What is an Expat? What Does it Mean to be an Expat or Expatriate?

What is an Expat?

Jason Holland - IL Roving Latin America Editor

There is a lot of debate around the term expat. Some people feel it sets you apart from the local culture to call yourself an expat. But I think it's a useful term. As someone living in a foreign country, I feel that I am, by definition, an expatriate

—an expat. How much an expat immerses themself in the local culture is up to them.

The experience of living in Costa Rica and now Mexico has changed the lives of me and my family. We've had all sorts of adventures, met interesting people, seen natural wonders... all things we would have never have experienced if we had stayed in the U.S. The expat life is not for everybody, as there can be frustrations. And some people can't make the adjustment to a new way of life.

But for many, becoming an expat can be the path to fulfillment.

Nancy Kiernan - IL Colombia Correspondent

I moved to Medellín Colombia in May 2012 looking to make a major change in my life. The decision was partially fueled by wanting to live in a place where the cost of living was significantly lower than back home and partially by finding a climate that was so much better than the northeast U.S.

There is so much more to being an expat than simply living outside of your native country. I am now experiencing another culture firsthand, not just reading about it or seeing it on TV. If someone had told me that at 53 years old I was going to learn to speak Spanish, I would have told them they were crazy. And yet, here I am speaking Spanish, not fluently, but I can carry on a conversation with anyone about practically any subject.

Becoming an expat was one of the best decisions I ever made. Living outside of the U.S. has broadened my horizons. I no longer think about my home country and the way it functions as the center of all things. I now see the entire world, not just Colombia, through a different lens. I am more open to trying new things and having new experiences.

Also, I meet some of the most interesting people from countries all over the world. I have expat friends from the UK, Spain, France, Germany, and Australia. These people have also chosen to expand and enhance their lives by living in another country. It is great to learn about not only the differences in the cultures, but also the similarities that we all have.

I traveled quite a bit before I decided to become an expat. But those trips were just vacations and I was just a tourist. I would spend a week or two in another country at most. While this was a fun experience, I never really got to know those countries in depth. After more than five years in Colombia, I have a deep appreciation and love for the people and their culture. I am totally immersed in this country.

Taking the plunge to leave what you have known your whole life and live as an expat can be a little scary at first. I promise you that the benefits to your life will outweigh your concerns.

Jessica Ramesch - IL Panama Editor

On occasion you’ll hear someone take issue with the term expat, assuming that it implies a lack of patriotism. (“Expat” does, of course, come from the word “expatriate.”) These days, however, the connotations are anything but negative. It’s just a useful term to describe an increasing number of people who choose—for work or for other reasons—to experience life abroad. It’s considered part of a well-rounded life experience…something many people dream of doing at least once. So what is an expat? It’s someone who’s taken the plunge…be that for a year, ten years, or more.

I consider myself a lifelong expat. I’m one of those multi-cultural Gen-Xers who had lived in several countries by the age of 15. Who felt at home nowhere and everywhere. Call me an expat or a citizen of the world…it doesn’t matter, really. What matters is that I’m currently living in Panama. Life in the States was good…great, a lot of the time...but I thought maybe I could find something extraordinary if I thought outside the box (or outside U.S. borders).

I considered other countries in Latin America. Costa Rica caught my fancy when I was younger. And my sister immigrated to Canada, so I considered that, too. But when I made a list of my own personal priorities, Panama simply checked more boxes than any other place.

Tricia Pimental - IL Portugal Correspondent

I consider myself an expat because I'm someone who has made the decision to permanently (as much as anything can be permanent in life) live in a country not the land of my birth.

I was asked yesterday by a Portuguese couple and Iranian woman if I would ever move back to the U.S. and I said the answer was no. (I was born in New York and lived all around the country, big cities and in the country.) The only exception to that would be if there were a family situation where my presence would be required, important, helpful, whatever.

Barring that, Portugal is the most affordable, prettiest, laidback country with first-world infrastructure and great architecture, historic sites, wine, cheese, beaches, and people. Nothing better for an overall place to live.

