When do expats become locals?

A stranger stopped me in the supermarket yesterday and asked me “Are you a local?” I am English and currently living in Australia in a town where it is generally believed that you must stay at least ten years before you are considered a local. Having been here just under a year I wasn’t confident that ‘yes’ was the correct response.

Remembering that I was in the supermarket that I visit weekly to restock the fridge though, I hazarded a ‘yes’. “Oh great,” he said “Can you tell me where they hide the bacon?” Of course I could, so to that extent at least, I am a local here.

But I am also an expat and, friendly and accepting as the Aussies generally are, I will always be considered primarily to be a ‘pom’ while I live here. This doesn’t worry me but it did make me wonder when, if ever, do expats become locals?


They definitely can and do become locals. Live anywhere long enough and you are bound to become a familiar face eventually. There are various indicators of increased confidence in a place that you notice when you set up somewhere new, such as being able to give directions (albeit only to bacon so far), needing less help to master daily activities and not getting lost (so frequently at least). The extent to which an individual feels like a local depends on their behaviour though. Once you have established human relationships in a place you feel more local and it is for this reason that it is essential to put yourself out there when you relocate. Your adopted community will accept you more readily the more involved in it you are.


Anywhere that attracts expats has an area that is especially popular with expats, possibly because of easier communications or enormous cultural differences between the expat nationalities and the host country. These ‘expat ghettos’ offer a useful stepping block to new expats, especially in a country that speaks another language or is very different from ‘home’. They can also offer support to homesick or struggling expats who long to meet someone who ‘just understands’. However, expats who only spend time in such groups, it can be argued, may as well have stayed at home. Where expats keep to themselves and do not integrate with the locals they can be accused of ‘lording it up’ overseas but contributing nothing to their adopted homeland. This can leave expats disengaged with their new homes and can even lead to animosity between locals and expats.

I reckon that assuming you accept more social invitations than you decline, and are not some sort of hermit, it takes at least six months living in a place to decide if you can settle somewhere. Whether you feel ‘local’ or an ‘expat’ will depend on how well your new home suits you and how well you suit it.

Do you think it is important for expats to aspire to one day become locals?

Photo credits: AussiePete


  • Alan Headbloom

    Being “local” is a two-way street. An expat or “outsider” can be a local fixture long enough to know bacon placement and regional traditions, but if the lifelong locals don’t accept you, your hard work at fitting in can be negated by closed circles and cold shoulders.

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    Hi Alan – I agree that it is a two-way street and that in some places it is harder to feel accepted and one of the crowd but at the same time, I think it is important wherever you go, to arrive positive and keen to make an effort. What is your story? It sounds as though you might speak of a bad experience?
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  • Steve

    You raise some interesting questions here. I think the time it takes for an expat to become a local depends on the person and how strong their desire is to become someone local. So with that in mind, I don’t think there is a specific timeframe it takes to become local. I think your indicators for being a local are about right. But that’s hard for me to say since I’ve never really been in any one place abroad for long.
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    Hi Steve – I think you are right, the will to become local is one of the most significant factors in this debate. For some people it is not important and that is fine; we are all different. The amount of time it takes to settle somewhere definitely varies from person to person too.
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  • Suzy

    I think you are spot on expats and transitioning into a local. For me, the only place I have “lived” abroad for over a year was Italy. While I did feel like I knew the cultural norms better than a visitor, for me, becoming a local has a lot to do with language, how you look, and how you act. While my Italian improved over a year, I knew people knew I was far from a local. There aren’t too many pale redheads in Italy.
    My recent post Suzy Stumbles Over Travel: Week of February 27, 2012

  • Kooki

    Interesting topic. I don’t think an expat can ever become a local. I lived in Switzerland for 13 years, spoke the dialect almost to perfection and eventually obtained a Swiss passport. While I would consider myself an immigrant, I would feel arrogant labeling myself a local.
    Now I live in Qatar where I’m squarely in the expat category – even if I know where to locate beef bacon.
    My recent post 1001 Inventions Qatar

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      Hi Kooki – The Swiss must be a tough crowd to please if, after 13 years, you were still never considered local. Or was that simply how you saw it? Knowing where to get bacon could get you places in Qatar I’d imagine!
      My recent post Market day in Bonnieux

