Expat Versus Tourist: Which is Better?

Windmill Holland Tourist

Lately, the idea of being an expatriate versus being a tourist has been on my mind. I think we usually think of the two as very separate entities, but the truth is, any time you are an expat, you probably still have more in common with the dozens of tourists filtering their way in and out of “your” city than you do locals. Even if you have lived in a certain location for years, in the eyes of the community of native people, you’re still a foreigner.

I think there are benefits to both tourism and expatism, especially considering that there are just some places you are not going to want to stay longer than a few days. I loved seeing Amsterdam through the eyes of a tourist. The Red Light District and the canals were all fun to gawk at (I really don’t think you can do anything else in the Red Light District but stare if you’re a tourist), but I don’t think I would want to on a daily basis. Italy, however, seems to have captured my heart. A few days in Venice wasn’t enough—I had to live there three months in order to feel like I had a proper relationship with it.

Florence was much the same way. It was a big step for me to choose to live abroad for an extended period of time, but it turned out to be the experience I needed—I never would have had it if I had chosen to live somewhere else. I won’t want to live there forever, but for now I almost think of it more as my home than the one I have in the States.

There are also language and cultural barriers whenever you move to a new country that you just don’t have to deal with as a tourist. It’s almost acceptable when you are only there for a few hours to disregard some of the societal protocols or to only speak in your native tongue. You can say, “I’m only here for a couple of days. I’m sorry if I can’t speak the language and I offended you by not eating all of my pasta.”

When you’re an expat and it’s obvious that you are aware of some of these differences, local people expect more of you, or worse, mistake you for a tourist when you have lived there for months or even years. There are certain expectations that come from living in a place—you’re assumed to know some of the cultural quirks and customs and implement them into your own lifestyle.

I think both experiences are necessary in order to really appreciate travel. Seeing a city for a few days is better than not seeing it at all, but really living there is when you start to understand the importance of the culture and make it your own.

What do you think? Have a place you would just like to visit rather than live? What about the other way around?

Photo is of me definitely enjoying tourist status with a silly face and trying to imitate a windmill in Holland.


  1. Greg Wesson

    I’m definitely an Expat. Took me a long time to realise though. I always felt like travel was an uk part of my life, but I truly found travel exhausting. The constant moving and planning wore me out. I so wanted to travel more frequently, even wanting to take a full year backpacking, but couldn’t bring myself to it.

    Once I moved abroad though, it started to make sense to me. I was made to live somewhere else, not to travel constantly, but to spend the time to try and build a life somewhere new.

    I’ve written more about it in the entry in my blog which I’ve linked as my website above.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *