Expat Life

Expats and immigrants

Expats and immigrants. What’s the difference?

Lately I’ve been reading expat blogs. That is, blogs by Americans living in Australia. I enjoy reading about their discoveries in Australia and learn from their experiences on moving and living there. I’ve been thinking about this word “expat”, what that means, and how that’s different from “immigrant”.

My family came to the United States from Cuba in 1980 to flee Castro’s oppressive communist regime. We came on the Mariel boatlift, a mass emigration of Cubans whom Castro considered “undesirable”. These included political dissidents, convicted criminals, and mental health patients as well as anyone else who managed to get through, like my family, due to mass confusion. Unable to return to Cuba, these Cubans largely identify as exiles. Thirty-two years later and my mother is naturalized American citizen, but she and my father both refer to the U.S. as el exilio.

Wikipedia defines an immigrant as a foreigner “passing or coming into a country for the purpose of permanent residence.” People like my parents believed, at the time, that their stay in the U.S. was temporary, that a counter-revolution would take place to overthrow Castro and liberate Cuba. They never intended for us to remain here, but the weeks turned into months. The months turned into years and the freedom fight never came. We could perhaps return to Cuba today, but we would be returning to what we left behind: political oppression and poverty. My parents would not return because Cuba is not free. For me, and probably for my sister as well, it’s because America became home.

Although they choose to remain here, identifying as exiles makes sense for my parents, but not for me. If Cuba became democratic tomorrow, I would visit and then come home. I was two years old when I came to the U.S. When I turned 18, I became an American citizen.

Ernest Hemingway and friends in Spain, 1925.
Ernest Hemingway and friends in Spain, 1925.

Expat is a broad term and technically not that different from immigrant. They’re both people residing in a country other than that of their birth or upbringing. The difference between immigrant and expat usually comes down to socio-economic factors. A skilled professional American working in London is an expat. My fellow writers and artists will acknowledge there’s a romance to being an expat, to being the American living in black and white Paris during the 19th century working on your novel or studying art. Think of Gertrude Stein, Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anais Nin, and Henry Miller.

It’s assumed that an immigrant left their country because of political oppression, poverty, war, and so forth. For example, a Mexican manual labourer in America is an immigrant. But I’m not leaving America for any of these reasons. I’m going to the Australia because I fell in love with an Australian. Yet  I’m an immigrant in America, but in Australia, I will be an expat.



  • That’s a question I’ve been asking myself for a while – am I an expat or a migrant? I’ve moved to Melbourne 3 and a half years ago, from Paris, with my Australian partner. That would make me what I’ve called a “love-migrant” – many of us in Australia.
    I totally agree with what you say about socio-economic factors distinguishing expats and immigrants (especially regarding the possible stigma attached to immigrants). But another element I would consider is the intention to stay. Expats, I would say, are “temproary dwellers”, people who still converse, dream and identify with another place – and have an us/them relation to the people sharing the same space – the locals.
    It’s been interesting for me to hover between these two identities (probably because I’m in a position that gives me this privilege). I’ve identified as a “migrant” a lot, and made efforts to integrate literary and artistic circles in Melbourne. But I recently had a visit from a friend’s friend who’s running for the French elections, representing French overseas residents – and since then, I have been feeling very French, very “expat” – or let’s say cosmopolitan.
    I suppose that the situation would be different for English speakers as it is for French speakers: when you move overseas as a French person, you generally also ,step into an English-speaking world of expats (unless you’re moving to Africa). And that makes you someone else, more cosmopolitan, but also more cut off from people back homeI suppose that for English speakers, they would retain their native language in almost all expat settings, and possibly more connected to their home country – is that the case?

    • Cosette

      You bring up excellent points. Immigrants aren’t always refugees/asylum seekers, but in general great migrations often involve people who are unable to return to their countries, at least immediately. Expats seems to travel at leisure. There are certainly other questions that can be explored as well such as those of identity, assimilation, and the similarities and differences in terms of the challenges that each group faces on arrival. Thanks for your comments, Julien!