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Counting the Uncountable: Overseas Americans

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Counting the Uncountable: Overseas Americans

The population size, characteristics, and distribution of overseas Americans remain an enigma, as do their impacts. Americans are dispersed more broadly throughout the world—in at least 100 countries—than are emigrants from any other given country. (Photo courtesy of Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels)

The migration debate in the United States—a country with a long history of immigration and currently home to around one-fifth of all international migrants—often focuses on the number of foreign born who enter and reside in the country. Much less focus is paid to Americans who live abroad. While small numbers of high-profile Americans such as Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Richard Wright, or Josephine Baker have long captured the imagination of the American public for their adventures in Paris and elsewhere, there are millions more living lower-profile and very different lives.

The U.S. government does not formally track how many Americans leave the United States, whether temporarily or permanently, meaning that one has to rely on estimates to get a sense of how many U.S. citizens live overseas, in addition to the 289 million U.S. citizens (out of the total population of 311.6 million) who live in the United States. As the Census Bureau reported to Congress in 2001: "No accurate estimate exists of the total number of Americans living abroad or of the other components of this population. At this time, we cannot estimate accurately the size of the universe of the overseas population."

Despite efforts by American organizations and the U.S. government to achieve more consistency, current estimates vary from 2.2 million to 6.8 million—a substantial range. This population's size, characteristics, and distribution remain an enigma—as do their economic, political, and societal impacts both in the United States and abroad.

This article explores what is known about Americans overseas—common destinations, occupations, and motives for leaving the United States (and ultimately staying abroad)—and also examines the challenges of calculating the population's size and distribution. It draws on a variety of sources, including the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. State Department, the World Bank, and a forthcoming study based on interviews conducted in 2011 with 115 Americans in Berlin, Paris, and London, and a survey with 884 respondents, based primarily in Western Europe.

What's in a Name?
Diaspora, expatriate, emigrant, external citizen... All of these terms are used, often interchangeably, to refer to individuals living outside of their country of birth or nationality.

The term expatriate or expat is often used to refer to Americans abroad and other migrants from the industrialized world, and is a term which most often connotes wealth, privilege, and self-segregation. Yet expatriate is increasingly used as an alternative to emigrant, in part because of the growing awareness that migration is not necessarily a permanent move.

Interview data from the author's forthcoming study suggest that Americans living overseas prefer the term overseas Americans to expatriate or emigrant. While the term overseas is not technically correct for U.S. citizens living in Mexico or in Canada, it is often used to refer to all U.S. citizens outside of the United States. The term Americans, while imprecise in the greater geographical context, is used here to refer to U.S. citizens.

Diaspora originally referred to a group of people who had been violently dispersed from a homeland to two or more countries and who maintained a sense of identity, a wish to return, and a collective sense of belonging. The Jewish, Armenian, and Greek diasporas are often seen as epitomizing this definition. In recent years, however, diaspora has begun to be understood far more broadly, including all of those born in a specific country or sharing the same ethnic origin. This usage of diaspora makes the most sense in a development context where emphasizing that the common homeland and sense of connection can support and further the contributions of those living overseas to the home country.

The term external citizen is used most often in a context of political transnationalism and emphasizes a person's continued inclusion in the home country's political system.

Where Are Overseas Americans?

Americans are dispersed more broadly throughout the world—in at least 100 countries—than are emigrants from any other given country. About two-thirds of Americans abroad live in ten countries, compared to between 80 percent and 99 percent of most other countries, according to 2010 World Bank figures. There is broad agreement that Mexico and Canada have the largest population of U.S. citizens, with Israel, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany also being key host countries.

One explanation for why Americans are scattered so broadly may be drawn from Mary Kritz et al's migration systems theory, according to which migration between two or more countries is facilitated by shared linkages such as political, economic, and historical ties. Numerous migration systems lead migrants to the United States; Americans then also are influenced by these numerous systems in leaving the United States.

Who Are Overseas Americans?

Based on the results of Klekowski von Koppenfels' forthcoming study, Americans leave the United States for a variety of reasons, most commonly for marriage or partnership, study or research, or employment. Many originally intended to return to the United States after a limited period overseas, but prolonged their stay when an employment contract was extended, when they met and remained with a partner, or stumbled upon an unexpected work opportunity—essentially becoming "accidental migrants" or "accidental immigrants" (terms coined by Klekowski von Koppenfels and Carol E. Kelley). The study showed clear variations among Americans living in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom in terms of profile, migration motivation, and sector of employment, concluding that differences are likely greater still among Americans living in other world regions.

Another factor in the profile of overseas Americans is the strong jus soli component of U.S. citizenship law (14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution): anyone born on U.S. soil, regardless of the parents' status, is a U.S. citizen (although children born to foreign diplomats are not). Thus, children born to seasonal migrant workers, foreign employees of U.S.-based businesses, or international students, for example, are U.S. citizens. Those U.S.-born children who return to their home countries are also U.S. citizens living overseas. Similarly, children born to Americans abroad are usually eligible for U.S. citizenship, thanks to the fairly broad jus sanguinis component of U.S. citizenship law (a U.S.-born parent of a child born abroad must generally have lived in the United States for at least five years in order for the child to acquire U.S. citizenship).

