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Americans residing abroad are a diverse group.

They move and live overseas for different reasons, to various countries. The answer to the question “Who are American expats?” isn’t so straightforward.

Americans living overseas aren’t counted on the U.S. census. The U.S. government, unlike most other nations in the world, doesn’t strive to keep accurate counts of American citizens living outside its borders. Why not? In a previous post, I discussed the census and how difficult it is to get an accurate number of Americans living outside the U.S. In this post, I’ll focus instead on identity, by asking and answering the following questions:

  • Do Americans abroad have a collective identity?
  • Which terms do we use to define American migrants?
  • What factors into the expression of identity for Americans residing overseas?

By discussing identity of overseas Americans, I’ll shed some light on a relatively understudied and often misrepresented group of migrants.

Stereotypes of American Expats

Common depictions of Americans abroad tend to glamourize their situation. They’re seen as diplomats, missionaries, celebrities, military personnel, and digital nomads. But when scholars David Conradson and Alan Latham gathered data on Americans living overseas, they found most to be what they’ve termed “middling migrants.” Americans are neither the super-rich corporate business travelers nor broke university students studying abroad. These two groups exist, of course, but they don’t comprise as much of the population of Americans abroad as we think.

digital nomad working from a laptop poolside
Digital nomads are one of the stereotypes of most Americans living abroad.

Based on this “middling migrants” research, we can conclude that there is no typical American living abroad. In her book, Migrants or Expatriates?: Americans in Europe, American migration expert Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels says, “Americans are not uniformly wealthy temporary migrants, and they are a diverse group, varying considerably from one country to another and from one region of the world to another.” Since this group is so diverse and data on them is so hard to collect, they tend to lack a cohesive identity.

Terms to Identify American Migrants

The terms we use to identify Americans living abroad don’t make classification any easier. Expat, migrant, immigrant, emigrant – all are used to describe people who move to and live in foreign countries. But the labels we assign migrants come laden with cultural, historical, and sociological connotations. Furthermore, in the case of Americans, there is no defined, official terminology for describing migrants.

Some of these terms are:

  • Migrant
  • Expatriate, “expat”
  • Immigrant
  • Emigrant
  • External citizen
  • Diaspora


Take expatriate or “expat.” Expatriation is the process of removing yourself from your home country and moving to a new one. It most often refers to professionals who move abroad for work-related reasons. Expats, then, are those who live abroad for usually under two years. Americans who live and have settled overseas for many years may prefer not to be called expats for this reason.

The moniker “expat” also applies to several categories, another reason for the diversity of Americans abroad. For example, “accidental Americans” are considered expats. “Accidental Americans” are:

  • People who were born on U.S. soil to foreign parents and have grown up abroad, creating few ties for them to the States.
  • The children of U.S. parents who were born and have grown up abroad.

Do these people with few ties to the U.S. count as American “expats” in the same way as people born and raised in the U.S. who decided to move and live abroad as adults? Do they include “American” as part of their identity? The discrepancies over counting Americans abroad brings up important questions about who belongs and who doesn’t.

American expatriation didn’t always have this connotation. Migration history specialist Nancy Green chronicles the history and usage of the terms expatriation, expatriate, and expat in American society in her article for The American Historical Review. She notes how “two centuries of American comings and goings have shifted the representation of expatriation from welcomed newcomer to traitor to emissary.”


Another complicated term is diaspora. A diaspora is a group of people who were removed from their country by force and who maintain a strong sense of identity with their homeland from abroad. Would it be proper to refer to all the Americans residing outside of the U.S. as a diaspora, then? They’re not typically removed by force, and for some, connections to their homeland might be tenuous at best.

The words we use to describe migrants – and the words they use to describe themselves – are important for understanding identity.

American passport sitting on an American flag

How Do American Expats Define Themselves?

One of the ways overseas Americans shape their identity is with transnational ties between the U.S. and their resident country. Although they might be socioeconomically integrated into the country where they reside, they still maintain links with the U.S., by joining American associations abroad or sending money back to family in the States. Migration scholars such as Peggy Levitt and Nina Glock Schiller have dubbed this transnational balancing act “simultaneity”, the act of “living lives that incorporate daily activities, routines, and institutions located both in a destination country and transnationally.”

According to this simultaneity principle, migrants define themselves in layers. They are not simply “American” or “Belgian.” They may not even be “Belgian American” because that nationality combination might not mean the same thing from one person to the next. Within society, there are different degrees of belonging. Does an American person who lives in Belgium, married to a Belgian spouse, with Belgian children, working for a Belgian company, consider themselves as only 10 or 20 percent American? Are they Belgian at home and at work, but American when they call their relatives back in the U.S.?

Identity is fluid and difficult to generalize, in any context. When you start asking these questions about belonging and transnational ties, you realize how diverse the migrant experience is. The only facts experts can agree on is that American migrants live in multi-layered social spaces, the boundaries of which are blurry and constantly shifting.

