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Why Is It Called “Expat”


Modified: December 28, 2023

by Halimeda Candelario



Have you ever wondered why some people are referred to as “expats” while others are called “immigrants” or “migrants”? The term “expat” has become increasingly popular in recent years, but its origins and usage may not be widely known. In this article, we will delve into the meaning of the word “expat” and explore its historical roots.


An expat, short for expatriate, is typically used to describe an individual who is living in a country other than their home country. However, the term goes beyond a simple description of residency status. It has cultural connotations and psychological implications that distinguish it from other similar terms.


The origins of the word “expat” date back to the early 19th century when it was first coined. At that time, it referred specifically to individuals who were sent abroad by their own government or organization. These individuals often held high-ranking positions and were sent to work in foreign lands temporarily. Think of diplomats, ambassadors, and executives working for multinational corporations.


Over time, the meaning of “expat” has broadened to include a wider range of individuals. It now encompasses anyone living abroad, whether for work, study, retirement, or personal reasons. The term is particularly associated with individuals from developed countries who choose to live in other developed or developing countries.


So why do we use the term “expat” instead of other terms such as “immigrant” or “migrant”? The usage of the term “expat” implies a sense of privilege and a certain socio-economic status. It often suggests that the individual is living abroad voluntarily and enjoys a higher standard of living compared to the locals. In contrast, the term “immigrant” is more commonly associated with individuals who have relocated to another country with the intention of settling permanently. “Migrant” is a broader term that encompasses individuals who move from one place to another, whether it is within their own country or across borders, usually in search of better opportunities.


Definition of Expat

The term “expat” is often used casually and interchangeably with terms like “immigrant” or “foreigner.” However, it carries a distinct meaning that sets it apart from these other terms. An expat, short for expatriate, refers to individuals who temporarily or permanently reside in a country other than their home country. While the primary distinguishing factor is the intention to return to their home country at some point, there are other key characteristics that define the expat experience.


Firstly, expats typically have a higher socio-economic status and a level of financial stability that allows them to live comfortably in a foreign country. They often secure employment through multinational companies, international organizations, or diplomatic appointments. This financial security enables them to maintain a lifestyle similar to, or even better than, what they had in their home country.


Another defining aspect of expat life is the temporary nature of their stay. They may be in a foreign country for a predetermined length of time due to work assignments, academic pursuits, or other short-term ventures. The intention to eventually return to their home country sets them apart from immigrants, who generally aim to settle permanently in their new country.


Expats also tend to form communities or networks with other expats in their host country. These communities provide a support system for expats to navigate the challenges of living in another culture, maintain connections with their home country, and share experiences unique to the expat lifestyle.


It is important to note that not all individuals living abroad can be classified as expats. Many people move to other countries seeking better opportunities or to escape difficult circumstances, and they may be referred to as immigrants or migrants instead. The distinction lies in the temporary nature and often voluntary choice of the expat lifestyle, along with the higher socio-economic status that tends to accompany it.


In recent years, the term “expat” has come under scrutiny for its association with privilege and a certain level of entitlement. Critics argue that it perpetuates inequality and reinforces socio-economic divisions between expats and the local population. This debate raises questions about how we define and perceive individuals living abroad and the potential biases embedded in our language.


Despite these controversies, the term “expat” continues to be widely used in the context of international living, with its definition evolving to encompass a diverse range of individuals from different backgrounds and motivations for residing in a foreign country.


Historical Origins

The term “expat” may seem like a relatively modern term, but its historical origins can be traced back to the early 19th century. The word “expat” is a shortened form of the word “expatriate,” which has its roots in Latin.


In Latin, the prefix “ex” means “out of” or “away from,” and the noun “patria” refers to one’s native country or homeland. So, when combined, “expatriate” literally means “out of one’s homeland.” This original meaning still carries through to the modern usage of the term.


The concept of expatriation has existed throughout human history, with individuals leaving their home countries for various reasons. In the 19th century, the term “expat” started to gain popularity as global mobility increased due to industrialization, colonization, and the growth of multinational companies.


During this period, the term primarily referred to individuals who were sent abroad by their own governments or organizations. These were often high-ranking officials, diplomats, or employees of multinational corporations. They were seen as representatives of their home countries and were expected to maintain strong ties and promote their country’s interests while living abroad.


