Is there a difference in usage between expat and emigrant? I believe I encounter the former mostly in positive contexts, describing highly-skilled professionals ("expat guide to [country]"), and the latter in neutral-to-negative contexts, but I'm not sure if it is a coincidence.

  • Also see an answer to question #5734 Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 0:30
  • 1
    There's a difference in usage certainly, but definition-wise they seem very close if not identical.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 1:23
  • 5
    Ambrose Bierce might have written that you're an expat if you move from a rich country to a poor one, and an emigrant if you move from a poor country to a rich one.
    – nohat
    Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 1:39
  • Honest answer: An expat is white (and educated). An immigrant or foreigner is often not.
    – Tom Kelly
    Commented Dec 27, 2018 at 3:06
  • @TomKelly -- Who mentioned "immigrant"??
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 16, 2021 at 23:33

3 Answers 3


In common usage, the distinction is usually related to the (intended) permanence of the shift from one nation to another.

An expatriate (expat) intends, or at least longs to, return to the country that he or she considers home. An emigrant acknowledges that the departure is forever and that the destination is his or her new home.

It is interesting that many dictionaries focus on the verb form of expatriate (both transitive and intransitive) and regard the nominalisation as a usage of lesser importance.

One factor in the value associated with the usage of each word as a label is whether it is applied to oneself or to others. You will certainly find numerous recent instances where expat carries the connotation of a 'good migrant'. On the other hand, at the height of the British Empire, an alternative term for expat could have been 'invader' or 'occupier'.

It is a word whose sense has varied with time and place.

  • I'm an expat with zero longing to return to the USA for any reason whatsoever. Not in this life & not to be buried there. Some of my expat friends here feel the same way about returning to their native countries: Taiwan is home, & what used to be home is now just the name of an inconvenient nationality. I'm not an emigrant, because when I first moved to Taiwan, it wasn't to live here, just to see my wife & newborn son 16.5 years ago. Maybe being a permanent resident of Taiwan makes me more than just an expat. When I get Taiwan citizenship, I'll be an immigrant.
    – user21497
    Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 3:00
  • @BillFranke expat is mostly a Britishism and generally means you are their temporarily. A Brit working in the middle east would describe themselves as an expat, one who had moved to Australia permanently wouldn't
    – mgb
    Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 4:24
  • @mgb: I've been an American expat for the past 30 years, and that's the term I've always used. That's the term we all used in Tokyo in the 80s & 90s (most of my expat friends were non-UK Europeans) and the one we use here in Taiwan (Americans, Brits, Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians, Germans, Poles, South Africans). Some of them are temporaries, but some are like me: permanents.
    – user21497
    Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 4:47
  • @mgb: I just asked my American friends here in Taiwan. They say I'm an immigrant, not an expat, and that they've always used the word "expat". This seems to be a hangover from the early part of the 20th century when Hemingway and other writers were expats in Paris. I think the term has graduated from Britishism to standard English term in all dialects.
    – user21497
    Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 6:07

In most cases, emigrants move from their home countries in search for better employment opportunities, or better opportunities in general. Their reason to move is economically motivated.

Expats are those who already have strong means of financially supporting themselves for the remainder of their lives. This may be substituted by running businesses that are geographically agnostic. In any case, they move typically for social or political reasons, but NOT for economical improvements.


expatriate, emigrant, immigrant

And OP could make a little more effort to find specific differences in legal, social and other domains.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.