Socioeconomic Dimensions of Identity

While identity is multi-layered and complex, it can be argued that a significant chunk of identity is tied to socioeconomic status, no matter where you’re living. The same can be said for Americans overseas. Still keeping the diversity of Americans abroad in mind, we can make a few generalizations about their socioeconomic status.

Americans who go abroad tend to be of the middle or upper-middle class. The foreign country they live in determines their wealth status as well. The cost of living is lower for expats in Mexico than in France or Germany, for example. American migrants who reside abroad also tend to be well-educated. Most have achieved a Bachelor’s degree and some have further education than that.

American Retirees Abroad

As of 2019, the greatest share of Americans living abroad is retired, at 26 percent. Many American retirees living overseas are veterans of the U.S. armed forces who decided to stay abroad after their service. Experts have pointed out that retirees can have a higher standard of living with their modest pensions in places like Central America than they can in the U.S. Indeed, the country with the largest population of Americans – by most counts – is Mexico.

American teaching English to middle-school kids
Teaching English is a common occupation for Americans residing abroad.

Employment Status and Identity

The second-largest employment share of Americans living abroad is self-employed, at 16.3 percent. Those employed by a local company make up 15.9 percent. Many Americans working abroad are in the education sector, usually teaching English. IT and communications, as well as arts and entertainment, are other highly represented fields.

Interestingly, the number of self-employed people residing in the U.S. who work in these same sectors is much lower. Klekowski von Koppenfels suggests overseas Americans engage in these particular sectors because they tend to offer short-term contracts and can be done from any location – two appealing employment characteristics for migrants. Economic integration for American migrants is also dependent on local tax and employment regulations, the ease of getting work permits or visas, and social access to the labor market.

In her study of Americans living in Germany, France, and the UK, Klekowski von Koppenfels also noted that many Americans in these countries seek employment related to their condition as Americans. Being a native English-speaker gave them a valuable edge at work, or self-employed persons had clients based in the U.S., for example. In this way, Americans’ economic activity is tied to their identity, both shaping it and resulting from it. Employment based on migrant status – speaking English or having U.S.-based clients – is an example of transnationalism as well.

Political Participation as Identity

Another significant means of identity expression for overseas Americans is political activism. Just like socioeconomic activity, political engagement takes on transnational characteristics. Americans abroad are organizing politically by fundraising, writing letters, registering voters, and joining associations. Their activism is often fueled by their own interests, like the right to dual citizenship. But overseas Americans also engage politically with prescient issues back home – most notably through electoral politics.

Read about political participation in Belgium and Switzerland.

Political Groups for Americans Abroad

Which means do U.S. citizens abroad use to exercise their civic and political rights? Many groups exist to facilitate their political participation – both the Democratic and Republican Parties have international arms for overseas Americans. There are also many non-partisan groups like the Association of Americans Resident Overseas (AARO), American Citizens Abroad (ACA), and the Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas (FAWCO).

Absentee ballot for an American election
Attribution: photo by Chris Devers shared under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Voting in Elections

Since 1976, Americans abroad have been allowed to vote in U.S. elections. Voting is one of the most direct forms of civic participation in a nation-state and is closely linked with citizenship. The U.S. is one of 115 countries that allow their citizens residing abroad to vote in home elections. Since residence status has often been an integral factor for determining citizenship, the notion that overseas citizens can vote in elections challenges the very idea of citizenship.

Professor of Political and Social Theory Rainer Bauböck addresses these questions about citizenship and external voting in his article for the Fordham Law Review. He justifies non-resident voting with the idea of “stakeholder” citizenship. U.S. citizens living abroad still stand to be affected by the outcomes of U.S. elections or have a stake to claim in the future direction of the nation-state. Therefore, they should still be allowed to vote.

How do voting and political engagement contribute to migrant identity? In many cases, foreigners associate Americans with the policies of the U.S. – their perceptions of the country influence their perception of American expats. American migrants have, therefore, an interest in the electoral outcomes at home. Those U.S. citizens who choose to cast their ballots from abroad tend to stay well- informed on current events and political affairs in the U.S. as well.

Americans Abroad – A Difficult Group to Categorize

There are still several facets of identity and the American migrant experience I didn’t cover here, like their reasons for moving abroad, marital status (which is closely related to reasons for moving abroad), cultural practices of host and destination country, religion, and many more. When you start parsing out the strands that make up the fabric of identity, it’s clear that there is no stereotype. A few generalizations can be made about specific aspects, but mostly, Americans living overseas are about as diverse as the countries they’re residing in. As long as this group remains dispersed, it seems unlikely the U.S. government will start keeping better track of them, by means of a census or anything else.

Featured Image: The American Embassy in London. Attribution: photo by Roy shared under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license

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Welcome to All Abroad

Thanks for stopping by! My name's Courtney. I'm a travel and politics writer based in Brussels, Belgium. I write about travel, culture, expat life, and food & wine - infusing a bit of politics into each. Learn more about this blog here.