Over time, the meaning of “expat” has evolved to encompass a broader range of individuals. It no longer exclusively includes government officials or company employees on short-term assignments. Now, it includes anyone who chooses to live in a foreign country, whether it’s for work, study, retirement, or personal reasons.


With the advancements in transportation and communication technologies in the 20th century, international travel became more accessible, leading to an increase in the number of individuals living and working abroad. This trend further popularized the use of the term “expat” to describe this expanding community.


Today, the term “expat” is commonly used to refer to individuals from developed countries who choose to live in other developed or developing countries. It carries the implication of a certain level of socio-economic privilege and voluntary relocation.


Understanding the historical origins of the term “expat” provides valuable context for its usage today. It reminds us of the broader socio-cultural and economic factors that have shaped the concept of living in a foreign country and the diverse range of individuals represented within the expat community.


Reasons for Using the Term “Expat”

The term “expat” is used for a variety of reasons, reflecting the unique characteristics and experiences associated with individuals living abroad. Here are some of the main reasons for using the term “expat” and its popularity:


1. Cultural Identity: The term “expat” allows individuals living in a foreign country to maintain a strong connection to their own cultural identity and heritage. Unlike terms like “immigrant” which may carry connotations of assimilation or adopting a new national identity, “expat” implies a sense of cultural pride and affiliation with one’s home country while embracing aspects of the host culture.


2. Temporary Residency: The term “expat” emphasizes the temporary nature of an individual’s stay in a foreign country. This distinguishes them from immigrants who typically have the intention of settling permanently in their new country. Expats often have a specific timeline or purpose for their stay, such as working on a project, studying, or gaining international experience, before eventually returning to their home country.


3. Professional Opportunities: Many individuals become expats due to professional opportunities that arise in a foreign country. They may be offered jobs with multinational companies, governmental organizations, or academic institutions. The term “expat” highlights the professional context in which individuals have chosen to live abroad and emphasizes the expertise and skills they bring to their host country.


4. Higher Socio-Economic Status: The term “expat” often implies a certain level of socio-economic privilege and financial stability. Expats are commonly associated with having a higher standard of living compared to the local population. This association is based on factors such as international job assignments, higher-paying positions, and the ability to afford an expat lifestyle in terms of housing, education, and healthcare.


5. International Community: Expats often form close-knit communities with other expats in their host country. These communities provide a support system and a sense of belonging for individuals who may be far away from their family and friends. Using the term “expat” helps foster a sense of camaraderie and shared experiences among this community.


6. Differentiation from Migrants and Immigrants: The term “expat” is used to distinguish individuals who have voluntarily chosen to live abroad from those who have migrated or seek refuge in another country due to difficult circumstances. By using the term “expat,” it highlights the distinction in motivations, intentions, and socio-economic backgrounds that differentiate expats from other categories of individuals living abroad.


Overall, the term “expat” provides a convenient and descriptive way to refer to individuals living outside their home country. It captures the unique experiences and characteristics associated with residing in a foreign land, while highlighting the temporary nature, cultural identity, and professional opportunities that define the expat lifestyle.


Contrasts with Terms like “Immigrant” and “Migrant”

While the terms “expat,” “immigrant,” and “migrant” are often used interchangeably to describe individuals living in a foreign country, they each carry distinct meanings and connotations. Understanding the differences between these terms is crucial for accurately depicting the diverse experiences of people in different circumstances.


1. Expat: The term “expat” refers to individuals who temporarily or permanently reside in a country other than their home country. Expats are typically individuals with a higher socio-economic status and a level of financial stability that allows them to live comfortably in a foreign country. They may be employed by multinational companies, international organizations, or diplomatic missions. The emphasis is on the temporary nature of their stay and their intention to eventually return to their home country.


2. Immigrant: The term “immigrant” typically refers to individuals who have left their home country to settle permanently in another country. Immigrants often seek better economic opportunities, political stability, or a safer environment. They may go through a lengthy process of obtaining residency or citizenship in their new country. Unlike expats, immigrants generally have the intention of building a new life and fully integrating into the society of their new home.


