Moving abroad is one of the freshest starts you can possibly get. Think about it, you’re moving to a new country where in most situations no one knows you. This is amplified if you’re moving abroad solo, without a partner or a friend.
While I find this incredibly liberating, it can also be terrifying. It’s now up to you to make friends and put yourself out there. Since no one knows you, no one will invite you places and talk you up to their friends. This will change though. Once you settle in and start making friends and putting yourself out there, you’ll soon start meeting friends of friends and will find your crew abroad.
After you've gone after what you want and you've moved to another country, it's time for you to settle in. A big aspect of settling in is finding your community abroad.
Before I jump into the tips, there are 2 things I want to note.
The first thing is that all expats are looking for friends. We’re all in the same boat, whether it seems that way or not. All of us, especially when we’re new in town, are looking to meet people. This should take some of the pressure off of you when you realize that you’re actually doing everyone a favor by making the first move and saying, “hello.”
Being an expat also means getting used to saying good-bye. Whether it’s the good-byes you’ve already said to your friends and family or the good-byes you’ll say to new friends abroad, it’s a part of the package that can be tough to swallow. Unless you plan to move somewhere permanently and only make friends with locals and others also moving permanently, it’s only a matter of time before you or your new friend will move.
Because of this, I’ve gone in waves with wanting to meet new people. When I first moved abroad in 2013, I was excited to meet anyone and everyone, regardless of if they were a local, an expat like me, or a traveler only in town for the night. A few years into my expat journey, I was working in the tourism industry, so much of this was still true. But then the good-byes started taking their toll on me. When I lived in South Korea and Ho Chi Minh City, I still made friends, mainly with my co-workers, but I could sense I was holding myself back. I had the attitude of, “what’s the point?,” knowing I wasn’t planning to stay in either place for more than a year.
Moving to Da Nang though, I woke up. I realized how dumb that mindset was and how yes, while good-byes do suck, all the wonderful friends I now have around the world have made it worth it. Sharing your time abroad with a good friend will also amplify your experience and bond you with that person more than you might realize. I started putting myself back out there, not worrying so much if the other person was planning to move soon or not.
So, whether you’re brand new in your expat journey or years in, here are 8 tips that have helped me find some of my best friends abroad.
1. Utilize Facebook groups/social media
There’s a lot of cons to Facebook but once you move abroad, you’ll find the pros, too. And the biggest of them all are the Facebook groups for expats. These groups will be your lifeline to events and good tips to settling in (finding out where to get certain products, clothes, and foods).
I highly recommend joining all the expat groups for your new city or country but most places will have a “women’s only” group, and that one is typically the best. For whatever reason, women’s only groups tend to be more supportive and have fewer trolls.
You can also use other social media apps to learn about events or even reach out to people you know who live in the same city. I’ve met a few friends in Da Nang simply because they reached out to me on Instagram once I moved to say they lived there as well. We went for coffee and that was all it took to become buddies.
2. Make your default answer, “yes”
Now that you’ve joined the Facebook groups, you’re going to learn about a ton of events happening in your area. This is when you want to turn your default answer into, “yes.”
There are going to be a wide range of events for parties, meetups, and random hobbies that you probably never even considered before. If it’s something that even slightly interests you, you should go. Maybe it’ll be terrible and you’ll go home just knowing a new thing that you’re not into but maybe it’ll be great and you’ll meet like-minded people or learn about a new interest you now have.
Either way, until you find what sticks, say, “yes,” “yes,” and “yes” to everything you can.
3. Host your own meetup
Better yet, if there’s something you enjoy and you don’t already see a meetup happening, host your own! This can be something as simple as, “I’m new to town and would like to meet new people on the beach this Saturday,” or what I did, “I just found this cool new bar and would love to grab some drinks for a ladies night this Wednesday.”
That meetup was the only one I ever hosted because out of that one night, I met 2 of my best friends in Da Nang and plenty of others that I enjoy seeing out on the weekends.
You could even decide to host something more niche like a book club or a video game night. Whatever it is you enjoy doing, don’t be shy to try and find others in your area that are into the same thing. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how diverse expat communities can be.
4. Follow up with people you met and liked
Now here comes the tricky part, in my opinion. I really enjoy meeting people at bars or making random conversations at coffee shops but have a hard time following through with the ones I click with. This step is going to be crucial for turning those random people you know into people you’re friends with.
