Expat or immigrant?

I love meeting new people along my journey, the kind that, due to their intelligence and awareness, cause me to question my assumptions about the world and the daily habits I take for granted.

Such was the case this week when I had the opportunity to meet and spend time with an extraordinary young woman who was visiting my closest friend here in Colombia. This young woman studied and lived abroad and now runs an NGO in Mexico City (which she founded) called “Ollin,” which roughly translates to Youth in Movement.

During one of our discussions on international issues, she casually asked if I would describe myself as an expat or an immigrant.

Hum, I thought, as conflicting thoughts raced through my mind. This is a quandary. Based on my current status here in Colombia, how would I label myself?

I knew that regardless of which choice I made, there were racial, social and economic connotations attached to both of these labels.

As someone who’s keenly interested in both world history and current events, I’m aware that human movement from one part of the world to another has been a constant for millennia, as populations have explored new areas seeking more abundant resources or have been displaced by wars, famine and Colonial expansion.

In a world that seems to be increasingly defined by international borders secured by walls and fences, what isn’t quite so clear is the system we use to label the people who migrate across these borders.

I had consciously called the American, French, German and Italian foreigners who live in my small Colombian town ‘expats.’ I merely saw these individuals as extensions of the expat phenomenon that’s been expanding over the past few decades as greater numbers of Westerners ‘choose’ to leave their home countries to work or retire abroad, often in regions that people in the West label as still ‘developing.’

In an effort to see what others have written on this topic, I decided to do a bit of research. I began by confirming that my mental connotations matched the common definitions of these terms.

Labeling others

Workers of many nationalities shopping at an open air market in Dubai.

As I’ve stated previously, the words we use are important because they frame our public discourse and eventually our ways of thinking and viewing the world.

According to various online English dictionaries, an immigrant is ‘a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.’ An expatriate, on the other hand, is ‘a person who lives outside their native country,’ so this second label would seem to be more open to interpretation.

And what about the closely related term ‘migrant’? According to the same sources, a migrant is ‘a person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions.’

During my years of living abroad, I’ve known a number of Westerners who were also living outside their native countries for economic reasons, some working for major corporations which offered special perks such as luxury accommodation and annual flights home and others who were teaching in regions like the Arabian Gulf because the teachers’ salaries in that oil-rich region were higher than back in their home countries. So, according to this definition of a migrant, weren’t these Westerners also migrants?

While I personally find all labels limiting and dislike being put into uncomfortable and ill-fitting boxes, we do this with language all the time. As one dominant aspect of culture, we often take words for granted, positive and negative connotations included.

Other voices

I first ran across an article published in the Guardian UK by writer Mawuna Remarque Koutonin, where he states, “In the lexicon of human migration there are still hierarchical words, created with the purpose of putting white people above everyone else. One of those remnants is the word ‘expat’.”

While it isn’t clear when the term ‘expatriate’ came into common use, it seems Mr. Koutonin is right about the racial overtones of its use.

According to Wikipedia, “…a British national working in Spain or Portugal is commonly referred to as an ‘expatriate,’ whereas a Spanish or Portuguese national working in Britain is referred to as an ‘immigrant,’ thus indicating Anglocentrism.”

While I agree there are often obvious racial connotations involved in applying the term expatriate, in my experience labeling someone as an expat is about more than just race.

In Kieran Nash’s article, Who Should be Called an Expat on BBC Capital, he notes, “The word expat is loaded. It carries many connotations, preconceptions and assumptions about class, education and privilege — just as the terms foreign worker, immigrant and migrant call to mind a different set of assumptions.”

I have to agree. These seemingly innocent terms we use to describe groups of people can be quite complicated when we dissect them based on common use.

The linguistic waters become even murkier when we consider journalist Ruchika Tulshyan’s nuanced words from the Wall Street Journal. She offers, “Today’s expats are from all over the world, from diverse backgrounds and with different skin colors, most with a desire to integrate within the new society they have joined.”

In practical terms

Some of my university colleagues in Oman–quite a diverse group.

As I considered my own perceptions of these terms, I ran through the various scenarios I’d experienced during my years of living abroad.

My memory flashed back to my eight years in Oman where I was lucky enough to experience working with colleagues from more than a dozen countries on five continents. All of these ‘professionals,’ whether from Sudan, India or Australia were labeled ‘expats.’

