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What is the Difference Between an Immigrant and an Emigrant?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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The terms emigrant and immigrant are often incorrectly used, creating confusion at best, and annoyance of English teachers at worst. In general understanding the proper usage can help dispel confusion or quell the rage of would be wordsmiths. An emigrant leaves his or her land to live in another country. The person is emigrating to another country. An immigrant is a person who once resided somewhere else and now lives in your country.

For example, a Swedish woman decides to move to America. To herself, and to the country of Sweden, the woman is an emigrant to America. To her new American neighbors, the woman is an immigrant from Sweden, implying she has been somewhere else, and now is here, wherever here happens to be. Which term is used depends on whether or not she is being referred to from the US or Swedish perspective.

Emigration is the actual act of relocation from a country. The person going from one place to another is in the process of emigrating. The Swedish woman remains an emigrant to people of her country. To other Americans, she is an immigrant, because she has traveled from somewhere else.

During the French Revolution, people who had left France because of the escalating tension and violence in France were treated disparagingly if they returned to France. A person might be labeled an Emigrant, if he or she returned to France during the Reign of Terror or shortly thereafter. The term was meant to signify perhaps criminal behavior in fleeing France, as well as the fact that such people left the country.

When someone discuss his forebears who "immigrated" to the United States, he is in error. These people were emigrants to the United States. Since the person speaking is a US citizen, at least in this example, his forebears were immigrants, implying they had come from somewhere not "here."

In general, the distinction can be reduced to the prepositions "to" and "from." When a person moves to a place, he is an emigrant, but when he is an immigrant, he has moved from some place. Since technically an individual can be both, it makes matters quite confusing.

If the speaker or writer can remember that people "emigrate to" and "immigrate from," this helps to separate the two terms. It may also be helpful to realize that an immigrant is a new member of a society. An emigrant, on the other hand, is leaving his or her country.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a PublicPeople contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon222601 — On Oct 15, 2011

@jenlyn361: You are indeed correct. Your husband *emigrated* from Germany in 1953. He is a German *immigrant,* although you might also say he is a German *emigre.*

By jenlyn361 — On Sep 15, 2010

Well, that was all most helpful! My husband left Germany for this country in 1953. Therefore, he emigrated from Germany, right? However, I refer to him as having immigrated in 1953 and as being an immigrant. Guess I should say he emigrated and is an immigrant?

By anon100637 — On Jul 30, 2010

OK so when reading historical documents of the 49ers, a person watching caravans passing by, would correctly refer to them as coming or going - emigrants or immigrants?

There has to be a better definition!

By anon91312 — On Jun 21, 2010

I've noticed that white folks, by and large, will refer to their forefathers as "Emigrants", while reserving the term "immigrant" for use to describe anyone who came to the USA in the last 30-40 years. There are many "emigrant" passes or roads in the western United States. Would these be named erroneously, since these pioneers settled here and were therefore not emigrants but immigrants?

By anon85850 — On May 22, 2010

Thank you! I learned something new today.

By anon83580 — On May 11, 2010

I think the folks who left West Virginia and moved to Oregon were simply "migrating," as we would generally refer to the land that separates the two regions as one land.

I suppose it would get confusing in instances such as in modern times, leaving Seattle, WA for Vancouver, BC. It's only a three hour drive, but if the move were intended to be permanent, this discussion would imply that the person leaving was an emigrant of the US when they started their car, and an immigrant to Canada as soon as they crossed the border. Fun stuff, language!

By anon56865 — On Dec 17, 2009

For the wagon train question: at the time, Oregon territory was not part of the US so they were leaving the US for a new land. They emigrated from the US to a new land.

By anon48777 — On Oct 14, 2009

most dictionaries will say something along the lines of: immigrate - to enter a new country for permanent residence. emigrate - to leave a country in order to settle there. Therefore the correct use of the words: immigrate and emigrate are to and from, respectively.

By anon46138 — On Sep 23, 2009

You emigrate from a country and immigrate to a country. "E" in emigrate is Latin for "out of."

By anon21243 — On Nov 12, 2008

The appropriate word to describe the action of people moving within the same country (from one place to another) is migrate.

By anon18683 — On Sep 27, 2008

If I stay in the same country and relocate to another area, am I an immigrant to the new area? or does it imply coming from a foreign country?

By anon10881 — On Apr 04, 2008

Most explanations of the difference between the two words are: emigrates leave and immigrants enter; or as the post by Anon7988 pointed out, "e for exit and im for in." It really comes down to where you are at the time you are labeled. You are an emigrant from your country of origin and an immigrant in the the country of destination.

By anon9012 — On Feb 26, 2008

What if a person leaves West Virginia on a wagon train and moves to Oregon therefore staying in the same country? Is that person an Immigrant or an Emigrant?

By anon7988 — On Feb 06, 2008

Excellent distinction between the terms emmigrant and immigrant. I like to keep it simpler though and try to remember e for exit and im for in.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a PublicPeople contributor, Tricia...
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