Expat vs Immigrant: What’s The Difference?

Expat. The word has bothered me for as long as I can remember, long before I could put my finger on why.

When my family moved abroad for the first time, from the Czech Republic to Austria, I instinctively objected whenever anyone called us expats.

In my head, an expat was somebody who arrived to a new country with no intention of understanding its people or culture. I know that’s not completely accurate, but I was 13 and going by what I saw around me.

Attending an international school, I was surrounded by diplomats’ children used to moving to a new country every four years. You honestly can’t blame them for not fully integrating themselves only to be whisked off to a new country, again and again.

expat vs immigrant

But that wasn’t my case. I wanted to get to know the country I was living in. I disliked my special expat status, elevating me above immigrants from less fortunate backgrounds.

Almost a decade later, I’ve finally understood why the term expat bothers me so much… and I’m fairly sure I’m not alone. If you live, have lived or are considering living abroad, please read this post and share your thoughts in a comment below.

Expat vs Immigrant

An expat and an immigrant walk into a bar. How do you tell them apart?

I’m afraid we’ll need a moment to get to the punchline – the difference between expat vs immigrant is not always easy to define.

expat vs immigrant 11

The words themselves aren’t of much help. An expat or expatriate is simply defined as a person who lives outside their native country. Similarly, an immigrant is a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.

Only one distinction is made here – immigrants intend to stay in their new country indefinitely. Whether expats do or do not is unclear.

Is that the sole difference between an expat and an immigrant then? That the immigrant comes to stay, while the expat might take off again in a few years? I’d be inclined to agree… if that’s how the term was actually used in practice.

Spot The Expat

Which of the following people would you consider expats?

An American diplomat stationed in Ghana. A Ukrainian plumber working in London. A German businesswoman living in Shanghai. An Ethiopian medical student refining her skills at a hospital in France. A Syrian professor working in Italy as a janitor, longing to return to his war-torn homeland once it becomes safe again.

According to the above definition, all these people should be called expats because they are living outside their birth country for an undefined period of time. But they are not. Why? As Mawuna Remarque Koutonin aptly points out in The Guardian, the term expat is reserved exclusively for Western white people going to work abroad.

expat vs immigrant 4

“Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants,” he writes. “However, Europeans are expats because they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’.”

A Case Study in Racism

Sadly, I’m forced to agree with Koutonin. Growing up in Vienna – home to the UN and OPEC headquarters – I was constantly surrounded by expats. High level diplomats, many of whom made no effort to learn German and integrate themselves into local society.

When a bunch of rich white Westerners does that, no one skips a beat. They go through life demanding English menus in restaurants and sighing loudly whenever they chance upon a waiter who doesn’t understand them.

expat vs immigrant 10

The story quickly changes if you’re Turkish, one of the biggest minority groups in Vienna. Suddenly nothing you do is quite good enough. You’re definitely not an expat – you’re an immigrant, and an unwanted one at that.

Skin Colour and Beyond

The amount of casual racism directed at the Turks in Vienna is staggering… but they’re not the only group at the receiving end of such hate.

expat vs immigrant 12

According to a 2012 study, more than 38.8% of the Viennese population (Wieners?) have at least partial migrant background, mostly from ex-Yugoslavia, Turkey, Poland, Ukraine, Romania and Hungary.

Many of these people – especially first and second generation immigrants – do manual jobs while they get accustomed to their new environment and learn the language.

They are white but still not “good enough” to earn the label of expat, because there is more than just skin colour at play here. You see, to be considered an expat you must be white and be a white-collar worker. You must tick all the white boxes.

expat vs immigrant 6

Simply put, a white-collar worker is someone who works in an office. More specifically they have to sit behind a desk – not clean it or build it. To earn the right to sit behind it they often need university degrees and other qualifications that people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds find harder to come by.

A blue-collar worker whose job requires manual labor or a pink-collar worker – maids, babysitters or shopping assistants – is not looked at the same way by society.

That’s why a Ukrainian plumber, sending money back to his wife and three children in Odessa, is not considered an expat, while his cousin who owns the entire company might be.

I’m An Immigrant

Let’s get back to our opening line now… An expat and an immigrant walk into a bar. How do you tell them apart? It’s simple – the first one is white and has a well-paying job, the second one is not and/or does not.

If that’s how you want to distinguish between people – using race and income as indicators – be my guest. For my part I’m going to call a spade a spade. All expats are simply glorified immigrants. If that word bothers you, take a long hard look in the mirror and try to figure out why.

expat vs immigrant 2

There were 244 million international migrants in 2015, according to a UN report. The number is growing rapidly, from 222 million in 2010 and 173 million in 2000. There’s absolutely no shame in being an immigrant – we’re all just part of a worldwide trend.

We can either start calling all immigrants expats or retire the word, once and for all. The term expat has become a breeding ground for white superiority, subtle racism and looking down on the working classes… none of which are values I’m willing to stand for.

So the next time somebody calls me, a university-educated white girl, an expat I’ll tell them who I truly am. I’m an immigrant and I’m proud to carry that label.

