Expat vs Immigrant – is it just semantics?

This post was written by admin on June 23, 2010
Posted Under: Daily Paris

Why is it we do not hear the term illegal or legal expat, and is there really any difference between the terms expat and immigrant? I’ve pondered on this issue previously, but decided to take the time to think about it in a little more depth.

An expatriate comes from the Latin ex patria – ‘to be out of your native country’, and an immigrant is ‘a person who migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence’. The definitions and terms seem quite interchangeable however.

Perhaps a generalisation in the motives behind the move could explain the difference? An expat is generally moving sideways in an economical sense, trying out a country before deciding whether to remain. An immigrant often seems to be moving upwards, possibly severing their ties to their homeland to a greater degree. There are of course plenty of expats moving to better their circumstances with no intention of returning, and immigrants taking a lesser wage, who may equally be unsure as to how long they intend to remain.

Is expat just a term used amongst people (primarily British, American and Canadians) themselves; whilst the French will consider all foreigners immigrants?

Why do the words ‘immigrant’, ‘alien’ and ‘foreigner’ all evoke a sense of negativity? Can we blame the media for this connotation? Take the Polish in England. The majority only moved temporarily for work with no intention to stay, but who refers to them as expats?
Has immigrant or foreigner become synonymous with people who take the jobs of the ‘natives’, scrounge on the welfare system etc. etc. Do ‘immigrant’ and ‘foreigner’ denote tones of desperation whereas ‘expat’ speaks of lifestyle choice? The term alien seems to fare no better, although when Sting sang about a legal alien in New York it seemed quite poetic, almost quaint.

I have lots of questions about the semantics, but ultimately I think it comes down to prejudice and snobbery. I’m personally quite happy to refer to myself as an expat, immigrant or alien.

Reader Comments

Hi Gavin…

Interesting post and something I’ve often thought about since I’m an immigrant myself!! I don’t really think of my self as an expat, unless (sometimes) I am with other expats (who are hear on a limited amount of time and not indefinitely)…
Also, my family were all immigrants to the U.S. from Europe – great great great grandparents and grandparents (on both sides of my fam).. And- some came from Alsace– Soooo, I’m actually coming back to mes racines – in a way!
So far, though– my dad, my uncle, my brother and I are all immigrants to new countries- me to France, my dad to Costa Rica, my uncle to the Philippines, and my bro to the Dominican Rep. — Isn’t that just CRAZY?!
Anyhow– I do feel like an immigrant/foreigner vs. an expat… But, what I really wonder is — when I obtain French nationality– will I feel French? It’s all very interesting to me!!
Take care,
PS… Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving a comment.. It’s the first time I’ve been to your blog and I’ll be back..

Written By Leesa on July 16th, 2010 @ 3:35 pm

It appears to me that majority of British refer to all who comes to their country immigrants, but when they go abroad then they call themselves expats, as there was any difference. I am not native speaker but for me it means that immigrant has negative meaning and expatriate positive, at least in Britain. Summing up, I completely agree with you that it comes down to prejudice and snobbery.

Written By UK_immigrant on October 6th, 2011 @ 9:31 am

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