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Expat vs. Immigrant: What's the Difference?

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Alright, let's talk about the elephant in the room. What's an expat? What's an immigrant? And is there really any difference between the 2 terms?

Maybe this has always been a hotly contested debate but I think the controversy has risen with social media and the visibility that expats now that. When I first moved abroad back in January 2013, I didn't know what an expat was or that this lifestyle was even possible. It wasn't so easy then to search for a hashtag on an app and have 1000s of videos splash across your screen.

So maybe the debate between expat vs. immigrant has always been a thing or maybe, like myself, expats were living under a social rock until recently.

Regardless, let's dive into the details and strip away the differences between expat vs. immigrant to see what we can find.

What's an Expat?

Let's start at the obvious with the definition of an expat, or expatriate. Unfortunately, that leaves a lot to be desired with just the basic, "a person who lives outside their native country." Now with just that alone, I think we'd have our answer pretty quickly that it's really the same as an immigrant.

A lot of people take that definition and run with it saying that there's no difference at all but that the word "expat" has only come around to create an "us" vs. "them" idea (which means, it's really the white person way of saying immigrant). That "expat" is a privileged way of putting yourself in a different box based on skin color, nationality, and maybe economic status.

If I had never heard of the term "expat" before and was only given the dictionary definition of the word, I'd agree that the term is problematic.

This basic definition though is missing an important aspect of the lifestyle and the key piece to the puzzle. And that's the length of time the person aims to stay in a certain country. That classification matters more than anything else to set the differences between these terms straight.

But before I go into that, we need to define the word "immigrant."

What's an Immigrant?

Starting with the definition of an immigrant, we'll learn that it's, "a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country." There's a key difference between an expat and immigrant and it's right there in the definition. While it was lacking in the definition of an expat, we get it spelled out for us here.


Someone becomes an immigrant when they start the immigration process and aim to stay in a foreign country indefinitely. An immigrant aims to build a new life in a new country and is not planning to pack up their bags for anywhere else. They want a new passport and to make their host country their forever home.

Here's where I do agree. Many immigrants move to a different country out of economic necessity, safety, and realities in their home country that pressure them to go. Unlike refugees though that are forced from their native country, immigrants do have a choice though.

Expats though tend to move abroad for other reasons that have less to do with necessity and more to do with curiosity and an opportunity to live abroad.

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Expat vs. Immigrant

photo by depositphotos.com

Now that we've laid the groundwork and have a better understanding of the 2 words, let's talk differences. As I mentioned above, the missing piece of the puzzle to me is time.

In the quickest way possible,

  • An immigrant is a someone permanently moving to one country
  • An expat temporarily moves to a country

To label someone correctly, you need to be able to answer the question, "How long are you stay in (insert country) for?"

If the answer is hopefully forever, then the correct term is they are an immigrant. This is regardless of skin color, nationality, and economic status and is really as simple as that.

Here's an example: Bob from the Canada decides to move to Spain and starts the process to permanently reside there with the goal of getting a Spanish citizenship. Bob is an immigrant. If Bob continues to refer to himself as an expat instead, Bob is part of the problem and is absolutely incorrect.

And another viewpoint: Tun from Myanmar moves to the United States. He's able to secure a visa that would allow he and his family to move to Nashville. Tun has no plans of returning to Myanmar or moving to another country other than the US. His goal is to stay permanently and earn US citizenship. Tun is an immigrant.

If the answer to the question above though is temporarily, be it for a job assignment or other reason, and the person has no plans to stay in that single country but will either move back to their home country or move to a new country afterwards, they're an expat. Again, this is devoid of any other factors and an answer based simply on time.

By lumping the terms together, you're overlooking the people who are living abroad in each country for only a year or so. The temporary residents need a label, and to me, that's where the term expat is correctly used.

Another example: Carmen from France moves to Singapore because she got a job that is transferring her to Singapore. She knows she's only going to be on the project for a few years and resides temporarily in the country. She's not putting down roots or aiming to make this country her home abroad. Carmen is an expat simply for the fact that she's not looking for Singaporean citizenship or to move permanently. After her project in Singapore is complete, she'll either move to a different country or back to France.

My personal example: I've lived 2 years in Ecuador, 1 year in South Korea, 3 years in Vietnam, and now live in Italy. In none of these countries or in the many others I've spent less time in have I planned on staying put. I've moved to each of these countries to work abroad or on a long holiday and knew that my time there would be a few years max.

I couldn't possibly call myself an immigrant in any of these countries because I wasn't in the immigration process or try to make my home there permanent. Nor could I really call myself a nomad because although I do think I've been nomadic at times when I hop from one country to another quite quickly, in the countries I highlighted above I was working and/or legally residing in each of them.

So, where does that leave people like me? As an expat.

What About Nomads?

If we want to throw in another buzzworthy term, let's talk nomads or most commonly heard, digital nomads. By definition, a nomad is, "a person who does not stay long in the same place."

Again, the key to the term is the length of time a person will stay in the given country. If we look at it like a gradient from most permanent to most fluid, it would go immigrant, expat, then nomad.

A nomad might stay for a few days, a few weeks, or up to a few months before bouncing somewhere new. Different than a traveler or tourist, they're not just on a vacation but usually have all of their belongings with them and are constantly bouncing from new place to new place.

A digital nomad takes that same definition of what a nomad is and adds the digital component to it, which just means they support themselves online, allowing them to live anywhere in the world while still making an income to support themself.

Our nomad example: Aleja from Colombia works online. She realizes she doesn't need to stay in Colombia to be able to earn her income so she starts traveling the world. She stays in each country around 3 months, bouncing to new cities every couple of weeks. Aleja is a digital nomad because she lives short-term in each place and earns her income online.

This is actually the biggest problem I have with the term "digital nomad visas" and why I cringe every time I hear it. The idea behind these visas is fantastic but the naming of it is problematic. A nomad would live on tourist visas, if any visa at all is required, but a digital nomad visa is a visa that gives a remote worker the ability to stay in a single country for a year or sometimes even longer, thus stripping them of the nomadness in the name. I know I'm being nit-picky but this is an article all about definitions after all.

Expat vs. Immigrant: It's All About Time

photo by depositphotos.com

While I completely agree that there is true privilege being able to become an expat or a digital nomad, that doesn't mean the issue is with the words themselves. The issue is with political and socioeconomic realities that allow it to be easier for people from certain nationalities and other connections to have a better likelihood of having the choice to move abroad temporarily vs. permanently.

While I consider myself an expat now that I'm living in Italy only temporarily, one day I'll become an immigrant if we find the place abroad that we'd like to live permanently.

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