Where do you stand on the whole expat vs immigrant debate? Do you have a personal story to share? Please share below – I’d love to find out what you think!

  • Asma

    perfectly put. The stigma around the word ‘immigrant’ is quite disgusting. That and the way people talk about refugees. Thank you for writing such an open post on the issue. Wish everyone would remember we’re all humans at the end of the day x

    • Very very true! It always surprises me how cruel and ignorant people can be 🙁 Luckily there are tonnes of people who no longer think it’s ok and we’re bringing about change!

  • Very interesting read, and I unfortunately have to agree with you. The attitude towards immigrants regularly shocks and angers me. Thank you for sharing this post, and hopefully you reach even just one person about this issue!

    Suitcase and Sandals Blog X

    • Yeah, I’m 100% with you. It’s infuriating!!! Hopefully this will help at least one person see the issue from a different perspective, as you say 🙂 <3

  • This is a fantastic post. I had never thought about how incredibly disrespectful it is that we have two different words for people who are living outside of their home country. In my experience, there has been a noticeable increase in people calling themselves expats. I have certainly never referred to my parents as expats (they moved to the U.S. from Ireland after college), they are immigrants…but perhaps that is because they moved 30 years ago when Western Europe wasn’t as diverse and therefore “immigrant” may not have had a negative connotation for so many people. Definitely something I’ll be thinking about for the rest of the day.

    • Thanks so much for your thought-provoking comment Sofie. I hadn’t even thought of that! I think you’re right though – the word probably didn’t carry as much negative meaning as it seems to nowadays. Now YOU have given me something to think about for the rest of the day! 🙂

  • this is a great post. and you’re right. Rich British people who spend their retirement in Spain are called expats. Romanian people who clean apartments in Spain are called immigrants. everything is pro-west, pro-English speaking. Hey, I write now in English so I could be understood wider.that’s the way it is..my fellow countrymen (Croatians) have emigrated a lot during the history (and now). you can find us everywhere, from Canada to Patagonia, from Ireland to Australia. and they’re called immigrants, not expats, even though the majority today are white-collar workers.

    • It’s such an interesting and convoluted issue, isn’t it? Thanks for offering your perspective Tanja! It’s definitely not right to be putting certain races or nationalities on a pedestal while putting down others. Here’s to never calling anyone an expat again!!! 🙂 <3

  • Zohra Ihsan

    I was just talking about this with my dad the other day! I was born in a Middle Eastern country and now study in the UK but my parents still live there but its not their home country. A lot of the people I went to school with would call themselves expats but growing up it was automatically known that the Indian or Chinese labourers that we all say working in the shops or on the streets were immigrants. Looking back at these terms and how they are defined, I hate them both and think the whole concept should be abolished since we are all citizens of the world. As a third culture kid I don’t really have one specific place I call home so I don’t see why we should use these words at all.

    Loved your post and the important conversation it sparks x

    http://www.yourealreadyinvited.com

  • I agree with Koutonin too. Although I was an expat in Shanghai, I just didn’t call myself that. I also felt that expat was a ‘label’ exclusively for a white person. That just the way it was. At first, I thought it was a earning power thing. After countless conversation with white/black/Asians, I’ve came to conclude that even if I earned way more that the white guy/gal who was there to be an English teacher, it made no difference. Because he/she was white, therefore he/she was an expat. I am ethically Chinese and therefore I am not an expat. Funny that, because according to the local Chinese that I know, they don’t think I am a Chinese either (thanks).

    Having grown up in South Africa, that was another problem. I identify more with South Africa than my birth place Hong Kong. However, by the mere sight of my Asian face, I get brushed off quickly by fellow South Africans abroad. *sigh* I hate the terms expat and immigrant. In fact, this whole thing was how I derived my blog name ‘Local Girl Foreign Land’. It is because of the mere fact that no matter how ‘local’ I am, the place where I grow up will always consider me a foreigner.

    Thank you for this post. It is important to spread the word out there about this type of topic. To me ‘expat vs immigrant’ is a marketing gimmick or in UK’s case, it is propaganda.

  • Wow I’ve never thought about this before. You’ve really given me a new perspective on this whole thing, and now that I think about it, I agree. I don’t see any low-income workers labelled as expats.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, as always Claire 🙂 Glad I was able to bring this issue to your attention <3

  • This is so on point and I love that you’re calling attention to it. I typically call myself a “nomad” but I feel as if that might also be problematic even if I fit the definition, because some people are nomadic out of necessity whereas I choose it from a place of relative privilege. Hmm, thanks for bringing this up.

    I’m adding you to my blog list so I can continue reading!