3. Migrant: The term “migrant” is a broader term that encompasses individuals who move from one place to another, whether it is within their own country or across international borders. Migrants may include individuals seeking economic opportunities, refugees fleeing conflict or persecution, or individuals seeking better living conditions. Unlike expats or immigrants, the term “migrant” does not necessarily imply a specific intention or destination. It describes the act of moving rather than the purpose or length of stay.


These terms can also differ in the way they are perceived and the cultural biases associated with them. The term “expat” is often linked to individuals from developed countries who are perceived to have a privileged status and a higher standard of living compared to the local population. In contrast, the terms “immigrant” and “migrant” are sometimes associated with individuals from developing countries or disadvantaged backgrounds who may face barriers and challenges in their new environment.


It is important to recognize that the use of these terms can be subjective and influenced by cultural, social, and political factors. They are not mutually exclusive, and individuals may move between categories depending on their circumstances and intentions. The key is to be mindful of the nuances and implications associated with each term and to use them accurately and respectfully when referring to individuals living in a foreign country.


Global Trends in Expat Living

The global landscape of expat living has undergone significant changes in recent years, driven by various social, economic, and technological factors. These trends reflect the evolving preferences and opportunities for individuals to live and work in different parts of the world. Here are some key global trends in expat living:


1. Increasing Mobility: With advancements in transportation and communication technologies, the world has become more interconnected than ever before. This has facilitated greater mobility and accessibility, allowing individuals to easily move between countries for work, education, or personal reasons. As a result, the number of expats has been steadily increasing, and expat living has become a more feasible option for many.


2. Digital Nomadism: The rise of remote work and digital nomadism has revolutionized the concept of expat living. Many individuals now have the flexibility to work from anywhere in the world as long as they have an internet connection. This has led to a surge in individuals becoming expats while maintaining their careers remotely. Digital nomads often seek vibrant locations with a high quality of life, favorable tax systems, and a thriving entrepreneurial community.


3. Expanding International Job Opportunities: Multinational companies and global organizations continue to offer diverse international job opportunities. These opportunities range from short-term assignments to long-term postings in various locations around the world. Expats may be attracted to these positions for career advancement, cultural immersion, or the chance to experience different business environments.


4. Retirement Destinations: Many retirees are choosing to become expats in their golden years. They seek destinations that offer a lower cost of living, favorable climate, excellent healthcare, and a welcoming expat community. Popular retirement destinations for expats include countries in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Europe.


5. Education and Study Abroad: Study abroad programs and international education opportunities have become increasingly popular. Students are choosing to become expats to experience different cultures, gain a global perspective, and broaden their academic horizons. This trend is also seen in postgraduate studies, with individuals pursuing advanced degrees in foreign countries to enhance their academic and career prospects.


6. Cross-Cultural Relationships: Cross-cultural relationships, including international marriages, have led to an increase in individuals becoming expats. People often move to their partner’s home country to build a life together. These expats navigate intercultural challenges and find ways to integrate into their new communities while maintaining connections with their home culture.


7. Environmental Factors: Environmental considerations, such as climate change, pollution, and natural disasters, have also played a role in expat living decisions. Some individuals choose to relocate to countries with a better environmental outlook, cleaner air, and a more sustainable lifestyle. Countries that prioritize renewable energy, conservation efforts, and eco-friendly practices attract expats seeking a greener way of life.


These global trends in expat living demonstrate the diverse motivations and opportunities that drive individuals to become expats. Whether driven by career prospects, personal growth, or a desire for new experiences, expat living continues to evolve in response to the changing world we live in.


Stereotypes and Challenges Faced by Expats

Living as an expat comes with its own set of stereotypes and challenges that individuals may encounter in their new cultural and social environments. These stereotypes can stem from misunderstandings, cultural biases, or preconceived notions about people from different countries. Here are some common stereotypes and challenges faced by expats:


1. Language and Communication: Language barriers can pose significant challenges for expats, particularly when they move to countries where the local language is different from their native tongue. Communicating effectively in daily life, at work, and in social settings may require learning a new language or relying on translation services. Additionally, misinterpretations or language nuances may lead to misunderstandings or difficulties in building relationships.