There is great diversity among overseas Americans: Nearly one-fifth of the 884 Americans surveyed in the author's study worked in education, which often means teaching English, frequently on a freelance basis; those working in IT or communications made up nearly another fifth. Others are veterans of the U.S. armed services who have remained overseas after retirement, or after the conclusion of a conflict or a tour of duty, often marrying local residents. Some Americans choose to retire abroad, often in Mexico, Central America, Asia, or Europe. A limited U.S. retirement income goes much further in Central America or rural Portugal than it does in many parts of the United States; a 2006 Migration Policy Institute report found that economic factors were key in Americans' decision to retire to Mexico or Panama.

Another factor which was revealed in the author's study is the case of gay and lesbian Americans with foreign partners (or "love exiles," a term introduced by advocate Martha McDevitt-Pugh in 2004). Some of these couples have moved abroad because U.S. immigration law does not allow the U.S. citizen partner to sponsor his or her same-sex foreign partner for a green card in the United States, although same-sex relationships are now being taken into account in decisions regarding other immigration matters (see Same-Sex Partners Steadily Gain Recognition in Immigration Benefits). Over 20 countries in the world (including Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Brazil, and South Africa) do allow their citizens to sponsor a same-sex partner for a spousal visa.

Counting the Uncountable

Counting Americans overseas is a significant challenge. Unlike many countries, the United States does not require its citizens to register a place of residence, either in the United States or abroad. Further, there is no longer a central database against which to calculate U.S. citizen departures. As part of the 1998 Mexico/United States Binational Study on Migration, researcher Ellen Percy Kraly explains that data on the "permanent departure of aliens and U.S. citizens were collected up until 1957, but the statistical program was discontinued because of uncertainty about the quality of the data." Despite a number of efforts to calculate this figure, no widely agreed-upon estimate has emerged. Nevertheless most estimates do show an upward trend over time.

The Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), tasked with assisting overseas Americans with voting, estimates 4.5 million to 6.5 million overseas Americans. The Overseas American Academy counts 3.6 million civilian Americans living outside the United States, and the World Bank, drawing on host countries' own estimates, offers a 2.2 million estimate — all of which acknowledge the imprecision of the process. (Foreign government estimates are often lower and do not consistently identify dual citizens, who are usually enumerated on the basis of their second/ host country passport or those resident only part of the year.)

The State Department's most recent figure (January 2013) of U.S. citizens living overseas (which is the source of other organizations' estimates such as the Association of Americans Resident Overseas [AARO]) stands at 6.8 million, up from 6.3 million in July 2012. The State Department forms its overall calculation based on estimates from embassies, consulates, and a variety of other sources. One such source is registration with the embassy, a practice likely to be far more common in high-risk countries such as Iraq or Afghanistan, but lower in France or Germany, therefore potentially introducing a country-specific bias. It is likely, although unknown, whether the State Department includes dual citizens in its estimates, which often run two to three times higher than estimates made by foreign governments.

How Many Americans Leave the United States in a Given Year?

One way of estimating the number of Americans living abroad is by calculating the number who enter other countries in a given year (flows). Even that, however, remains a challenge, requiring ongoing data exchanges with statistical agencies in countries where Americans reside. Some agencies are unable to provide the data, and as mentioned above, some dual-citizen Americans may be registered under another passport and not be statistically identifiable as Americans. It is also nearly impossible to ascertain the intentions—and ultimate itineraries—of those Americans entering a country at a given point in time.

The Census Bureau's annual American Community Survey (ACS) includes a question about place of residence one year prior, as well as questions on citizenship and place of birth, enabling the calculation to be made as to how many Americans lived overseas in the most recent year (but not for how long, or how many remain overseas). What can be deducted from 2011 ACS data, however, is that around 700,000 Americans (or about 0.2 percent of U.S. citizens) returned to the United States in the previous year.

There are also indirect ways of estimating the number of Americans who leave (emigrate) which are calculated using demographic factors such as births, deaths, return migration, and expected population growth; these are currently being evaluated by the Census Bureau as an alternative estimate of native-born emigration.

The Census Bureau has estimated wide fluctuations in the overseas American population. Drawing on available data from 16 foreign countries, James Gibbs et al note that on average, 18,000 U.S.-born citizens emigrated annually between 1990 and 2000. Later, drawing on a comparison of U.S. data and data from 84 foreign countries, Jason Schachter estimates that the average net emigration flow per year was about 6,400 (U.S.-born) Americans to just four countries (United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Canada) during the same time period, with about 45,000 Americans leaving the United States, regardless of destination, each year. Both Gibbs and Schachter note limitations in the regular estimation of these data, which depends on comparable and available data from foreign countries.

