Last updated on February 14th, 2024 at 12:21 pm

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What Exactly is An Expat, Anyway?

The word expatriate gets used quite frequently. And you may have no idea what people are talking about. You may know that it has something to do with being international. But that’s it.  Don’t worry, though, we have you covered. 

In this article, we will discuss the working of the definition of what an expatriate (or expat for short) is. We’ll also talk about the common reasons why people expat so that you can figure out what may work for your situation.

Table of Contents

What is An Expat?

In its simplest form, an expatriate (or expat for short) is defined as an individual that lives outside of their native country. It has historically referred to individuals who reside abroad because they were sent by an employer such as diplomats and business personnel. However, the term is now more inclusive of individuals who move abroad on their own including retirees and digital nomads. 

Historically, expat implies there’s an intention to leave a place at a given point. It may not be defined yet but it’s coming. The goal of the expat has been either to return to their home country or move on to a different one. In other words, they generally do not have the intention of assimilating into the host country and not seeking permanent legal status such as citizenship, whereas an immigrant might. However, circumstances are fluid and someone’s intentions can change.  It is possible for an  individual to stop being an expat, become a long-term resident of the host nation and eventually pursue permanent residency or citizenship.  

People become expats for all kinds of reasons. Adventure, employment and love are just a few.  Here are the most common types of expats and why they choose the route. 

Career: Moving for a professional opportunity.

The Foreign Assignee/Corporate Expat

-These are individuals who are sent to work specifically in another country by their employer. Their employer could be a private, multinational organization, a local host country business or an international organization/governmental entity.

-Typically, these expats have specialized knowledge in their area of expertise, which might be why they are sent abroad. They may also be seeking a short-term stretch assignment with their employer to gain skills in a different unit of their organization.

-Assignments can last from several months to a few years.  In many cases (not all), the employer may sponsor the work visa to give the employee (and dependents) legal status in the host country for the duration of the contract.

Need More Info?: 

Read What’s A Corporate Expat (And Why You Should Become One) to understand the basics of becoming a corporate expat.

Listen to “Wait..What’s the Drama?” with Juanita Ingram on the Global Chatter Podcast to hear experience trading her old career for a new life abroad. 

Listen to “Adjust, Pivot & Engage” with Roxanne Munson on the Global Chatter Podcast to hear her experience as an corporate expat family.

The Edpat

-These are individuals who specifically relocate overseas to educate others in an educational setting – including international schools, universities and language schools. In addition to teachers and professors, these types of expat may include educational administrators, student support and student affairs personnel. 

-They typically are trained educators in their passport country and have significant experience in primary, secondary or university education/academia.

-Contracts may be in 2-3 year increments and individuals may choose to renew, if possible. 

Need More Info?: 

Read 3 Questions To Ask Before You Teach Abroad to understand the basics of being an international educator.

Listen to “Chasing the Different” with Adrienne Waller on the Global Chatter Podcast to hear her experience as an international educator.

Read   “Calling It Out & Calling It In” with Kevin Simpson as he discusses his experiences as an international education leader.  

Education: Moving abroad to pursue professional development.

The International Student

-These individuals are pursuing education outside of their home country. They could be completing a degree, a certificate or gaining additional training. 

-Their time abroad depends on their program that can fluctuate between a few months to several years.

-After completing their program, they may have the intention of returning to their home country, move to a different one or remain in the host country.

-Generally requires at least a student visa to have legal status in the host country.

Need More Info?: 

Read Why Study Abroad  Matters for Black Students to know the benefits of going abroad.

Read How to Study Abroad [Even As A Professional] to learn the basics of study abroad.

Listen to “The Art of Storytelling” with Whitney Marin to hear how study abroad facilitated her career trajectory.  

Family & Love: Moving abroad because of personal relationships.

The LovePat

Mature black couple embracing on sofa while looking to each other.
Image: iStock

-These individuals move abroad because of a romantic relationship. They may have met their partner because of their travels or met someone at home and decided to relocate to a different country to be with their partner.  

-Generally need to go through the visa process for partners & family members according to country specific guidelines.

The Accompanying Partner

-Historically, the term “trailing spouse” was used to describe the partner (often the wife) as moving abroad because of a husband’s job, especially for those in the military or diplomatic corps. However, the term “accompanying partner” is considered more  inclusive of different genders and relationship types such as non-married, cohabiting couples. 

-The accompanying partner’s legal status can vary depending from country to country and whether or not they are sponsored through their partner’s employer. 

Third Culture Kid (TCK)

-This describes individuals who live outside of their passport country between the ages of 0-18.

-They commonly become expats because the entire family unit relocated to one or more countries. They might have moved once or moved multiple times before the age of 18.

-These individuals may also become expats for other reasons including attending school in a different country, staying with family or friends while family is in a different country, spending a year abroad in a student exchange program, or completing a gap year (working, volunteering, etc).

-Their legal status is often dependent (if they move with their family) on the status of their parents. For other situations, it will vary.

Need More Info?: 

Listen to “Living on the Move” with Amel Derragui to understand her experiences as an accompanying partner.

Read Raising Future Third Culture Kids to learn more about TCKs.

Read The Third Culture Kid Story I Wish I Had Read to get a first-hand perspective from a Black TCK.


The Adventurers: Moving abroad to explore the world.

The Retirees

-These are the individuals who have decided to relocate outside of their home country after leaving the primary career. They may continue to work part-time or do consulting work.

-Often motivated by a variety of factors including better quality of life, cheaper cost of living and even favorable weather.

-Depending on their location, they may be eligible for specific visas for retirees. Otherwise, they are just subject to the general visa/residency requirements for foreigners in their host country.

-These expats may stay abroad as long as they choose and are able to do it or never return to their home country.

The Digital Nomad/Remote Worker

-These individuals are still in the workforce, but are choosing to work from a location different from their home country. They may have their own entrepreneurial business or work for an employer who is based in a country different from them.  

-If working for an employer, remote workers may be able to stay in their chosen location based on a visa for digital nomads. Otherwise, they have to explore the available visa options available to them. 

-Depending on the legal requirements of the country, it can vary how long they can stay in-country. However, in some places, they might be eligible for a digital nomad/remote worker visa. 

Need More Info? 

Learn the difference between digital nomads, remote workers, and freelancers. 

Listen to Joyce Barr’s story on how she became a retiree expat on The Global Chatter Podcast.

Read Devin and Lawanson Austin’s story on becoming retirees in Costa Rica.

While this isn’t an exhaustive list, this is a general overview of the type of expats you might meet. Depending on your personal circumstances, you might find yourself moving in and out of different categories. The most important thing is to find the right option that makes sense for you so that you can build a life that works for you.

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