Expat or Immigrant?

 In Without Category

What is the difference?

I never really liked the term expat and it wasn’t until fairly recently when writing copy for my website that I started to explore my resistance to it.

After all, the majority of my clients are ‘expat’ women, so why don’t I just say that I specifically work with expat women to help them to create a life they love?

Put simply, because expat seems like an elitist term which is frequently misused and I just don’t feel comfortable with it.

Upon moving to Spain I became aware that I was considered an ‘expat’ and my husband, who is South African was considered an ‘immigrant’. What’s with that?!


[Photo by Blake Lisk on Unsplash ]

And what’s more, when we go to the UK to visit my family despite having all the right documentation he has been treated like an illegal immigrant – he has in fact been denied entry twice to the UK (once, I might add, at Christmas time). This was on the grounds that ‘he didn’t demonstrate strong enough ties to leave’ even though he was enrolled in a top business school in Madrid at the time and had the paperwork to prove it. They clearly have no idea how  much my husband hates British weather. OK… I digress…

Here are some examples of the women I have been working with…

A Mexican in Madrid, a Tunisian in Dubai, a German in Brazil, an Italian in India, an Indian in Spain, a South African in Germany, a Canadian in Spain, a South African in the UK, an Aussie/Kiwi/American in the Netherlands.

Are they considered expats or immigrants?

You decide.

When I messaged my friend – who is also in an international relationship and lives away from her birth country – to tell her that I was writing this blog post her response was this:

Admittedly it was said tongue in cheek and yet she has a point. An uncomfortable one at that.

One that is very much backed up by Mawuna Remarque Koutonin, who in an article in The Guardian said:

expat is a term reserved exclusively for western white people going to work abroad. Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants. However, Europeans are expats because they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. Theyare superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’.

Ouch. While I don’t fully subscribe to what Koutonin is saying, he makes a valid argument, and one that would certainly explain why my husband is seen to be an immigrant and I am not.

And yet… Polish citizens working in the UK are almost certainly white and definitely not considered expats, they are most definitely considered immigrants and the press in the UK love to band that term immigrant around along with the notion that these people have ‘come to take our jobs’ (not something I buy into FYI). And this suddenly feels like it is getting political… which was not my intention.

So back to the question what is the difference between an expat and an immigrant?

Expatriate: A person who lives outside their native country
Immigrant: A person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.

A BBC article had some interesting things to say about these definitions. Dr Yvonne McNulty and Chris Brewster are two academics working on clarifying these definitions.
McNulty says “It’s not about the colour of your skin, and it’s not about the salary that you earn,” and for her, she says maids are expats, construction workers are expats. And for her,

A business expatriate, she says, is a legally working individual who resides temporarily in a country of which they are not a citizen, in order to accomplish a career-related goal (no matter the pay or skill level) — someone who has relocated abroad either by an organisation, by themselves or been directly employed by their host country.

Nice definition, but not how we, the general public understand things…says Brewster.

[Omar Lopez on Unsplash]

The thing is no-one seems to agree whether immigrant is the term to be used for someone who has moved country for the long term or the short term.

Many people assume that expat means a short term stint somewhere for work and yet, Malte Zeeck, founder and co-CEO of InterNations , the world’s largest expat network, with 2.5 million members in 390 cities around the world, says that due to the changing nature of our travel behaviours and our working habits the definition of the word expat is changing. He says that he now uses the word expat in a broader sense,

describing rather someone who decides to live abroad for a specified amount of time without any restrictions on origin or residence,

I like the simplicity of this definition, and until the rest of the world catches up with such a broad and open definition, I will be steering clear of the ‘ex’ word as much as possible.

I am sticking with calling myself part of the ‘international community’ which is open to interpretation. We are all essentially part of this one, therefore it feels unified enough for me to use… at least for now.
I feel caught between a rock and a hard place because many of the women I love to work with consider themselves expats, many of the women I love to work with despise the term expat. So what is a girl to say?!

I subscribe to expat magazines, blogs and websites to get insights into these communities and I use the word expat in my hashtags on Instagram to attract the kinds of international women I would love to serve. And yet, I won’t write the word expat to describe who I work with on my website. Blurred lines. Messy definitions. Confusing identities. It ain’t clear-cut that is for sure, especially when it comes down to this whole labelling ‘us’ vs. ‘them’, me, you and everyone and everything in-between. Can’t we just all decide to be be a bunch of human beings being human and just leave it at that?

What about you – how do you define yourself? Expat, immigrant, international citizen, human being? What are your thoughts on the whole expat vs immigrant debate? Pleasecomment below, I’d love to hear from you.

With love,


PS – If you have recently moved country or perhaps you have been where you are for sometime and you are looking to make some changes in your life and to experience more joy, fun and happiness then you might just be interested in my free PDF guide: The Ultimate Guide to Thrive: 21 tips to help you to find your feet in a foreign land. Click on the opt in here.

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