‘Expat’ and the Fraught Language of Migration

The case of one word shows how context and associations can trump formal definition when it comes to talking about movement.

An expatriate business worker leaves an office building as the sun sets in Hong Kong's financial-business district on July 13, 2009.
An expatriate business worker leaves an office building as the sun sets in Hong Kong's financial-business district on July 13, 2009. (Bobby Yip / Reuters)

The mass movement of people around the world is arguably one of the biggest stories of our time. Today, approximately 258 million people live outside their country of birth. By 2050, that number is expected to jump to 405 million. Some movements are voluntary (say, for a good job opportunity); others are driven by war, persecution, or environmental crisis. The reason for the movement gets reflected in the language used to describe the movers—whether they’re economic migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants, or just foreigners.

As Europe and the United States debate whether and how much to welcome newcomers, many of their own citizens are also on the move—with, for example, 9 million Americans and more than 5 million Britons living outside their country of origin. And there’s still another word that can describe that kind of movement: expatriate or “expat.” (See my colleague Rachel Donadio’s story on visiting America after years living and working abroad, “American Weirdness: Observations From an Expat.”)

But what defines an “expat”? Does it matter whether you are coming from a richer country, or how long you intend to stay? At what point are you an “immigrant” instead? “The technical definition of an expat is someone who lives and works abroad for a temporary period of time but plans to return to their home country,” Sophie Cranston, a lecturer in human geography at Loughborough University, told me in an email. Unlike an immigrant, who moves to another country with the intent of staying permanently, being an expat is defined, in part, by a lack of permanence—whether an expat has lived abroad for 10 months or 10 years, he or she still has the intention of returning home.

In practice, however, the word means many different things to different people—much like the terms refugee, migrant, or immigrant. And the case of this one word illustrates how the language of migration is influenced as much by context and associations as by formal definition.

Yvonne McNulty, a senior lecturer specializing in human-resource management and expatriation at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, developed a definition of the word in 2016 with her colleague Chris Brewster, outlining a series of “boundary conditions” one must meet in order to be classified as an expat: In addition to living outside one’s home country on a non-permanent basis, an expat must also be legally employed to live and work in the country where they are based. They must also not be a citizen of that country.

Expats weren’t always defined this way. Charlotte Taylor, a linguist at the University of Sussex, told me the word was first widely used in the mid-20th century, when it was applied to British civil servants sent to work abroad—often not by choice. “If you think about the actual term expat from the word expatriate, that’s basically a non-optional migration—somebody who has been expatriated is somebody who has been sent abroad,” she said. “It’s almost the polar opposite of how it’s used now. Now we use expat … as a self-describing term for people who feel they are wealthy or mobile, and we use forced migration or asylum seeker or refugee for somebody who has been forced to leave their country.”

The historical class associations with the term are reflected in how it’s used today. “A stereotypical image of the expat is someone sipping a gin and tonic by the pool at sunset,” Cranston said, noting that prior to the 1990s, it was much less common for Westerners to live and work abroad. Many of those who did were compensated with generous benefit packages that included high wages, housing, and schooling for children. This legacy has informed how people have come to understand the label, and why some feel uncomfortable identifying with it at all. “In my research, one of the reasons migrants did not identify with the term ‘expat’ is because they saw themselves as having more ordinary lives than the luxurious lifestyles,” Cranston said. “They also said they were not expats because they have more engagement with the local [community].”

McNulty, who lives in Singapore, said that though the term is often used to describe high-status migrants (whom she defined as being highly paid and highly educated), it is rarely applied to foreign workers who are not. Instead, those workers tend to be referred to as “economic migrants,” people who have left their home country for a place with better living and working conditions. “They meet every condition of being an expatriate—all of them,” McNulty said, noting that in addition to requiring valid work permits, many of the countries hosting economic migrants, such as the United Arab Emirates, strictly prohibit them from seeking permanent residency. Still, “nobody thinks of them as expatriates, because in the sort of colloquial language we refer to them as migrant workers,” McNulty said, adding: “These people are in every way expatriates in the same way white Westerners are. The fact that they are a different color [or] the fact that they come from a poor developing country is to a large extent irrelevant when we look a the boundary conditions.”

Such associations with the term influence whether and how people use it, and contribute to general confusion about what it really means. I could be an “expat” myself, having moved from the U.S. to the United Kingdom for work about a year ago—though no one has ever called me that and I’ve never described myself that way. When I asked others who live outside their home country whether they use the term (and how), their responses were mixed. One person who has lived abroad for nearly a year told me that though she identifies as an expat, she tends to associate the word with people who have lived abroad for a longer period. Another understood it to mean almost the exact opposite: Though she too identifies as an expat, she said it’s because she understands the term to describe those who live and work abroad for a short period, with no intention of staying long-term. Those who told me they don’t identify as expats cited the socioeconomic and class stereotypes often associated with the label. “Expat sounded way too classy for me—I just thought of myself as living abroad,” one person told me. Another told me the term sounded “snooty” and “entitled.”

Taylor said if this were to change, it would need to start at a public level. “We need to be careful about how these terms are used … in terms of parliamentary discourse or how the media use expat as a term of preference for people who they identify with and value highly,” she said. McNulty said individual people can start shifting the way people understand expatriate—by reclaiming it for themselves. “[Some people] don’t want the label of expatriate because it comes with all that baggage,” she said. “It’s the baggage that we bring with it or that we think comes with the label, and that’s what stops us from applying it to ourselves … What we’re trying to do with our recent research is to break down those barriers and get rid of some of that baggage.”