What Does it Mean to be an Expat? | A Few Thoughts on Living Overseas

Orange sunset on the beach in Asia

In a strange turn of events that involved an exchange with a friend of a friend, this week I was a guest on Keith Petit’s Expatriate Act podcast. (Sorry, Keith, I mean internet-based-radio-show!). This somehow turned into a two-hour discussion over Skype on what it means to be an expat and the weird and wonderful experience that is living overseas.

You can listen to the Expatriate Act – Episode 9 – Amy Poulton (Hong Kong/Italy/Mexico) on SoundCloud or download it from iTunes.

I highly recommend that you give it a listen, even though it’s pretty long (maybe save it for a long car journey?). However, I warn you the language is strong (read: lots of swearing, sorry Mom) and the discussion touches on some rather controversial topics.

Expat Living Overseas in Hong Kong - HK Skyline

To give you an idea about some of the things we talked about:

  • – Living in Hong Kong, Italy, the UK and now Mexico (me).
  • – Living in Mainland China, Georgia, the US, Taiwan and Mexico (the host, Keith).
  • – The terrifying experience I had in the two earthquakes in Mexico City last month.
  • – Hong Kong’s difficult relationship with China.
  • – The good and bad stuff about teaching English overseas.
  • – The types of expats you meet living overseas, particularly in Asia.
  • – Travelling as a woman (and uncovering some repressed memories!).
  • – The frustrations of digital nomad life (in particular, the perils of freelance writing).
  • – How expats always manage to congregate together, creating communities all over the world and do some pretty amazing things for each other (like recommending one another for podcasts).

Hong Kong skyline lit up at night

I’ve never done anything like this before, but I found the experience really cathartic. Living overseas is a unique experience that is really difficult to articulate to someone who hasn’t done it themselves. So, finding a kindred spirit who can relate is really something special.

After we spoke, Keith messaged me to say that he had said something in a previous episode about how every conversation he has on the show feels like the best conversation he’s ever had. And I’d agree with that; it may go down as one of the best conversations I’ve ever had too.

Our chat also got me thinking about the questions I often get from other people about expat life, from those that are curious or who are even considering taking the leap themselves. So, following on from a great conversation with Keith, I’d like to share my expatise (oh dear) and answer a few questions on what is means to be an expat:

Hong Kong skyline and Victoria Harbour on a clear day from the Peak

What is an expat?

Expat is short for expatriate and by definition means: “A person who lives outside their native country.”

How is an expat different from an immigrant?

It isn’t. However, a lot of people (myself included) agree that “expat” is traditionally a term given to white people, while people of colour are termed “immigrants” because it sounds more negative.

Considering the world’s use of the word immigrant to mean something bad, I have chosen to use the word expat in this post, which I mean to include everyone who lives overseas. To be clear, that’s makes me as much immigrant as expat; a point that I’ve actually had to argue with some people about on several awkward occasions.

How is an expat different from a digital nomad?

I would say loosely that a digital nomad works remotely online from anywhere in the world (including their home country), while an expat works for a company or is self-employed within the country they are residing in, which is not their home country. However, the two are not mutually exclusive.

So, being an expat means you’re living the dream, right?

Just as it is living and working in your home country, there are pros and cons. These are different for everyone. I wrote about this honestly last year in my post What is it Like Living in Hong Kong? and even more recently in the startling revelation Why Moving Back to the UK is Harder Than Moving Away.

My definition of expat life

For me, the unique challenges I faced in my five years as an expat included being stranded in visa limbo, figuring out cultural differences and a tough language barrier. On the flipside, I actually earnt more money living overseas, I learnt about different cultures and met people from all over the globe.

Oh, and there were boat parties – they helped too!

Making friends is not as difficult as you may think and if it’s something you’re worried about, take a read of How I Make Friends In A New City (In The UK & In Other Countries).

Teotihuacan ruins outside Mexico City - Temple of the Sun

How does one become an expat?

If living overseas is something you’re considering, there are a few things to know; the biggest being it completely depends on your individual circumstances.

