Wednesday, November 7th 2018

Difference between an Expat and an Immigrant

Written by

Rafael Bracho

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What is an expat?

There are several different perspectives as to what the difference between an expat and an immigrant is. Some people believe that it is just semantics, other people believe the word “expat” perpetuates a system of dominance concerning class, education, privilege—even race.


When we look at the strict definition of the two words, we can see that there is a semantic difference between the two words. The word “expat” is short for expatriate. This is a person who lives outside of their home country.

An immigrant is a person who leaves their country to permanently settle in another country. This means that they are looking for another home country.

Thus, the difference is a semantic one. An expat is a way of describing going from a home country outward, whereas an immigrant is a way of describing going from an outside country inward. Let me put it another way: by this definition, a woman who leaves Earth to go to colonize Mars is an expat, however she is not an immigrant.


It is no secret that prejudice exists against words like “immigrant” and “foreign worker”. The trend to secure borders in developed nations to keep out those who are seeking a better life in a stronger economy from developing nations is on the rise—especially among Western nations in Europe, UK, and America.

Many make the case that the semantic definition of “expat” and “immigrant” is merely a way to differentiate those from developed nations and those from developing nations. In other words, their perspective is that: if you come from a poor nation to a rich one, you’re an immigrant. If you come from a rich nation to a poor one, you’re an expat.

This differentiation of the terms allows populist rhetoricians to demonize the words “immigrant” and “foreign worker” without criticizing their own constituents abroad. Terms like “expat” hide the fact that there are one million illegal American immigrants living in Mexico.


When it comes to the insurance broker industry, selling expat insurance must have a concrete definition. In this case, this definition could be valuable for the purposes of this discussion. WeExpats and its insurance brokers define an “expat” as a person who lives at least half the year outside of their own home country.

There are lots of people from the United States and Canada who live abroad for half the year to escape the frigid winter months in a tropical climate in Latin America or Asia for example. Other people are just retired and have a home in their home country and one in a foreign nation. As long as these people live in their home country for half the year, then they can qualify for expat medical insurance which covers them in case of an emergency abroad. To learn more, click here.


Though there are clear reasons why the terms “expat” and “immigrant” are largely synonymous, the differences in the terms are crucial to understanding who an expat is, and who is an immigrant. By some definitions—especially those involved in business—an expat lives abroad with the intention to return to their home country, whereas an immigrant moves abroad with the intention of starting a new life elsewhere.

Some of the ramifications of these definitions could make people upset however. For example, (by this definition) if you leave Canada to retire in Costa Rica for the rest of your days, you’re not an expat—you’re an immigrant. Perhaps if we do feel a certain sense of unease at this revelation, then we can begin to sympathize with those who make the case for the prejudice embedded in these terms.

What do you think? Comment below or on social media! 

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