An expat, an immigrant and a guiri walk into a bar…

What’s the difference between an immigrant and expat?

And how ’bout those damn guiris?

Ruining Spain with all their foreign money, buying beach houses and swilling sangría like it’s going out of style.

As a long-term expat / immigrant and a full-time guiri, I’d like to clear something up…

I don’t really care what you call me.

I’ve called myself immigrant, expat and guiri – and I’ve been called an ignorant tourist more than once.

Doesn’t bother me much.

In any case…

Immigrants vs expats: my story

I came to Spain at age 21, dead broke and with no plan.

I was just having a European adventure at first, but soon I ended up with a badly paid job, a rent payment and a never-ending bureaucratic nightmare trying to become “legal” with the Spanish government.

Clearly, I was no longer a tourist. I feel like paying an electric bill every month in a foreign country should exempt you from tourist status.

But what was I? An immigrant or an expat?

Actually, in those days I would joke with friends about my sad immigrant life – someday I’d be found dead on the floor of my shared flat and the newspapers would print a tiny article on page 64: “Immigrant found dead surrounded by empty beer cans. Suspected to be member of Polish mafia… or a really broke English teacher.”

That was about 2006 or something. Time passed, as it always does.

And several years and several incompetent lawyers later, I finally became an official taxpaying citizen – a loyal subject of His Serene Majesty Juan Carlos I.

And I guess that’s about the time I started using the word expat a bit more.

I registered the domain because it had some nice keywords, and proceeded to pepper my articles with expressions like “expat life” hoping to get picked up by search engines.

Not because I love the word, just because I figured if I wanted to make money off my blog, people who identified as expats were a better target market.

(More recently I’ve been using the term “digital nomad” – which I secretly hate – for the same reason. It’s all about the SEO, dawg.)

In any case, as the BBC says, “Often [expat] is used to describe educated, rich professionals working abroad.”

Another quote from the same article says expats are the “rich, educated, developed elites” – hardly words anyone’s using to describe this lonely old blogger.

Other proposed definitions include expat = white, or involve the amount of time someone plans to stay in a foreign country. Immigrants plan to stay “forever” whereas expats want to eventually go home.

I’m not sure I’m convinced by those definitions, but whatevs.

The BBC also mentions words like “migrant worker” – which in my opinion could also be applied to a lot of backpackers trying to scrape together money for sangría while spending six months in Spain…

Backpackers or any native English teacher in Spain, really.

Badly-paid and subject to insulting working conditions and extreme seasonality – maybe I was actually a migrant worker all this time.

immigrants vs expats vs guiris
An expat and an immigrant walk into a bar – wait… Actually, no. That’s Ishita from New Delhi, and she solo travels the world and is a total badass. Check her out at

All of which brings us to the other question of the day…

Am I a guiri?

Well, yeah.

I don’t wear the socks and sandals, and tanning has never been the main goal of my nearly 13 years in Spain.

But I guess by any reasonable definition, I’m a guiri.

The Spanish use guiri to describe tourists and (ahem) expats from “prosperous” countries like the UK, the US, Canada. And that’s me through and through.

The word guiri isn’t meant as an insult… I even find it sort of endearing, sometimes.

We’re usually pretty pale and we all look them same to them.

I remember going to a friend’s birthday party a few years ago. I was the only non-Spanish person on the guest list, and I warned my friend beforehand: “You know, if I come to your party, they’re going to spend the whole night stereotyping guiris, right?”

She knew.

I went.

And it was a lot of fun…

But it was also exactly what I expected.

The other guests spent the whole time calling me el guiri.

When I poured myself a drink, someone would comment “A couple more of those and the guiri’s gonna start doing balconing” – referring to the practice of diving off hotel balconies into pools which has killed a few drunken Brits in recent years.

When I was the first to leave, at 2 AM, they joked about the guiri timetable – “He wants to be in bed by 3… And on a Saturday, no less! What a quaint anglosaxon custom.”

Oh well.

just another american expat in madrid
Doing typical Madrid things like drinking beer outdoors in February. Because Spain. Photo by Natalia from

As an unusually tall guy with a ginger beard, I resigned myself long ago to the fact that Spaniards are usually going to consider me just another guiri tourist, talk extra slowly to me, or try to convince me that I’m Irish…

And that this will potentially go on forever.

What to do with those wacky Spaniards?

I’ve been avoiding writing this article for years, because people get all worked up about words.

And for once, I’ve tried to make this article uncontroversial. But whether I’ve succeeded or not depends on you, the reader.

In any case, my bit of philosophy to close with: if you’re ever contemplating whether or not to be offended by someone else’s offhand comment, my advice is DON’T.

Don’t get mad.

Because life is short.

And getting mad isn’t gonna change people’s minds.

When people tell me I must be Irish because I “don’t look like someone from Arizona”, I politely respond that people from Arizona look like all kinds of things – we’re not all John Wayne.

When they ask me if I only eat hamburgers or if their stereotype of a nation of obese, heavily-armed rednecks is accurate, I take it as a teachable moment. (Also: no and yes.)

I moved abroad with no idea of what I was getting into, and I’m still a bit amused to find myself acting as a (completely) unofficial ambassador for US culture.

And if you’re from somewhere else, it’ll be the same.

Wherever you go outside your country, people will probably only have two or three stereotypes about it to fall back on.

They’re probably curious about you. They’ll probably want to ask you some questions.

But they won’t even know where to start…

And their ignorance is your opportunity to teach them something new about a faraway place. Your moment for international communication. Your time to shine.

Don’t waste it by getting all angry and condescending.

Thoughtfully yours,


P.S. I hope you liked this article about immigrants vs expats vs whoever. On my serious Spanish website, I have an article about the words American, gringo, guiri and yankee which pisses off a lot of people. Turns out they don’t like people from the US using the word American, and I don’t like foreigners calling me a yankee. Yankees are those pretentious New Englanders who can’t rope a steer or find Arizona on a map. And I’m a real American… you know, the kind who spent his youth hunting rats in a junkyard.

P.P.S. What do you think? Guiri? Expat? Immigrant? Hit me up, right here in the comments.

P.P.P.S. Somewhat related: due to the scandal caused by an article in the Sunday Times, I’ve written a few Spanish stereotypes of my own here: How to be Spanish.


How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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