If you meet someone at one of these meetups or really get along with a co-worker, connect with them. Ask them for their social media or their phone number and go ahead and schedule a time to grab lunch or a beer. Taking that next step is fundamental in finding your friends.
This recently happened to me. I kept running into a girl at this same coffee shop we both frequented or while we both took our dogs on walks. I’d even see her at the grocery store or at boxing class. We always chatted and shared some laughs but it took weeks for me to make the next move and ask her on a friendship date. We now continue to run into each other on accident but also plan for lunch or beach dates every week and have turned into great friends.
5. Hang out with your co-workers
Working in-person, as a teacher, tour guide or Peace Corps volunteer, has always been my biggest lifeline to making friends with locals and other expats. It’s a pretty simple way to meet people since you’re forced to spend a lot of time with them.
Not all of your co-workers will become your best friends but I guarantee a lot of them will, especially if you give them a chance outside of working hours.
If you’re on the fence between working in-person and working online, let this be a vote for getting a job in-person. It’s much easier to meet people when you’re pretty much given friends. At the very least, these people will show you around, introduce you to their friends, and will make settling in much easier.
6. Practice the local language
I know I’ve been focusing a lot on making expat friends, and while making friends who understand your culture and your language will be really helpful on the mental and emotional aspects of moving abroad, having local friends is just as important.
The issue here is the language.
If you already speak the native language, it’s up to you to chat up strangers at the bar or coffee shop. They’re in their home country, with their friends and family, so in most cases, they won’t be as eager to meet new people as other expats are.
When you don’t speak the native language, joining a language immersion program or hiring a local as a teacher will help you not only learn the language but will make you do so in-person with other people. Using apps at home is great but you’re bypassing the potential friendships if you choose to learn this way.
If you're moving abroad with your family, it's especially helpful for your children to learn the local language to quickly make friends their own age and adapt better in school. Warning: you might be a little jealous with how quickly your child is able to learn a language compared to you!
7. Join a sport or club
Playing sports has introduced me to so many friends abroad, especially locals. I’ve been an athlete my entire life so sports are something that I’ve always relied on, in my home country or abroad. When I first moved to Ecuador, I joined a running club and later played in a local soccer league. The soccer league was especially great in immersing me in the local community. Every week there was a tournament in a different neighborhood in the town. We’d all go there together and play among 6 or so other games. The entire neighborhood would turn up to watch, eat snacks and drink beer.
Since I was on one of the teams, it made me feel like I belonged. It also gave locals the courage to come and speak with me because they assumed I could speak Spanish and was living in town, not just a tourist passing through.
Here in Vietnam, I’ve gotten into boxing. That’s been another amazing way to meet friends. Although they don’t have the weekly tournaments like soccer did, I still go to practice a few nights a week and have met a lot of locals and foreigners at the gym.
The same goes for joining a club. My husband loves video games, so while living in Ho Chi Minh, he joined a group of foreigners and locals who organized weekly video game tournaments. It was a great place for him to relax after work but also a way to meet like-minded friends.
8. Opt for spending time outside rather than in your home
There’s a lot of time I really just want to spend some time by myself so don’t worry, this tip isn’t an attempt to take away all of your alone time. Instead, for those days you’d be happy to chat with others, get out of your house! If you need to work, work from a coffee shop, without headphones in. If you just want to relax, take your book to a bar, café or a park. If it’s late at night, go to the bar and chat up strangers, you never know who you’ll meet.
These tips are great for meeting friends but might also introduce you to your significant other if you’re traveling solo.
I met my now-husband by buying him a shot of tequila on a random night out in Panama City, Panama that I didn’t want to stay in but had no friends in town to go out with. We were both staying at the same hostel but hadn’t spoken much more than a simple hello. I grabbed all the guys that were in that night and asked if they wanted to go out. An hour into the night, I invited him for a shot and the rest is history. We even both had our own plans to leave Panama in about a month but decided to enjoy the time together anyways. After going our separate ways, we met back up in Europe and have been traveling together since.
You really never know when you’ll meet your new best friends or your new significant others. So try to push the shyness aside, go put yourself out and find your people abroad.