I'm a native speaker of Inland Northern American English. My intuition tells me that the word "abroad" is unremarkable, especially in collocations like "study abroad".

However, I've been correcting English entries on Lang-8 lately, and I noticed that a Canadian English speaker made a correction I wouldn't have. She changed the following clause:

she told me that she was going study abroad next month

to this:

she told me that she was going to study overseas next month

Her explanation was the following:

Hardly anyone ever says “abroad” in real life, it’s a bit of an awkward word. We say overseas, in another country, outside the country, etc.

This is quite a different impression than I get when I see the word "abroad". That said, I know I can't always trust my intuition on matters of usage.

Is she correct?

  • 4
    In Great Britain, of course, overseas is a synonym of abroad. But that isn't actually true in either the US or Canada. Only a pedant would notice the point, but if you correct somebody else you really should not leave yourself open to pedantry. Nov 10, 2012 at 12:25
  • @TimLymington Thank you for pointing that out. I'm afraid I left out some context! The person she was correcting lives in Japan.
    – user28567
    Nov 10, 2012 at 14:22
  • @Luke Northern Ireland is, from the perspective of Britain, none of those things. Related: english.stackexchange.com/q/10858/2085
    – tchrist
    Nov 10, 2012 at 17:28

5 Answers 5


I'd be interested if your correspondent in Canada would say that a period of study in the United States was overseas or abroad.

Google Ngrams shows that study abroad is far more common, even when including "overseas study" in the comparison:

Ngram: study abroad/study overseas/overseas study

Ngrams are a blunt instrument, but the difference is so marked here that your intuition is undoubtedly correct.

  • 1
    From Ngrams, it certainly seems that both the U.S. and the U.K. use abroad more than overseas. Possibly Canada is a different case, since there overseas would mean anywhere but the U.S., which might be a useful distinction. Nov 10, 2012 at 12:58
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    On the other hand, perhaps it was simply a misguided politically-correct objection to "studying a broad" which made the word "awkward".
    – Andrew Leach
    Nov 10, 2012 at 13:46
  • 3
    @PeterShor - does Mexico not exist?
    – alcas
    Nov 10, 2012 at 17:11
  • 2
    @alcas And what about Guatemala, Costa Rica and Argentina? Nov 10, 2012 at 21:14

Your critic is being far too prescriptive. The word abroad is used more often than overseas and has been for centuries. Since the question is one of relative frequency, we can go to Google's NGram viewer for the answer.

enter image description here

It shows that for the past 60 years abroad has been top dog, and despite a narrowing in the latter part of the former century and the early part of this century the gap is widening again in its favor.

Even if the numbers were reversed you would still be entitled to use abroad wherever you saw fit, immune to the censure of schoolmarmish critics who think language may only be used in ways they prescribe.


As already covered, Abroad is used much more often. However I would also add that there is a subtlety in how far the place is that you are talking about. This also doesn't always correlate with whether the destination is actually over sea or not.

Clearly anywhere which is a different country can be though of as abroad.

However, even though from the UK, France is over a sea, it would not usually be referred to as overseas, simply because it is too close. It is however still definitely abroad.

On the other hand from France to China, is technically not over a sea, but it would still be refereed to as overseas, (although abroad also still applies).

As a rule of thumb, I (as a UK English speaker) would only use overseas what talking about another continent.

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    I suppose that we Brits can refer to the Continent (mainland Europe) as underseas now. Nov 10, 2012 at 21:44

Both Royal Mail in the UK and US Postal Service use "overseas" stamped packaging and envelopes for sending postage to another country. The mail services of all other European countries including the Russian Post use "abroad" stamped packaging and envelopes.


I think the context of the origin country is significant, in the sense of how big a deal or exotic the destination is vis-a-vis the source country. overseas indicates big deal/exotic, abroad is more ordinary.

For example US is seen as overseas from India, but possibly abroad from say UK. The perception could also change over time. China was overseas for US some time back, but now it is merely abroad. But Cambodia/Vietnam etc, which are all right next to China could be seen as overseas from US.

So I think use of overseas or abroad reveal perceptions rather than distance or duration.