How to make friends as an expat

Here’s the good news: It is now easier than ever to make new friends whilst living in another country. There are fantastic online communities to join, social events taking place throughout the year and more people than ever living abroad for you to connect with. However, making new friends will require some bravery and proactive behaviour from you. Not sure where to begin? Don’t worry, that’s what I’m here for! I’d like to share some of my personal recommendations as an expat/immigrant/whatever we’re known as.

This post will be especially relevant to people who are working or studying abroad, but also for those of you who are staying in a new country for a considerable amount of time, such as digital nomads and long-term travellers. For short-term travellers and holiday makers, it’s easier to meet people. You can stay at lively hostels and start chatting to people in the common room or kitchen areas. You can go on organised pub crawls with other tourists. You can register for Airbnb events or take masterclasses in whatever interests you.

Those of us living abroad for longer periods of time can find it more challenging. Having lived in two foreign countries so far (Italy and Germany), I’ve picked up some good tips on how to meet new people and develop friendships, through trial and error. At the beginning, becoming friends with other expats feels almost like dating. You arrange to meet for a drink (whether that’s a cup of coffee or something stronger), make small talk and try to work out if you ‘click’ with each other. Sometimes it takes a few meet-ups to know whether you gel together or not, and sometimes it’s an instantaneous ‘yes’.  In my experience, expat friendships can be quicker and more intense than ‘regular’ friendships. Within a matter of months (or weeks), you have shared so much with someone who was just a stranger not too long ago. You’ve bonded over your shared experiences, reminisced about what you miss back home, sympathized with each other’s frustrations and laughed about misunderstandings due to language and cultural barriers.

So how can you meet new people?

Use your personal network

Nowadays, with thousands of people working, studying and living abroad, our personal networks have become more international and diverse. Ask around and see if your friends have any contacts in your new city. When I announced I was moving to Hamburg, a friend messaged me to say “Hey, I know someone who lives there!“. She connected me to J, a fellow Italophile who has also lived in Rome. Coincidentally, we were there at the same time but didn’t cross paths until I moved to Hamburg. During our first ‘friend date’, we bonded over our romesickness, love of everything Italiano and tremendous shock Hamburg is in January. So ask your friends if they have anyone they can put you in touch with – you may be surprised just how small the world is and how interlinked we all are.

Facebook groups

There are a staggering number of Facebook groups for expats, which are great places to ask questions, chat to other members, search for apartments and buy/sell furniture (along with other items). As I don’t have a TV or listen to the radio, Facebook helps me stay in the know. These groups are easy to find as the names aren’t very creative! Many will have ‘Expats’ ‘Expats in’ or ‘New in…’ in the title. Here are some of the most active groups I’ve joined in Hamburg:

See what I mean?

Along with city-specific groups, there are fantastic global communities you can join. You can connect with like-minded people, get information and be inspired about where to visit next, be it for a holiday or another international move. Some of my favourite global communities include:

Girl Gone International  – GGI is the world’s largest female expat community and network. There are over 150,000 members in 100+ cities. I was a member of GGI Rome, am part of GGI Hamburg and have met some of my closest friends through the organisation. Each city group has a manager and one or two event organisers, who arrange regular meet-ups for all members. Depending on the group you’re in, there might also be some subgroups. For example, GGI Hamburg has a Book Club, photography group and ‘mums & kids’ group. Girl Gone International even have an online magazine, written for and by women living overseas.

Girls Love Travel – With 630,000+ members (and counting), GLT is a fantastic source of information, advice and travel inspiration. There is a global network and city-specific subgroups in many large cities around the world. Many GLT members like to meet up with other GLTers while on the road, so it can be a good way to make new friends and get locals’ recommendations. While living in Rome, I met several GLT members who were passing through and we’re still in touch today.

