Definition of an expat vs immigrant

One of my readers recently asked me what the whole ‘Expater’ thing was about. In answer to her question, I wanted to create a term which better encapsulated what my fellow land hopping adventurers and I are all about. The term ‘expat’ is rather vague and dull.

It also gets itself muddled in politicized scuffles with ‘immigrant’ and ‘migrant’.

All in all, I’ve felt very welcome in my host countries and I wonder if it’s because I’m considered an expat and not an immigrant?

What’s the difference, you say? For me, it’s about choice and time. Expats choose to move to another country for a certain amount of time. Immigrants are left with little choice but to move and end up staying for a long time, if not all their lives.

Or is it about money and race? I’ve never faced the economic struggles that many immigrants are faced with and I’m white (very white, in fact). In many respects my expat life has been one long holiday.

definition of an expatriate - traveller photo

Chatting with a Swiss neighbour the topic of the ‘dreadful’ foreigners around our apartment came up. I smiled and calmly pointed out that despite my flawless accent I was in fact a foreigner too. (To clarify, another Swiss friend said my accent is as ‘English as Mary Poppins’). My neighbour brushed my comment aside: ‘No, not like you. You speak French, you’re an expat and well, you know what I mean…’ I think I did and I’m also sure the ‘foreigners’ spoke better French than me.

Something similar happened in Angola, but this time it was a black woman doing the complaining. My neighbour was grumbling about ‘all the foreigners’ in the country. Again, I asked if my accent and skin tone didn’t give my nationality away. ‘Well, yes, you’re foreign, but it’s not the same. British, OK. But Lebanese, Congolese, what do they want here?!’ Probably the same as anyone else I reckoned: a better life. However I wasn’t about to get into semantics with a feisty granny wielding a walking stick.

Am I made more welcome, because as a white expat I’m seen as well off and not a burden on local resources? It’s true that I’ve paid my local taxes, but I’ve also enjoyed my fair share of hospital treatment. Yes, I’ve made an effort to speak the local language, but I’m sure I speak it worse than the average ‘immigrant’.

Quite honestly, I am an economic migrant.

expat definition - traveler in the desert photo

Sometimes, being perceived as an expat has its downsides. In Luanda, Angola, I was forever receiving demands for gifts, including a $700 mobile phone for a driver and a new iPhone for another coworker, because as an expat I could afford it. Apparently. Umm.

However, saying no to demands for expensive presents isn’t a big deal. Undoubtedly ‘white expats’ get a much better deal that anyone in the ‘mixed race immigrant’ basket. Chatting to a lady on a metro in Antwerp, Belgium, I was told how immigrants were the root of all Belgium’s problems. Then sensing my unease, she put her hand on my shoulder, ‘No, not you. I mean Muslims, not Christians’. Oh that makes me feel so much better. (PS I’m not even Christian).

I asked friends who define themselves as expat bloggers about this, as well as other women living abroad. I asked on Instagram, in private and over group get togethers. The general consensus was that the term ‘expat’ isn’t racist or classist per se. The problem is when  we don’t use the term ‘expat’ to denote people from developing countries moving to developed countries. We need to use ‘expat’ more, not less.

Perhaps it all boils down to prejudice? Perhaps I should make more of an effort to stand up to such blatant racism / classism / prejudice? Perhaps instead of merely registering my disagreement, I should try to persuade my neighbours that having foreigners in town can be a good thing.

Perhaps it’s better not to use the terms expat, migrant or immigrant at all. Labels put us in a box, and we’d need a heck of a load of boxes to deal with the diversity of people living abroad. The star formerly known as Prince changed his name to a symbol, so perhaps we can do something similar. In the meantime, will ‘Expater’ do?


  1. November 11, 2017 / 11:31 pm

    Really enjoyed reading this. I've been thinking about this a lot recently since moving to Canada where everyone is treated like an immigrant (in my opinion). There are no expats here or expat community. I have noticed in other countries I've lived in that I got treated differently than others of my colour (I would identify myself as British Asian). And I think it was because of the way I spoke. And so, like you I wasn't classed as a "foreigner". It's a strange experience and like you I wonder what we can do to get rid of the negative connotations associated with certain terms. In with you on "expater"!

    • November 12, 2017 / 9:57 am

      Thanks for this, it's interesting to hear. I've heard really good things about Canada so I assume (and hope) you're positive about being treated the same, rather than facing the discrimination that a lot of immigrants encounter on a daily basis.
      It's also interesting what you say about 'the way' you speak. I was labelled (in a very affectionate way) as a 'posh bird' by a Scottish friend, whereas to some of my London friends I've been told I can sound really 'northern'! Perhaps we need to create a dialect too 😉

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