Immigrant or Expat, Which One Are You?

by | Feb 14, 2022 | Global | 1 comment

What comes to mind when you hear the word “immigrant”? Is it images of poor families arriving at Ellis Island running from persecution, religious freedom, and seeking the “land of opportunity?”

Immigrant family. photo from Pixabay Maurojr83
Immigrant family. Photo from Pixabay Maurojr83

Maybe you think of people from Mexico or Central America, fleeing poverty and drug cartels, having to walk across the Rio Grande or through the desert to seek asylum in the U.S.

When you hear “expat,” what comes to mind? Do you think, “yeah, that would be dope? I’d like to work anywhere and hang out at the beach in a foreign land.” Perhaps you see yourself sipping lattes at a French or Italian cafe with your other expat friends, taking selfies for Instagram.

digital nomad with coffee Photo by Pixabay Peggy Marco
Digital nomad with coffee. Photo by Pixabay Peggy Marco

When I’ve posed this question to my friends of varying ethnic backgrounds, each time I get the same or similar answer: immigrants are often poor, running toward a better life and expats are often wealthy, educated, seeking adventure, often temporary or seeking a retirement haven.

Is that what you see? Well, as they say, “perception is reality.” I decided to find out what Ms. Merriam Webster had to say:

Immigrant (noun)  is a person living permanently in a foreign land similar to
newcomer or settlers.

Expat (noun) a person who lives outside their native country.

Is there a difference?

Do you see any difference? No, I don’t either. But people view these categories differently. Why?

One reason might be that the term expat may sound better to Westerners and Europeans. Perhaps it gives an air of chic superiority over being referred to as an immigrant. Also, expats usually retain their status in their home country while receiving the benefits of living in their adopted land.

But here is the real, real. There are plenty of expats that have left the U.S. for a better life. They wanted to escape racial oppression and gun violence, or are looking for a better cost of living or affordable healthcare. They are seeking what they view as freedom. Does that sound familiar?

When I rolled into Colombia, I felt like a fish out of water, hearing a new language, adjusting to different customs and food, I told my friends and family, “Now I know what it’s like to be an immigrant.”

Showing respect in your host country

Photo Op: Gail & Sierra in Envigado by Gail Turner Brown
Gail & Sierra in Envigado by Gail Turner Brown

Most immigrants want to be a part of their new host country, learning the language, understanding the culture and nuances of the people, traditions, and history. Some expats are not as keen to do so.

One of the many things I like about Medellin is its people. They are warm and welcoming. They don’t insult you for not speaking the language properly.

I’ve noticed some expats do not appear to have a vested interest in the culture or communities they live in. They’re clustered in certain segments of the city where most tourists go and therefore not required to adapt or adjust in any way.

Dinner with Natayli Photo by Gail Turner Brown
Dinner with Natayli Photo by Gail Turner Brown


If you are planning to stay in Colombia permanently, I have news for you…. YOU ARE AN IMMIGRANT. You can refer to yourself as an expat if you prefer. Whichever word you choose, remember, you are a guest first.

There are new things to see, eat, do and experience. It takes time to adjust, but be mindful of the local people you encounter. They are there to help but meet them halfway. You chose their country.

Last thought: when you do return home to visit, look to help those in your country through the lens of being an expat. Remember your challenges and help their transition run more smoothly. It will allow everyone to enjoy the mutual home we call planet earth.

by: Gail Turner Brown