InterNations is the largest networking site and guide for expats, operating in 420 cities worldwide. You can either sign up for free and pay per event, or buy a special membership which gives you reduced entry to events and access to interest-based groups. If you’d like access to a huge, well-established community (and/or the Facebook group scene is lacking where you are), InterNations could be a great choice!

Meetup is a great websites for local events and groups. Along with the typical events focused around eating and drinking together, there are niche groups about all kinds of hobbies, along with workshops and walking tours.

Travelettes –  Launched in 2009, this group of female travel writers and photographers share their travel guides, stories and advice on their website and encourage lots of discussion and participation in their Facebook group.

Along with utilizing your personal network and joining some online communities, here are some more other ways to make new friends:

  • Find like-minded people through classes; cookery, sports, arts & crafts.
  • Sign up for a language exchange – either as a one-on-one tandem or in a small group.
  • Start chatting to other people at the gym – either before or after exercise classes, or in the changing rooms (not when they’re half-dressed, that’s creepy!).
  • Go on a walking tour and start chatting to the other participants. It’s possible that some will be new in town, or fellow expats wanting to learn more about the city. If all the other participants are tourists, chat to the tour guide!

Finding friendships through hobbies and common interest might feel less forced than sitting with a group of strangers in a pub or bar. However, these friendships still doesn’t happen overnight. Find a class or activity you enjoy and keep going. Week by week, you’ll start to see some of the same people, and eventually you can start a conversation and getting to know each other.

Organising your own events

Once you’ve joined some groups and met some new people, if you feel that your city’s social scene is a little dormant, why not organise your own events? You can do it for free on Facebook and Meetup. Find a cafe with a decent amount of seating and suggest a Saturday afternoon coffee get-together. Suggest a picnic in the park on a sunny day, or Friday night after-work drinks.

My advice to you

Say yes to opportunities and invitations! Attending events alone & introducing yourself to complete strangers might feel awkward and daunting as hell, but it really will be worth it in the end. I promise! I was so nervous before I walked into my first expat event in Rome, but I just kept thinking “Fake it until you make it”. Fake that confidence, even if your palms are sweatingI took a deep breath, walked into the room and asked if I could take an empty seat with a table of strangers. Some of the people I met that night became invaluable friends during my first year in Italy. New friends aren’t just going to waltz into your apartment and introduce themselves (just imagine how weird that would be!). Being active in the online communities is a great way to connect, but you need to literally and figuratively put yourself out there. Your comfort zone is a beautiful place…. but nothing ever grows there. 

Make sure not to overdo it. Don’t go to so many events that your physical and mental health suffer – along with your bank balance! If you feel like you’re burning the candle at both ends, take a breather, concentrate on your self-care and only go to one or two events a month until you feel better. Remember, we are all in the same boat, looking for friendships and trying to make connections as we adjust to life in a new country. Loneliness is an unfortunate, natural part of the expat experience. Whether you’re single or in a relationship, we all feel the pangs from time to time. When loneliness strikes, focus on what brings you joy; prioritizing your self-care and your own happiness. You’ve got this.

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6 comments

  1. Great tips. I am going to have to check out some of those groups that you mentioned. I work at home and work alot so that has made making friends even harder

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  2. I have been an expat in Spain for two years. Making other expat friends was the easy part. I work with a big English-teaching program and there are always a good 50-100 other English teachers living in both cities I have lived in. We are all new at the beginning of the year and groups form fast. Last year in Granada, we had a whastapp group. The hard part was befriending locals. I do speak fluent Spanish, but some people move to Spain with 0 (not something I would honestly recommend, though). I have made Spanish friends through language exchanges and living with Spaniards. But that one is the one I think people struggle with more.

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    • Hi Nina, thanks for your comment. I definitely agree about the language barrier and forming deeper friendships being a struggle. It’s great that you are fluent in Spanish – I wish I was fluent in a second language. I moved to Italy with zero Italian and Germany with zero German, and living with my British boyfriend and speaking English all day at work means my opportunities to learn and improve are limited.

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