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Expat or immigrant? What do you call someone who moves overseas?

With the topic of migration making prominent and often shocking headlines in recent years, terms like migrant, immigrant, emigrant and expat have become part of our everyday conversation. The dictionary definitions are often far departed from the meanings we attach to these terms. And confusingly, moving internationally is at the heart of all of them.

So, what is the difference between an expat, an immigrant, an emigrant and a migrant?

Is there a term that has more of a positive connotation then others and if yes, why?

The Difference between an Expatriate (Expat) and an Immigrant

While an expatriate is defined as an individual who lives outside their native country, an immigrant is an individual who lives permanently in a foreign country. One of the main differences between an expatriate and an immigrant is that immigrants intend to stay in their new country indefinitely, whereas the certainty of expats remaining in one country is more unclear. Generally, expats are deemed to stay in their host country for a limited amount of time.

Historically, expatriates were referred to as exiles. To be in exile is to be away from your homeland. However the term has also been used to infer a negative connotation, to indicate people that were refused permission to return to their own country and even threatened with imprisonment or death upon return. But in 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly and Article 9 states that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile”. So nowadays the term ‘exile’ goes mostly unused and expatriates are understood to be temporary relocators.

The difference between an Immigrant, a Migrant and an Emigrant

While migrant is the term used to describe someone moving between different countries to find work or better living conditions, immigrant refers to people relocating to a new country to live on a permanent basis. Emigrant is a person who leaves their own country in order to settle permanently in another one.

To put this into perspective, individuals from Spain, for example, who relocate to live in the United Kingdom on a permanent basis, are an emigrant from Spain, and an immigrant in the United Kingdom.

Common misconceptions of the term ‘Immigrant’

Let’s think about the word “Immigrant”: what is the meaning that society and your culture has given it? Does it have a positive or a negative connotation? If so, why?

Nowadays the word ‘immigrant’ often gets automatically linked with ‘illegal’. This is an unfortunate connotation that fails to take the millions of immigrants that are living in a new country legally into consideration. Illegal immigration is a growing concern globally and public concerns about immigration have been steadily increasing. However it still remains that the large majority of immigrants relocate overseas completely legally. This sense of unease and concern alongside the rise of anti-migrant sentiment in the media and in political debate has made the use of the term less popular when discussing overseas relocation.

Creating a positive perception of Migrants

In reality, all the terms and definitions we’ve explored are intrinsically linked: they all denote someone who has (for whatever reason) left their country of birth to live in a new country. And how we might perceive this group of people can be down to the terms used. While it appears some mainstream media are busy portraying migration as a problem, there are campaigns, organisations and associations that are working to change this.

Whether we use one term of another offers up little factual difference in most instances, but the social impact on that person/group or demographic can be huge. For this reason, the words expat and migrant are often the best choice to use thanks to their positive connotations.

At the same time, there is a ‘rebrand’ culture, leading the way for more positive understanding of the terms related to immigration. I am a migrant  is the UN Migration Agency’s platform to promote diversity and inclusion of migrants in society. Every migrant can tell their story and contribute to change the perception of migrants. On the back of Brexit The Advertising Association  created a campaign called “A Great Advert for Britain” with the aim to show that Britain’s advertising industry leads the world thanks to the creativity and professionalism of many immigrants.


Santa Fe Relocation and the UN Migration Agency, IOM, UK country office are working together to explore an exciting partnership to redefine the perception of migrants and support local integration of migrants. IOM is committed to the principle that humane and orderly migration benefits migrants and society and states that “partnerships with organisations such as Santa Fe Relocation are vital in contributing to addressing today’s humanitarian and development challenges, and is essential to reaching the objectives set by the Sustainable Development Goals.”

For more information and to find out how we can help, please contact a member of our expert team today.

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