In newspaper articles and elsewhere, I have seen the terms expat and migrant worker. Is there any difference?

I've looked up both terms on Wikipedia:

For migrant worker has a UN definition of:

The term "migrant worker" refers to a person who is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national

The term expat, short for expatriate, has different meanings, but can be:

its broadest sense, an expatriate is any person living in a different country from where he is a citizen. In common usage, the term is often used in the context of professionals sent abroad by their companies, as opposed to locally hired staff. The differentiation found in common usage usually comes down to socio-economic factors, so skilled professionals working in another country are described as expatriates, whereas a manual labourer who has moved to another country to earn more money might be labelled an 'immigrant'. There is no set definition and usage does vary depending on context and individual preferences and prejudices.

Does this mean it's entirely up to the motivation and the type of labour?

  • @MArtha Assuming of course the phrase migrant worker will be found in a dictionary. Would you like to reference it? Second time, this is not EL&U. Jan 24, 2013 at 17:32
  • @Martha As I said, please feel free reference migrant worker in a dictionary as per your own suggestion. Jan 24, 2013 at 17:36
  • @Martha Googling migrant worker does return a dictionary result.
    – Siddhartha
    Jan 24, 2013 at 17:38
  • @Martha Fair enough. But I think it's too early in this Stacks life to start closing questions under general reference without any FAQ guidance on what is GR and what isn't. I would not like to see this SE follow down the same route of EL&U and start closing everything that can be googled as GR. There is a distinct and subtle difference between the two terms a non-native English speaker may not pick up from googled results. Jan 24, 2013 at 17:44
  • 2
    Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? - from The Guardian. Mar 14, 2015 at 12:42

5 Answers 5


The term "migrant worker" is more commonly used for people from poor countries working in a richer country, whereas "expat" is typically used for people from stable, first world countries living in a poorer, non-western country.

  • 1
    Poor country is not necessarily non-western country.
    – Mistu4u
    Jan 26, 2013 at 14:21
  • 1
    This answer is getting at the heart of the issue, I think so I voted it up. It should be edited to focus on the socio-economic aspect; the terms first-world, western, etc have nothing to do with it. The point is, a migrant worker is motivated by going where he/she must, in order to find work. Describing a foreigner who's working in a country as an expat has a connotation that he/she has been brought in in a position of power, or for technical skill not available locally.
    – Jeff Allen
    Feb 7, 2013 at 8:25
  • 2
    I don't agree that expat implies working in a poorer country. Multinational organisations send their staff all around the world and the term expat applies just as much to a Brit working in Switzerland or a Frenchman working in the USA. For example all the main financial centres, in the wealthiest of countries, are full of expats. Jeff Allen's take on it is much closer to the truth.
    – toandfro
    Nov 14, 2013 at 8:57

Strictly by definition, an expat (or expatriate) is someone who is living in a foreign country. That person may have been banished there or just chosen to reside there. By definition, he does not have to be working in that new country.

A migrant worker is simply someone who is working outside of his home country.

Sometimes the people these terms describe can overlap. For example, people working outside their home country are both expats and migrant workers. Some who are not working, but living in another country are expats (e.g. prisoners, refugees).


A late addition:

The two terms come from completely different sources, so it's not surprising that their definitions are not clearly delineated. By which I mean, sometimes when we have related terms its because some person or group got together and said, Let's call this X and that Y, and when they defined X they were specifically thinking of Y and vice versa. Like some government agency may declare that for purposes of calculating import taxes, a "truck" is a vehicle that meets such-and-such definition while a "car" is a vehicle that meets this other definition and they are careful to make sure that the definitions don't overlap. But when words come out of different fields, the difference between them is often fuzzy.

In general, an "expat" or "expatriate" is someone living in a country other than the one where he grew up. One definition of "migrant worker" is someone working in a country other than his home country. There is a lot of vagueness in both definitions.

If I was born in country A but my parents took me to country B when I was 2 years old, am I an expat? What if my parents are citizens of country A, but were temporarily living in country B when I was born, and then at some point the family moves back to country A? Does my age when we moved back matter?

If I move to country B to get a job and stay there for decades, at what point do I cease to be a migrant worker and become a resident?

The UN or some other organization may have official definitions for some purpose or other, but official definitions are rarely the same as the meaning people use in daily conversation. (Like, a physicist's definitions of words like "work" and "force" are very different from the day-to-day meaning of those words. I'm sure that physicists say things like, "My boss used a lot of force to make me work late on this project" when the actual product of mass and acceleration involved was very low.)

But in broad terms, I think most people would call anyone living in a country where he is not a citizen, or where he just recently became a citizen, as an "expat". They might limit the term to middle- and upper-class people. A refugee is not usually called an expat. "Migrant worker" is much more specific, normally reserved for people living in another country for a short period of time to get a manual-labor job. I've never heard of, say, an American who moves to Japan to become the new vice president of the Asian division of his company referred to as a "migrant worker".

So in general I'd say that migrant worker could be a subset of expat, or you might say that lower-class people could be migrant workers while upper-class people in the same situation would be called expats. Someone who moves to another country to retire would be called an expat.


An expat stays voluntarily out of country, yet he intends/expects to return his home country.

Whereas a migrant worker is a person who moves from place to place to get work, especially a farm laborer who harvests crops seasonally.


Expat comes from expatriated, from Oxford English Dictionary (OED):

expatriate, adj. and n.

An expatriated person. In modern usage, a person who lives in a foreign country.

A migrant worker, is someone who moves to a country specifically in search of work.

From OED:

migrant, adj. and n.

That migrates; characterized by migration. Also (occas.): wandering, nomadic

There is a clear distinction in meaning between the two terms, they do not necessarily overlap. An Expat is someone who lives in a foreign country and that is how they are termed, a migrant worker moves there specifically for work and may or not settle there permanently to live, they may move elsewhere in search of work.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .