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What Is an Expat-Immigrant?

The debate of who exactly is considered an “expat” and an “immigrant” is something that has been going on for quite some time, with many arguments stemming from personal definitions and experiences that no one can universally fault nor accept. Why not compromise and settle on the term “expat-immigrant”?


The Classic Definition of an “Expat”

The Cambridge Dictionary defines “expatriate”, or “expat” for short, as “someone who does not live in their own native country.”

Yet it appears that the term “expat” is reserved mostly for an individual who:

  • Has a seemingly high-paying white-collar occupation or business endeavours
  • Resides in another country temporarily on a temporary work visa
  • Is arguably from what is classically considered a developed country, such as the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Germany, France, the list goes on

One rarely hears of a “Thai expat”, but “expats living in Thailand” is a very easy demographic to picture.

One side of the argument could be that there aren’t many Thais who are seeking to live abroad as a Thai expat, which is why a “Thai expat” isn’t commonly heard, but the other side of the argument is that a Thai “expat” who meets the 3 criteria outlined above would often be socially considered an “immigrant” in the United States for example, even though a United States citizen who meets the same 3 criteria above can call themself an “expat” in Thailand without raising an eyebrow.

The Classic Definition of an “Immigrant”

An “immigrant”, on the other hand, is defined in the Cambridge Dictionary as “someone who has come to a different country in order to live there permanently.”

The key word here is permanent, and strictly speaking, only permanent residents of a country can be considered immigrants. A permanent resident is a citizen of another country that has been given the right to live in a country permanently. The U.S. seems to have taken this definition to heart—The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issues Non-Immigrant Visas for those who seek to visit or live in the United States temporarily for tourism, study, or work, whereas Immigrant Visas are issued to those who are approved to live in the United States permanently as green card holders (permanent residents).

Socially, the term “immigrant” is often broadly used as a catch-all term for anyone who lives abroad. However, it appears that it is not universally accepted by those who would prefer to identify as an expat due to the perceived connotations of what being an immigrant means.

If there are disagreements to the above points so far, that is to be expected—which is why it was mentioned early on in this post that the meaning of what constitutes an “expat” and an “immigrant” has been an ongoing debate for a very long time and most arguments involve anecdotal definitions in which no one can universally fault nor accept. The purpose of this article is to define a more universal term that compromises this debate. Feel free to keep on reading if this interests you.

Expat vs. Immigrant

Based on their dictionary definitions, the key difference of an “expat” and an “immigrant” is permanence. If someone moves abroad temporarily, they are an “expat”, and if they move abroad permanently, they are an “immigrant”. However, in practice, it’s not so straightforward because there are social connotations to each of these terms.

A person on a temporary work visa is technically an “expat” by definition, but socially, to label someone an “expat”, it is often the case that their type of occupation and country of origin have to be taken into account first. For example, to what extent can a person with a temporary work visa be considered an “expat” if they work as a teacher / tradesman / financial manager / nurse, and if they are originally from Canada / Thailand / Phillipines / France?

Now here is where this debate begins to get really convoluted. It is hard to reconcile the dictionary and social definitions of both the terms “expat” and “immigrant” without anyone taking offense.

The Expat-Immigrant

Instead of endlessly debating the use of one term over the other, why not compromise and use both when broadly defining someone who is moving or living abroad?

An “expat-immigrant” represents someone who is living abroad temporarily, permanently, or in the process of moving abroad permanently, regardless of their type of occupations and country of origin.

I put this term together for a business reason, and it may well catch on or not at all. In growing out Privilege Currency as a website targeting those seeking to move abroad, I had a difficult time defining my target audience for the following reasons:

  • The phrase “people seeking to move abroad” is a mouthful
  • Choosing to define my target audience as “expats” would exclude those who identify as “immigrants” and vice versa
  • Choosing to define my target audience as “expats and immigrants” would suggest a difference between the two, sparking the above debate all over again

Thus it only seemed fair to find a middle ground in the age-old debate between the definitions of an “expat” and an “immigrant: The expat-immigrant.


Hi, I'm Ryan.

Over the past 10 years, I've lived & worked in 5 cities across 3 countries.

I like helping others to move abroad, and helping them to decide whether they should.

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