Expat vs Immigrant vs Migrant: What Are The Differences?

Posted on 19 January 2022 by IRIS FMP

Categories: Global Mobility

What, exactly, is an expat? And what are the differences between expats, immigrants and migrants? 

The international community is hard to capture in a fixed term. It’s often just seen as semantics, or words that can be used interchangeably. But this language, especially in HR, is often loaded with purposeful definitions that helps distinguish the workforce from both misconception and broader immigration topics.  

With the global workforce on the rise, supporting business growth into aspiring markets and economies, the agreement of a shared language that can help define their roles seems only logical. As businesses struggle to remain competitively relevant in these international markets, they become gradually more cosmopolitan just like the cities and workforces that support them.  

International HR can manage the scale, mobility, and benefits of a truly global workforce. Unpacking expatriates, immigrants, and migrants from the workforce could help your strategy by understanding how to position international workers as a resource. But, struggling to define the differences between them, will only hinder a business’s progress.  

The challenge of finding the appropriate definition for your latest global hire might seem elusive. What makes one person an expat and another an immigrant, or even a migrant? The terms are certainly loaded, brimming with competing assumptions about foreign nationals.  

When misconceptions confuse definitions and the terms are used interchangeably, it can dangerously conflate meaning and align expats with immigrants in an unhelpful way. The goal should be to purposefully describe the roles of an international workforce and to help better position it.  

No two of these definitions are the same. The differences can be complex and nuanced and they describe changes in the goals and motivations of employment, as well as the intended length of residence.  

What Makes One Person an Immigrant and Another an Expat?  

Trying to untangle these definitions may, at first, invite even more questions – about citizenship, intentions, and the nature of working abroad. The terms – both expat and immigrant – are conflated with public and political attitudes, academia, and years of misunderstanding. Expats, to some, are a professional community. But to others, this term takes on more of an executive-level job role and a greater economic input.  

Here’s a clear definition of each: 

What makes someone an expat?  

Someone who lives outside of, or beyond, their native country is defined as an expat. Typically, a business expatriate is a legal employee on a temporary international assignment, where they reside in a country outside of their citizenship. This is normally motivated by a career or business objective and infers a level of transience, or a role that’s only temporary, as opposed to permanent. This relocation into a new country, for an expat, can be facilitated by an organization, a government, or can even be self-motivated.  

The BBC, capturing the nuances of an expatriate, notices how expat defines a kind of “lifestyle choice” motivated by economic opportunity, which sets these people apart from the rest of the international community.  

What makes someone an immigrant?  

As recent as 2016, in the US and UK, the topic of immigration and the movement (and migration) of workers across borders has become seemingly controversial. Many political pundits noticed the importance of immigration as a key topic in influencing the UK’s EU Referendum.  

In most scenarios, however, those actively trying to clarify definitions of immigrants and expats are academics. This is helpful and purposeful for those in human resources who need to define their overseas hires.  

Immigration more usefully defines someone who lives permanently in another country. The major difference between the migrant workforce and those on assignments as expats is the permanence of their move. Generally, expats are temporary workers, whereas immigrants intend to remain in another country indefinitely and may even eventually seek out citizenship.  

As the topic gains political weight, especially post-Brexit, the role of immigration may change, but importantly its legal definition will reflect compliance and local labor laws. There are certain legal obligations for an employer to adhere to when acquiring talent overseas, and enjoying the benefits of a migrant workforce will mean strict compliance with the UK’s ‘new’ immigration system.  

What makes someone a migrant?  

Though often used interchangeably with ideas of immigration, a migrant worker alludes to a transient person who resides and works temporarily in a foreign country. This might, for example, be better understood as seasonal work, such as farming labor and other agricultural roles. Similar to immigration and those on international assignments, labor is still governed by local laws and compliance.  

The global workforce is often too easily interpreted, rather than defined. The lack of a single, shared definition amongst professionals – outside of human resources – has greatly influenced the perception of immigration, which is a key source of talent and labor for globally mobile businesses.   

Perhaps the nuances of the global workforce are hard to capture in a single definition, which is why foreign nationals can feel undefined. But, with local laws observing the rise of a new global workforce, human resources’ role in defining these workers will only become more important.  

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Global businesses will need to prepare for the various changes afoot, especially as laws evolve and transform. This is not always easy to navigate without the expert consultation of global HR specialists like IRIS FMP.