Looking at the definition given at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foreign_national (I know, not a great source) I can't see how replacing this with just "foreigner" wouldn't suffice?

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    Did you read the link you supplied? It says "The term "foreign national" came into usage when the previously used term "foreigner" developed negative connotations. They are synonyms." – Digital Chris Jun 17 '14 at 11:54
  • I see that, but compared to "alien" I refute perceived negative connotations as a basis for the adoption of foreign national rather than foreigner. – Dusan B Jun 17 '14 at 14:14

Foreign national focuses on the citizenship of the person: the Oxford dictionary states it is "a person who is not a naturalized citizen of the country in which they are living". Whereas a foreigner is an "outsider" for some criterion (e.g. birth place or ancestry), not necessarily for their citizenship. Some people would qualify as foreigners people who've been naturalized and therefore are not foreign nationals.

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    I agree with this. If I move to China and obtain Chinese citizenship, I would no longer be a foreign national. Being a pasty-white European guy living in China, though, I would still very much be a foreigner there. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 17 '14 at 13:51

On the face of it, you are right that foreigner is a perfectly acceptable substitute. In normal usage this is the case. However, the word foreigner can carry derogatory connotations.

The use of foreign national is intended to emphasise that no negative meaning is intended. Especially if the speaker believes that the listener might make a negative inference.

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  • The position is more complex in Britain since our law recognises 'dual nationality'. Many people, as well as being British possess another nationality. Indeed many 'British' people (of Arabic/Muslim descent) are currently fighting for ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq, whilst the UK government, with its American ally, is inclined to the other side. Are such people 'foreigners'? – WS2 Jun 17 '14 at 12:16
  • And in some localities within a nation, people who come from other parts of that same nation may be considered foreigners (usually with a negative connotation). – bib Jun 17 '14 at 12:25
  • Attibuting negative connotations to the words foreign and foreigner and avoiding them for that reason has long struck me as silly. How ethnocentric and xenophobic does, say, an Englishman have to before he regards another man's not being English as a sufficiently unfortunate and embarrassing disability to require a euphemism? We now officially and ridiculously speak at my (U.S.) university of instruction in "world [not foreign!] languages," but the Germans seem to have no such problem with fremden Sprachen nor the Greeks with ξένες γλώσσες. – Brian Donovan Jun 17 '14 at 13:14
  • @BrianDonovan The problem is that the word has, in the past, been used pejoratively. Sir Cecil Rhodes opined that to be born an Englishman (not Scottish, Irish or Welsh - please note) was 'to have won first-prize in the lottery of life'. That was precisely how Victorians thought and it has taken two world wars, a century of ridicule, the European Union, and still people in the UKIP caravan talk about Johnny Foreigner. – WS2 Jun 17 '14 at 13:36
  • @BrianDonovan Are Dakota, Narragansett, Sioux, or Navajo ‘foreign’ languages in a US university? They are certainly ‘world languages’ (as is English)—but they are, if anything, less of a foreign language in the US than English is. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 17 '14 at 13:49

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