Census Counts

Although there have been several Census Bureau attempts to enumerate Americans abroad, by and large the estimates have been calculated on citizens in military or civilian service for the U.S. federal government ("federally affiliated"). The estimates have, for the most part, relied upon administrative records, rather than census forms filled out by individuals. However, these methods are not entirely accurate, as many Americans abroad, without a U.S. paper trail, may be excluded. The Census Bureau is addressing these concerns by recommending that, in preparation for Census 2020, a test be undertaken using administrative records to estimate the non-federally affiliated overseas population too.

Table 1 lists the counts of federally-affiliated U.S. populations abroad, primarily military, showing the impact of overseas military deployments upon the count of these overseas Americans. The federally affiliated population has been included in congressional apportionment based upon the 1970, 1990, 2000, and 2010 censuses.


Table 1. Total U.S. Federally-Affiliated Overseas Population

Total U.S. Federally Affiliated Overseas Population % Belonging to Armed Forces (Including Dependents)
2010 1,042,523 96
2000 576,367 92
1990 922,819 95
1980 995,546 N/A
1970 1,580,998 N/A

Note: Figures do not include civilian U.S. citizens residing outside the United States.
Source: Crook and Druetto, 2012. 2010 Census Federally Affiliated Overseas Count Operation Assessment Report.


Following intensive lobbying by overseas American groups with support from Congress, the Census Bureau undertook a 2004 feasibility test of overseas enumeration, including civilian U.S. citizens residing abroad, with France, Kuwait, and Mexico the three test countries. Based on this field test, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Census Bureau both concluded that voluntary self-enumeration of U.S. citizens living abroad was not feasible, due in part to its lack of cost-effectiveness and limitations such as host-country data privacy laws and its opt-in nature (participation was very low, at just 5,390 Americans – just a fraction of the estimated American population in those countries).

Other Estimates

In addition to the U.S. government, organizations and researchers have undertaken a number of estimates of U.S. citizens overseas. The World Bank, in its 2010 bilateral counts of migrant stock by source and destination countries, estimates that 2.2 million U.S. citizens live outside the United States. As the report authors point out, "Even the most widely-cited estimates of global migrant stocks available from the United Nations Population Division appear to undercount the actual stock of migrants in a number of countries." The primary issues here relate to coverage (underreporting) and comparability of definitions and data sources, each affecting the degree to which Americans (U.S. citizens) are included in the various censuses, registers and other sources of other countries. Additionally, these data do not include a number of countries—perhaps for lack of good quality data or data altogether—including Afghanistan, where the presence of U.S. citizens, especially federally-affiliated citizens, was unquestionably large in 2010.

The Overseas American Academy extrapolated from consular reports of births of U.S. citizens abroad (60,000 in 2009) to produce an estimate of 3.6 million overseas Americans, nearly one-third of whom were in Europe, and one-quarter in East Asia and the Pacific. As innovative as this method is, it assumes a fixed fertility rate, which is not necessarily the case.

In attempting to develop new means of estimating the population of Americans living abroad, the Census Bureau has calculated alternative native-born emigration rates based on expanding its use of foreign data sources. Other researchers have also relied on foreign sources to estimate the size of the American population living overseas—the serious limitations of which have been explored above.

Counting Overseas Populations: An International Challenge

The United States is not the only country to struggle with counting its population living abroad. Most countries do not enumerate those leaving as carefully as they do those arriving; the United States is no exception. A few studies have been carried out which estimated the number of Australians and British citizens abroad, also revealing difficulty in arriving at a clear figure; estimates for the former range from 450,000 to 900,000, and for the latter, from 4.7 million to 5.6 million. Even so, the range of estimates in the case of the United States is particularly broad.

One reason for the interest in knowing how many citizens live overseas is the role of external citizens in home-country elections. Their impact, in countries across the globe, has grown in recent years. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance and the Federal Electoral Institute of Mexico, 115 nations and territories allowed their overseas citizens to vote in national elections in 2007, and since then many more have signed on, including El Salvador in January 2013. The political engagement of migrants in their home country, or political transnationalism, is often expressed through voting in home-country elections and, indeed, Americans are no different.

The United States is one of few countries that require its citizens abroad to file annual tax returns and additionally requires reporting on monies held overseas; the increased reporting requirements led to sharply increased citizenship renunciations in 2011 (see Renouncing U.S. Citizenship: A New Trend?), although, even so, the share of those renouncing remains less than half of 1 percent. These ties between Americans abroad and their country are longstanding; overseas Americans have been taxed since 1962 and won the right to vote in 1976, thanks to overseas American grassroots lobbying which, among other statements, argued for "No taxation without representation."

Collaborative efforts to produce more reliable estimates of overseas populations continue. A recent UN working group, the Suitland group, and country statistical offices are coordinating to estimate their citizens' exits and others' arrivals more accurately, including a comprehensive review of different techniques of doing so. The question of how many Americans are living overseas may soon have a clearer answer.

For more information about Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels' study, stay tuned for her forthcoming book, Migrants or Expatriates? Americans in Europe, Basingstoke: Palgrave. The Source is grateful to Palgrave for permission to publish this article, which does not contain any text directly taken from the book manuscript.


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