The Ultimate Expat-Immigrant Test

Alternate Title: The Expat-Immigrant Debate Revisited

The Expat-Immigrant debate came up again – “again and again” to be precise – in my Facebook feed. It just won’t go away.

In engaging a friend in those tremendously rewarding Facebook arguments, I came up with the foolproof smell test to determine whether you are “expat” or “immigrant.”

The Assumption

You have to SELL OUT. It’s time to grow up and get serious. No more location-independent work online, no more teaching English or running whatever hustle you think is the most rational of your career options.

You have to sell out, and that means taking the highest-paying job you can get right now, in terms of dollars, wherever it may be. No weaseling out with cost-of-living arguments. Just the largest number of dollars you could earn given your current skills and experience.

The Test

To make the most money in terms of dollars, where do you go?

  1. I would go to my home country.
  2. I would leave my home country.

If you answered A, you are an expat.

If you answered B, you are an immigrant.

Why My Test is So Great

The test resolves the more difficult cases such as Mawuna Remarque Koutonin, the author of the Guardian article which just won’t die. He is a black software engineer from Togo living in London who wants to call himself an “expat.” The Brits tell him he’s not an expat, and he cries racism because he is black from one of the poorest countries in the world.

As I said in the last article, his is an intellectually lazy conclusion reached by causal fallacy. He assumes his blackness has something to do with his not being an “expat,” when it’s actually his being from one of the poorest countries in the world. As proof, would you consider black Americans or British living in Africa or Latin America to be “expats?” Yes, of course.

Under my new test, Mawuna Remarque Koutonin could attain the title of “expat” by plying his trade in any of the following countries: Eritrea, Guinea, Mozambique, Niger, Malawi, Tokelau, Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Central African Republic and Somalia.

Is that not appealing? That’s what it means to be an “expat.” That’s the life we have CHOSEN.

My great test does not prohibit somebody from Togo from being an “expat” in London. If you’re a member of Togo’s ruling family or somehow oligarchy-connected, you would almost certainly make more money in Togo than in London. If somebody like that chooses to live in London — not just visit — while making less money, I would call him an “expat.”

Many Latin American business executives and mogul types realize their earnings potential in their home countries. If one of those guys decides to settle for less in the United States, I’d say they’re “expats.” Many upper-class Venezuelans, given the state of their economy, have been rendered “immigrants” under my test.

My test also allows for ugly Americans and white-privilege gringos like me to attain the status of “immigrant.”

Note: technically, I would argue that we expats who attain permanent residency and citizenship are also “immigrants,” but in a one-or-the-other world this is how I can make the leap.

A gringo may someday reach the point where his skills and experience allow him to make more money in his new country. For example, Inca Kola was founded by what are always called “British immigrants.” The Lindley family certainly would not be what it is today had they stayed in England. They reached immigrant status.

I studied international business and got all drunk on the globalization Kool-Aid in college. I didn’t take my studies seriously in high school and did not get into an elite university. Hence I had little hope of getting the kind of professional work I wanted. With fairly ordinary career prospects, I decided Latin America offered a unique set of skills and experience to make up for the lost time in my academic career.

My goal is to become an “immigrant,” in which I am worth more in Peru than in the United States. The great test doesn’t allow me to call myself that yet, because I can still cash in back in the States.

Why My Test Isn’t So Great

The “expats” who slip through my test would be the exact ones who probably created the term — multinational executives who are on assignments abroad. The ones who would rather be at home if it weren’t for the money would not be “expats” under my definition. But if they’re not there permanently, they’re not “immigrants” either.



  1. That’s fucking genius.

    Honestly that’s probably the best argument I have heard on the debate. So, I have residency, wife and kids in my foreign country. Hablo espanol sin problema and have a job that pays about double the average salary here. Still, I would make more $$ faster in the states doing whatever shitty construction job I was doing before I left.

    Now thinking about that…I own a car, house (with a 20-yr note) and live in a colonial town at the foot of a volcano. I would argue that even earning less here than back in TX gets me a more comfortable lifestyle than back “home”.

