Word Choice: Emigrate, Immigrate or Migrate?

‘Emigrate’ and ‘immigrate’ sound similar when spoken, so it’s no surprise they’re sometimes used interchangeably in writing. Throw ‘migrate’ into the mix, too, and things get even more confusing!

The difference between these three terms is relatively subtle. However, it’s also significant if you want to communicate clearly, making it important to choose the correct term. Learn the precise meaning of each word below.

Emigrate (Leave)

To ’emigrate’ is to leave one’s home country and move to another with the intention of living there permanently. It would be used in a sentence like this:

Mike’s ancestors emigrated from Ireland in the 1840s.

While ’emigrate’ is a verb, the noun form of this word is ’emigration’.

Immigrate (Arrive)

To ‘immigrate’ is to arrive in a new country with the intention of making it one’s permanent residence. If we reverse the example above, it would be used in a sentence like this:

Mike’s family immigrated to Australia in the 1840s.

While ‘immigrate’ is a verb, the noun associated with this term is ‘immigration’.

Migrate (Move from One Region to Another)

The verb ‘migrate’ simply means ‘to move from one country, location or region to another’. For instance, we might say that:

In recent history, people have tended to migrate from rural to urban locations.

In its broad sense, ‘migration’ refers to the general movement of people across the globe, without reference to whether they are leaving or arriving. This can be permanent or temporary.

The words ‘migration’ and ‘migrate’ are also used in a some non-human senses, such as to describe the seasonal movement of animals from one region to another. For example:

European swallows migrate to Africa during the winter.

Other contexts in which ‘migration’ can be used include biology (e.g. ‘cell migration’), chemistry (e.g. ‘ionic migration’) and computing (e.g. ‘data migration’). These are all quite specialised, though, so the main thing to remember is that they all refer to movement.

Emigrate, Immigrate or Migrate?

The key thing to remember is that ’emigration’ refers to leaving one’s country of origin, whilst ‘immigration’ refers to arriving in a new country. Don’t forget that ‘emigrate’ is spelled with one ‘m’ and ‘immigrate’ has two!

‘Migration’, meanwhile, is simply movement from one location to another. This can be human movement, but can also be used in other contexts.

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