration plans might be.

But increasingly as both tests are accepted in most English-speaking post-secondary institutions around the world, your decision will also be based on which test feels more comfortable and appropriate for you personally.

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