Becoming An Expat, And How It Differs From Immigration

Many people dream of becoming an expat, living in an exotic location and enjoying life in a new culture. Others dream of immigration, of building and new and better life elsewhere. This post will discuss the difference and the basics behind becoming an expat.

The phrase “expat life” is similar to the word “travel” in the sense that they both conjure up romantic images of far-off destinations. They hint of the sights and sounds of unusual cultures. They promise excitement at saying your first short sentence in a foreign language.

On the other hand, the phrase “immigration” normally creates images of a family unit settling in a new country, eagerly exploring their new surroundings and the better life that awaits them.

But the reality of both becoming an expat and immigration is quite different. Before we explore the basics behind expat life, let us distinguish between expat and immigrant.

What is the difference?

An expatriate, or expat for short, is a person who lives outside their native country. In the same vein, an immigrant is a person who permanently lives in a foreign country.

Only one distinction is made – the intent of immigration is to stay indefinitely. We can, therefore, say that all immigrants are expats, but not all expats are immigrants.

Two personal bugbears

The first bugbear is created by the misuse or misunderstanding of the legality of immigration.

An immigrant is one who lives in a country legally. Those who are in a country illegally, are illegal aliens, they are not illegal immigrants. There is no such thing as an illegal immigrant since the word immigrant implies legality.

The second stems from the varying use of the terms “expat” and “immigrant”, for different groups of foreigners. It seems to imply differences about wealth, intended length of stay, perceived motives for moving, nationality, and even race.

For example, US citizens refer to themselves as expats, but many would refer to other Latin American citizens as immigrants – without having any knowledge about them or their circumstances.

Another example is found in Europe. A British citizen working in Portugal would typically be called an expat, while a Portuguese citizen working in Britain is referred to as an immigrant.

In one word – Anglocentrism.
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Your intention determines the tenure

Whether you end up as an expat or immigrant, is determined by your intent.

If you intend to settle in a new country for economic prosperity, a better standard of living or to change the quality of life, it will typically be permanent. And this permanency implies immigration.

Anything short of an indefinite stay would be an expat.

People become expats for different reasons; the five most common reasons are mentioned below.

Career

Professionals, skilled workers or artists can take positions outside their home country. This can be done independently, or they could be fortunate enough to be sent abroad by their employers.

Working abroad is an excellent way to experience life through a different cultural lens and most expats find it financially beneficial. Such deployments are not always voluntary, but even in such cases the people involved would inevitably gain valuable exposure.

Education

Some move abroad temporarily to further their education, while at the same time experiencing a different culture.

Sabbatical

Traditionally, a sabbatical is a period of paid or unpaid leave of one year, granted to an employee so that they may study or travel. This type of break is common amongst institutions of higher education and is usually granted after seven years of service.

The use of a sabbatical break from work has however changed significantly during the last three decades. With increased levels of wealth and economic mobility, more and more people take a self-funded break from work.

These sabbaticals vary according to personal need and are used to complete a specific pet project, for a travel adventure or simply to rest and plan a new career.

It is common for those enjoying a sabbatical to combine it with travel and extended stays in other countries, thereby becoming expats.

Retirement

Retirement has become a major reason for becoming an expat, as many retirees enjoy their retirement years in so-called retirement havens.

Many retirees that I have spoken to in Panama, said that they would return to their home country when their age or health starts to demand old age care. I suspect that most retirees living abroad can be classified as “true expats”, in the sense that their stay is not indefinite.

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Lifestyle

The desire for a change in lifestyle is the reason that fascinates me most. It is also the reason that we became expats and the origin of Travel Hippi.

The four other reasons for becoming an expat are relatively structured, especially the career and study reasons.

Arriving in a new country to pursue a new lifestyle, as the reason for becoming an expat, implies a little less structure and more flexibility. And that brings me to the single biggest factor influencing this expat decision – money.

The single biggest factor influencing your decision

Although the pursuit of a new lifestyle is influenced by your life stage, the single biggest factor is money. More specifically, a regular and reliable income.

For the purpose of this post, this category of expats excludes those that intend to find a job. In that case, the reason for becoming an expat would be a career, instead of seeking a change in lifestyle.

Expats that do fall into this category – seeking a new lifestyle – can be divided into two broad groups:

Those earning a passive income from investments

This is the ultimate position to be in, because it gives complete freedom to explore and enjoy the new environment, provided you stay within budget.

The investments that I refer to, can be any asset, or any combination of assets. Many people seeking this type of lifestyle change have accumulated savings and similar investments. It is also common to find that they own a house (or other real estate) which is rented out, providing a steady income during their time as expats.

Those that earn an income from a mobile business

Technology has enabled vast numbers of people to live and work in a location independent way. The only real requirement is connectivity.

Becoming an expat and earning a living while exploring a new country is an attractive option for many people. They enjoy remaining involved in their industry, they appreciate the stimulation it brings and in particular, they enjoy the flexibility it offers.

There are many ways to earn a mobile income. Instead of merely making a long list of possibilities, I have created a few groups with examples:

  1. Professional services

This includes doing work for one or more corporates, wherever they might be located. A lot of people keep good relations with a former employer and secure a work contract of sorts.

Consulting, coaching, teaching, translating and recording services would also fall into this group.

  1. Business services

Think of all the services the average business or executive could need, and you have a list of ways to earn a mobile income. Whether it is marketing, finance, public relations or operations, you can likely build a business by offering your skills online.

Online platforms like Freelancer, Upwork and even Fiverr exist to link businesses with freelance contractors.

  1. Content creation

Blogging, content creation and freelance writing come to mind. Self-publishing would also fit into this group.

  1. Online sales

Just to put this into perspective, consumers worldwide purchased $2.86 trillion on the web in 2018.

Most businesses, especially the smaller players, cannot serve markets beyond the US and/or the EU. But even these two markets represent staggering numbers: an estimated $513 billion for the US and €602 billion for the EU!

Building an online shop is not without its challenges, but it is an option as part of a mobile income strategy.

How long can I stay as an expat?

The answer to this question is obviously country specific. And since it is impossible to cover all the countries, or even most of the popular expat destinations, I will offer an all-purpose explanation.

Tourist visa

Many of the expat hotspots have tourist visas that will allow you a stay of 180 days. Some have simple rules for extending this while others require you to exit the country for a specified number of days before you are allowed back.

It is theoretically possible to spend two years between two neighbouring countries, or two countries in close proximity, with a tourist visa. That would be two 6-month periods for each country.

Residency visa

Should you wish to stay in a country for a longer period of time, you can consider one of the residency options offered by that country. Some countries have very attractive residency options while others are burdensome and prohibitively expensive.

I would suggest that you make a bucket list of the countries you wish to explore as an expat. Then start from the top and research each country’s residency options.

Becoming an expat is quite doable, provided you understand what it will take, and you are prepared for the changes that await you.

“The loneliness of the expatriate is of an odd and complicated kind, for it is inseparable from the feeling of being free, of having escaped” – Adam Gopnik

I would love to have your thoughts about expat life.

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Many people dream of becoming an expat, living in an exotic location and enjoying life in a new culture. Others dream of immigration, of building and new and better life elsewhere.

Sold everything, became minimalist. Retired early, in Hispanic America. Helping others do the same. This free guide will help you plan your relocation. Do you have a question?

2 COMMENTS

    • Hi Jim, yes, you have to make use of a lawyer. I will send you an email with a recommendation. Good luck with the process!

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