In fact, Oman and all the other Arabian Gulf counties are filled with expats and migrant laborers. The distinction in most cases there was based on level of education attained and socio-economic status. The disparity in living conditions in the Gulf between those defined as an expat and those called  migrant laborers is enormous.

In other contexts such as China, Japan and Thailand, the term expat is reserved for use just within the foreign community. In China, a foreigner is known as a ‘laowai,’ in Japan a ‘gaijin,’ and in Thailand a ‘farang.’ Depending on which locals you ask, there may be negative connotations culturally associated with each of these terms as well.

How should I be labeled?

For me, I’m an expat when talking about the country I left behind more than 15 years ago, but I’m an immigrant when referring to my current status in Colombia. I’ve been to the Medellin office of Migración Colombia two times and I’ll be going back to the same ‘immigration’ office two more times in the process of getting a 3-year resident visa.

While teaching abroad in multiple countries, I also had to spend a good amount of time at the nearest immigration office in each country before finally being granted a work visa. So, people who have to make multiple visits to an immigration office in order to be allowed to stay in a particular country should be called ‘immigrants,’ right?

There are no signs in these offices which say ‘expats queue here’! In most of these government settings, I’ve had to line up with the masses, although in reality the native civil servants clearly treated me (an educated, white male) with more respect and the process was considerably shortened when compared to the mostly dark-skinned, low-skilled laborers with whom I shared the queues.

Final thoughts

Considering all this, it seems to me that the common usage of the term expat carries multiple meanings. It may be determined based on country of origin (passport), length of stay within a country, an individual’s job classification and salary, level of education attained as well as various other factors all having to do with belonging to a higher level socio-economic group.

Based on my experiences, it’s obvious to me that being seen as an ‘expat’ in a foreign country carries its privileges, especially when compared to the much larger numbers of ‘immigrants’ who often live in substandard conditions while awaiting lengthy bureaucratic processes.

Realistically, I’ve been an immigrant or a migrant for the past 15 years, and that label suits me just fine.

With the near constant talk of  limiting immigration in countries across the planet, maybe it’s time we begin questioning the labels we place on groups of people and the stereotypes this behavior creates.

Gaining an understanding of the reasons behind migrations will go a long way toward making us all a part of the solution, rather than enabling the circumstances that push large groups of people across international borders in the first place.

NOTE: For an insightful African view of expats and immigration, read Fiyin Kolawole’s post Non-Expat Expats.





Categories: Culture, PoliticsTags: , , , , ,


  1. Great post. How do you like living in Colombia? My husband and I are considering retiring to Central or South America. We’ve traveled to Panama and Costa Rica. We really liked Panama, and plan on visiting in the near future to scout out retirement locations.


    • Hola,
      I’ve experienced living in many countries and so far have tried four in Latin America–Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador and now Colombia. I’ve decided to stay on in Colombia because it has relatively modern infrastructure along with beautiful landscapes and rich biodiversity plus nice locals. There are also a wealth of small towns and cities to choose from that are safe and secure (or as secure as any place in our world can be!). The cost of living is one of the lowest in Latin America, and indeed the world which means you can live well on less. I haven’t been to the retirement hot spots like Boquete, but I’ve just met a group of four expats who recently moved from Boquete to my small town of Guatapé. They like the weather better here and also think it’s a more suitable lifestyle for them (whatever that means). Personally, my favorite aspect of life in Colombia is that there are fewer American expats living here than in countries like Ecuador or Panama. I like having a variety of friends since that’s the way I lived in Asia for 14 years. Good luck with your choices and let me know if you want any info on a specific place that I may have spent time in. Cheers!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks so much. We are interested in Colombia as well. I feel the same as you, as we don’t want to be in huge expat locations. We want to assimilate into the local culture. I look forward to your posts.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi, there! Thanks for the invitation Mr. Henry.

    So how was your experience living here in Thailand? I’ve been living in this country for 3 years now as an immigrant or should I say “an expat”. 😁 Now I am confused but not really.

    As for my understanding of the terms, I am an expat who (will) works here for some time. My being an immigrant is still quite vague as of now because I still have yet to decide whether I will permanently live here as a residence.

    There goes my thoughts and it depends on the decision of permanence.

    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The world is skewed, that’s a fact. But then the global south should be as concerned about American (& global northern) immigrants; as they are concerned about immigrants from the global south.

