Understanding “Expat Language”: What do YOU call yourself?

Expat, third culture kid, trailing spouse, international… what language do you use to describe yourself or your situation? Do you identify with any of these terms? Do you choose not to? Or perhaps you’ve struggled to find a term that describes your situation with all its nuances?


When it comes to discussing issues faced by “expats”, finding language that is accurate – and shared and understood by us all – is something of a challenge; a challenge that is impossible to ignore with the growing phenomenon of globally mobile individuals and families.

For example, the term “international” can refer to any of the terms in the table below. The different “labels” also carry different emotions and may affect how we see our identity (e.g. positively or negatively).

So where do we begin?

How can we make sure that we start our conversations on the same page?

A possible first step is to define the terms, meanings and references we use – find some helpful definitions below, as discussed at the FIGT (Families in Global Transition) Conference 2016 in Amsterdam. There are many more, of course, but we tried to make a small, comprehensive list with some of the most important definitions.

By creating mutual understanding of common (and not so common) terms, there’s less chance of the words getting in the way of real communication.


Term Definition
Expat / Expatriate Person who left his/her native country to live elsewhere.
Third Culture Kid (TCK)Third Culture Adult (TCA) Person who has lived in – or meaningfully interacted with – two or more countries for a significant period of time during developmental years, often coupled with High Mobility Patterns.Person (adult) who is not living in his/her home country.
Cross-Cultural Kid (CCK) Person who has lived in – or meaningfully interacted with – two or more cultural environments for a significant period of time during developmental years.
Trailing spouse / Accompanying Spouse or Partner Person following his/her spouse on assignment abroad.
Lovepat / Romantic Expat Made-up word to designate a person who followed a person of romantic interest abroad.
Repat / Repatriate A person who returned to his/her native country after living elsewhere.
Adult Third Culture Kid (ATCK) Person (adult) who grew up as a TCK.
Global Nomad Other name designating an Expat or TCK.
Orphan Spouse Person is in a relationship but his/her job(s) dictates separate lives to partner/spouse.
Immigrant Person who comes to a country to settle.


Regardless of what term best describes your situation, here are some valuable questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I need a label?
  • What does it mean for me/my identity/who I am?
  • How does the label feel to me?

I believe having answers to these questions is equally, or more, important, than identifying one term that describes your full experience as an international or expat or repat or…

At the end of the day, you are YOU blessed in your DIVERSITY!


What do you call yourself? Join the conversation below – we’re curious to hear your thoughts!

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© Vivian Chiona, Expat Nest