Travel & Expat Lifestyle Magazine

Do different types of expats move to different areas?

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It seems pretty obvious when you think about it, but I’d imagine that not many people really think about it. There are millions of expats from the US, Canada, Australia, and Western Europe living in countries all over the world, including in those same countries, and I think there are a few main categories of expat types who tend to move to different areas.

As someone who is location-independent myself, I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately as I decide where to go next. Since a huge part of your happiness is based on your social circle, I think it’s important to go places where you have enough in common with the majority of people who tend to be there. It’s not enough to just randomly choose a place because it’s sunny and cheap and expect that you’ll easily find friends there.

Different types of expats

Yes, I know this is all about generalizing, and there is always a danger in that, but it’s also true that there are a few key motivators that drive many of us to change countries.

Cheap and sunny expats

If you go to places like Mexico, Central America, Spain, Turkey, and Thailand (among others) you’ll find big groups of expats whose top priorities were to move somewhere with more sunny days and a lower cost of living. Many, if not most of them are retired, often in their 50s.

One key thing about this group is that they often seem to be more moving AWAY from a place than TO a place, so many of them seem to enjoy spending their days complaining to each other about their adopted country. That’s fine as long as you like that sort of conversation.

Big and expensive city expats

People who move from a different country to, say, Paris or Tokyo generally do so out of love for that city and its culture. This sort of positive energy can be very appealing if you feel the same way, and it seems necessary if you are going to pay so much to live in a place.

Developing country expats

Not including retired people who move to some of these same countries, there are many expats whose main goal is to move somewhere in a “developing” country, often working for an NGO or teaching English. It seems that most of them don’t fancy a specific country, but rather the idea of helping people while living somewhere exotic and perhaps basic.

Exciting-city expats

Many of this group moves because of an existing job, or one they just got, and this group includes people moving to Bangkok, Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Shanghai, among others. These people tend to be young and optimistic, partly because those who aren’t usually don’t last long.

Pleasant lifestyle expats

Some of this group can overlap with the cheap and sunny group. You’ll find many of these expats in Spain and Portugal, as well as New Zealand, Bali, and various other islands in Asia. Many of this group are younger and still trying to start or maintain a career, just in a place with a lifestyle they prefer.

Economic expats

The above groups are mostly about people who are able to choose a destination from many, but we can’t forget the people who become expats primarily because their company transfers them to a foreign office and their careers will be enhanced by the move. This category also includes the vast majority of expats in the world, who leave areas with few jobs to areas with more jobs, but probably not many of them follow this site.

Choosing a destination yourself

As mentioned up top, the whole point of this exercise is that one’s social life will be at least partly dependent on moving to a place where many people have similar goals. Personally, I can’t stand hearing people constantly complaining about the country they’ve chosen to move to, but I’m sure plenty of people find great satisfaction in discussing that with fellow expats.

Any groups I’ve missed?

Again, I’m aware that each situation is unique and many people have multiple motivations (a job AND a partner etc), but I still think most people will fit primarily into one of these categories.

Are there any large groups I’ve missed? Other thoughts?


6 thoughts on “Do different types of expats move to different areas?

  1. I can’t think of any particular groups you have missed out, but there are also lots of expats who just seem to ‘end up’ in places for a million different reasons without ever having really chosen their destination (I count myself in that group!).

    They are usually people who were traveling through a country and ended up getting stuck for whatever reason (work, love, etc), then end up growing to love their new homes over a period of months and years (whilst always secretly thinking that they would opt for a different destination if they could choose again!)

  2. Connor, that’s a great point, the “accidental expat” perhaps? I came to Turkey for 2 months and I’ve been here over a year now, so I would probably qualify for that as well. I’m moving on soon, but I might be back later in the year, so here I am. -Tom

  3. I had to laugh when I read your description of the “cheap and sunny” expat. I met a large number of really grumpy (and very boring) people when I went to Panama six years ago scouting a new home. I live in NYC and I love big cities, so PC (Panama City) was not the place for me. I thought I could do it and the truth is that PC is a nice city with some really lovely aspects, the most important being the very kind Panamanians. I liked the people I met there who were from Panama, but the many expats I met did nothing but complain about Panama as you mentioned.

    The thing is, as you mention as well, is that I would like to live somewhere that people with similar intersts and passions live. Paris, Rome, Barcelona come to mind. I’m thinking that perhaps Sao Paulo in Brazil would be that kind of city in S. America. But who can afford to live in those cities? I’ve thought about this a lot and I’m wondering if I would be happy beyond the first few months of getting to know a place. I’m looking for a place where I could make friends with other expats of a similar nature and of course, the natives of that country. I speak some French and Spanish and could probably perfect them in a relatively short time.

    Any suggestions would be appreciated.

  4. Ellen,

    Thanks for your comments, and it’s sort of nice to know others are in the same bind over trying to find a place with a compatible social circle. I haven’t been to Panama yet, but it’s not surprising to hear that many expats complain about it, as they do most other cheap and sunny places.

    I’m actually going to write a new post on this today based on some of my own research, but it’s definitely an open question. I’ve been in a small Mediterranean town in Turkey called Kas for the past year and the expats here (mostly British) seem to love it. Complaints are few and there is a lot of positive energy here. I think it may be partly because it’s well off the beaten path. -Tom

  5. Yes, you did miss one crucial group of expats, the Visual Arts expat. Let me be clear, when I say Visual Arts I’m saying those persons that create things with their blood, sweat and tears – their hands. All throughout history artist, specifically visual artists ie. painters have moved here and there to get fresh starts or just to get known outside their own country. Then the irony of it all, their nation of birth jumps on the bandwagon after all others find them to be of worth. More often than not, a visual artist expat’s move abroad is permanent than just say a retiree or Economic expat living on the cheap. For most Visual arts expats living on the cheap is the way of life. Art is more than just singing a song on American Idol or dancing on Dancing with the Stars. So, now I don’t say I’m an artist anymore, I say I’m a visual artist so the distinction is made upfront. I’m now trying to find a word that will replace “artist”. There are no real traditional visual artists left in the U.S., only commercial artists because all things must sale, sale and sale more and more by bulk Wal-Mart style. Anyway I am responding because most, if not all, traditional visual artists eventually become expats regardless of their country of citizenship or roadblocks put up to attempt to constrict their movement. For example, Ai Weiwei. This departure from our nation of birth can be based on internal and external curiosity that their country of birth cannot give them, ever. Freedom, in almost all circumstances. Visual artists expats leave their nation of birth to reset their creative gauge, heighten their sense of creative awareness, expand their creative network and cleanse the creative air. The U.S. doesn’t have a monopoly on democracy, especially “social” democracy.

  6. Seph, very interesting topic, and thanks for commenting. It’s probably a relatively small number in total, but with a big influence. And I think it’s more than just the visual arts because music is also a force that causes many to move from one part of the world to another. I’m reminded of all the jazz musicians who relocated to Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe during the decades when the music was more widely appreciated there. And those who moved to Brazil because new sounds were emerging faster there are brought to mind as well. As a musician myself, I moved to Amsterdam for a while because it was (and is) the center of the big-room trance style I was producing. Wonderful discussion point. -Tom

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