Expat vs Immigrant

I was reading this mornings grouping of “new posts” and came across one of the travel blogs I subscribe to. The lady who was writing it described herself as an “expat”. This sent off little bells in my head reminding me that I had this draft sitting here for well over a month. 

What happened was, I found these two articles about the difference between being an “expat” and an “immigrant” and why we use each term. So I saved them in a draft, expecting to write this up the next day. But the next day, the internet exploded over that “how to approach a girl who is wearing headphones” article and I forgot. So now we are back to this:

I guess before we get started, it’s helpful to understand the dictionary definition of both terms (according to dictionary.com):

Expat (aka ex-patriot)1.resident in a foreign country; 2.exiled or banished from one’s native country

Immigrant1.a person who migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence.

So we can already see how they are basically the same thing: a person who has taken up residence in a foreign country. A few of the definitions for expat also included that it was a willing removal from one’s country, not just limited to banishment.

So this is where the two articles I read come into play. First The Guardian says that the term “expat” is reserved only for whites. While this article does acknowledge that the term expat could be applied to any person going abroad to work, it says that this is simply not the case because of historically putting white people above everyone else, which continues on today.

Defined that way, you should expect that any person going to work outside of his or her country for a period of time would be an expat, regardless of his skin colour or country. But that is not the case in reality; 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. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’.

The author backs up this claim by referencing a Wall Street Journal blog which also made the point of claiming the term “expat” only for white people. So I am white, which means I am an expat. BUT what if I were a person of colour from Canada? Would the colour of my skin then make me an immigrant, even if I was born in the same place, had the exact same upbringing and was moving to Korea for work just like I have now? 

The Second article is from Panam Post and it says that the term is applied based on one’s passport not on race. The author of this article has identified themselves as both and immigrant and an expat, claiming:

Contrary to his (the author of the first article) argument, the distinction is more about how government classifies people and less about race.

It’s about passports: citizenship, borders, and travel and work visas. It’s about restrictions put in place by modern governments via contemporary visa regimes. They’re the real culprit

I tend to agree with the PanAm post and would like to emphasize that its the country of origin AND the destination that makes one an expat.

In Korea, expats are people who have moved to teach or to study. At least that’s what I have experienced. I moved for teaching so I’m an expat, someone I was involved with during my first contract was here to do his masters degree, and he also taught English. He was from Cameroon and was an “expat”. A friend of mine moved to England for her masters and considered herself an expat until she married a British citizen and now has applied for citizenship. Another friend moved to England after teacher’s college to work and calls herself an expat as well. Although that again will change since she was married over the summer and will probably be applying for citizenship as well.

One theory that has been presented to me by a friend in conversation is that the term “expat” should be applied to those who are moving to a different country not for work. Like the large population of expats who have decided to live out their retirement in Thailand. They are not seeking citizenship, but just want to make advantage of the inexpensive exotic living situation in their retirement. While the term “immigrant” would apply to those who have relocated for work – making me an immigrant and not an expat. But I very distinctively refer to myself as an expat – yet that could just be because I am white (as the article in The Guardian would suggest).

Perhaps it has something to do with the intent to apply for citizenship? Even if I were to stay and work in Korea for many many more years, I would do so without the intent of applying for citizenship. Maybe that would mean I were an “expat”. But, if I were to move for work, with the intention of applying for citizenship later down the road, that would make me an immigrant?

Perhaps it has something to do with language? If, when you move to a different country and you can keep your mother tongue without hindering your experience too much (or at all), then you are an expat, but when moving to a country where you are forced to learn a new way of life and a new language then you are an immigrant? But then the author of the PanAM article would have been an “expat” when moving to the USA from Canada and not an immigrant.

It’s definitely a struggle to try to place one person in one category, and one in another.

What do you think? Do you agree with The Guardian, or with PanAM Post?


5 thoughts on “Expat vs Immigrant

  1. I would agree with the second article as well, mainly because it does not make sense to me to mix the race into this. Based on the definitions that you provided, I consider myself both an expat and an immigrant. I moved voluntarily and now I live and work in the U.S. but I keep close ties with my home country of Lithuania. Maybe an expat is a person, who, no matter where he is, identifies himself/herself with the culture they are from, whereas an immigrant is someone who is more ready to start anew and become a part of their new country?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Wow…I’ve never thought about this, but doesn’t “expat” have a more positive connotation when compared with “immigrant”? I really hope the article about it being about white people elevating themselves isn’t true, but, sadly, I wouldn’t be surprised…

    Liked by 1 person

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