The JGM BitBlog: Self-initiated expatriates - what do we know, what do we still need to know?

Journal of Global Mobility

Chris Brewster, University of Reading - Henley Business School, Reading, UK

Vesa Suutari, University of Vaasa – Management, Vaasa, Finland

Marie-France Waxin, American University of Sharjah, School of Business Administration, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates


Self-initiated expatriates (SIEs) have always existed. The ancient religious texts are full of stories of people visiting other countries for extended but temporary stays and a quick perusal of the history of state diplomacy or art or exploration will show that the process has continued ever since. But the first academic paper specifically focused on SIEs was only published in 2000. Since then, there have been hundreds of articles and several books devoted to the topic and it has become a staple of International Human Resource Management (IHRM) textbooks and courses.

What do we know as a result of all this work – and what do we still need to know?

First, we know who we mean by self-initiated expatriates.  Manifestly, they are a sub-set of expatriates: people living and working legally for a temporary period in a country that is not their own. SIEs are expatriates who made the decision to work in another country themselves: they either go to that country and get a job once there, or they apply for employment there from their home country; or, if they were already working abroad when they made that decision, they are SIEs if they elect to work for a different organisation.

Second, the range of research into SIEs has been limited. It has been largely limited to Western home countries (that SIEs have originated from or repatriated to) and host countries that they are, or have been, working in, with only a few articles including Asian respondents or Asian/ Middle Eastern destinations. Many use internet trawls for their populations, but nevertheless most use quantitative methodologies.

Third, although there are many different types of SIE, most studies either assume that all SIEs are alike or focus explicitly on one type: such as health-care professionals or academics.

Fourth, for those SIEs that have been studied, we know their most important motives for going to work in another country are the opportunity for travel and adventure and for career development, the financial benefits of some of these jobs or of living in another country and the general quality of life, and personal relationships with their partner, their family or friends. These motives are of course affected by marital status, nationality, previous expatriate experience, and seniority.

Fifth, there have been many studies of SIEs’ adjustment to their host country. For SIEs, language proficiency and emotional and cultural empathy were found to be key factors in their adjustment.  Researchers have identified significant positive correlations between adjustment and previous overseas work experience and culture novelty.

Sixth, we know that most SIEs, when they look back, find it to have been a positive experience with real benefits for their careers and their lives more generally. What do we sill need to know? What should our research agenda for SIEs include?

We need to study a wider range of people, from and in many different countries; we need to explore the many different types of SIE, including particularly the low-status ones (now often conflated with migration studies). We need more studies setting the SIE experience in the overall life of the individual. We may need different research methods. We need more studies of the relationship between SIEs and businesses: what are the HRM implications? There are increasing numbers of scholars wanting to get involved in such research. We have started the journey: the opportunities are exciting.

To read the full article, please see the Journal of Global Mobility publication:

Brewster, C., Suutari, V. and Waxin, M.-F. (2021), "Two decades of research into SIEs and what do we know? A systematic review of the most influential literature and a proposed research agenda", Journal of Global Mobility, Vol. 9 No. 3, pp. 311-337.