Expat Series #1 | What is an Expat?

Do you know what is an expat?  More correctly, who is an expat? Is it just a fancy word for an immigrant? Or is it a prestigious position in big multinational companies?

I’m a business graduate and an expat wife. I met with the term expat during my senior year of university. Then in 2017, we moved to Argentina with my husband due to his job appointment. That was when I realized, what I know of as “expat”, what I learned at school, is not yet matured in people’s minds as a business term.

This is exactly why I decided to start a new series on this topic. I enjoyed very much researching on this topic and I’m planning to share it here on the blog in 3 separate posts: What is an Expat, How to become an Expat, and Advantages and Disadvantages of Expat Life.

The Word: Expat

Expats, or expatriates, became a business term in the latest years. On the other hand, the root of the word expatriate is going back to the 18th century.

Etymology: 18c: from Latin ex out of + patria native land.

I checked the lexical meaning in many dictionaries. The first one I looked up was the Oxford Dictionary. The explanation turned out to be much shorter than what I expected.

expatriate: a person who lives outside their native country.

While Collins Dictionary and Macmillan Dictionary has the same explanation as to the Oxford Dictionary, Chambers Dictionary had a bit more detail.

expatriate: adj 1 living abroad, especially for a long but limited period. 2 exiled. noun a person living or working abroad. verb 1 to banish or exile. 2 to deprive someone of citizenship. expatriation noun.

Wikipedia: an expatriate (often shortened to expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of the person’s upbringing.

Expat as a Business Term

Today, the word expat that is used in the business world, what I have learned in my business courses, is more similar to the explanation given by the Chambers Dictionary. If I’ll put in a sentence, I’d explain the term expat like this:

Expatriate is an employee who has been sent abroad by their company to work in a position or on a project for a definite working period.

One of the key points of this definition is that the person will not stay in a foreign country permanently. The permanent residence would fall under immigration. The expat appointment is always for a definite period. It is a common practice for expats to be subjected to a rotation around the world. Here is an example:

A Turkish company, Arcelik, operates in 6 foreign countries: Romania, Russia, China, South Africa, Thailand, and Pakistan. Let’s say that Arcelik needs an accounting manager in Russia, and rather than employing a Russian, they decided to send someone who knows how things operate in the headquarters. Therefore, Arcelik decided that Ali, who is working in the department of accounting in Istanbul, is suitable for this job. Thus, Arcelik seconded Ali to Russia as an accounting director.

In this situation, Ali is an expat.

After living in Russia for a while, Ali can be subjected to rotation and can be seconded to Pakistan, Romania or China. It is also possible that he could come back to headquarters in Turkey.

Expat explained further:

When you search the meaning of expat online, you will come across this definition a lot: a person who has been seconded in a different country than their native country.

I did not add this “other than their native country” part into my definition on purpose because it does not fit with some sub-categories of expats. When we think about expatriates, usually Ali’s situation pops in our minds. However, there are two other categories: transpatriates and inpatriates. Let’s give some examples.

Let’s say that Carolina is a Spanish citizen who is working at Mercedes in Germany. If Mercedes decides to send Carolina to Copenhagen for 5 years, Carolina will be a transpatriate because, in this situation, a German company sends another country’s citizen (Spain) to a third country (Denmark).

Let’s say that Caner is a Turkish citizen who works at Microsoft in the USA. If Microsoft sends Caner to Turkey to work on a project, he will be an inpatriate. Because he has been seconded to this native country as personnel of a foreign country.

In short, Ali, Carolina, and Caner; all are expats.

I wanted to be clear about this by giving examples since especially Caner’s situation is a bit confusing and he is usually not regarded as an expat. Also, Carolina’s situation is not very common since companies have to follow a legal procedure when they are seconding employees, and the legal procedure becomes even more complex when a third country is involved. I specifically choose Carolina to be a European citizen, as transpatriates are more common within European countries due to easier visa requirements.

If alone?

One other thing that we need to pay attention to is that a person is (businesswise) an expat when his/her company appoints him/her to another country. Let’s explain this with an example too. Elka from Sweden wants to have experience in the USA. She researches and finds a job in New York. So she prepares and moves to NYC to live and work there.

Definitely or indefinitely, it does not matter. Elka ‘s not an expat, in the sense I’ve explained. She fits in the definition of expatriate from the Oxford Dictionary, but she does not fit in the business terminology.

Here the confusion begins

Let’s ask it again, who is an expat? 

I’ve been explaining the conditions of expat posting until now. But does everyone who is living abroad for a definite working period due to their job appointment is called an expat?

There are many heated arguments going on about how this term, expat, is used. Some people strongly claim that the word expatriate is segregationist and racist. And the reason is that when Americans and Europeans who are seconded in foreign countries are regarded as expats, whereas Indians or Pakistanis are regarded as migrants or even refugees.

The most apparent example of this is subcontracted labors. These workers, especially in the construction sector, are seconded to different countries to work on a specific project. They stay abroad for a specific period, they are appointed to another country by a company. They fit the definition perfectly. But are they called expats?

The biggest difference between the examples of Ali, Carolina, and Caner are their salaries. they are expats, they are paid high salaries, and their companies usually try to arrange comfortable living conditions for them. Unfortunately, laborers usually earn lower salaries and do not receive many benefits.


Post details and sources:

This post is written based on the Global Management class I took in Aarhus University, a lot of external research, and quite strong personal experience.
Global Management coursebook: International Management Managing Across Borders and Cultures – Helen Deresky
The Guardian – Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?
The Guardian – When is an immigrant not an immigrant? When they’re rich
The BBC -The difference between an expat and an immigrant? Semantics
The Atlantic – ‘Expat’ and the Fraught Language of Migration

Original language: Turkish
Original publishing date: February 9, 2018
English version publishing date: November 1, 2019
Latest Update: November 1, 2019

Following Blog Posts:

  • How to be an Expat
  • Advantages and Disadvantages of Becoming an Expat
  • How to Find a Job Abroad for an Expat Wife