    Just as I wrote in a factual fun-to-read piece titled Non-Expat Expats here:


    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Fiyin,

      Skewed is a good word for the way our world seems to work. Honestly, I think the planet would be much healthier if all humans were exterminated. The rich get richer while the poor struggle to make ends meet. Still, I’ve found there are good and bad folks everywhere. I’m merely attempting to make Westerners more aware of the world around them by stressing that the decisions they make every day affect others all over the planet. I look forward to your future posts. Thank you and I just shared your very insightful post.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. I highly recommend you visit Guatapé during your search. The town is cute beyond words and still mostly a weekend destination for Colombians, but it looks like things are going to take off exponentially growth-wise and I’m just hoping the place doesn’t lose its quaint character. There are many other beautiful towns in Antioquia department such as Santa Fe de Antioquia and Jardin, as well as other departments. Feel free to contact me if I can be of any help and I’ll send you my whatsapp contact. Everyone here uses that app. By the way, I’m NOT a realtor ;-). Just a friendly blogger who would like to have a wider range of local friends, especially those who’ve had interesting lives and can think outside the box.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. When we (whoever the “we” in this sentence may be) talk about limiting immigration, we somehow never talk about limiting the number of our citizens who move (to use a neutral word) to other countries. Odd thing, that.

    Liked by 2 people

    • True Ellen. The discussions always seem to be about ‘others’ who are arriving on Western shores. In similar fashion, it seems that many Western countries are obsessed with spending resources on keeping ‘foreigners’ out, rather than focusing some of those scarce resources on addressing the reasons for migration in the first place. For example, instead of the USA working together with Mexico to improve living conditions for Mexican citizens at home, the US Govt instead chooses to spend $20 billion to build a wall which we all know will do little to stop the cross border flow of those seeking a better life. It’s all about short term, politically expedient measures that do little to address real world issues. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 2 people

  7. This is a very thought-provoking read. I now have an awareness of how the terms I use for people who are not citizens of the country they live in, are truly prejudicial. I found it interesting, too, in the comment by IAMJIRAH, that the sense of being an immigrant includes the intention to permanently stay in the host country. I didn’t realize that I had that factor built into my definition of immigrant, but once I thought about it, I knew that it really is the case. When I asked myself if I have been an immigrant to each country I have lived and worked in, the answer was no. Why? Because I didn’t intend to permanently settle. It is sort of a glitch in my software. I can’t seem to settle in one country for more than a few years. Honestly, rather than ever call myself an expat, or immigrant, or migrant…..I just call myself a gypsy. My Chinese students gave me the name “flower that flies through the air”. I like that even better than gypsy. 🙂 I am so grateful to have a handle on what has consistently made me feel uncomfortable with the labels assigned to people migrating to other countries. Thanks a bazillion for illuminating this issue. xoxoxoxoxoxoxoxoxo

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Carolyn,

      I agree with not liking ill-fitting cultural labels, although I do feel like an immigrant in my current situation because I really like Colombia and feel the need to settle, at least for a while. After all, as Buddhist teachings and the principles of physics teach us, everything is transient so forever doesn’t exist in this world.

      I love the nickname your students gave you in China–‘flower that flies through the air’! My Chinese students gave me a cool Buddhist mala which has beads carved in the form of Buddha or Bodhisattva heads. I treasure it! Now, if I could only remember where it is after all the moves 😉

      Thanks again for sharing your insights on an important topic!


    • What a beautiful name they gave you.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. A very interesting read. I had not thought about it much either. I have an American friend who is Cambodian American who moved to Vietnam and he is considered an expat there. I am not sure it is always a racial thing, but it probably is very much a part of it.
    Thanks for bringing up an interesting topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hola Michael,

      Yes, it’s interesting how we habitually use labels without thinking about the longer term impacts certain connotations of a word can have on our cultural and world view.
      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Great entry, Henry! I think you did a great job summarizing what others have written before and where the debate stands. I believe in a more comprehensive we-are-all-humans kind of approach, where man-made borders do not define the quality of you as a person. While we get there, I strongly believe we should stop differentiating between “expats” and “migrants”. We all have different reasons to move around and that does not make us more – or less – worthy than the locals or than anyone else for that matter.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hola Greta,

      I definitely identify with your we-are-all-humans approach. History is certainly littered with suffering based on the notion of international borders. I too hope we can figure out how to coexist peacefully while building a more egalitarian world. Thanks so much for reading and for adding your insights!


