If you’re starting to look into the idea of traveling the world full-time—or even permanently relocating to another country—then you’ve likely heard the terms “expat” and “digital nomad” in your research.
They do seem like they’re interchangeable, but there are a few key distinctions—so we’ve put together a quick and handy overview of the differences between expats and digital nomads.
What is an Expat?
An expat, short for “expatriate,” is someone who has decided to live outside of their native country for an extended amount of time.
While expats can travel frequently, in general they’ll stay much longer in one country than a digital nomad would. Many expats relocate for a major reason, like employment, education, retirement, or marriage—life events that are considered permanent or long-term, and that often are tied to individual locations.
Employment is a major difference between expats and digital nomads, and probably the easiest way to describe how these two types of travelers are different from each other: expats who relocate due to work are usually either on a job assignment or have accepted a career opportunity in a new country. Their work is often location-specific, meaning they either work for a local company or for an international one that has local offices.
So for example, if your company had an office in the United States and one in Spain, and you transferred to their Spain office, you’d be an expat. The job is tied to the location.
Legal status in-country is also an important distinction between expats and digital nomads—expats need to get long-term visas and other permits that help establish roots for life changes that are considered more permanent (like employment or marriage). As an expat, you’ll probably be more focused on establishing a home and integrating more deeply with your new community than a digital nomad might.
What is a Digital Nomad?
A digital nomad is someone who uses technology to work remotely and live a nomadic lifestyle—they’re less likely to move permanently to a different country, and instead opt for country-hopping. This type of lifestyle has become much more popular in recent years with more companies offering remote and hybrid employment (as well as a rise of digital freelancing, consulting, and small business opportunities).
Digital nomads work online, which allows them to be location-independent. And because their work isn’t tied to a specific location, that means they don’t have to worry about long-term visas unless they want to, and they can move from one location to another with just tourist visas (in general—that’s not always the case, but it is the most common way digital nomads choose to travel). If you’d like to learn about digital nomad visas, check out this guide.
The lifestyle is characterized by flexibility and ability to experience a variety of different cultures and destinations rather than immersing yourself as deeply in one place and community.
Want to know more about what it’s like to be a digital nomad or an expat? Check out these pages to get started!
About the Author
As the editor-in-chief of Frayed Passport, my goal is to help you build a lifestyle that lets you travel the world whenever you want and however long you want, and not worry about where your next paycheck will come from. I've been to 20+ countries and five continents, lived for years as a full-time digital nomad, and have worked completely remotely since 2015. If you would like to share your story with our community, or partner with Frayed Passport, get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Featured image by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash