Expat vs. Immigrant

Let’s crush this debate once and for all….

There’s been an ongoing debate on what considers someone an expat or an immigrant. The biggest misconception is that the term “expat” only applies to [white] westerners while the term “immigrant” only applies to people of color, especially if they come from a developing country. There is also the fact the immigrant is often associated with a negative connotation in the western world, which could explain why westerners who move abroad and permanently reside (or obtain citizenship) in another country still refer to themselves as “expats.” But what is an expat? What is an immigrant?


An expat (short for expatriate) is someone who moves to another country for work purposes (or as a digital nomad). One could say that “expat” is a fancy title for migrant worker. What differentiates them from immigrants is that they do not have the intentions of becoming a permanent resident or citizen of the country they are living in. Most expats move to a country for a period of time, and then, they’ll either go to another country or return home. Expats still hold citizenship of their home country.


An immigrant is someone who moves to another country with the intention of permanently living there and/or obtaining citizenship in that country. Let’s say I move to another country to do contract work for year and I decide that I want to stay there forever, I would go from being an expat to an immigrant. Let’s say I decided that I want retire in a country outside of my place of birth, I would be an immigrant because I intend to live there permanently until death.

But Why The Separate Labels?

I didn’t make up the definitions; I’m just the messenger. There isn’t anything wrong with either label. The problems lies with society’s perception. Immigrant seems to always have a negative connotation, whereas expat sounds trendy. I am first generation born American to an immigrant parent from Jamaica, so I never saw it as a bad thing. I thought it was a cool way to stand out because my upbringing was a mixture of American and Jamaican culture. It was the best of both worlds (plus dual citizenship too).

That’s Cool And All, But I Still Don’t Like The Separation

For those who like to be more inclusive labels, the word “foreigner” can apply to both expats and immigrants. The word “human” also works as well.

What sayeth you? Do you think there’s a difference between the two? Are expats doing the most to sound “special”? Leave your thoughts below!

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