New CBS study aims at describing expats

For the first time, the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) has performed a study intended to shed light on expats living in the Netherlands.

In their report titled Expat: wanneer ben je het? (given in English as Expat: who are they?) the researchers considered the complex question of who qualifies as an "expat".

Reflecting on a number of characteristics frequently ascribed to expats, as well as the data sets available to CBS, they settled on two criteria - foreign birth (with no Dutch nationality) and a relatively high salary - as primary means of delineating the group.

Though the study was published in January, 2015, the data concern the year 2011.

Who is an "expat"?

The people who qualified as expats in this study all had salaries that fell between the 35th and 15th percentile of the highest wage earners in their respective sectors, depending on the industry.

Their ages stood between 18 and 75 years old, and they reported a range of motivations for immigration.  However, refugees, au pairs and people pursuing internships were not considered "expats".  They were also distinguished from regular immigrants by their intention to live in the Netherlands only temporarily, though this period could extend to many years.

Depending on the salary levels delineated by the researchers, the number of expats in the Netherlands can range between 39.000 and 75.000.

Differences in gender and age

The study found that in 2011, according to the above criteria, there were one-and-a-half times as many male expats (35.000) in the Netherlands as there were female (22.000). Around three quarters of this population was between 18 and 40 years old, with women over 60 forming an especially small minority.

Country of origin

The most-represented nationalities among expats were German and British. These two countries were the origin of one quarter of expats. Among men, Britain was the single most frequent birthplace; among women, Germany.

For women, the most represented nationalities were German, British, Polish, Belgian and French, in that order. In the case of men, they were British, German, Indian, Polish and French. If both genders are graphed together, Italian also appears in the top five.

Marital status and length of stay

One in three high-earning foreign workers was single (and usually childless) in 2011. Most expat couples had children. Perhaps surprisingly, expat men were more likely to have children than to have wives.

More male than female expats had a nuclear family (gezin) in the Netherlands. The study accounts for this by noting that men are more likely to fall under the "expat" definition because they tend to be the main family breadwinners (i.e. earn a higher salary) and women are more likely to follow their husbands abroad.

Half of the expats studied had been living in the Netherlands for under five years. Only one fifth had been around for 10.

The job sectors most popular among expats were business service, commerce, transportation and horeca, and government and public sector service (health care, education). Male workers outnumbered women in all but the last category.

Distribution in the Netherlands

Unsurprisingly, the majority (64 per cent) of expats lived and worked in North and South Holland, especially around Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague.

Utrecht, Groningen, Nijmegen and other major Dutch cities also held large expat communities. Relatively few expats were reported in Drenthe, Friesland and Overijssel.


The researchers behind this report are conscious of the fact that they are dealing with a very elusive, abstract concept. The term "expat" has a variety of meanings and connotations to different indivuals. Certainly, the central criteria of the study - in particular, the high salary requirement - exclude many who do in fact identify as expats.  

It is possible to question the usefulness of a study that has to take so many liberties in defining its own object. However, the researchers do not view their findings or methodology as definitive.  Their study draws attention to a lack of information on temporary, professional foreign workers in the Netherlands, what attracts them, and the roles they play in the development of certain industries.

Moreover, CBS recognises that many frequently-ascribed characteristics of expats do not lend themselves well to study. For example, the researchers consider a lack of identification with Dutch culture to be a feature of an expat, but such a topic is highly problematic to survey. Data on foreign workers’ education levels were also missing, as was more precise information on their job industries.

In the future, the researchers hope a larger range of data will become available, allowing for studies that could be used to examine and maximise the benefits of hosting a large foreign-born workforce.

Read the full report, available only in Dutch, here.

Emily McCallum


Emily McCallum

Emily grew up in a small coastal town in western Canada and moved to Utrecht in 2014, after completing her studies in Vancouver and Germany. So far, she has been...

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