What’s the difference between “expat” and “immigrant”?


What’s the difference between an expat and an immigrant?

Towards the end of each interview with 27 Americans living in Buenos Aires, I asked the participants to define the word “expat” (the overwhelming majority had already mentioned the term at some point or another during the interview).

“Define expat”

The overwhelming majority gave me a pretty straightforward and spot on definition of the term “immigrant” (or “migrant”) when I asked them to define “expat”: someone living abroad. This led me to then ask them, “so, how is an expat different from an immigrant?”.

So, what’s the difference between an “expat” and an “immigrant”?

Theory A: Socio-economic status and/or origin

Over half admitted that the difference, for them, is based on socio-economic status and/or origin. Specifically: expats are privileged and from “first world” or English-speaking countries, while immigrants are poor and from “third world” countries.

While there seemed to be no dispute as to the “first-world” origin of expats, some of the interviewees claimed that expats are specifically from English-speaking countries, while others considered all “first world” (North America, Europe, Australia, etc.) natives living abroad to be expats.

Despite these slight differences of opinion about language and origin, the point is that the majority of the Americans interviewed for this project attributed the difference between “expat” and “immigrant” to socio-economic factors. Meaning, an immigrant migrates for financial reasons (to “survive”), but an expat doesn’t. Many recognized the possibly elitist, exclusive and discriminatory nature of this theory, and I agree. That’s why although I regularly use the term expat (mainly because it has become so widely used), I do so with some hesitation. Check out my “expat” disclaimer to understand why.

Theory B: Length of stay and/or commitment to the host country

The Americans interviewed that didn’t attribute the difference between “expat” and “immigrant” to Theory A, which was a bit less than half, claimed that the difference between the two terms was related to length of stay and/or commitment (tangible and intangible) to the host country. Meaning, while the expat moves abroad temporarily and often holds on tight to their roots, the immigrant moves permanently to another country and leaves behind their culture of origin to “become” a member of the host society. Several felt this “commitment” involved getting legal residency or citizenship in the host country. Some respondents used examples of historical European immigration to the Americas to support their theory. One even said that an “expat would become an immigrant” if they got citizenship in the host country.

A few of the respondents claimed that the difference is “both” socio-economic status/origin and length of stay/commitment to the host country. Meaning, the “expat” is from a first-world country and moves to the host country temporarily, without any real plans to stay long-term or become a resident.

Other theories?

I have heard from several Europeans over the years that expats are “employees transferred abroad by their companies to live and work temporarily in another country”. While only one of the 27 Americans I interviewed gave me this definition (and it was the lone alternate definition that came up apart from theories A and B), I’m including it here as an option.

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “What’s the difference between “expat” and “immigrant”?

  1. This is a really interesting question, and one I hadn’t considered before (especially as it relates to our family and our particular situation). Do I call us expats because, given that this is my third continent, I’m no longer sure I’ll “stay” anywhere? (“For good” becomes a very slippery term to define once you’ve moved a few times!) Might have to think about it a bit and take it up on my own blog. Thanks for the food for thought! 🙂


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