Wendy Justice - IL Southeast Asia Correspondent

An expat is someone who has chosen to live abroad for an extended length of time. A tourist might rush through a country and see all the highlights on their list and get a tantalizing taste of a new place, but with the intention of returning back to the "real world." An expat may go to that same country and savor the region for as long as they choose, immersing themselves in the culture and lifestyle without any intention of returning to their home country in the near future. Being an expat is a lifestyle choice and goes way beyond what a tourist would experience. It's a huge difference, which is why tourists and expats often have totally different mindsets.

I feel as if I've been on a vacation for the past 14 years, but I'm definitely not a tourist. I sold my house and my car and most of my possessions in my home country and have no intention of ever returning there to live. I've lingered for weeks in areas that I've enjoyed and I've stayed for months and even years in a few places that I especially liked. I'm constantly having new and intriguing experiences and my friends these days come from all corners of the globe. My life as an expat is exciting, stimulating, unpredictable and fun—and it's been a true opportunity for personal growth, too. I've obtained a quality of life as an expat that I find immensely rewarding and I just couldn't imagine living in the country of my birth again.

Steve Lepoidevin - IL Peru Correspondent

From the moment I first moved abroad to teach in China, I considered myself an expat. A decade and three countries later, the label continues to define my wife and me. At this point, we have no intention of ever returning to our home countries of Canada or the U.S.. But never say never.

Here in Peru, we are living a laid-back existence in the small coastal surfing/fishing town of Huanchaco. The food is great, the people are friendly, and the cost of living is very low. The big city of Trujillo with all its modern amenities is only twenty minutes away. It's the best of both worlds.

If we decide to stay here forever, I would say we had become immigrants. But the more we travel and the more countries we live in, the more I feel like a "citizen of the world". And I think that is a good thing.

Don Murray - IL Riviera Maya Correspondent

What is an expat (expatriate)? Easy enough to find the technical definition which states it's someone who lives outside their country, but that really doesn’t state the meat of the meaning.

An expat is an explorer, an adventurer at heart. They are not fearless but have learned to move through their fears to achieve their dreams.

They are braver than they thought they would be and freer than they imagined possible. Many see their wealth as the accumulation of experiences rather than money and they have learned to forgive their own stumbles as they integrate into new cultures.

Expats attend the birthday parties of a neighbor’s child, even when they aren’t fluent in the language and eagerly taste new foods. They embrace a new normal every day and struggle to explain their lives to those back home, who may be constrained by fear.

We are a tribe whose members can be found on every continent, and yet, we speak the same language.

An expat understands that rich lives are found beyond the boundaries where many fear to live.

Nanette Witmer - IL Chiriqui Correspondent

The term being an expat is not one that most of my friends in the states know the meaning of. When I use the term and explain that it means I have chosen to live in another country other than the country I was born in, they immediately all think I have given up my citizenship in the U.S. Again I have to explain that, no I am just choosing to reside outside of the country. The word is as foreign to them as the lifestyle.

Becoming an expat for me has been a great experience. It has given me the opportunity to become immersed in all areas of living in another country that just visiting on vacation will not give you. It means that I have planted roots somewhere else other than where I was born. I love the fact that I have chosen to be engaged in another culture. Living outside of my home country has enabled me to open my mind to new experiences and different ways of thinking.

I love the fact that everyday I learn something new and take nothing for granted. Being an expat has made me appreciate things more, know myself better, find different ways of looking at something and carve out my own trail going forward.

Tuula Rampont - IL France Correspondent

When I first moved to France the term expat didn’t really carry a lot of meaning for me. I’d always thought of it as more of a temporary status, i.e. someone who was staying in a foreign country for a short period of time. I had previously lived in Italy for three years and the term seemed to fit perfectly. Surely, eventually, I’d move back to the United States.

But as the years passed and it started to become clear that France, in fact, might become my permanent home, I started to really identify with the term expat, or expatriate. I’d learned French, made a life for myself, picked up many French habits and traditions, but still felt immeasurably tied to the U.S. Although a lot of my attitudes about the world had changed, my pride in being an American only increased and become stronger.