2. Cultural Adaptation: Adjusting to a new culture can be both exciting and challenging. Expats may face cultural differences in norms, values, customs, and etiquette. These differences can influence social interactions, work dynamics, and daily routines. Understanding and adapting to new cultural practices can take time and patience, and expats may experience feelings of loneliness, frustration, or cultural shock during the process.


3. Stereotypes and Prejudice: Expats may encounter stereotypes and prejudices based on their nationality, race, or ethnicity. These stereotypes can range from assumptions about work ethics, intelligence, or behavior. Addressing these stereotypes and challenging biases can be a constant battle for expats, as they strive to be seen as individuals rather than representatives of their country or culture.


4. Social Integration: Building a social network and integrating into the local community can be challenging for expats. Cultural differences, language barriers, and existing social circles can make it difficult to connect with locals. Expats often rely on expat communities and support networks to find a sense of belonging and friendship. However, balancing integration into the local culture while maintaining connections with their home culture can also prove to be a delicate balancing act.


5. Professional Challenges: Expats may face unique professional challenges in their new environment. These may include adapting to different work practices, understanding local business etiquette, and navigating intercultural dynamics within the workplace. Expats may also encounter biases or perceptions that impact their career progression or access to certain opportunities.


6. Homesickness and Emotional Well-being: Being away from family, friends, and familiar surroundings can lead to feelings of homesickness and loneliness. Expats may miss important events, traditions, and social connections from their home country, which can impact their emotional well-being. Taking steps to maintain connections with loved ones, seeking social support, and engaging in activities that bring comfort can help alleviate these challenges.


While these stereotypes and challenges can create obstacles for expats, they are not insurmountable. Expats who embrace the opportunity for personal growth, resilience, and open-mindedness are often able to navigate the challenges and thrive in their new environment. Building cultural awareness, being open to new experiences, and seeking support from local communities and fellow expats can contribute to a more successful and fulfilling expat experience.


Expatriate Communities and Support Networks

Expatriate communities and support networks play a crucial role in the lives of individuals living abroad. These communities provide a sense of belonging, understanding, and assistance for expats navigating the challenges and opportunities in their new environment. Here, we explore the importance of expatriate communities and the support they offer:


1. Social Connection: Expatriate communities offer a valuable social network for expats, providing opportunities to meet and connect with others who share a similar experience of living in a foreign country. Expats often find comfort and understanding in connecting with individuals who can empathize with their challenges and celebrate their successes.


2. Cultural Exchange: Expatriate communities create diverse spaces where individuals from different backgrounds can come together and exchange cultures, traditions, and experiences. They foster an environment of learning and understanding, allowing expats to broaden their global perspectives and expand their knowledge of different customs and practices.


3. Information and Resources: Expatriate communities serve as a valuable source of information and resources for newcomers. They offer guidance on various practical matters such as finding accommodation, navigating bureaucratic processes, understanding local laws and regulations, and accessing essential services. Expats can rely on the knowledge and experiences of others within the community to navigate the intricacies of their new environment.


4. Emotional Support: Living in a foreign country can be emotionally challenging, and expatriate communities provide a support system to help individuals cope with the ups and downs of expat life. Expats can seek emotional support, advice, and encouragement from others who have faced similar situations and understand the unique challenges of adjusting to a new culture.


5. Professional Networking: Expatriate communities often offer opportunities for professional networking and career development. Expats can connect with others working in various industries and gain insights into job markets, employment opportunities, and career progression. These networks foster collaboration and cooperation amongst expat professionals, opening doors to professional growth and advancement.


6. Activities and Events: Expatriate communities organize a range of social, cultural, and recreational activities and events. These gatherings provide a platform for expats to connect, explore, and engage in various activities together. From cultural festivals to language exchanges, sports clubs to volunteer projects, these events enhance the expat experience and contribute to a sense of community and belonging.


Expatriate communities and support networks are not limited to physical interactions. Online platforms and forums have also become vital spaces for expats to connect and share information. They offer a virtual community where expats can seek advice, share experiences, and build connections with individuals from all around the world.