  10. Hello and thanks for stopping by my blog:
    Honestly, I never gave the terms much thought. I guess if I use the definitions you quoted in this post, I would be considered a migrant. But I am also an expat and that’s the term I use and am referred to quite often over here in Qatar. Yes, I moved here to live and work but also to travel and fulfill a dream. I’m a teacher so I’m not poor but I’m not rich either.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hola PhillyGirl,

      I taught abroad for many years also, including 8 years in the Gulf, so I can identify with your comments. I too wanted to live and work abroad for the enjoyment of new travel adventures and to study different cultures from within.

      I never gave the terms much thought either until I started doing some research about how others, especially immigrants from the developing world, viewed the terms ‘expat’ and ‘immigrant’. I didn’t write the post to make anyone feel guilty about their use of these terms, but to simply bring awareness to those of us from Western countries who are normally labeled as expats when working abroad. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, and all the best in your teaching and travels!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Also I don’t plan to stay here so I’m not an immigrant either.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. With Donald Trump as President of the USA, I feel almost as much an immigrant or a foreigner as my ancestors, and some of them were early settlers in America! The poem that was written in 1883 to raise funds for the completion of the Statue of Liberty must have been written by a different breed of American than those that currently occupy its Whitehouse.

    …“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
    With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

    Perhaps I need to consider being an American expat half of the year. I hear Colombia is a nice place to live. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • I realize the USA has changed a great deal from the time this verse was written. Many of those who are afraid (yes, it’s about fear!) of continued immigration possibly see what they believe to be too many ‘huddled masses’ wanting to come ashore these days. What they may not be taking into account, however, is that violence aided by US interference in the domestic policies of other governments–from Central and South America to the Middle East– has helped to create refugee crises which then lead to increased immigration to the USA and other Western countries. I really wish more Americans would connect the dots and encourage our country’s government to learn the hard lessons from history and back off when it comes to military (and CIA-led) interventions in the domestic affairs of others. Thanks for your comments Kristy!

      Liked by 2 people

  13. Thanks Henry for sharing the link to your post in a comment on our blog which I found interesting as well as thought provoking. We humans do indeed like to label everything and everyone and for those of us who consciously try to avoid stereotypes and negative connotations in our conversations and writing, our words carry meanings to others which, many times, we’re blissfully unaware of. Perhaps subconsciously, I have absorbed the cachet of the word ‘expatriate’ and the “race, class, education and privilege it denotes as I’ve worn the label with pride while at the same time feeling gratitude for being able to choose where I live and all that I have. In fact, immigrant also works well as a label because we can live for much less out of the US while maintaining the a similar standard of living. At this time however, whether expat or immigrant, I know for sure that I can further label myself as an emmigrant, “a person who leaves their own country in order to settle permanently in another.” 🙂 Anita

    Liked by 1 person

  14. This is a topic I’ve also thought about a lot and I found your write-up enlightening. I would add that, in my opinion, describing a person as an expat implies that he/she is not living abroad permanently and will move on at some point, probably when retirement or a new job posting comes up, whereas a migrant has made the choice to settle permanently or at least indefinitely in a foreign land (not sure if other commenters have made this point). But clearly there are social, racial, and economic factors at play as well. Thanks for the thought-provoking article.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Interesting read! This idea has crossed my mind as well!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Well said, it’s so interesting how two words can have the same meaning but carry such different connotations. I’ve definitely come to understand this more since moving to New Zealand from the U.S..

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Fabulous. My husband who is an English expat. in the US has met with welcome and encouragement. I truly think this is because he is white, from a county that is culturally similar to us, also our ally, and he has a cool accent:). But he is still an expat, an ‘alien’. When I see how he is welcomed and then the things I hear people say about our immigrants from Mexico and other countries it is different. There is such a discriminatory, harsh and judgmental tone towards many of our immigrants that rings of a lack of dignity and respect.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s nice to hear that your husband has had positive experiences as an expat in the USA. I too usually felt as if my white skin helped me to be more readily accepted (in multiple developing countries) than many of my darker skinned colleagues. This fact made me feel very uncomfortable. It would seem that ruling elites in many (most?) countries show favoritism to Westerners.

      In the end, I think the experience of living abroad is the best form of education an individual can give themselves. I’ve learned so much about myself by observing the inner workings of other cultures.

      Liked by 1 person

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