Expatriate vs Immigrant – what’s the difference?

by Margarita

Recently an interesting discussion took place on the Expatriate and Cross-Cultural Success Facebook page – when do we consider ourselves expats and when are we immigrants?  So I’ve decided to try to explore it and I thought we’d start with a dictionary definition.  According to Miriam-Webster:

  • the word “Expatriate” is actually a verb or an adjective and means someone “living in a foreign land”.
  • the word “Immigrant” is a noun and means “a person who comes to a country to take permanent residence”.

If we go only by these definitions above, I see one major distinction that sets them apart.  Immigrants have an intention to stay – whereas for the expatriates this intention isn’t mentioned and isn’t clear.

Put another way, immigrants may have a larger emotional commitment to their new place of residence – and, thus, their approach to making it is different.  If expatriates know that they can always leave and they know it coming into the country already – how much effort will they try to put into… (a) finding ways to belong; (b) creating connections, (c) absorbing new ways of being, (d) making life-long friends, etc, etc, etc?

Everyone is different of course and I am not stating that temporary assignment expats don’t have the commitment to create the best life they can in their new country.  Yet, I think, the knowledge that they can always leave creates a degree of comfort that “if it doesn’t work, it’s okay because three years from now I am leaving anyway.”  Immigrants don’t have that luxury.

What do you think?


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20 responses to “Expatriate vs Immigrant – what’s the difference?

  1. I have no doubt that the length of projected time has a profound effect on the emotional ‘buy-in’. The short list you gave in an EXCELLENT one: (a) finding ways to belong; (b) creating connections, (c) absorbing new ways of being, (d) making life-long friends. Those are the thing that must take place for successful sense of belonging.
    I suppose the exception to the “expat” vs. “immigrant” is when immigrants cluster together, perpetuate their original community and culture, and fail to connect in their new world, no matter how long they live there.
    Great discussion.
    By the way, I would sure like to see the author’s name on these articles. I’d much prefer to say, “Excellent point, Bill”. Or, “Thanks for raising a great question, Sue.” For now I’m stuck with, “Great discussion….ummm…you there at the keyboard.”

    • GlobalCoachCenter

      LOL, Ron. 🙂 I keep forgetting to include my name — but I just did it now!

      Thanks for the comment and for bringing up an important point of “clustering together”.

  2. 3rd Culture Children

    thank you for sharing this… people often take one expression for the other… thanks for the clarification… i myself, am both: am expat living and working all over, who immigrated (from Brazil) to the USA over 10 yrs ago, and now, tries to teach and explain our children the differences and adjustments that need to be done… Greetings and success.

  3. Margarita, you have hit the nail on the head when you talk about the commitment of the itinerant to living in the new location. Some expats arrive with one set of expectations and grow to love the new culture/life more than expected. It has happened with some of my clients. Others arrive, make less-than-favorable comparisons to the life “back home,” and can’t wait to leave when the assignment is over.

    An important third group to discuss is refugees. They really don’t want to be where they’ve landed, “home” being what it is to all of us, but have relocated because of necessity. Kids, of course, are more adaptable; the adults often spend years resisting a commitment because they keep imagining repatriation–which often never comes.

    • GlobalCoachCenter

      Very true about the refugees, Alan, thanks for bringing them into this discussion. I agree about some refugees being “closer” to expats on the commitment scale because of the hope of return, yet that’s not always the case, especially for refugees with no right of return.

  4. Emmanuelle Niollet

    I would be tempted to add another group which is that of “refugees/asylum seekers” – let alone Rom, if I base my observation on the groups of people living here in France where I re-entered after c 25 years living as an expatriate in various places. I am very interested in your definitions and I agree with them. I also pretty much agree with the observation Sue made about the way immigrants cluster together and feel they do not have much other choice based on the fact that they may not have been given the opportunity to integrate in their host country. I also think of the way each of them, expats, immigrants, refugees, are being perceived in general by their families back in their native country. Emmanuelle

    • GlobalCoachCenter

      Thanks, Emmanuelle, for your comment — you brought up the refugees at the same time as a commenter above (read my response there about that group). 🙂 It’s interesting to consider the perception of each group back home and how that affects their standing in the new country. I think that’ a topic of discussion in and of itself!

  5. Nice article!
    I just want to say that if you’re coming from a third-world country like me, the locals may consider you as an immigrant even though you’re an expat. But if you’re from western/northern countries living in the east/south, you’ll always be considered an expat no matter what. I found this interesting.

