The Expat-Immigrant Debate

UPDATE: See the ultimate test to see if you’re an expat or immigrant.

I almost published my two cents on this debate a year ago. It kicked off when the Wall Street Journal published this piece asking what is the difference between “expats” and “immigrants”?

Christopher Dewolf writes:

So 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. But the distinction is muddied among Hong Kong’s deeply entrenched Southeast Asian community. Filipino domestic helpers are just guests, even if they’ve been here for decades. Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese are rarely regarded as expats, but they are certainly not locals. By contrast, a native Cantonese speaker earns an automatic right to belong, even if she spent most of her life in Sydney or Vancouver.

The debate made the rounds, but I forgot to publish until my buddy Adriaan Alsema rehashed it today with a Facebook post saying that only white supremacists use “expat.” I don’t agree, and I replied with the conclusion I came to last year.

Interesting at first glance but the logic behind your allegations of racism fails. Check your assumptions.

  1. If a black American retires in South America, is he an expat? I say yes.
  2. Are the millions of Russians and Polish in the United States and England expats? I say no.

The distinction is economic, not racial. Being an expat is about the kind of country you’re leaving and the kind of country you’re going to, and what kind of work you’ll be doing there. If you’re leaving a country with significant poverty to earn higher wages as an unskilled laborer in a developed economy, that’s more immigrant. If you’re leaving the corporate grind to retire to a house on the beach in Costa Rica, that’s more expat.

The difference between those motivations is stark, and in my opinion warrants different terminology. While most of the world’s developed countries — or at least the kind of people who would leave them for a less developed country — are white and most of the less developed countries are not, concluding the terminology comes down to race is a CAUSAL FALLACY.


In a world of globalization and liberal trade policies, the racial divide between expats and immigrants is changing. Russian internet brides are starting to arrive in Latin America. I don’t know if you have met any, but I know one married to a Peruvian here in Lima. Would I call her an expat? No. Immigrant.

I’d add that “expat” and “immigrant” are not mutually exclusive. Rather, expats are a subset within the immigrant category. I consider myself both an expat and an immigrant.

That was the end of my Facebook post. But now I would add that there is obviously a gray area, as with anything. So the greatest challenge to my definition came in a Guardian piece written by Mawuna Koutonin, a software engineer in Europe.

Top African professionals going to work in Europe are not considered expats. They are immigrants. Period. “I work for multinational organisations both in the private and public sectors. And being black or coloured doesn’t gain me the term ‘expat’. I’m a highly qualified immigrant, as they call me, to be politically correct,” says an African migrant worker.

So there’s the gray area. However, I have to disagree with Koutonin’s conclusion that “expat is a term reserved exclusively for western white people going to work abroad” and that “immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’.”

As I said before, a black American here in Peru would certainly be an expat, and the Polish maids and construction workers in Chicago are not.

But getting back to the gray area, Koutonin is from Togo. So why doesn’t he work in Togo? I imagine he left for money and opportunity, which goes back to my definition of expat-vs.-immigrant being an economic distinction. If it’s any other reason other than economic opportunity, than I would call him an expat.

On the other hand, we gringos in Latin America all know plenty of broke gringos struggling to get by as English teachers in poor neighborhoods. Are they expats or immigrants? Gray area. Barely an expat, based solely on the fact that they’re from rich countries and chose to live here for reasons which are not economic. But if they went back home, would they earn more in real terms? Yes. So expat.

The third gray area, however, is the most difficult. Adriaan posed the question because he doesn’t make a ton of money, which I can vouch for. And he calls himself an immigrant.

I studied international business and came here because I had greater potential to get rich in an emerging market. My reasoning was economic. While I would make more money today if I were to get a job back home, I don’t believe I would in the long run. I am here for the economic opportunity. At the same time, in my current capacity of self-employment I would make the exact same salary here or there. But my lifestyle is significantly better here in Peru, where I have a fulltime maid and enjoy other luxuries I couldn’t afford there.

I consider myself both an expat and an immigrant. And I have to respectfully reject the racist allegations of the terminology. However it is undeniably a social-class issue, which is strongly correlated.



  1. Immigrant implies permanency. Expat, temporary white collar worker. Guest worker, temporary blue collar. English teacher: boozehound degenerate who couldn’t hack it in his own country. How’d I do?


  2. Chuck may be right, but to me expat/immigrant are two sides of the same coin. To us in the USA the Mexicans that come to live here are immigrants; to their countrymen back in Mexico they are expats. Right or wrong?


  3. Steve, I spent a week there and you’ll laugh at what they call Mexicans who go to work in the States: MOJADOS.

    Not even derogatory. I heard it used in the first person, talking about themselves.


  4. The old race card. Almost never gets old does it?

    It’s really annoying how more and more people attribute everything to racism when they are too lazy to really take a look at the situation.

    I never really analyzed the difference between the two, but I feel your conclusion is spot on


  5. I think the expat vs immigrant argument is a matter of perspective. As an American moving to, let’s say, Colombia for example–Americans may consider me an “expat” where Colombians may consider me an “immigrant”. So it would be for a Colombian moving to the U.S.–Americans may consider him/her an immigrant where his/her Colombian countrymen may consider him/her an “expat.” In my opinion the terminology has nothing to do with race or even economics, for that matter.



    @ Arthur — Not convinced. To test your theory we would have to look at poor English-speaking countries to see if they call their outgoing migrants “expats.” So are the Jamaican nurses in Miami “expats”? The Zimbabweans in South Africa — “expats”? I kinda doubt it.


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