  • – Working tourist visas: you may be eligible for a working tourist visa in certain countries, depending which passports you hold. For example, Brits under 30 are eligible to live and work in Australia, Canada and Hong Kong on a working tourist visa, if they meet certain conditions.
  • – The country you want to move to: which country would you like to live and work in, and do they typically grant visas for people working in your field? For example, currently Brits can work in the EU without visas (this may change pending Brexit), but if you are solely a US passport holder, it is typically more difficult to get a job in an EU country because EU candidates have priority.
  • – Your job: do you work in a field that is in high demand overseas? For example, native English teachers and medical professionals.

Did you enjoy being an expat?

Overall, yes. I’m a huge fan of slow travel and really getting to know a place through living and working there. It’s not without its challenges, but I think the rewards outweigh the tough stuff, as I’ve discussed with other travel bloggers before in What We Learnt From Living Abroad.

What’s more, I’m currently working remotely in Mexico as a digital nomad (I hate the term digital nomad as much as Keith hates the term podcast), but I have to admit that I prefer living overseas in one place as an expat, being part of a community and working at a local company with local colleagues.

Maybe one day this ex-expat will become re-expatriated, but at the moment I’m still between places. Let’s see what the future holds!

Expat Life - A few Thoughts on Living Overseas - sunset and steaming hot pot

I hope you found this post informative. Make sure you have a listen to the internet-based-radio-show and leave your thoughts in the comments below or share them with me somewhere in the social-media-sphere.

16 thoughts on “What Does it Mean to be an Expat? | A Few Thoughts on Living Overseas

  1. Never been an expat, but maybe one day… Not sure though! By the way, I also had to argue with some people in the past, about the differences between an immigrant and an expat…

  2. Love reading and hearing about the experience others had as expats. I moved aboard when I was 20 and lived in England for years. Honestly, coming home after such a long time felt like being an expat all over again.

  3. Great post! I definitely have a better understanding of an “expat’. seen the term around a lot, but wasn’t sure how it was different.


  4. Can totally relate! I lived abroad for four years in Germany and now in Costa Rica. It’s always nice to talk to other people who actually get it, because if someone has never lived abroad they probably don’t. People always assume I live the dream life and as you said, it is amazing, but it is not without its share of struggles. For me, it is navigating seeing my family often enough in the US, seeing my boyfriend’s family in Germany, and still having money and time to do some exploring in Central America where we are living. Anyway, great post! 🙂

  5. Really great post! I also was an expat/ immigrant for nearly 3 years. Many people assume it was just amazing – and it was. But, as you know, there are some really dark days and coming home is far more difficult than you realize. It was a humbling experience to be alone on the other side of the world, a minority in this new place, but also empowering to realize that I could find my way! Thanks for sharing your story 🙂

  6. I love the expat life. I’ve been away from ‘home’ for about 4 years now, and it has had its pros and cons. I just love how you learn about other cultures, and not take anything for granted. Being a digital nomad in Mexico sounds pretty cool too 😉 Keep on rocking!

  7. This is really inspiring. Becoming and expat is something I’ve been trying to do a lot of research on. Thanks for the post.

  8. I love that you’ve discussed this so in depth. I completely agree that expat and immigrant are actually the same thing, just one word has negative connotations associated with it! Very interesting read.

  9. As an expat myself (Canadian living in Germany!), I really enjoyed reading this post. Re: the difference between an expat and immigrant, yeah I do feel like they’re quite similar but in my mind, an expat is someone who goes to a country with an intention to live there for a while, but perhaps not settle there forever, whereas an immigrant is someone who has moved somewhere intending to uproot their lives there for a much longer period of time (maybe forever?!) I’m not sure if that’s a better way to look at it haha but in my mind that’s the difference.

  10. I love the insight in this post (how you broke down ‘how to become an expat’) – I’ve only ever traveled for long periods of time and although I’ve moved a bit in the states – I’ve never lived overseas. I think boat parties would totally make it easier to adjust LOL

  11. I like your breakdown of expat vs immigrant. I guess I always thought of an expat as someone living in another country temporarily, like for work or school, and an immigrant as someone making a permanent move and change of nationality. Thanks for the insight!

  12. We lived in the UK for about a year, and there were so many little differences you have to think about and deal with that I never thought of before. It was such an incredible experience, and I’d love to do it again!

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