There are a wide range of reasons why somebody might move abroad. That somebody could be a rich, educated professional who’s starting a high-profile international role. Or they could be a less privileged individual who’s searching for more basic employment opportunities. Is one an expat and the other an immigrant?

These two labels are often used to describe very different types of people. Yet dictionary definitions are as follows:

  • Expatriate: Someone who lives outside of their native country 
  • Immigrant: Someone who moves to another country permanently

These explanations give little away other than that immigrants intend to stay in their new country for good. Expats meanwhile plan to stay indefinitely – which could also mean permanently. 

So how are both terms used and do any major differences actually exist? 

Semantic differences

Whether intentionally or not, many people use the term expat to describe wealthy or at least comfortable westerners who move abroad for better jobs or lifestyles. Immigrants on the other hand are often seen as low-skilled workers who, in some people’s eyes at least, are more likely to become burdens on the state. 

But when you break it down, both groups are travelling in search of better living conditions. 

The word expat has its negative connotations too of course, as some criticise their minimal efforts to integrate. Yet this downside is usually balanced against a perceived economic upside in the skill or wealth that expats supposedly bring with them.

Immigrants meanwhile must come from poorer countries and pose a threat to local jobs, in part because they’re used to being paid less. That’s how some parts of the media and society can see things, at least – even while attitudes to immigration in the UK have softened in recent years

Legal standpoints

There are some legal connotations to be aware of too, however. In the US, the process of expatriation involves somebody legally giving up their nationality, and their rights as a national, before moving to a new country. Reasons for doing so range from feeling disconnected to a previous country to relocating for political or tax purposes.     

Conversely, immigration law relates more closely to gaining citizenship overseas, be it through work visas, green cards or other methods. The two areas are clearly still closely linked, however. 

Where do you fall? 

Some foreign nationals prefer to view themselves as expats due to the higher prestige that comes with the term. The classification clearly matters as people described as immigrants can also be more exposed to abuse, in part for the semantic reasons described above. Immigrants also often suffer worse working conditions.

Debate over the topic is likely to rumble on as political tensions rise over globalisation. Knowing what you now know, how do you plan to use the two terms?