Expat vs Immigrant: Learn The Difference

As globalisation continues to shape our world, the number of people relocating to other countries for work, education, or a better life has steadily increased. As a result, terms like “expat” and “immigrant” have become more common in everyday conversations. But what exactly do these terms mean, and how do they differ from one another? This article aims to provide a clear understanding of the distinctions between “expat” and “immigrant” and to offer guidance on their appropriate use.

Defining Expat and Immigrant

Before we delve into the differences, it is essential to establish clear definitions for both terms.

Expat, short for “expatriate,” refers to an individual who temporarily or permanently resides in a country other than their country of origin. Expats typically move to a foreign country for a job opportunity, to study, or to experience a new culture. They often maintain strong ties to their home country and may have plans to return there eventually.

Immigrant, on the other hand, is a broader term that encompasses anyone who relocates to another country with the intention of living there permanently. This includes people seeking employment, a better quality of life, or even those escaping political unrest or persecution. Immigrants usually have a long-term commitment to their new country and might not maintain as strong a connection to their country of origin.

Key Differences Between Expats and Immigrants

While both expats and immigrants share the experience of moving to another country, several factors set them apart.

Duration of Stay

One of the most apparent differences between expats and immigrants is the intended length of their stay in the host country. Expats often have a predetermined duration for their stay, which might be dictated by their work contract or study program. They are likely to return to their home country once their contract or program is complete.

In contrast, immigrants intend to establish a permanent residence in the new country. They may pursue citizenship or permanent residency and work towards fully integrating into the society of their new home.

Motivation for Relocation

Expats and immigrants might have different reasons for their relocation. Expats often move due to a specific opportunity or purpose, such as a job assignment, an educational pursuit, or a desire to experience a new culture. Their decision to relocate is generally voluntary, and they often have the option to return to their home country if they wish.

Immigrants, however, may move for a broader range of reasons. They might be seeking better economic opportunities, escaping political unrest or persecution, or looking to join family members who have already settled in the new country. For some immigrants, the decision to relocate may not be entirely voluntary, as their circumstances in their home country leave them little choice.

Cultural Identity and Integration

Another crucial difference between expats and immigrants is the extent to which they integrate into their new country’s culture. Expats often retain a strong connection to their home country and its culture, and they may not feel the need to fully assimilate into the local culture of their host country. They might still speak their native language and socialise primarily with other expats or people from their home country.

Immigrants, in contrast, typically work towards becoming part of their new society. They may learn the local language, adopt local customs, and actively engage with the community. As a result, they are more likely to develop a strong sense of belonging to their new country, potentially leading to a desire for citizenship.

Legal Status and Rights

Expats and immigrants also differ in terms of their legal status and the rights they enjoy in their host country. Expats usually possess a temporary visa, such as a work or student visa, which grants them permission to reside in the country for a specific period. These visas often come with certain restrictions, such as limitations on the type of work they can perform or the duration of their stay. Expats may also face challenges in accessing certain social benefits and services, like healthcare, in their host country.

Immigrants, on the other hand, often seek to obtain permanent residency or citizenship in their new country, granting them more rights and privileges. This may include the right to vote, access to public services and benefits, and the ability to sponsor family members for immigration. The process of obtaining permanent residency or citizenship, however, can be lengthy and complex, requiring immigrants to meet various eligibility criteria.

Economic Impact and Perception

The economic impact of expats and immigrants on their host countries can also differ. Expats often occupy highly-skilled or specialized roles in their respective industries, which may result in a positive economic contribution to the host country. Additionally, expats may be perceived as bringing valuable skills, knowledge, and international connections to the local workforce.

Immigrants, on the other hand, can have diverse economic contributions depending on their skill sets, education, and work experience. Some immigrants may also fill essential roles in industries with labour shortages. However, public perception of immigrants can be more complex, with some viewing them as competing for jobs, social services, and housing with the local population.

It is crucial to acknowledge that these generalisations do not apply to every expat or immigrant. The actual experiences and contributions of individuals will vary significantly based on their unique circumstances and personal choices.

Language and Terminology

The language we use to describe expats and immigrants can shape public perceptions and carry unintended connotations. The term “expat” often conveys a sense of privilege or prestige, as it is commonly associated with highly-skilled professionals or individuals from higher-income countries. Conversely, the term “immigrant” can carry negative connotations for some, as it is frequently used to describe people from lower-income countries or those perceived as seeking to “take advantage” of a host country’s resources.

To promote accurate and respectful discussions about people who move across borders, it is essential to use language that reflects the individual’s circumstances and intentions accurately. For example, using “international student” or “temporary worker” can provide a more precise description of an expat’s situation, while “permanent resident” or “new citizen” can better describe an immigrant’s status.


Understanding the differences between expats and immigrants is crucial for fostering informed conversations about international migration. While both terms describe individuals who have relocated to another country, expats and immigrants have distinct motivations, intentions, and experiences. By recognising these differences and using appropriate language, we can promote a more accurate and respectful understanding of the diverse people who make up our global community.

In today’s interconnected world, the experiences of expats and immigrants enrich our societies by introducing new perspectives, skills, and cultural exchanges. It is essential for policymakers, businesses, and individuals to appreciate these differences to create inclusive environments that welcome and support people from all walks of life, regardless of their country of origin or immigration status.

Useful resources:

  1. United Nations International Migration Report: This report offers comprehensive data and analysis on global migration trends, including the number of expats and immigrants worldwide.
  2. OECD – International Migration Outlook: This annual report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) analyses recent developments in international migration and provides valuable insights on various aspects of migration, such as labour market integration and the economic contribution of migrants.
  3. Migration Policy Institute: The Migration Policy Institute is an independent, non-partisan think tank dedicated to the analysis of migration policies worldwide. Their website features research, policy briefs, and data on a wide range of migration-related topics.
  4. GOV.UK – Visas and Immigration: The official UK government website provides detailed information on visas, immigration rules, and the process of applying for permanent residency or citizenship in the United Kingdom.
  5. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services: This is the official website of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), providing information on visas, permanent residency, and citizenship in the United States.
  6. European Commission – Immigration and Asylum: The European Commission’s website offers information on immigration and asylum policies within the European Union, as well as resources for migrants and refugees.
  7. IOM – International Organization for Migration: As a leading intergovernmental organization in the field of migration, the IOM provides information, resources, and support for migrants worldwide.
by Maiane Cassanego
Maiane is the Founder of Expat Frontier. She is fluent in English, Portuguese and Spanish. Maiane has an extensive background in international moving, freight forwarding and logistics.