What Kind of Expat Are You?

What kinds of people leave hearth and home for life in another country?

Here are a few categories I’ve come up with. I’m sure that many expats fit into more than one. I know I do! Let me know if you have a category I’ve missed.

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Expats By Necessity

We won’t dwell on the first group — their reasons for expatriating are obvious.

  • Military Personnel sent abroad
  • Workers whose employers assign them to overseas positions
  • Ambassadors and similar government employees sent to represent their country in another

Cultural Expats

The next group includes those who move to another country for what I think of as cultural reasons.

  • Missionaries. In this category I include, not just religious missionaries, but anyone with a “mission.” This would include Peace Corps volunteers, people who start orphanages, and the literacy volunteers who try to teach indigenous peoples how to communicate with others around them.
  • Students. The student category includes the hordes of college juniors who elect to take part or all of their year abroad as part of their school’s curriculum. It also includes those who wish to immerse themselves in another language or culture. Painters, musicians, writers and other artists who travel for inspiration or to learn how other cultures view the world would also be included in the student category.


Next we find the escapists group. These are expats characterized more by what they are getting away from than by what they are moving toward.

  • Geographic escapists. These folks want to escape from cold weather to the sunny tropics, from the mountains to the ocean, or from the farms to the cities.
  • Social escapists want to break loose from uncomfortable family or social ties at home (or a lack thereof!) to create a new social network elsewhere.
  • Economic escapists want to leave a more expensive country for a cheaper one. Many of these are retirees who, like myself, simply can’t afford to retire comfortably in their native land and don’t want to work until they drop. There are also many economic escapists who are still of working age, but want to pursue a career or vocation they might not be able to live on at home, but could afford in a less expensive country. Idealistists who work for non-profit organizations might fit into this category. So would those who believe there is more to life than work, and who feel they can better raise a family and have time for important activities outside of work, in a country where the cost of living is lower and the pace of life is slower.


Although the highest peaks have already been scaled, the Amazon has been explored by westerners, and the deserts have been mapped, there are still many who move abroad because it’s an adventure. While I think there’s a bit of the adventurer in anyone who willingly pursues an expat life, there are some for whom it is the primary reason they leave their home countries.


And, of course, there are always opportunists in any group.

  • Business people who see a need they can fill, and/or a fantastic opportunity to make huge amounts of money in another country.
  • Investors in real estate, businesses or farmland.
  • Tax avoiders or evaders.
  • Law dodgers, people who for legal reasons leave their home country to hang out in somebody else’s and hope they won’t be caught and extradited.


  1. You know there have been quite a few attempts at creating categories for types of expats….and there are definitely some new ones here.

    Expats by Necessity – some choose these careers because they want to the expatriate lifestyle, so I am not sure if this is always by necessity…

    Escapists – I like the idea of choosing something new that you like more, rather than escaping something….but I think that the search for the new is in all of us expats to some degree….

    I think you’ve made a good go of it here, but I would say why not suss some of these cateories out a bit….I might put people dodging the law in their own category for example.

    What’s really great about this post is it makes us think about why we are or why we would want to be. Reconnecting with that is important to help us better enjoy our time abroad or keep us motivated on the path of moving overseas.

    Thanks for inviting us to reconnect with our reasons behind pursuing an expatriate lifestyle!


  2. Susanna,

    I’ve read ALL of your posts listed above here on the links you’ve provided and found them incredibly thoughtful and intereting. This is an area (categorizing expats as to reasons they moved abroad) I’ve been interested in for at least 15 years, and I gained some new insights I hadn’t thought about before from your articles. Thank you!

    Best regards,
    Mary Mimouna, of Expat Abroad

  3. Hi Susanna,
    Interesting work here. Depending on the periods of our life we switched to different categories. For us we started as students in Japan to live a great adventure, meet extraordinary people and travel all around Asia with backpacks. We built memories that are probably our most precious asset. Then we became opportunists to manage dual expat careers. Later when our son was born in New York it was another great adventure: giving birth abroad. When we moved again to Japan my son was almost 3 and I started a forum for French moms and moms to be in Tokyo that still exists today. Another adventure: raising third culture kids and dealing with multiple languages. After moving again to the U.S. in Atlanta we arrived in Brussels last year and our son is going to an international school with program in English. We speak French at home.

  4. Growing up in Holland, I always wanted to travel. I married an American Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, East Africa. Since then we’ve lived in a number of other countries (Ghana, Indonesia, Palestine, Amenia) so I got lucky!

    My husband is a development economist working on foreign aid projects. I am what is called a “trailing spouse,” which is an expat category not to be missed.

    Although I myself always wanted to travel and am lucky to have a portable career as a writer, many trailing spouses are not necessarily happy expats. They live overseas only because of the spouse’s career and given the choice they’d jump on the next plane home.

    Right now I’m in the US waiting for an opportunity to jump on a plane to move somewhere new and exciting!

    As a writer, I’ve benefited from my foreign experiences and excerpts from a book about my (mis)adbentures are posted as weekly tales on my blog LIFE IN THE EXPAT LANE

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