  6. I really enjoyed the comments and ideas. I have yet another group for you: spouses who marry into a culture. According to your criteria above, they are neither immigrants (for they may not have actively chosen to move to the new culture) nor expatriates (for they will not be moving on to someplace else) nor refugees/asylum seekers. Any ideas on what they could be called? Bicultural? Or would their children be the bicultural ones?

    • GlobalCoachCenter

      That’s a very interesting question, thanks for contributing it! It seems to me that spouses who marry into the culture can be either immigrants (even though they moved for love, they still made an active choice to move) or expatriates for the time being (they can always move back home, if they choose to). My 2 cents…


  7. I know this is an old thread, but I feel compelled to add my 2 cents. My family moved to the U.S. from England when I was 3 1/2. My Father was an Immigrant. My Mother was (and has remained) a resentful but resigned Expatriate. I grew up not knowing what I was, and still don’t (I’m 48). I never received any encouragement from my Mother about living in the U.S., and grew up with the attitude that “American = Bad; British = Good”. That’s ridiculous, of course, but today I live in Alaska and I feel that this was inevitable because I live in the “last frontier” – it’s America but is not like the “lower 48”. It was either this or Canada, I think. Even though my whole life has been in this country I still cannot bring myself to identify as American, and am still a British citizen. I have never found an expat child who can identify with my experience. If anyone knows of such a person I would love to correspond with them about their experiences.
    Susan in AK

    • Hi Susan,

      I don’t know anyone who has had a similar experience as yours in childhood, but perhaps you can post this question and request on the Expat Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/GlobalCoachCenter and I’ll be happy to re-post it on a main wall for visibility. On a personal note, I’d highly recommend working with someone (a coach or a therapist) to work through some of the issues that have accumulated.


    • Susan, just wanted to reply quickly to say I have a friend whose parents were immigrants, and he, like you, grew up hearing a lot of negativity about his country and was given a sense of “this isn’t our home”. He moved abroad (interestingly, not to his parents’ home country) as soon as he was able, but nearly a decade abroad cemented in his mind that his birth country IS his home, and he happily moved back.

      It’s not exactly the same situation as yours, but I just wanted to let you know that I don’t think you’re alone in your general experience and feelings.

  8. Very interesting take on it! If someone moves abroad as an expat and then learns the language and immerses into the local customs, I wonder at what point they stop being an expat and start being an immigrant.

  9. I find it very hard to use the work “Expat”. I feel it comes from a place of privilege and class separation, just as an example, a British person is an expat if living abroad when an Indian moving to the UK does not have that choice. It does matter where you come from and who you are. I have been living abroad for two decades now, no plan to go back, what does that make me? As a person of white privilege, people will assume that I am an expat where in reality, I am the same as every other immigrant looking for a better life abroad.

  10. I have to be that annoying person to dissent from your definition of expatriate. My age 40-something sister’s situation illustrates my point.

    She works for the UN. After she applied for a job in a different agency of the UN from her previous one, this based her in New York. Her job is permanent, i.e. she’s in New York for the rest of her working life if she chooses to be – which is her intention. She has bought a house, met a partner, established friendships, become involved in the community – so she fulfills your definitions of a,b,c & d of an immigrant. But she is clearly an expatriate. She lives in New York on a diplomatic visa and has diplomatic immunity. She’s not employed in the American workforce and she doesn’t pay tax there. She’s not an American citizen or permanent resident and cannot be as a diplomat.

    I think an expat is someone who has varying degrees of independence from their country of residence in a way a immigrant or national of that country does not. By this I mean they are not a citizen of that country, they are not part of the local workforce, their visa status is to a large extent probationary or temporary and they are not economically dependent on that country – i.e. they instead are employed by an international organisation or stationed there by their company. Their employment comes from abroad or they may be a pensioner whose pension income is independent of where they live. They also have a home to go back to where their prospects are much the same because they don’t derive their standard of living and income from the host country.

  11. Margarita, this is a great discussion. I am originally from Brazil living in the U.S. for 20 years. I have tried to live back in Brazil for 3 times and did not adapt to my native country anymore. I call the U.S. home now but always going back to Brazil to visit family and friends. I am a visual art graduate student developing a thesis work based on it. Thank you for creating this opportunity for open discussion.

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