Now, after having spent nearly 13 years outside of the U.S., the term expat has come to signify having a foot in two cultures, two different viewpoints and ways of living. You may be far away from your home country, but it remains fundamentally rooted in who you are and how you make your way in the world.

Kathleen Evans – IL Costa Rica Correspondent

Interestingly, I recently participated in a debate about the term “expat”—the shortened version of expatriate—which is defined as a person who lives outside their native country. Simple; yet not so simple?

I understand that the term “expat” has traditionally been used for financially mobile people who choose to live in a country (or multiple countries) either for work assignments or simply by choice for a short or extended time. However, the term “immigrant” is used more often to define someone of lesser means who might be forced to leave their home country due to persecution or lack of employment, or ultimately seeking a better life.

Since I have been granted my permanent residency status in Costa Rica, in reality, one could call me an immigrant rather than an expat. I use the terms interchangeably for myself and other non-natives I meet here. Usually I use the term expat, regardless of social status or color or country of origin. In its simplest form, we are all living outside our native country. And seeking a better life.

David Hammond – IL Uruguay Correspondent

As a noun, an “expatriate”, or “expat”, is a person who lives (temporarily or permanently) outside their native country. As a verb, “expatriate” is the act of going to live abroad.

Common examples of expats include professionals, technicians, researchers, aid workers, and correspondents living abroad to serve the objectives of a government body, company, university, religious organization, or NGO that employs them.

You also find expats that set out on their own. These include English teachers, volunteers, entrepreneurs, investors, and retirees out for adventure and a lower cost of living.

When I was young, I read about the American expatriates living in Paris in the 1920s, which included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Dos Pasos. It was a time when Paris was inexpensive, imposed few rules, and included a buzzing cafe culture.

It was a romantic idea of expat life that stuck in a corner my mind for decades. Now, as a second act, I’m living as an expat in South America. And it's even better than I imagined. I get to see new places. I experience different cultures. And best of all, I meet the most interesting people.

In recent years, I’ve lunched with a retired model from New York who now promotes local artists in Uruguay. I’ve spent an afternoon chatting with a retired financial planner from Illinois who now teaches scuba diving in the Dominican Republic. And I interviewed a retired commercial office cleaner from Kentucky who now teaches local children the art of origami in Bolivia. And the list goes on and on.

For me, adding an expat chapter to my life is proving to be a rich experience.

Laura Diffendal – IL Belize Correspondent

An “expat” tends to be someone who cuts ties with their home country, by selling real estate, cars, closing bank accounts, putting things in long term storage, or even selling everything—they don’t leave their apartment just locked up with the intention of returning. They re-establish these services/needs in their new chosen country.

There are plenty of individuals who come to Belize to try it out—and that is absolutely fine, healthy, or even preferred. The difference is, they leave their life in their homeland as one that would be easy to step back into. If you commit and become an expat—that indicates that you took the plunge of making new ties and commitments to the new country.

Marsha Scarbrough – IL Spain Correspondent

Expats are citizens of one country who live in another country. As an expat in Spain, I feel like I’m living a life of perpetual travel while enjoying the comforts of home. For me, that’s a dream come true.

My life centers around a cozy nest of my own making, but each day when I go out in the world, I discover fascinating new customs, foreign culture and the possibility of making new friends. Buying groceries, getting my hair cut or going to the gym can be an exciting journey involving language and cultural differences. Literal travel to other European countries is easy and inexpensive.

As an American living in Madrid, I’m exotic. In my own country, I’m just another senior citizen, but in Spain, I’m an intriguing character with stories to tell about my former life in a country that looms large in Spanish imagination. Young Spaniards see me as an embodiment of music, movies, and lifestyle that they love. Their interest has given me new appreciation for my own personal history.

Sometimes the learning curve is steep. After nearly three years, I still haven’t mastered the Spanish language. Luckily, I can easily get by in English, but I’m taking Spanish classes. Not only is my aging brain getting a challenging workout, I’m also meeting friendly, interesting people from all over the world.

Although I’m proud to be an American and will always be one, the expat experience has made me more open and alive in the world. I was seeking a late-life adventure, and I found it. Honestly, I’ve never been happier.

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