Living in Spain – are we “Expats” or “Immigrants”?
I was talking to an American “expat” when he said it: “We are only expats if we are here on a temporary basis, otherwise we are immigrants. And I prefer to be an immigrant rather than an expat. Expat here has awful connotations as it lumps us in with the damn Brits!”
His comment got me thinking. What’s the difference between an expat and an immigrant? And which of the two are we?
Going online I see there’s a lot of disagreement (and anger even) over these two words.
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What is an Expat?
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.
The word “expat” has negative connotations for a few reasons, especially here in Spain. Firstly, my American friend is right: the word “temporarily” in the above definition applies to many foreigners who have moved to make Spain home. I saw a recent informal survey on a facebook page here where only about 1/3rd of expats actually live in Nerja full-time (and of those about 90% are British). Secondly, the term expat for some implies “white privilege”. If you’re an expat many people associate it with retired white people living somewhere warm.
What is an Immigrant?
Cambridge dictionary: “a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country”
So the difference in the definition of “immigrant” (vs the definition of “Expat”) seems to be the word “permanently”. There’s no “temporary” in the definition of an immigrant. But the word “immigrant” comes with its own implications: it is usually associated with people moving from a poorer country to a richer country to settle down long term and make a better life for themselves and their families…and that sounds almost the opposite from what you think of when you hear the term expat.
So, what are we?
The debate is new to us, it’s not something we’ve ever dwelled on. But here are my thoughts as of right now (and they are subject to change…)
Firstly, as far as official definitions go, the only difference seems to be that an immigrant comes to live somewhere permanently vs an expat who might be temporarily or permanently moving someplace.
My question is: how do you make the above distinction? How do we know we’ll be here permanently? We just moved to Spain. Who know what the future holds? Plus the choice might not be entirely up to us – until we’ve been here the 5 years required for permanent residency we can’t be assured of permanently staying here.
Also, what is your definition of an immigrant? I agree with the official definition of an immigrant (a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country). But historically immigrants have moved to different places to better their lives. Both Canada and the United States are countries borne of immigrants. Is it racist to state that immigrants are usually people who move from poorer countries to richer countries if this is a fact? Statistically ¾ of immigrants are from less-developed countries. Since we are both retired – and moved to Spain from Canada – I just don’t feel like we fall under that definition of “an immigrant”.
For now I associate us as being “expats” based on the two above arguments. But ask me again in 5 years when we hopefully have permanent residency in Spain. I’ll maybe change my mind.
Ps. Lissette doesn’t subscribe to either of the above definitions. She was born and lived 20+ years in New York, moved to Montreal where she lived another 20+ years. Now she’s in Spain. She considers herself a “relocator”.
What do you think?
Related: Why we chose Nerja as our new home in Spain
Related: Where to live in Spain as retiring expats? Choosing our base…
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I am an Immigrant to Spain, and proud of it, I am no longer a resident of Australia but I am an Australian Citizen and retain my Australian Passport and receive an Australian Government Pension. I cannot vote in Australia and no longer have a right to Medicare. Although I have permanent residency in Spain I do not have Spanish Citizenship.
Jack’s comment is not correct!
Due to my age I wont apply for Spanish Citizen ship after my 10 years as a Permanent Resident is up because it takes several years to be approved and I will probably die before I get it!!!
Thanks for taking the time to comment Norah. I think it’s like Paul’s example of his American friends – for some it’s a state of mind and knowledge that “this is it”. Going back “home” is not an option. And for that the word “permanent” does apply.
Yes….spot on Frank. For most Nationalities you have to be resident in Spain for 10 years before you can apply for Citizenship, so if your intention is to do this [ or in my case want to, but not practical] or stay here forever then you are definitely an immigrant!
It sounds like Australia is tougher on its citizens who emigrate than the US is. Americans retain our right to vote as citizens and I have the right to emergency medical treatment under Medicare. (I didn’t sign up for the pay portion of the program that covers non-emergencies since I have coverage in Sweden. My renter’s insurance policy provides 45 days of medical insurance coverage when I go back to the US and I can purchase more days if I need them. Then there is the EU medical card that covers me when I travel in the EU.)
Ten years is a surprisingly long time to be eligible for citizenship but maybe it doesn’t really matter when we are older, as you said.