  • Beverley

    I lived in Australia for 2 years and definitely considered myself a local and now, having lived in Auckland for almost 9 months now, I’m definitely starting to feel like a local – people ask me for directions for one thing! 🙂

    It’s such a great feeling when you start to feel at ‘home’ in a country that you didn’t consider home before and experiencing more of the culture and making a proper life for yourself abroad. I’m loving my expat life! 🙂 Great post!
    My recent post That Time I Wasn’t Allowed Back On a Plane in Singapore

  • Jack

    It’s an interesting debate. I live in a location that’s ‘abroad’ to me. I consider that I’ve embraced the culture – to the extent that I’ve written a couple of guidebooks about the place I live. I know a lot about its traditions, history, politics and cuisine. Most of my transactions are done in an adopted language… but I’m still an outsider. Whilst I enjoy and appreciate the local culture, I won’t ever be a true ‘local’ because ultimately my roots and life experiences were moulded elsewhere and that makes me different. I don’t see that as a bad thing.

    As for being accepted, I grew up on a small Scottish Island. Walking down the road one day with my dad he made a comment about an ‘incomer’ we passed. He criticised the ‘incomer’ for sticking his nose in island business. That ‘incomer’ had lived on the island for 30 years.

    Being considered ‘local’ means an awful lot more than knowing where things are 🙂

    My recent post Am I Missing Something About the Food in Marrakech?

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      Hi Jack – Clearly being a local means more than knowing where something is, but in that example it was really a case of relativity. To the visitor I was as good as a local because they were after precise knowledge. I would never dream of banging on about being local to people who have lived in a place for decades!
      My recent post Secret Western Australia

  • Joy

    After having just lived 3 years in Istanbul, I can’t say I was a local (esp. with my blonde hair), but was sometimes called a “normal foreigner” not a “tourist” in Turkish. I knew how to get around the crazy city, shopped at the local markets and could speak enough Turkish to give directions to strangers when asked. I was accepted among my Turkish friends and the small shops that I often frequented, so that was good for me! 🙂

    My recent post Budapest’s Great Market Hall: Photo Post

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      Hi Joy – I certainly have a lot of Turkish friends from my time in Turkey. I found the Turks really accepting towards foreigners, especially those who make the effort to understand and speak Turkish.

  • Victoria

    This is a great post. I often grapple with the question you pose. I’m Australian but have lived in London for 7 years and now live in Singapore. The funny thing is that when I was in London I never considered myself an expat, it’s such a multicultural city and you mix with people from all over no matter where you live. Singapore is a different thing entirely and you have to work hard to ‘live like a local’ as the laws here are quite prohibitive. Locals receive housing benefits whereas expats don’t so you can’t buy in the same complexes (unless you become permanent resident and then the rules start to change). Also because expats here of caucasion decent so obviously look like expats then they are treated accordingly. In saying all of that, I love living here and enjoy shopping locally, eating locally and exploring the island as much as I can so I feel as local as can be!
    My recent post Breakfast in Singapore

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      Hi Victoria – Thanks! I understand the ‘sticking out’ issue making a difference. I’m in Australia at the moment where it is easy enough to blend in visually, but have lived as an expat in places like Turkey and the Bahamas where I was very visibly not local. I think a lot of the feeling of being an expat also stems from the level of national pride in the country you are in too. I definitely feel like an expat in Australia because Australians are so pro-Australia.
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  • Jerick

    Hi there,

    I don’t think we will reach that point. I’ve been living in Belgium for five years and I still don’t see myself as a local. Though I’m an expat with local knowledge, local friends and maybe local understanding. So it’s an expat with local vibes.

    In a local’s eyes, I’m still that Filipino foreigner (my skin colour is a giveaway) and I can never see myself becoming a true Belgian (maybe with a Belgian passport, but not a true one). I may be aware of the local activities, and can act local – but I don’t think I will ever feel like I am one. 

    I think this is a good read for your question too: http://thoughtcatalog.com/2012/what-happens-when-

    My recent post What makes an adventure an adventure?

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