Aims to get a clearer picture of why multinational companies (MNCs) send out expatriates. Identifies three organisational functions of international transfers: position filling, management development and coordination and control. Based on an empirical study with results from 212 subsidiaries of MNCs from nine different home countries, located in 22 different host countries, shows that the importance that is attached to these functions differs between subsidiaries in MNCs from different home countries, between subsidiaries in different host regions and in addition varies with the level of cultural difference. Sees position filling as most important for subsidiaries of US and British MNCs and in the Latin American and Far Eastern regions. Sees management development as most important for subsidiaries of German, Swiss and Dutch MNCs and as tending to occur more in Anglo‐Saxon countries than in the Far Eastern region. Transfers for coordination and control seem to be most important for subsidiaries of German and Japanese MNCs and in host countries that are culturally distant from headquarters. Argues that these differences might have important consequences for expatriate management.