2°C here in Gothenburg, 13°C down in Martos and 18°C in Nerja. Sigh. I know where I want to be now. 😉
We had the same with Canada Edith. After 2 years outside the country we lost our healthcare and had to get expat insurance which cost the equivalent of about $1500 US each. Keep in mind we’ve always paid our taxes in Canada and continue to do so. So why are we losing our healthcare?
it’s an interesting look at the words we use and the meanings we place. i feel like ‘expat’ is a more a term used by westerners for westerners if you know what i mean. we see thousands of people immigrate to Australia for each year from Asia, Africa and beyond, and yet we call them immigrants. We wouldnt use ‘expat’ in this case. So in some ways the word is perhaps a bit classist/racist. i guess.
You’re right Andy. I wonder if people are too caught up with being politically correct when in fact both the words expat and immigrant have pretty clear connotations outside the “official” definitions I’ve given. Then on top of that there are other implications for “expats” in Spain (ie. not being lumped in with the Brits who make this their part-time home. It seems to be a sensitive issue).
Hi Frank, Lissette’s ‘relocator’ fit’s me more than the others. I was born n the Isle of Man, my father was a Lt. Col. in the USAF and my sophomore year in high school was my tenth school. I’ve lived in England most of my life, spent a lot of time in the Basque Country, have lived and worked in several countries and none of them are home. I haven’t a home country like all of you, not even sure what one is. Home is just where I hang my hat.
I can’t get past the man in the photo. Ha! Ha! Ha!
Funny, this question came up just today! Our American friends here in France consider themselves immigrants (while they don’t qualify for citizenship yet, they seem to be headed that way); my wife and I are still at the ex-pat stage: we’re taking it year-by-year. Although, if things really turn sour in the US, we may become political refugees…
Ha, yes – Americans suddenly top the list of worldwide refugees looking for Asylum in other countries 🙂
I lean towards Lisette’s definition. To me, an expat is someone who is moved to a foreign country by their company. They are not becoming citizens. Although, as you have probably found out, many do stay permanently. I like your definition of immigrants. But you don’t fit that definition. And where do the digital nomads fit? Since you are retired, why not say we are retirees from Canada? There are no warm places in Canada, so you retired to the warmth of the Costa del Sol?
Digital nomads don’t fit in those 2 categories, they’re a category of tourist. Yes, we can say retirees…but that implies we’re here as expats right? (most retirees settling down part-time/full-time somewhere would be considered as expats). I totally agree – we don’t fit in as immigrants. BUT…if we got our permanent residency and bought a house in Spain then I think we would have to re-evaluate that…
For me the difference is simple.
An Immigrant acquired citizenship and therefore definitely leaves his country behind.
An Expat keeps his countriys passport, financial benefits, does home taxes etc.
It depends on what citizenship you take. Many countries allow dual citizenship. I didn’t lose my American citizenship by taking Swedish citizenship. So, it’s not as cut and dried as it might appear.
Good point Edith. But the question is: by keeping your American citizenship are you an expat and not an immigrant? Ie. because, as per his argument (which I mostly agree with) you’re still using “home” as a fall back.
But you’re right it’s not cut and dry and I’m getting a headache 🙂
In my case, I lived in South Korea when I was young and, even if I had stayed there, I would always have considered myself to be an expat rather than an immigrant. This is because I would never have applied to take citizenship there. I would have been simply living there with the intention of one day going home. I lived and worked in Iran and I was definitely an expat there. Sweden was a bit different. Though I married a Swede and had a house and kids, in my mind I was an expat, maybe because that was what I had been in South Korea and Iran. In reality I was an immigrant. I took citizenship in 2005, which sealed the deal. Now I am a Swede. LOL
I guess it comes down to how you view yourself and your own intentions. Just because someone lives in a country long term doesn’t make them an immigrant IMHO. I imagine many people fall in some gray zone in between expat and immigrant.
Yes, I think taking citizenship is the ultimate step in being an “immigrant”. But prior to that I agree it can be a grey zone and that it might go either way based on how you identify yourself. Some permanent residents here in Spain would never go back home…they consider Spain their home and themselves as immigrants. Others – I can think of my mom in Mexico – love Mexico but still only see themselves as living in Mexico (expat) and no more than that.
I love Lissette’s answer: a “relocator”. It is totally independent of time and money and any socio-economic conditions of the countries involved. I might be called a serial re-locator – having lived in many states of the US and a few other countries for various periods with various visa’s, designations, citizenships and passports, never having considered my-self anything other than someone just choosing to live some place new with my own unique reasons.
I think that answer simplifies everything. And people will leave you alone because if you give that as an answer they’ll figure you think a bit outside the box 🙂