What is an Expat?
This is a very popular question submitted to us by many of our fans. Our experts talk about what an expat is and what it means to them to be 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 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 experiences 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.
Bonnie Hayman – IL Nicaragua Correspondent
An expat is someone who lives in a country other than their own. He or she may be a retiree or just someone who wants the adventure of living elsewhere. And that is exactly what it is – a wonderful adventure. I’ve been an expat in Nicaragua for 10 years and it’s been the most wonderful 10 years of my life. I learned a new language, have many international friends, and have immersed myself in a culture that is musical, colorful and pure. On top of that, I don’t have to worry about my financial situation ever again. It is so economical to live here that even though I’m just a middle-class gal from the U.S., I have enough to retire here in Paradise without worrying anymore about money.
It’s so warm and sunny that I don’t even own any clothes with sleeves. We don’t talk about politics or negative news here because these things don’t touch our lives. I have an adorable ocean view home. In the U.S. I wouldn’t have ever been able to retire. So I found my place in the sun….and I hope you will too.
Jim Santos – IL Coastal Ecuador Correspondent
This is an interesting question, as I recently ran across a common misconception in a social media post. Expat is short for the word “expatriate”. This simply means a person who is not living at the moment in their native country. Unfortunately, sometimes people mispronounce, or confuse it with a word that doesn’t exist – “expatriot”. This gives them the negative connotation that the expat has somehow turned their back on their homeland, and is not longer a “patriot”.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Most people do find that living abroad gives them a different perspective on life “back home”, and indeed, you may find things that you like better in your adopted land. However, my wife and I can attest that it does not mean you love your native country any less – in fact, it can make you appreciate some aspects even more.
An expat has just made the choice to spend some part of their lives living in and experiencing a different culture, and different lifestyle. Most of us are residents only, and have not closed the door on ever returning. We pay our US taxes, many of us have US bank accounts, and some of us still own property there as well. Even those like my wife and I, who have decided to apply for citizenship in Ecuador, do not plan on taking the extreme step of denouncing our US citizenship. We will just be citizens of two countries.
Even that is just a piece of paper. I think the most important change that an expat experiences is not a diminishment of patriotism for your place of birth. Rather the more you travel, and the more you live in new and interesting locations, the more you start to feel like you are a citizen of the world. And that is something I think we could do with a lot more of these days.
Jackie Minchillo – IL Coastal Costa Rica Correspondent
For me being an expat means someone who had decided they’d like to experience life in a different country from their home country. I find that expats are often people who enjoy travel and discovery, and have found a way to make themselves location independent, sometimes so they can have the opportunity to live in multiple different countries.
For me personally, moving from the United States to Costa Rica has been an immeasurable experience in many ways. I have come to love a second country and culture as my own and have gained a whole new perspective when it comes to the things I value and consider to be of the utmost importance in my life. For my husband and I, we are not yet retired, but our decision to move to Costa Rica lead us to adjust our careers in such a way that we can work online from anywhere, and that has really opened the doors for us in terms of future possibilities. We love Costa Rica and are happy here now, but even beyond that, taking the leap and adjusting our lives to make the move possible means that we could move anywhere in the world in the future as well, and that offers a sense of freedom like nothing else we’ve ever felt.
Jackie Minchillo, IL Costa Rica
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.
John Michael Arthur – IL Central Valley Correspondent
I use the word Expat when writing for IL because that is the standard used within IL. However, I don’t normally refer to myself or think of myself as an Expat.
Why? Because, while the nuisances of the word are changing, Expat historically referred to someone living temporarily outside their country of citizenship.
We have immigrated to Costa Rica—in other words, we have taken up permanent residence here. Therefore, we are immigrants.
For us, “Expat” has more of a connotation of someone living in another country but who keeps close ties to their country of origin. They maintain those ties in the foreign country by living with and association with others of the “home country” more than those of the new country. Implicit is the idea that “home” is somewhere else and they are likely to return someday.
We immigrated– and are fully integrated into the life and culture of our new country (Costa Rica) It is now “home” and we have no plans of ever leaving.
It has been an extremely freeing decision and one of the best decisions we’ve every made.
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, laid-back country with first world infrastructure and great architecture, historic sites, wine, cheese, beaches, and people. Nothing better for an overall place to live.
Best to all,
Wendy Justice – IL Vietnam 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 getting 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 12 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 myself. At this point we have no intention of ever returning to our home countries of Canada or 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.
Kirsten Raccuia – IL Southeast Asia Correspondent
For me being an expat means living in another country, not staying on a tourist visa but actually moving to a new country and living there. Living as an expat pushes you, in good ways and very challenging ways, especially in a place like Asia. It is a different world and to be happy here you must adapt. You can’t come here and expect it to look like home, if you do, you’ll be miserable. I love the challenge of living here, what used to freak me out I now laugh at. It also has made me a better person, more accepting-although I was always that way, I’m even more so now. I can’t imagine going back to the States. Now I feel like the world really is my oyster and one day, I’ll move on to another amazing part of the world, and another, and then another, but there is no need to go “home.” Even that term has changed for me-it is no longer a place. It’s a feeling and for now home is Penang. And after making the first big move, it is so easy to move again.
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 more free 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..
Wendy Dechambeau – IL Ecuador Highlands Correspondent
We have a lot of foreigners living here in Ecuador. They come from all over the world and for a variety of reasons. People tend to group them into the categories of refugees, immigrants, and expats.
