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What Is the Difference Between Immigration & Emigration?

What Option Is Best for You?

Seeking Refuge In The United States

The English language can often be confusing. We use many similar words that have completely different meanings, like “there,” “they’re,” and “their”. We also use the same word in two very different contexts, like “telling someone a lie” or “going to lie down.” One means to be dishonest, and the other means to take a nap. It’s no wonder things get confusing. 

“Immigration” and “emigration” are very similar words, and they both relate to the movement of people. While people use them interchangeably, they don’t actually have the same meaning. Here’s the difference between the words immigration and emigration, alongside answers to a few other common immigration language FAQs.

What Does Immigration Mean?

Immigrate means “the act of coming to live permanently in a foreign country.” Immigrants are people looking to begin a better life outside their country of origin. If you were born a citizen of the Philippines and you move to the United Kingdom, you will be an immigrant when you arrive. 

What Does Emigration Mean?

Emigrate means “the act of leaving one’s own country to settle permanently in another.” Emigrating is saying farewell to your old life before you move on to establish a new one. If you left Ukraine to move to the United States, you would be a Ukrainian emigrant and a United States immigrant. 

What Is the Difference Between Immigration and Emigration?

Immigration is coming, and emigration is going. If you move from France to the United States, you are a French emigrant (because you have left France) and a United States immigrant (because you have moved to the United States). 

You cannot emigrate to somewhere. You can only emigrate from somewhere. You immigrate to a receiving country. 

What Is the Difference Between an Immigrant and a Migrant?

Immigrants are people who seek permanent residence in a different country than their home country. Migrants are people who are only temporarily staying in a foreign country. If you own a home and live somewhere full-time, you are an immigrant.

The term “migrant” is usually used to refer to seasonal workers who travel for their job. Many farm and agricultural workers are considered migrant workers because growing seasons differ from country to country. 

When a migrant is done with the specific task they came to another country to complete, they’ll migrate to a new country or return to their home country. Their visit to a country is usually seasonal rather than a permanent move.

What Is the Difference Between a Migrant and an Undocumented Immigrant?

Undocumented immigrants are sometimes mistakenly referred to as migrants. Immigrant is a status in the United States, and migrant is just a word that refers to someone who travels a lot or frequently moves from country to country. 

An undocumented immigrant is someone who resides in the United States without the proper authorization to do so. Migrants often have authorization to reside in the United States for employment opportunities or extended trips. A migrant can also be an undocumented immigrant if they didn’t get approved for the proper visa before coming to the United States. 

What Is the Difference Between an Asylum Seeker and a Refugee?

Asylum seekers and refugees have a lot in common. They’ve both left their country of origin due to safety concerns and asked for special permission to reside in the United States. Some refugees are asylum seekers, but not all asylum seekers are refugees.

United States immigration law defines a refugee as someone who:

  • Is located outside of the United States;
  • Is of special humanitarian concern to the United States;
  • Demonstrates that they were persecuted or fear persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group;
  • Is not firmly resettled in another country; and
  • Is admissible to the United States. 

These individuals receive a referral to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for consideration as a refugee. 

An asylum seeker is someone who comes to the United States specifically to avoid persecution. These individuals have either suffered persecution in the past or fear future persecution. The United States will grant asylum to certain people based on certain protected grounds. They must fear persecution for at least one of the following grounds:

  • Nationality;
  • Political beliefs;
  • Race;
  • Religion; or
  • Membership in a social group.

The United States won’t accept asylum seekers who have ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated in the persecution of any person on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. They also will not accept people affiliated with terrorist or extremist groups, like ISIS or Boko Haram. People who may have been involved with these groups pose a national security threat to the United States and place citizens at risk of harm.

Which Type of Visa Do I Need?

If you want to move to the United States temporarily or permanently, you need to understand how visa categories work. Once you understand which category you fit into, you need to determine which type of visa or status you should apply for if you intend to visit or move to the United States.

Immigrant Visa

Immigrant visas are intended for people who intend to live in the United States full-time as permanent residents and eventually apply for citizenship from within the country. Immediate family members of U.S. citizens, their spouses, and their children can apply for immigrant visas

Employer-sponsored immigrant visas can be used for long-term job offers. If your relocation to the United States relates to your employment, your employer can help you apply for an immigrant visa.

Immigrant visas are also available for some religious workers, language translators or interpreters, and individuals who have assisted the United States government or military during a mission.

Non-Immigrant Visa

Migrants, students, visitors, vacationers, and travelers can apply for non-immigrant visas. Migrant workers often need an H2-A visa, which is a temporary visa for agricultural workers. They can also apply for an H2-B visa for seasonal or temporary work. Both H2-A and H2-B can remain valid for up to three years. 

If you’re traveling for a temporary business-related trip, you may not need an employment-based visa at all. As long as nothing you’re doing in the United States is directly generating a profit, you can come as a visitor. This option works best for things like industry research, seminars, trade shows, and conferences.

Most visitors from Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the European Union can simply use the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) to temporarily visit the United States without a visa. You only need to provide your passport information and a few details about your visit. 


You can only apply for asylum from within the United States if you meet the criteria and it’s unsafe for you to return home. You need to apply for asylum within one year of arriving in the United States. If USCIS discovers that you were in the country for longer than a year before you applied, they won’t approve your application unless you qualify for an exception to the filing deadline.

USCIS recommends that asylum applicants file with the help of an attorney. Most people applying for asylum are persecuted for acts that are illegal in their home country but completely legal in the United States. An attorney will be able to help you navigate the situation. 

If you’re approved for asylum, you may be able to apply to become a lawful permanent resident of the United States after one year of maintained asylum status. 


A refugee is someone who fled their country of origin due to past, present, or the possibility of future persecution based on race, nationality, religion, political opinion, or membership in a social group. This does not always include people fleeing a national disaster or civil war.

Refugee status is limited and difficult to obtain. The United States is currently enacting measures to increase the maximum number of refugee applicants approved each month. 

To file for refugee status, you must receive a referral from UNHCR to start the application process. If you are found eligible for consideration, you will then need an in-person interview with a USCIS officer. Those approved will need to undergo a health screening, a request for “sponsorship assurance” from community organizations, and a class on cultural orientation.

A Final Word on Immigration Language

Immigration language can be somewhat confusing, especially for people who aren’t native English speakers. Many Americans often mix up important terms when discussing immigration. 

If you intend to apply for special status or a visa in the United States and aren’t sure which category you fall into, you can always contact the detail-oriented Cohen, Tucker + Ades team for advice. We have decades of experience explaining immigration options and helping immigrants complete their required immigration forms. 


Foreign Terrorist Organizations | United States Department of State

Directory of Visa Categories | US Department of State | Bureau of Consular Affairs

Electronic System for Travel Authorization | Customs and Border Patrol | United States Department of Homeland Security

CBP One™ Mobile Application | U.S. Customs and Border Protection


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