Expat or immigrant and why the distinction matters

Written by Diane on. Posted in France, on life in France

Expat or immigrant difference

There’s a lot of chatter about expat life all over the internet. Resources like blogs and forums all provide invaluable advice on moving abroad and what life is like when you leave your home behind. Lately I’ve been thinking about the terms expat and immigrant. Am I an expat or immigrant? Does the identifier I use even matter?

Well, I think the language we use does matter and here’s my take on expat vs. immigrant.

GO!

Expat or immigrant and why it matters

Let’s start off with the definition of each term. Online dictionaries pretty much describe the two terms the same way:

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Expat

: to leave one’s native country to live elsewhere

or

: one who has taken up residence in a foreign country.

Immigrant

: a person who comes to a country to live there

or

: a person who leaves one country to settle permanently in another.

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expat or immigrant difference

Positive or negative? The definitions aren’t so simple.

So we have the definitions which seem pretty straightforward, but what about the connotations?

Immigrant sounds negative. We associate it with illegal immigrants and struggle. So many of our ancestors immigrated to new lands, maybe arriving in Ellis Island with nothing but a small suitcase and left to forge a new life in a place where they may not even speak the language. Immigrating is challenging and we’ve all heard stories of strife with people having to find work, learn a language, integrate and adapt because there’s no other choice.

Expat, on the other hand, gives off a completely different vibe. Before deciding to pick up and move to France, I thought of an expat as someone who accepted a temporary work contract of a year or two in another country, usually with the same company they work for in their native land. Expats often have their moving expenses paid for by their employer, children’s international school tuition covered and live reasonably cushy lives. Don’t they? Not necessarily.

Based on the definition, an expat can be anyone living abroad. The simple definition of expat says nothing about cushy lives or work contracts, yet in the past when I’ve referred to myself as an expat, people assume an employer in the US sent me to France. When I’ve called myself an immigrant, friends from home have laughed. “You’re a legal American resident in France, silly, not an immigrant!” Right… but is that all I am?

And what about the fact that expats return home at some point in most cases. Does that make their struggles any less real while they’re experiencing them abroad?

Permanence seems to be what separates the two terms.

Expats are only living abroad temporarily whereas immigrants move to a new country for good. To escape hardships at home and seek out a better life? Maybe. Expats have the opportunity to choose whereas most immigrants aren’t looking to return to their birth country. Or are we/they?

Where does the privilege of choice come into play? And privilege in general?

Expat is a label that can sound elitist to some. Expats don’t bother to learn the local language and integrate, right? Expats are better than the locals, right? Nope and nope. It’s certainly preferential to immigrant, right? I feel like “expat” can be misleading and it’s important to be self-aware no matter what you call yourself.

Why does the language we use matter?

Words are so much more than just words. They help us make sense of our environment and connect with others. Words can convey a sense of empathy or if we’re not careful, they can put up walls around us. The language we use is a reflection of what matters to us and what our beliefs are, so be mindful when choosing how to describe yourself.

Regardless of the identifier we use, moving to another country takes major guts and courage. So whatever you call yourself, know that you’re pretty badass.

Expat or immigrant… what am I?

I guess I’m both an expat and immigrant according to the set of definitions above.

Simply put, I’m just an American living in France. That works for me.  

How do you define expat and immigrant?

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Comments (18)

  • Jackie

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    This was an interesting article. I’m thinking what you said “an American living in France” works best. Or just say you are a human being, eh ?

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Yup, that works!

      Reply

  • Louise@FitRadiance

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    That’s really interesting! I agree that the word ‘immigrant’ definitely gives off a certain stereotype for some reason. It’s crazy how people judge by titles, etc.
    Louise@FitRadiance recently posted…Five Things FridayMy Profile

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Thanks for stopping by, Louise. Yes, our society is weird sometimes and if we don’t label ourselves, people push us to. Like wait, are you American, Italian-American, kind of American? Labels try to uncomplicated things but sometimes they do the opposite.

      Reply

  • Alan

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    Tracy and I have been having this discussion too.

    It is hard to break-down,

    Tracy sees the “immigrant” label as having a connotation more permanent and with less choice than “expat.”

    I like using “expat” because of the positive association with Hemingway and Fitzgerald (yeah, I’m a romantic), but then I tell people that we are going to France’s immigration office to get our “green cards” (cartes de sejours.)

    It seems in common usage if you are of European roots you are an “expat” and a non-European an “immigrant.”

