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Expat vs. Immigrant: What’s The Difference?

By DeAnna Taylor

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Historically, the word expat has been reserved for Western whites going to work abroad. All others, whether African, Asian, Latino, or Arab, are colloquially said to be immigrants or migrant workers. Why? Because the construct of race doesn’t allow Western whites to be labeled the same as other races.

There is a long-standing debate on the difference between an expatriate (“expat)” and an immigrant. When do we use one term over the other? Are the two terms interchangeable? Does one word only apply to specific races? Does one have to possess a certain economic or educational status to be categorized as one or the other?

An expat is defined as “a person temporarily or permanently living in another country other than their native country.” An immigrant, on the other hand, is said to be “a person who either migrates within their home country or outside it to pursue work such as seasonal work.” It’s a fine line that seems pretty blurred. Both terms regard people who move from their home country to another with the intent to live there on a temporary or permanent basis. So who does each term apply to, and when?

Christopher DeWolf tries to answer the expat vs. immigrant question. When he set out to classify those who move to Hong Kong, he noted that “some arrivals are described as expats; others as immigrants, and some simply as migrants.”

“It depends on social class, country of origin and economic status. It’s strange to hear some people in Hong Kong described as expats, but not others. Anyone with roots in a western country is considered an expat.”

“Filipino domestic helpers are just guests, even if they’ve been here for decades,” DeWalt continued. “Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese are rarely regarded as expats … It’s a double standard woven into official policy.”


Africa-born citizens doing business in other countries are seen as immigrants. The difference is both seen and felt. An Africa-born businessman had this to say to The Guardian,  “I work for multinational organizations both in the private and public sectors. And being black or colored doesn’t gain me the term ‘expat.’ I’m a highly qualified immigrant, as they call me, to be politically correct.”

Class, no matter the race, also factors into people’s perceptions of immigrants and expats. Sabina, of Girl versus Globe, pointed out the following: “According to a 2012 study, more than 38.8% of the Viennese population have at least a partial migrant background, mostly from ex-Yugoslavia, Turkey, Poland, Ukraine, Romania and Hungary. Many of these people – especially first and second generation immigrants – do manual jobs while they get accustomed to their new environment and learn the language.”

We see this every day in the United States. Whites who move to the States from other countries are rarely given the sometimes negative attachments assigned to black and brown “immigrants.”

The Trump administration highlights this most. With the implementation of travel bans for countries where black and brown people live, the distinction became even more pronounced. Those coming to the States for work weren’t expats. They were immigrants and, somehow, undeserving of lawful entry into the United States. Families were separated. Their businesses suffered. The distinction between expat and immigrant was on the world’s stage, with rather embarrassing results.

In January of this year, President Trump expressed “frustration” with people coming to the U.S. from “sh**hole countries.” He even asked why we want people from Haiti and Africa in the country, suggesting we get more people from predominantly white Norway.  

Many black Americans move abroad in hopes of finding the same respect that is given to whites in America. According to them, moving abroad and taking on the title of expat has brought them more freedom than they have felt in a very long time. The majority of black expats possess degrees and work in schools. As such, they are given a different level of respect that may not necessarily be afforded to them in America.

And maybe they’re onto something.  

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DeAnna Taylor

DeAnna Taylor is a criminal defense Attorney turned travel blogger, author, and writer. While Charlotte, NC (her hometown) is her base, she's always somewhere on a plane. Catch her on IG: @brokeandabroadlife.

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