Am I an expat or a migrant? What is the difference?

Apparently, by calling myself an “expat” as opposed to a “migrant” I think I have an elevated status. That I am better than others. Oh and probably that I am either a crusty old British colonial living out my years in some post-Raj fantasy or an aging peroxide Daily Mail-reading pensioner living on the Costa, eating full English breakfasts every morning and complaining about why the Spaniards don’t speak proper.

This is the result of a slightly heated “debate” I have just had on what should be a friendly Facebook group I belong to. It is a huge group, made up of people from all different backgrounds, ages, parts of the country etc. We have one thing in common but of course that one thing won’t mean we always see eye-to-eye on everything else. And, it seems, the one thing we don’t all see eye-to-eye on is the term expat.

The discussion started because the term “British expat” has become more well known in our country following the EU referendum. A group of expats (they use that term themselves) are part of a consortium bringing a case to the Supreme court to try and force our government to debate the plan to leave the EU. Many expats were also denied the vote in the referendum because they had lived overseas for more than 15 years, and EU expats in the UK were inexplicably denied it completely. We also hear of expats on the continent who voted for the UK to leave the EU despite the obvious impact this would have on their own lives….

In these cases, the word “expat” isn’t necessarily what I would call an expat – but there again, my feeling is that people should be able to call themselves what they want to. However, what I do object to is being told I think I am better than others because I insist on calling myself an expat and not a migrant. So what is the difference?

Firstly, I am a migrant: someone who moves to find work. Although already I could question that definition as we didn’t move to FIND work but because we HAD work in another country. However, pedantics aside there are certainly different types of migrants and an expat is definitely one of them. Here is the Wikipedia definition of expat:

An expatriate (often shortened to expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing, as an immigrant, in a country other than that of their citizenship. The word comes from the Latin terms ex (“out of”) and patria (“country, fatherland”).

In common usage the term expatriate is often used in the context of professionals or skilled migrant workers, though it actually applies to all immigrants.[1]

The interesting thing for me here is that technically we may be immigrants but I’m not after technicalities – I am after how we define ourselves. And in the expat community that I inhabit (both in real life and online), few of us call ourselves immigrants.

Now, I know what people will say: you don’t call yourselves immigrants because you think you are better than that. You have an elevated status. Yes, that last one was actually the term thrown at me in my online discussion.


We use that term because it distinguishes us from other types of migrants. As expats we have distinctive needs and by using the term we recognise each other for what we are. It gives us a sense of community (so important when you are away from friends and family). It is also a sort of shorthand understood by most of us who use it, for someone who is here for a while but not forever, often keeping one foot in their home country, usually in a situation where a job, housing, possibly schooling and a relocation package, is provided. When you meet another expat you know that you understand it each other. That you know where you come from and where you are going. That you won’t be here forever but while you are you will probably be looking for friendship and support. That as much as you might love your host country it isn’t and probaby never will be your home so you will always keep some sort of distance from it. That you might try and learn the local language or you might not, but you know that you don’t necessarily HAVE to. That your children will probably never call this place home.

Migrants/economic migrants/immigrants/refugees: all these terms stand alone and come with their own baggage and can be argued about ad infinitum. But most people who I asked agree that a migrant moves for the purposes of finding work and with the intention of staying at least semi-permanently; an immigrant is that person once they are in the country; and a refugee is someone who is forced to move for reasons of security, war, food shortages etc. An expat on the other hand certainly doesn’t set off with the intention of staying in that country, even if they do eventually settle there (at which point they become an immigrant – although what they are once they aquire nationality of that country I don’t know!). An expat also usually has a certain socio-economic status; if nothing else, they have the support of whatever organisation has sent them to their host country and are unlikely to be left completely to their own devices.

Having been quite rattled by the “discussion” I had about this in the supposedly friendly Facebook group, I put the question of how they describe themselves to another group who I knew would be a lot more forgiving of me – the I am Triangle group, made up of people who are living or have lived overseas . I asked them whether they use the term expat to describe themselves and if so, do they think it makes them “better” than others. Note: this is a group made up of many different nationalities and certainly not just Brits, and who have lived or are living in countries all over the world.

The answer came back almost unilaterally – we are expats. This is a term that most of them use and recognise and no, apart from in some cases where translations made the term “expat” into something that it wasn’t in English, most of them did not think it made them “better” than anyone else moving abroad. There was a healthy discussion and most of us understand our privilege in terms of our socio-economic status. But to say that makes us “better” is the same as saying someone who lives in a bigger house than the family down the street thinks they are superior just because they can afford the bigger house.

At the end of the day it is a word that is recognised within our community and is ours to use. If others don’t like it that is for them to worry about, not us. Some people did say they don’t use the word expat and prefer the term “traveller” or similar instead. In my view, that is fine too. We should all be free to use our own description for our own status and people should stop worrying so much how this is viewed amongst those who perhaps have never walked in our shoes.

After all, expat, immigrant, migrant, refugee, traveller: at least we have all have one thing in common. We have all got off our backsides (or in some cases of course been forced off our backsides) and seen something of the world. Maybe some of those who are complaining are just a little bit jealous.