    It is a an interesting question. Are “expats” empathetic with “immigrants” or do they see themselves as a different class?

    Does Tom see US, UK, German, Spainish residents in France as immigrants or expats? Does Tom see US, UK, German, Spanish immigrants differently than immigrants from former French colonies (like Morocco and Vietnam) and different from Turkey, Poland or non-French Colonial Africa?

    I

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    Alan recently posted…Second Renewal of Our Residency Permits (Cartes de Séjour) Part 2My Profile

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Hi Alan, it’s interesting to see what societal meanings words have taken on even if the definitions are simple. Someone emailed me the other day and asked if I was an expat. What they were asking was if a company in the US sent me here to work. Technically I am an expat by definition but they were asking something else. I think permanence is what separates the two terms in my mind. But permanent is scary to think about. Is anything really permanent?

      I’ll ask Tom what he thinks. If I had to guess, I think he’d see people in France from former colonies as immigrants because they’re not looking to return to their homeland, whereas Americans often do return home. That’s my take.

      Thanks for weighing in

      Reply

    • Diane

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      Agree that the definitions are simple, Bill, but they’re loaded. Even in the article you linked, the author points out another article that “misses the mark.” That article claimed that expats are white and come from the Western world. So in my opinion, it’s not so cut and dry. Love reading about this stuff so thanks for sharing the article 😉

      Reply

  • Cal-expat

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    not taking into account the negative connotation you can find in “immigrant”, I’d say it’s mostly a question of perspective.
    I consider myself an expat (I live outside my country temporarily), while an immigrant is someone new in a country.
    Cal-expat recently posted…Arrivée à Vegas / Arriving in VegasMy Profile

    Reply

    • Diane

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      You don’t feel immigrant has a negative connotation?

      Reply

  • Annie Andre

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    I have wondered what to call myself also.

    know I am not an immigrant because I plan on returning to north american. I have not really been calling myself an expat either because I cling to the idea that an expat has some company sponsored package, but I suppose that is not really true.

    I don’t want to put a label on myself but sometimes its just easier to use them because so much can be said with one word. I usually just tell people I am on a sabbatical or taking a career break in France to pursue my personal and professional goals.
    Annie Andre recently posted…French Texting: 20 Common Text Message Abbreviations For Phone, Emails and FacebookMy Profile

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Hi Annie! Yes, even though the definition of expat doesn’t include anything about companies who sponsor one’s stay abroad, expat seems to give off that connotation most of the time. I know people who have been in France for years and I guess while they technically have the option to return home, they have no plans to ever go back. So are they still expats if they plan on staying in France? They don’t refer to themselves as immigrants. I guess because the choice is there, expat makes more sense. I really don’t know.

      Career break makes sense. Hope all is well!

      Reply

  • Ashley

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    You’re right, ‘immigrant’ does tend to be looked at negatively. I always made the assumption that an expat was someone who would eventually go back home, or someone who retired in another country, while an immigrant was someone who had made the choice to leave their home country and give their all to make it in another country.
    Ashley recently posted…Setting up in Spain – Housing, Part IMy Profile

    Reply

  • JDWOODYARD

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    I really like how you wrote

    “Why does the language we use matter?

    Words are so much more than just words. They help us make sense of our environment and connect with others. Words can convey a sense of empathy or if we’re not careful, they can put up walls around us. The language we use is a reflection of what matters to us and what our beliefs are, so be mindful when choosing how to describe yourself.”

    My sentiments exactly.
    JDWOODYARD recently posted…Ever Since The First Time I Watched An Alex Jones Video On YouTube I’ve Loved Conspiracy TheoriesMy Profile

    Reply

  • Alice

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    Never thought of those terms that way, but I agree that an immigrant sounds more negative and an expat is often related to a person who loves adventures and traveling abroad! What’s important is how you feel when moving abroad, who cares how they call you!

    Reply

  • Simon

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    Diane, great post! I used to ask my self the same question about the difference in meanings. However, you are completely right with how the two terms give off completely different connotations.
    Simon recently posted…Frustration Over American Expat Tax RifeMy Profile

    Reply

    • Diane

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      Yup, the language we use really does paint a completely different picture even if both terms are technically correct in my case. Thanks for checking out the post!

      Reply

  • Cal-expat

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    Do you feel like the word “impatrié” would fit you better? I’ve seen it on my déclaration d’impôts sur le revenu.
    Cal-expat recently posted…Las Vegas – The BellagioMy Profile

    Reply

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