Do You Call Yourself An Expat Or An Immigrant – And What Is Really The Difference Between The Two?

Words are powerful, especially the words we choose to describe ourselves with. Therefore, I’m especially interested in what words people living outside of their home country choose to use to describe themselves. There is a whole range of them, but the two most commonly used are Expat and Immigrant – and they are used in very different ways. Here is how I choose to define them, the way you do may be completely different. An Expat is someone who for work reasons moves to a new country for a fixed period of time, usually between 1-3 years, before returning to their home country. An Immigrant is someone who for economical reasons or because their wife/husband is from a different country moves to a new country but there is no plan to return to their home country. The word Expat is viewed favourably and is mostly used by reasonably well-off people (usually white) coming from Western countries. People will call themselves an Expat, even though they have lived in a foreign country for 10 or more years and have no desire to return to their home country. Immigrant is a word that is viewed quite negatively, particularly in the media. It is a word used to describe poor white people and all coloured people, regardless of their situation. To be quite frank, this pisses me off, especially in the racist world we currently live in.

After making the decision to become a permanent resident in Germany, I stopped referring to myself as an Expat and started referring to myself as an Immigrant, as that is precisely what I am now. I have no intention of moving back to Australia. I had, for all intent and purposes, ‘taken’ a job away from a German (and hope to ‘take’ another job away from them asap) and whilst my German is improving, it is obvious to all who speak to me that I am a foreigner. For me to continue to use the word Expat is, in my opinion, exercising my white privilege and that’s just bullshit. If an Arab woman who is in the exact same position as I am can’t call herself or be referred to as an Expat, then why should I? Anyway, when did Immigrant become a dirty word? My guess is sometime around the 1970s, maybe earlier.

I would like to see more people in the ‘Expat’ community – those who have moved here because their wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend is German and those who have chosen to make Germany their home, at least for the medium term, to start referring to themselves as Immigrants. If we want to stop the media from bashing Immigrants daily more of us ‘privileged’ folk need to start identifying as one. Most people, especially here in Germany, don’t consider white Westerners as Immigrants. I have on numerous occasions had Germans bitching about Immigrants to me and as soon I pointed out that I was one, they replied that no, I wasn’t because I’m not Turkish or Arab. I was an Expat. No, I’m fucking not. My time in Germany is not limited to a 3 year work contract and I have no plans to return to Australia. I am every bit as much of an Immigrant as the woman from Turkey who is also making her life here. Hell, at the moment, I’m also an Immigrant who has come over here and is stealing ‘our’ benefits (I’m on unemployment benefits at the moment). I just don’t get criticised for it because I’m white and from a well-off Western country. That is not fair and it is not right.

Perhaps referring to myself as an Immigrant and asking others in the same position as I am to do the same is not going to change anything on this matter. However, I like to think that every German I inform that when they bitch about Immigrants, they are bitching about me too might go away and think just a little longer before they do so again in the future and every person who reads this post might think a little harder about who they class as Immigrants and who they class as Expats and why or about how they choose to self-identify. Perhaps if more people in the same circumstances as I am in did this too, then just maybe we might be able to bring about a tiny change in the words we use to describe people and the reasons why.


30 thoughts on “Do You Call Yourself An Expat Or An Immigrant – And What Is Really The Difference Between The Two?

  1. Great entry! We also thought about this, when we were talking with Germans and they said they don’t like immigrants, but when we said “but we are also immigrants”, they said “no but it’s totally different”, seeing as we are European and the term “immigrant” seems to be used for other cultures and people from Europe will be just seen as expats. It’s technically incorrect as you’ve mentioned but the perceptions behind these two words are very different.

    • I find that explanation very interesting. I agree that with the free movement between countries in the EU, the term immigrant can be quite blurred. I’m Australian, so I definitely don’t fall into the being from EU category, but I’ve also had people tell me I’m not an immigrant because I’m not Turkish (or any other minority they don’t like). In my mind, you can’t pick and choose who are immigrants and who are not, especially in a time where immigrants are given such a bad reputation. Either all of us non-EU folks are or none of us are.