    So…I’m an expat, right? Because I sure ain’t going back. Wouldn’t that make me an immigrant?

    Honestly I could care less. But I like the expat/immigrant test. It’s clever.


  2. I’m totally with you on the cost-of-living argument for choosing which way to go, but not for defining expat-vs.-immigrant. How many of your construction pals would follow you to Nicaragua for the same money?


    Also, measure your prosperity in terms of prosperity. What kind of car? How big is the house and yard? How many TVs, gadgets, clothes, phones, etc.? Compare all that to what you’d have Stateside.

    Answer: EXPAT.

    But maybe en route to being an immigrant. Like me!


  3. Hmmm …. no, well at least the argument is not really complete and misses many points.

    An example : many westeners living and working in the UAE are generally called “expats” when they make much more than they would in Europe or North America whereas arab and/or Asian workers in that same country are called immigrants. The same can be said of Total’s French Or British workers in places such as Nigeria or Venezuela : they make more than what they do at home, this is the company’s incentive to send them there.

    But more generally, race and economics cannot be artificially separated as if they were two completely different entities. Because of colonialism, there is a historical global tendency of race correlating with wealth. Of course it’s not absolute and things are evolving, but this is still happening. So even IF the initial statement was always true (which as we have seen with this example is not the case), it would still not disprove the race hypothesis.


  4. I quite like your definition. I used to think expats are just white immigrants, but this is much more of an objective and logical way of looking at it. I lived most of my life in Brussels. Home of the european parliament and the european comission, Brussels is also home of many immigrants, with nearly 70% of it’s population being of foreign origin. Many of my foreign friends liked to call themselves expats, but it never seemed quite clear to me, what exactly was the difference. Morrocans and turkish would usually be immigrants, people from the UK, France, Germany or Nordic countries would be expats, but for the polish and romanian it would depend: If they were working in the EU institutions: expats, if they were working in construction: immigrants. Once at a party full of people who identified as expats, I managed to really upset a polish fellow, by calling all the people at the party immigrants. Maybe he felt that issue particularly personally, since people couldn’t lable him as an expat solely based on his origin. Perhaps he really felt a strong need to distinguish himself from his construction working countrymen.
    How ever, it is worth noting that, knowing the earth has a land area of148940000 km2, it seems extremely unlikely that someone would choose Brussels as a good option for place to settle, if it were not for economical purposes. I always liked to tell these so called expats in Brussels, that they really were just immigrants, and I’m glad your definition supports that claim. I personally think expat is just a bullshit term though. If you choose to immigrate to another country, you really should learn to be confortable being called an immigrant.


  5. @ Gringoweon — The difference in terminology is needed because the experience is very different. Next time pose this hypothetical to the Polish — why don’t they go work in Peru or Nigeria? They most likely won’t be able to get their head around that. Why would they ever go to such a place? It’s going the wrong way!

    THAT is what being an expat about. Being poor but happy. Making less money, but enjoying a privileged place in a poorer society. Living with all the danger, the backwardness and the lack of progress for not other reason than it’s FUN.

    Finally, I also agree with your statement about being immigrants. Because any expat, if he never goes home, eventually becomes an immigrant himself. In fact I’m about to get my Peruvian citizenship, at which point it’s hard to argue that I’m not an “immigrant” 🙂


  6. I think the ‘expat vs immigrant’ debate is how much of a stake are you allowed in your adopted society.

    In most of Asia, it’s impossible in most countries to get PR, never mind citizenship – everyone in China is an ‘expat’ because whoever you are, you’re going home sooner or later or you’re about as welcome as a dose of HIV if you marry a Chinese person – gaining a spousal visa that you aren’t able to work on, or ‘PR’ that isn’t for life. Most westerners in Asia are expats, they don’t have a choice in the matter for the most part.

    At least in most (if not all…) of Latin America, you can make roots, settle down, gain PR, gain citizenship – probably the best part of the world to still do all that. Immigrants we are if we end up there and we stay there.


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