Are Expatriates Really That Different From Immigrants?

Expatriates – highly-skilled workers who temporarily live abroad because of their jobs – are often seen as extraordinary people, not only very different from those who have always lived in their country of birth, but also much unlike immigrants, who moved to another country to stay there more or less permanently. In contrast to ‘ordinary’ migrants, expatriates are usually depicted as cosmopolitans, who feel at home anywhere, but are rooted nowhere. Some scholars argue that expatriates present themselves as world citizens, but that in reality, they only feel comfortable with transnational business men and women like themselves.

No matter whether expatriates are seen as free-floating cosmopolitans or as people locked up in their expat bubbles, the conclusion is clear: expatriates are incomparable to any other type of people. But are they really?

To answer this question, I studied the local and cross-border ties of 75 expatriates in the city of Rotterdam, the Netherlands. The respondents came from countries such as the US, the UK, Germany, Japan, and India, and were living in the Netherlands temporarily for their jobs.

Below, I discuss some striking findings regarding expatriates’ motives to move abroad and decisions to stay or leave, their experiences of integration into the receiving society, and their self-identities. I compare these findings with what is known from research on other types of migrants, including my own research which focused on 225 middle-class immigrants of Surinamese, Turkish and Moroccan origin in Rotterdam.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

It is often thought that expatriates’ decisions to move abroad are guided by either their wish to give a boost their careers, or by an untamable desire to discover the world. My research, however, shows that just like other types of migrants, existing social networks and familiarity with the destination country or city actually also play an important role in expatriates’ decisions. ‘It is still close to home’, ‘The culture is not that different from my own country’s’, and ‘I already know the country because I studied there’ are often-heard reasons mentioned by respondents in explaining why they opted for the Netherlands instead of another country.

In deciding whether to move on or stay longer, again similar to immigrants, sociocultural factors play an important role. Many expatriates have children who go to school in the Netherlands, so leaving any time soon would mean switching schools, which they often find undesirable. Some expatriates found a partner here and even think about staying indefinitely. Others say that they put effort into ‘integrating’ into Dutch society, for instance by learning the language, and want to reap the benefits from this. As a German female expatriate puts it: ‘I don’t only want to put energy in it… I also want something in return’.


This ‘something in return’ could be, for instance, coming into contact with Dutch ‘locals’. However, similar to what many immigrants experience, contacts between Dutch and non-Dutch people do not happen readily. While immigrants and expatriates are often accused of locking themselves in their own ethnic communities or expat bubbles, several expatriates argue that it is not them, but ‘the Dutch’, who are reluctant to get in contact with ‘the other’. As a Portuguese female expatriate says: ‘I think that the Dutch stay too much in their own communities; they should communicate more with expats. I think the Dutch really don’t realize how hard it is for foreigners to make such contacts.’

Mixed Emotions

Also regarding their self-identities, expatriates appear to be more similar to immigrants than often thought. Although about 20 percent of the expatriates say they primarily perceive themselves as cosmopolitans (which is about 9 percent among the middle-class immigrants I studied), and a smaller part (about 10 percent) as expats, more than 40 percent say their country of origin is most important for their self-identity (compared to 35 percent among middle-class immigrants). Similar to immigrants – and to most people in general – expatriates combine various identities: they say they feel like a local, a cosmopolitan or a homeland citizen, depending on where and with whom they are.


Chart expats


Expatriates appear to be not that ‘extraordinary’ after all. In future research, it would be interesting to compare them to other types of migrants more often, instead of putting them aside as people who are beyond compare.


Van Bochove, M. (2012) Geographies of Belonging: The Transnational and Local Involvement of Economically Successful Migrants. Doctoral dissertation. Rotterdam: Erasmus University.

Van Bochove, M. and G. Engbersen (2015) “Beyond cosmopolitanism and expat bubbles: Challenging dominant representations of knowledge workers and trailing spouses”. Population, Space and Place 21(4), 295-309.

If you like to receive a free copy of Marianne van Bochove’s PhD thesis, in which she further examines the differences and similarities between expatriates and immigrants, you can send her an email. Please find her contact details on her website:

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