  2. Let me throw in my 2 cents as a German: I used to live abroad (South Africa) for 7 years and will do so again as of next year. But I would never think of myself as an immigrant but rather as an expat since I don´t identify with “their” history and culture (or should I say histories and cultures as the country is very diverse). I guess this is the main difference between an immigrant and an expat.

    That said, I don´t agree with the notion that the term “immigrant” has a negative connotation. I guess what counts is from what culture and socioeconomic background you are and to what extent that culture is compatible with the local culture. And of course, how you are behaving. This will mainly determine how you are perceived. More so than even the colour of your skin.

    • In my view immigrants have such a bad reputation simply because they don’t identify with or assimilate into the local culture. How many times have you heard people yell at immigrants that they should learn to speak English or they should go back home?

      The luxury not to even try to identify with the local culture and to expect not to be criticised for it only comes if you have white skin and are from a Western country. No one else gets that luxury.

    • I have no doubt that many so-called immigrants feel the same way you do and I know of a few that plan to live in Germany until the kids are grown and then return to their home country, but they are still labelled as an immigrant because they are not from a Western country. Then again, you and I are labelled the exact same way by the government here.

        • In my view, unbefristet is an immigrant. It’s the same label I have as well. We are foreigners that are allowed to remain in Germany indefinitely and that is what an immigrant is. An expat is someone that only has a 3 year work visa and usually leaves when it expires.
          I’m not sure how citizenships play into it. I knew many people in Australia that had lived there for over 30 years and never gotten citizenship and never really wanted it and they were still called immigrants.

      • I think I’ve figured out why I’m uncomfortable calling myself an immigrant. It’s my family history. My great-great grandparents came to the US from Norway and Finland in the late 19th century, immigrants in the classical sense. They came by ship, they arrived with nothing, having left everything behind, contact with the old life as good as cut off. They could not go back if their new country did not suit them, if they failed they died. But they did not fail, and the left me their legacy. 110 years later, the difficulty of my move was nothing compared to the sacrifice and effort they made. I am simply not worthy of the title.

        • I have a very similar history although my great-grandparents emigrated from Scotland and Denmark. My parents were also expats, although one could say they were forced as my father was dodging the Draft at the time. Whilst I respect the sacrifices my family made to start a new life or in my father’s case to save his, I don’t avoid the words simply because my experience doesn’t reflect theirs. The world is a very different place to what it was in even my parents’ day and I feel the terms have changed their connotations to reflect that.

  3. Thanks for this great post and food for thought. I live in Australia (and have a German husband) but we’re planning to move to Germany next year, using my husband’s home village as a base to travel around Europe for a year and a half. Obviously we wouldn’t technically fall under the category of either immigrants or expats, but interesting to consider which I would be perceived as in Germany by strangers as a non-white (Chinese but with little of the culture) woman, but born and raised in ‘privileged white society’. I suspect (based on previous visits to Germany) that some take me for a Thai mail order bride ;)That said, I’m sure this general prejudice happens in Australia too. I’ve gotten the sense many times, walking into a shop or something, that the salesperson communicates predominantly my husband as the ‘Aussie’ when in fact he is the one with an accent :) I guess it’s understandable to a degree… appearance is very salient and hard to get past sometimes especially in an ambiguous context, for some more than others. But your post reminds me how sometimes I get the sense here that if you have an ‘immigrant’/non-white accent, you are rarely asked with friendly interest from strangers where it comes from, whereas if you have a European one (e.g. at least with my husband – and his accent is not even that strong after 20 years) people perceive it as a positive/interesting thing. Maybe it’s just that it’s harder to guess where someone Caucasian is from…or I’m possibly imagining it. I don’t know. But really interesting to consider these terms that are most of the time subconsciously used. I love your posts by the way.