To me…and many of my fellow North Americans…an expat is someone who willingly moves to another country for a time. In some cases, they are abroad for less than a year and in others they may stay indefinitely. But expats tend to live abroad for the adventure, cultural experiences, and often to take advantage of a more relaxing and healthier lifestyle.
You’ll find all ages of expats from all different backgrounds and professions. We’re an eclectic group for sure, but we all have a curiosity and thirst for knowledge that has taken us outside of our own country’s borders. Many of us will return home at some point, but a good portion will feel that their home is now elsewhere. No matter the circumstances, I’ve yet to find an expat or former expat who regrets their decision to expand their horizons.
Ann Kuffner – IL Belize Correspondent
Most people use the term expat to refer to a person who’s left their country of birth, by choice, to live in a country that intrigues them. Some people assume that those of us who permanently moved out of the USA did so for political reasons. Nothing could be further from the truth for us. I’m often asked when I gave up my citizenship! Not once have my husband and I discussed giving up our US citizenship. We have family in the USA and visit often. We became expats in order to live a more expansive, adventurous lifestyle, to experience new cultures and countries, and to lower our cost of living so that we could travel more.
I moved to Belize because I wanted to live a Caribbean lifestyle on an idyllic island, to take advantage of all the gorgeous turquoise sea has to offer. (For years I was a serious scuba diver.) I didn’t give the “expat” moniker much thought initially. Our move was all about trying something new and different, to live a quality lifestyle on a budget, so that we could retire earlier. Once we moved to Belize we immediately gained affection for the Belizean people, and the community we live in. It was easy to integrate when we moved here. (I’ve lived fulltime in Belize since 2008. But we bought property here in 1999, and started visiting regularly in the early 2000s.)
After years of being an expat, l now appreciate that being an expat has enriched my life beyond my wildest expectations. I’ve had so many adventures…met many interesting people from the far corners of the world…traveled extensively…and learned about many cultures… I greatly appreciate having the opportunity to meet people from around the world – whether travelers, expats or locals – with different perspectives. Our social circle is much more diverse than it was in the USA. And we’re invited to visit friends who live in a variety of countries. It’s also enlightening to hear firsthand how people from other countries perceive the USA, Americans, and our government, without a media filter…
After living overseas for years we’ve become more savvy, intrepid travelers, always seeking to expand your horizons. We travel whenever we can. We’ve learned through our personal experiences that the travel “warnings” issued by the North American governments are often excessive. They often scare Americans from traveling to countries that are actually safer than the USA! We don’t take those travel warnings too seriously anymore, although we are cautious whenever we travel to a new country. Most of our good friends who are expats regularly travel, to try out new places and experiences. Note that the many of these folks are in their 60s and 70s. When regularly get together to exchange stories of our latest adventures. It is so rewarding! Given the lower cost of living here in Belize, as compared to California, and because we retired early, we’ve been able to travel much more than we would have if we’d remained in the USA.
We just returned from an annual visit to Colorado to visit our daughter and family, including the grandkids. She asked if we’d return to the USA to live again. We responded, “not that we can imagine”. We love to visit family, and travel in the USA, during our favorite seasons. But at this point in time, we can’t imagine living in the USA again on a year round basis.
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.
Panama Chiriquí Correspondent
Michael Cullen – IL Thailand Correspondent
Once we moved to Thailand as retirees, Vivien and I started calling ourselves expats. We also refer to others, no matter which country they have come from, who like us have moved overseas, as expats.
Just to be sure that I have used the term correctly I went to the internet to check the definition. Wikipedia tells me an expatriate (often shortened to expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of their citizenship – whether they are employed in some way, or retired.
That certainly describes us and many of our expat friends here. Retired and now residing in Thailand for a more affordable life.
Mid-2015 was when Vivien and I finally decided to sell-up, pack-up and take off for a ‘new life’. We’d been investigating and researching for nearly a year, before finally ‘pulling the pin’! In our mid to late 50’s, we figured we were still young enough to take the plunge – and if we did not do it now, when would we? Because as they say, you just don’t know what’s around the corner!
We did not have ‘buckets of cash’ stashed away – just our meager savings, personal pensions, and proceeds from the sale of our assets. That meant our ‘new life’ had to come in well below what it would have cost us as retirees back ‘home’. After nearly 2 years in our new seaside home of Hua Hin, we’ve certainly proved that a very comfortable (varied and fun) life can be had – and well within our set budget.
Thailand is such a fascinating place and we are loving learning about the culture, cuisine, and history. Vivien has immersed herself in learning the language and my Thai cooking skills are developing well. 😊
Travel is high on our ’to do’ list and Thailand offers such diversity. Spectacular beach locations, well known to Thais but not on any well-trodden tourist path. Ancient cities to rival Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. National parks of unique beauty and habitat populated with rare and exotic species. And slowly but surely we are exploring each and everyone we can. Afterall, who wants to sit around when there is so much to see and do!
Thailand is also so conveniently located in the middle of South East Asia. And with Bangkok’s two international airports only 120 miles away – it’s so easy! We did our first trip to Myanmar last September and will definitely return – so much to explore and discover! Vivien’s brother and his wife spend part of their year in Langkawi, Malaysia so a road trip there has to be on the cards when next they are in residence.
This expat life is tough, but somebody has to do it! 😊