    • Thanks so much for your comment Alyssa!! 🙂 I’ve never thought about the term nomad that way – thanks for bringing that to my attention. A very good point and one I’ll be thinking about for the rest of the day. Can’t wait to welcome you back to my blog soon <3

  • This is such a brilliant post, and so relevant to today. I’ll be going off for my year abroad in Japan soon and I’ve been thinking a lot about how people will perceive me there, and how others from the UK will see it. I think part of the problem is that there’s a huge sense of entitlement in Western culture, like there’s this idea in the UK that we can go anywhere, but as soon as someone comes here they don’t deserve the opportunities we have (which is just so… racist). But anyway, I rambled on – great post lovely! x

    vvnightingale.com

  • I have to say that I agree. I saw a similar posts a few years ago by another blogger I follow – which really made me think about the difference. And like you said usually expat is something white north american and european use and immigrant is for everyone else. Which is sad that the terms have such pejorative connotation. I am definitely an immigrant in the UK and I mention that in my life all the time. I have no idea why but on the online blogging community it seems expat is most used and I started using it – though aware that it’s another word for immigrant. Although to me, wrongly though it may be, expat is more temporary.

  • This is honestly so incredibly interesting. I’ve never thought about the two words in theory being almost synonyms but in practice being divided by race and privilege. Thank you so much for sharing and giving me something to think about!

    Alaina | http://www.pumpsandpineapples.com

  • Cindy Coroa

    Hmmm all the diplomats I met when living in Africa (as an expat, I guess, since I was there on a 2 year work assignment for a private company) spoke the local language very well and none demanded English menus anywhere. Both diplomats and many ‘expats’ working for international companies in foreign countries often have to take intensive language classes from their employers in order for them to be able to do their job. Also, my Brazilian partner was also called an expat, as were my Nigerian colleagues who were foreign to the country they worked in. I agree completely that there shouldn’t be a difference between expats and immigrants as it’s essentially the same thing, but the way you portrait expats here is not very nuanced…

  • Melissa

    Interesting perspective – as a child, my family and I moved 5x from country to country as expats. I never associated the word “expat” with a negative connotation. To me, being an expat is moving and living in a foreign country outside your own temporarily – there’s an end and it’s not a bad thing. Whereas as an immigrant, you move to a foreign country with the intention of living there permanently. True that expats tend be either govt/corporately sponsored and do tend to be well-off. But I dont think that is the case for every expat. The same goes for immigrants, living in Canada now, many immigrants (including my parents) are educated and professionals, but some are not. So I think it is the permanency of residence in a country that distinguishes expat from immigrant rather than class/wealth.

  • This post is spot-on. These labels have always bothered me as well, and the thing is, this status-elevating-labeling thing does not end at name-calling. It’s not a purely white phenomenon either, and I think it’s really more about income and work status.

    In the Philippines, for example, citizens who are working abroad are called “overseas Filipino workers” or OFWs. One time, one of my physician friends was ranting about how she got terrible treatment at the immigration’s desk as she fixed her papers for working abroad. She whined: “They can’t treat me that way – I’m not some OFW!” I wanted to tell her — “But you are.”

    I’ve also heard Filipinos who live abroad and have online businesses distinguish themselves from OFWs by saying that they are “digital nomads” instead.

    The thing is, it would have been slightly tolerable if all they wanted was a special-snowflake status in the form of a fancy name like “digital nomad”. But by using all these terms, they are denigrating a whole set of people who are working and living just like they are: overseas. What’s more, instead of lobbying for better treatment and better services (=better life) for EVERY OFW, they are merely setting themselves apart (and above) to get special treatment.

    So yes, I agree with you: call a spade a spade and start treating all spades with the respect and dignity they all inherently deserve.

  • Yessss! Thank you! The word expat and the glorification of “expat communities” has bothered me for quite some time as well. Especially when so many of them use their wealth, education and their (often white) privilege to live in communities where even locals might struggle to make ends meet. And yet, people immigrating into western countries to help families back home have a huge stigma put upon them unfairly. Especially in the U.S. Where the American Dream is rooted in just those ideas… but only for those “we” deem worthy. Good stuff! Keep these conversations flowing. They’re much needed in the world.

  • wow! Well written and a pleasure to read!
    In Asia the difference between expat and immigrant is purely based on race: Westerners are expats while dark-skinned people are immigrants. This mindset is very strong throughout East Asia because in countries such as China, Japan and Korea the local population is genetically very homogenous. For this reason, the concept of cultural identity corresponds to the concept of racial identity.

    Jo x
    http://www.outlanderly.com

  • Wow, this was an incredible article! Nobody ever discusses this topic and personally, it is one that also causes me great conflict for various reasons. I also find there is a similar problem with the terms “local” and “foreigner”.

    A British “expat” working in the scuba diving industry in Thailand once told me that I looked like a “foreigner” because I was wearing a particular type of hat. I found it so ironic, insulting, and disturbing when we were both foreigners (UK and USA) illegally living in Thailand.

    Thank you for addressing the true distinction between expat and immigrant and correlating the underlying issues with using certain terminology.

  • You are completely right. I think it’s even more extreme. I’m not a white collar worker but I’m known as an expat in France. The truth is that you have to be white, but not from Eastern Europe. I think that is the unfortunate distinction.

  • Kellie Mogg

    Great post. I’ve never really thought about the difference in these two words (maybe because I’m a white girl from the Midwestern United States). I think I’ve definitely misused the words without harmful intention but what good is language if we don’t value using it precisely 😀 Thnks for sharing!