    • I am so sorry about the way you are treated in Australia and Germany. In Australia, we are becoming more and more racist as time goes on and it makes me sick. You are spot on that those with European accents are more welcomed than those with Asian or Arab accents. Australia is still a place where we consider ourselves part of Europe instead of part of Asia, which we really are based on our geographical position. As for Germany, I was told not that long ago that there were so few Asians living here that it was still culturally OK to make fun of them and that does not sit well with me at all. Why does the world have to be populated by such insensitive pricks?

  4. Interesting topic. Having lived in Germany 5.5 years I was first an ‘expat’ and then a ‘permanent resident,’ but I never referred to myself as an ‘immigrant’ as I was not planning to stay long term. As I am now a UK passport holder, I do refer to myself as an ‘immigrant’ here.

    Forbes recently had a similar article but from an Asian perspective, maybe worth a read, in particular for this distinction: “An immigrant is on a desperate search for a better life. An expat is on an adventure.”

    • Thanks for the link to the article. I found it interesting, except for the part you quoted which highlights my real problem with the words expat and immigrant. Immigrants are painted as desperate people whilst expats are on an adventure. A clear distinction between the privileged and the unprivileged if there ever was one. If they left desperate out of it, the distinction would have been fine. I was on the search for a better life and I have found it here in Germany, but there was nothing desperate about it.

  5. On second thoughts it seems to me this topic is just another example of cultural differences between the English-speaking and the German crowd. Reason being that the distinction between expat and immigrant doesn’t even exist in German language. There is no German equivalent for the term “expat”. According to the dictionary “expat” means “Auswanderer”, which simply describes a person who left their country, but without any positive or negative connotation.

    • The word Immigrant also exists in German (der Immigrant/die Immigrantin) and it has the exact same negative perception as it does in English. However, you are right that Auswanderer does not carry the same stigma but it would more likely used to describe me than it would to describe someone from Turkey, which is my entire point.

      • Sorry, but as a native speaker I have to disagree. The word “Immigrant” is a loanword which isn´t really used outside academic discourse and does not have a negative perception. What would be used in everyday German are words like Einwanderer, Gastarbeiter, Zuwanderer, Migrantetc. which may come with some stigma attached (in that order).

        But as it seems that you´re not focusing on the philological aspects let me respond to the content of what you are saying. I disagree insofar as you seem to think that immigrants are being discriminated against for racial reasons. There was a huge wave of immigrants into Germany who were ethnic Germans after world war II. They were fleeing from Eastern Europe and communism. Even though they had more or less the same cultural background they were not received with open arms as they were competitors for scarce resources and often were regarded a nuisance. E. g. my wife´s parents had a farm on which they were forced to house a family of refugees until 1962, i. e. for 17 (it was mandatory to provide accommodation for them). These things didn´t go down well with the locals, especially as the refugees didn´t only compete for housing but for food (which was also scarce after the war) and jobs. Another example are the “Russlanddeutschen” who were granted citizenship about 20 years ago. They also had to deal with prejudices and discrimination even though there would have been no racial basis for it. A similiar situation can be seen in South Africa where xenophobic violence of black people against black people (mostly from Zimbabwe, Somalia and Malawi) is rife for basically the same reasons. I never heard of xenophobic violence against wealthy immigrants who were not perceived as competitors for jobs etc. even if they were Arabs, Indians or Asians. Even in Germany I don´t think that e. g. a doctor or engineer from an Arab country would be perceived negatively because their socioecoomic status is protecting them. So I firmly believe it is about socioeconomic (and to a lesser extent cultural) rather than racial issues.

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  7. I wonder how many of us start off thinking of ourselves as expats, but then gradually realize that it’s just not applicable anymore? That’s certainly true for us: under the terms of my original contract, after three years, we’d have to plan our move back, or to somewhere else. It didn’t start out as a plan to live “abroad” permanently. But at some point after the three year mark, I remember reading Lucid in Deutschland’s own realization that she is more of an immigrant than an expat and thinking “hey, wait a minute…that applies to us, too!”

