I understand that alien is used as a synonym of foreigner, as well as a synonym of extraterrestrial.

I suspect that people from other planets wouldn't mind being called aliens. But is it wrong (offensive or somehow inappropriate) to call a person (from Earth!) visiting an English speaking country an alien?

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    I'm an alien, I'm a legal alien... ♫ – RegDwigнt Dec 2 '10 at 19:15
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    Oh, no, I don't mind being called an alien. As aliens, we get used to it. :) – Mateen Ulhaq Dec 3 '10 at 1:44
  • Looking at the etymology "Middle English: via Old French from Latin alienus ‘belonging to another’, from alius ‘other’." So nothing inherently offensive there to me. – Martin Smith May 27 '14 at 15:41

The term alien is actually the technical term used by governments to describe someone who is not a citizen (of either the naturalized or natural born varieties). For example, one of the major immigration forms for the US is entitled "Application for Immigrant Visa and Alien Registration"

I would say it is not at all inappropriate, and any offense would really only be attributed to confusion between the two meanings.

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    Absolutely correct. It's a perfectly valid (and formal) term. There are far more offensive terms out there for various groups of illegal immigrants. – Noldorin Dec 2 '10 at 20:18
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    @Noldorin: I am offended your suggestion that all aliens are illegal immigrants. j/k – Jaime Soto Dec 2 '10 at 20:33
  • @Jaime: Hah, well "aliens" sometimes specifically refers to illegal immigrants, as I've heard it. In it's more general sense, you're right though. – Noldorin Dec 2 '10 at 21:33
  • U.S. Government is changing the terminology. Green card used to be called "Resident Alien Card", but now it is "Permanent Resident Card". It implies the term is objectionable in some way. Why would they be changing it otherwise? – dbkk Dec 3 '10 at 3:24
  • @dbkk - Interesting, but I'm not sure changing a name means that one of the words was offensive. A quick google showed the following "Although known officially as the "Alien Registration receipt Card," Form I-551 identifies the permanent resident status of the cardholder and is often referred to as the "Permanent Resident Card." Renaming the card the "Permanent Resident Card" allows the Service to officially adopt the more accurate and convenient usage. ... – Dusty Dec 3 '10 at 3:42

As many people have said, "alien" is a term used by governments to refer to non-citizens. However I'm not sure how often that meaning is used outside of the immigration department. I'm sure for many English-speakers the word's first meaning is extraterrestrials. It certainly is for me.

Using this word sounds "marked" to me. That is, I'd wonder why a person was saying it unless they were a government worker. I'm not sure if there would be cause for offense, however.


Like many terms, it is not offensive in itself, but can be used in a distancing way that others, and so in different contexts it can be neutral, mildly rude, or strikingly offensive.

It is perhaps best considered as cold and technical. There are times when being cold and technical is appropriate, but there are also times when it is better not to be cold and technical in dealing with people's feelings. There are also times when people are pointedly cold and technical.


In the U.S. "alien" used to be the official legal term for non-citizens. However, this is changing. The most important residence document (green card) used to be officially titled Resident Alien Card, but is now changed to Permanent Resident Card. Government bureaucracy is vast, so I'm sure the change some forms still carry the "alien" terminology.

This change implies the term is somehow inappropriate, although I don't see it as offensive.

Most dictionaries put the synonym "foreign" before "extraterrestrial". The latter are a more interesting subject of popular culture (e.g. Hollywood movies), that's why some non-native speakers may get an impression that it is the more common meaning of the word.

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    I'm not sure how changing the name of the card implies the old name was offensive/inappropriate (unless by inappropriate you mean something more like inaccurate or less convenient or common). – Dusty Dec 3 '10 at 4:04

I think we non-USAians find it odd, since it's far more common to see expatriats referred to as "expats", "permanent residents", "foreign workers" or "temporary workers" in Asia, at least in the press and in general discussions. As ShreevatsaR points out in the comments below, our governments do refer to foreigners with the same terminology (see links below).


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