Participating in expatriate communities and support networks can greatly enhance the expat experience, helping individuals feel connected, supported, and empowered in their new environment. They provide a pathway to establish meaningful relationships, gain cultural insights, and overcome the challenges of living abroad, ultimately contributing to a more enriching and rewarding expatriate journey.


The Changing Perception of Expatriates

The perception of expatriates has evolved over time, reflecting shifting societal attitudes and a deeper understanding of the expat experience. While expatriates were traditionally seen as diplomats, corporate executives, or government officials, the perception has expanded to encompass a broader range of individuals. Here, we explore the changing perception of expatriates:


1. Socio-Economic Diversity: Expatriates were once primarily associated with individuals of higher socio-economic status who were sent abroad by their organizations or held prestigious positions. However, the perception has shifted to acknowledge that expatriates come from various socio-economic backgrounds and have different motivations for living abroad. Expats now include professionals, students, digital nomads, entrepreneurs, and retirees, among others.


2. Cultural Exchange and Understanding: The changing perception of expatriates recognizes the value of cultural exchange and understanding. Expats are increasingly seen as bridges between different cultures, promoting cross-cultural dialogue and serving as catalysts for positive change. Their ability to navigate multiple cultural contexts and adapt to new environments contributes to greater global awareness and appreciation of cultural diversity.


3. Embracing Diversity and Inclusion: Expatriates represent diverse nationalities, ethnicities, and backgrounds. The changing perception acknowledges the importance of diversity and inclusion, appreciating the unique perspectives and contributions that expats bring to their host countries. Expatriates are viewed as an enriching part of the social fabric, contributing to multicultural societies and fostering intercultural understanding.


4. Collaborative Community Building: Expatriates are increasingly recognized for their role in building collaborative communities within their host countries. Expatriate communities foster connections between expats and locals, facilitating knowledge sharing, cultural exchange, and community engagement. Expats are seen as active participants in the local society, contributing their skills, expertise, and global perspectives to the greater community.


5. Global Citizenship: Expatriates are viewed as global citizens who transcend national boundaries and embrace a broader sense of identity. They are seen as individuals who value international experiences, actively seek intercultural connections, and contribute to the development of global perspectives. Expatriates are often seen as advocates for global issues, fostering a sense of global responsibility and collaboration.


6. Social Impact and Community Development: Expatriates are increasingly involved in social impact initiatives and community development projects in their host countries. They contribute to local economies, support local businesses, and engage in initiatives that address socio-economic challenges. Expats are recognized for their potential to create positive change and leave lasting legacies in their host communities.


These shifting perceptions reflect a deeper understanding of the diverse experiences, motivations, and contributions of expatriates. Expats are increasingly valued for their ability to bridge cultures, foster understanding, and act as global citizens. The changing perception recognizes the importance of embracing diversity, promoting inclusion, and the positive outcomes that arise from the interaction of different cultures and perspectives.



The term “expat” carries depth and nuance, capturing the essence of individuals who choose to live in a country other than their own. It goes beyond a mere description of residency status, encompassing cultural identity, temporary living, and a certain level of privilege. Understanding the historical origins, reasons for using the term “expat,” and its contrasts with terms like “immigrant” and “migrant” provides a comprehensive understanding of the expat experience.


Global trends in expat living demonstrate the increasing mobility, digital nomadism, and changing motivations that drive individuals to become expats. Expatriate communities and support networks play a vital role in the lives of expats, providing social connections, cultural exchange, and invaluable information and resources. They offer a sense of belonging, emotional support, and professional networking opportunities that facilitate successful integration and adjustment in a new environment.


The changing perception of expatriates reflects the evolving societal attitudes towards cultural diversity, global citizenship, and the value of cross-cultural experiences. Expats are no longer limited to specific socio-economic backgrounds or professions. They are recognized for their contributions to community building, social impact, and their ability to foster understanding between cultures.


In conclusion, the term “expat” represents a diverse community of individuals who have chosen to immerse themselves in the experiences and challenges of living abroad. Whether for professional growth, personal development, education, or retirement, expats contribute to the dynamic and interconnected global landscape. By embracing cultural exchange, challenging stereotypes, and fostering inclusive communities, we can create a world where the expat experience is celebrated as a catalyst for mutual understanding, collaboration, and a shared appreciation of diverse perspectives.