    I am one prone to “poking the puppy.” If I catch someone bitching about immigrants, I force them to delineate between “good immigrants” and “bad immigrants” and if I’m one of the “good” ones (I never have been so far!), I pose the questions of “…and what if *I* were escaping an oppressive regime, warlord-driven strife, or the effects of a natural disaster? And what if *I* needed to rely on public assistance for a period after having immigrated out of those situations?”

    And also: “You think those brown-people immigrants are taking job opportunities away from Germans? Even brown Germans? Show me an employed immigrant and the unemployed German who wishes s/he could trade places with the immigrant, please. And before you gripe about any unemployed immigrants receiving benefits, please make sure there are no illegitimate “native” public welfare cases that require your attention [, you racist pig]. Oh, and aren’t you late for your NPD rally?”

    • I am the same as you – one day I realised that I really wasn’t an expat any longer and was an immigrant and like you I like challenging people’s prejudices and beliefs, as is evident with this post. I’m surprised that no one has told you that you are one of the good immigrants. I always get told when I challenge people that they didn’t mean immigrants like me.

    • I can’t recall ever having a “immigrants are bad, but you are cool” type of conversation in German, but that’s probably because the circles of people I talk to (McDonald’s people, businesspeople and politicians, neighbors here in our “Dorf”) may be somewhat enlightened on the issue. That’s not to say I haven’t heard complaints about certain groups of foreigners… maybe people are just being careful to exclude me from their rant. I don’t go provoking people on the issue. I’d probably just say “Ich bin auch hierher zugezogen” and see what happens.

  8. So happy I got to discover your blog :) I am a future immigrant as well as we are going to move to Canada next month. Your blog inspires me, that’s why I followed you already :) Would really appreciate if you’ll visit my blog too! xx :)

  9. Fantastic rant – I experience similar things as a German expat in the UK. My students will go off in a rant about immigrants taking away jobs from British people and I have to remind them that that’s exactly what I am doing, too (just that there’s not exactly a queue forming for people to become teachers. Or nurses, for that matter). Needless to say, their reaction is always the same. And although they talk about immigrants from India, Pakistan or Poland, they frequently don’t include their Indian, Pakistani or Polish mates in that definition, whether or not they were actually born here in the UK.
    I agree with you that immigrant has negative connotations, and that they are often racially defined (the whiter, the better), but not exclusively so. Expats make a free choice, which means they have the means and education to do so; many wealthy nations happen to be predominantly pink, which I think explains the racial links. I don’t feel like an immigrant, though, because I still feel (14 years and two kids down the line) very much like a temporary resident here.
    Thank you for your thoughtful post – I’m glad I came across your blog!

  10. Mmh. I have referred to myself as an expat but wasn’t aware of the connotations, I guess. I consider everyone an expat who resides in a country that is not their original home country (because this is what the word means), but you’re right…. I guess “immigrant” can have – in certain contexts – have a negative connotation.

    But, isn’t it the expat then who’s taking away jobs? An immigrant should be invested and integrated in the new country and has a right to work as much as any other citizen.

    I still call myself an expat (and like Ginger, I still don’t feel like an immigrant even after 10 years here), but I have dual-citizenship now and maybe should not only call myself an immigrant, but a bi-national? I realize this is a complicated topic.

  11. Really great, and good for you for switching to calling yourself an immigrant! I always say that if a Polish person can do my job better than I do it, then they are welcome to my job as I need to be better!

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  13. Same blog theme, funny! :)

    I’m not from one of those “western countries”, most people would refer to me as an immigrant. Since I’m enrolled in a university, I like to call myself a student. It has clear boundaries, it hasn’t been spoiled by the media yet, it just is what it is.

    Besides expat and immigrant, there’s also a new concept going around now. I’ve heard more and more people (especially those in their 20s-30s) referring to themselves as “third culture children”. Maybe just a new way of saying “I like to travel”?

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