Expat vs Immigrant – Why One and Not the Other?


Yep, I am allowed to go around calling myself an expat. Doesn’t it sound glamorous – like my days are filled with multilingualism and drinking good wine (and not being totally out of my depth in Spanish and nursing the occasional “oh god what fresh hell is this” hangover, I assure you).


But why do I feel more comfortable defining myself as a expat and not an immigrant? The thought occurred to me recently – surely I am also classed as an immigrant? What’s the difference? Well, luckily Google has the answers so I don’t have to use my own brain to come up with a definition for each:

Expat: An expatriate (often shortened to expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of their citizenship. The word comes from the Latin terms ex (“out of”) and patria (“country, fatherland”)

Immigrant: a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.


Different wording, but the essence is the same. They are synonyms for one another, no? Immigrant may be more permanent than expat, and I am only living la vida espanola for a year, but expat can still be used for a permanent relocation. And if I were to think of the many British who retire to Spain, I would probably refer to them as expats before immigrants.


I found this Guardian article written earlier this year on the same topic. Interestingly entitled Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? Is that the answer: white, preferably middle class, people who relocate are bequeathed the term expat – a word which is less threatening to narrow minded groups, and yes, more glamorous than immigrant? One comment notably points out that immigrant is more associated with being poverty driven than expat. Good point, but I cannot pretend that my move to Spain was not driven by the job opportunity – my post-grad job hunt in London was falling flat, and working as an English Language Assistant is hardly common in the UK! Although I wasn’t really moving out of desperation for a job (not that I wanted to spend my gap year pulling pints in my home city), and my situation in the UK is miles more comfortable than what other people who have emigrated have experienced, it was still heavily influenced by economic reasons. Yet I am an expat; whereas doctors, nurses, teachers and more are referred to as immigrants in my beloved UK.


It feels funny to refer to myself as an immigrant, but why should I not? I have secured a comfortable position in a country that is struggling with high levels of unemployment – now, imagine if I had emigrated to the UK with these circumstances. Unfortunately I cannot confirm that many of the British would welcome this, and me, as my Spanish acquaintances have done. To many, a foreigner securing a job when a high number of British-born citizens remain unemployed would be an outrage. Forget all logical reasons of qualifications, and actually applying for the job – too many of the population feel like a British passport should give automatic advantage above others.

(On a side note: my job is hardly the best for making my point I must admit, as it requires being a native English speaker. Or as my sister worded it when I was discussing this idea with her: “Your job is to be an English person”. However I do believe the principle remains: the term expat provides more security in society whereas the term immigrant provides more hostility. And which one you fit into is defined by your race, nationality and economic situation.)


I feel that next time I see a shameful post on Facebook condemning immigration in the UK, I should point out to the poster and all the people who ‘like’ the post that I myself am an immigrant, but would they tell me I should remain in my birth country? And let’s not forget about the retired Brits residing in the south of Spain. Are they more deserving of their situation, moving to Spain at a time in their life they are more dependent on state support, than those who move to the UK during the working period of their life to provide economic stability for themselves and their family? Or maybe the freedom to move between countries is beneficial and aspirational for all, and should not be restricted for some whilst defended for others.


So I will continue to call myself an expat, after all it gives me a certain “cool” status. But I am no different from being an immigrant, if you’d rather call me that. And wherever I live in the future, I will always be welcoming everyone with open arms, as humanity should always.

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