Expat, immigrant, or digital nomad?


I’ve moved countries a few times now, and I’m not sure that I’ve come across a label that truly suits me. I don’t think I’m alone, and I think that a new, blended approach is one that’s overdue. As I’ve worked in the global mobility space for most of my career, I’m familiar with the terminology people use and the implied meanings of the various labels. None of them quite does the job for me. Here’s why I think the future of globally mobile individuals is at the intersection of expat, immigrant, and digital nomad. And why I think you can leverage this combination to design the life you want.

Expat, or expatriate, is a word that can have some uncomfortable implications. Why is one person described as an expat while another is an immigrant? Given the current political climate, it’s a question worth considering. Sometimes I deliberately describe myself as an immigrant, in part to see what the reaction is, but also to intentionally align myself with immigrants in general. I’m fully aware of the unearned privilege I have that allows me to adopt either label at will. And yet ultimately I firmly believe that “immigrant” is a description deserving of huge respect and worthy of pride. 


Traditionally, expats would be seen as moving country typically for work, and often at the behest of their company. In the global mobility sphere, they’re usually on full-service company benefits packages, with potentially everything from housing to taxes in their host country taken care of. The assumption tends to be that they’re going to move back “home” upon the conclusion of their assignment.

An immigrant, on the other hand, is often assumed that they might not return to their home country. They are thought to be seeking something their home country can’t currently offer. Well, aren’t we all?

Ireland, for example, has a long history of emigration. Irish people are well accustomed to their young people seeking adventure and building livelihoods abroad, perhaps to return home, perhaps not. Check out the excellent Generation Emigration series in the Irish Times for a good overview of the current thinking on this. Irish people moving to Canada, Australia, or the US is nothing new or surprising.

In what I can only believe is a combination of Generation Emigration being top of mind, as well as the characteristically charming Irish tendency towards self-deprecation, I’ve been asked numerous times, in all good humour, what the hell I was thinking moving to Ireland as a Canadian. What, seems to be the subtext, could I possibly be seeking here?

But this is precisely where things get interesting. I think it’s becoming less and less uncommon to be seeking new experiences purely for new experience’s sake. Being open to new possibilities and new opportunities, and being sufficiently portable to take full advantage of them, is something to which a lot of us aspire. There are very few places I’d turn down, if the opportunity arose. And I know I’ll be actively seeking out new expat-esque experiences again throughout my life.

In fact, working towards a sustainable way to be even more portable is a long-term goal of mine. Something like the digital nomads we all love to follow on Instagram, but maybe not quite that. I’m going to figure it out as I go. And that’s really why I’m here (here in Ireland, and here on this blog, actually); to try something new and to see where it leads me. 

So where does that leave me, and perhaps you? We’re expats, but we might not be tied to fixed-term assignments, and we aren’t necessarily heading “home” (at least not directly, anyways). We’re immigrants, in that we get shit done and figure out taxes and banking and housing for ourselves (more on each of these in future posts!). But we might not be “here” indefinitely, either. And we might have a touch of digital nomad wanderlust and entrepreneurial spirit mixed in. I say, let’s feel free to borrow liberally from each approach as and when we see fit. Let’s forge new paths for ourselves that are more global, more creative, and more free.

There are some voices and forces in the world right now that are trying to scare us into shrinking our worldview, to keep us narrowly boxed in within national or even racial boundaries. Fuck that. I don’t need to name names, but these small-minded attitudes and the people that espouse them are on the wrong side of history. Greater freedom, greater mobility, and a wider array of possibilities available to all individuals is the future I want to be part of. I think that now more than ever, it’s within the grasp of many of us. I want to use whatever privilege I have to help make that more accessible to more people.