How To Make Friends Abroad: The Lonely Expat’s Guide

making friends abroad

Friends. /ˈfɾɛnz/ n. The people whose mannerisms you unconsciously adopt, because you spend too much time together. The people you can go a year without seeing, and still feel as close as ever. The people you miss desperately from home, and search desperately for abroad. 

Here is your guide to making friends abroad. You can trust me on this one, since I’ve been here for two months and could count my new friends on my thumbs, even if I lost one of my thumbs in a machinery accident.*

Making friends is part of the job description when you move abroad. But it’s a bit like Microsoft Excel—everyone thinks they know how to do it, puts it on their resumé as a given, and then realizes there’s a whole lot more to it than your basic rows and columns.

In the business world, your boss yells at you and you quickly Google “how to shift cells up.”

In the social world, you end up sipping a lot of lonely coffees.

Truth is, we assume we know how to make friends, just because we grew up being convincingly social. But making friends abroad (or any new place) is different than making friends in kindergarten.

I consider myself a shy extrovert, which sort of sucks when it comes to the whole move abroad thing. It means I LOVE having tons of friends, but since they don’t just fall into my lap when I move to a new place, I brood over the extra doses of “me” time. But since I’m a damn SHY extrovert, I’m slightly too timid to get the ball really rollin’ on making all those friendships. The Catch-22 of social problems. A major reason for my highs and lows abroad is the realization that I left so many great friends back home, and picking up new ones isn’t as easy as listing it on your Expat Resumé.

Making friends is still a struggle for me in Barcelona, especially since there are not very many English teachers placed here through my program Meddeas, so I can’t readily connect with them as I did in Bilbao. But my third time heading abroad knowing virtually NO ONE has taught me a thing or two about making friends, and the importance of putting yourself out there more than you would in “normal” life. To be perfectly honest, I’m kind of OVER THIS TEDIOUS FRIEND-MAKING PROCESS—but what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right?

So here are my tips to snatch up the friends. Take it from this shy extrovert.

*This number excludes my wonderful roommates. Love them. But roommates are effortless friends, so they don’t count.

10 Tips For Making Friends Abroad (or anywhere new)

1) Meetup.com

Bookmark this site. Give it priority over Google, Facebook, and your nasty porn. Meetup is like OKCupid for friends—sort of. On it you can find established groups for all interests: Beach volleyball, language exchanges, cooking, artists, writers. There is even one in Barcelona for “elitists,” meaning they just meet at very posh bars, restaurants, and clubs and probably discuss the merits of Merlot. (No poor English teachers allowed.)

Every Wednesday I force my tired, aching, hopefully pink-eye-free self to a language exchange that I found on Meetup. Every time I go, I find it rewarding and surprisingly fun. Plus, there’s free food, so ya, I’ll show up. It’s hardly a language “exchange”—everyone there just wants to practice their English—but then again, that means they all come running to yours truly, the native speaker. In return, I tell them in Spanish: Busco amigos, ayúdame porfa. 

2) Pick your roommates wisely

A very high-quality Polaroid photo taken of my roommates and me

A very high-quality Polaroid photo taken of my roommates and me

Obviously this extends beyond the friendship game—you want to coexist and have a roommate that scrubs the toilet once in a while. But ideally, you also become good friends with your roommates. They are, after all, the closest thing you’ll have to family abroad. I’ve had some hits and misses with roommates in Spain (as in every other place), but in Barcelona I consider the three girls I live with to be good friends. We all have semi-separate lives, but also we go to the beach together, make family dinners, and get along merrily. I lucked out.

3) Couchsurfing

You don’t have to crash on someone’s mushy couch and hope they don’t awkwardly come onto you in order to enjoy the benefits of Couchsurfing. It’s an online community, and in many cities, they host events, very similar to Meetup. I went to a couple meetings when I first arrived in Barcelona, and was shocked to see such a huge turn-out. The trouble with this one is that many who attend are just traveling through, so it’s a bit more difficult to make lasting connections. But locals do attend, and so do desperate friend-seekers!

4) Become a Yes Person

An American girl in my teaching program invited me to play beach volleyball with her and her friends. I don’t ever play volleyball—I’m actually afraid of the ball—but hey, anything in the name of friendship. I could not bend over to pick up my baby students the next day, but I didn’t make a complete fool out of myself on the court, at least. And it was a fun way to spend a Sunday.

5) Try activities outside of the norm

Babelia books

Babelia books

This month I joined an English book club, an activity popular with middle-aged women and friendless-20-something-expats. In my old life, you couldn’t pay me to attend one of these things. (My parents were part of a book club, so needless to say, it’s something I avoid on principle.) But Expat Jenny does things outside her comfort zone.

This book club is put on by an Irish woman who co-owns Babelia, the most adorable coffee-shop-book-store near my house. A book club in Barcelona is the same as a book club at home, except that non-native speakers with a very low level of English sign up to participate, get 8 pages through a 400-page advanced novel and still show up to the club to “discuss.” So it was really just me talking with the Irish host. Did I have fun at the meeting? No, not particularly. Did I make friends? Definitely not. But did the deadline encourage me to finish a 400-page book in two weeks? Yes, and that’s not something I’ve done since Harry Potter 7 was released. You win some, you lose some.

6) Sign up for classes

I considered it hard to make Spanish friends while studying in Granada. Little did I know that would be the easiest I’d ever have it abroad, because a university setting provides the perfect infrastructure for making friends. A cesspool of similar-aged people, and all you have to do is laugh with your seat mate about your professor’s pit stains in order to strike up a conversation.

This year, I’ve enrolled in free Catalan courses through the government of Cataluña. I did it because language interest me (welcome to this blog!), but also as a way of hopefully getting to know people. Of course, adult classes during the middle of the day means I have 60-year-olds for peers, but it’s still a social environment twice a week.

7) Work

Bilbao colleagues

Out with my colleagues in Bilbao

Ok, so you’re probably not working at some cool SF start-up that exclusively hires great looking Cal and Stanford grads and everyone hangs out on Casual Fridays sipping company-bought IPAs. But maybe you have some great teacher colleagues! In my case in Bilbao, most of my colleagues were much older than me—the one I was closest to, both in age and friendship, was 8 years older. BUT! The couple times a bunch of us went out to eat (ages ranging from 23 [me] to a 60-yr-old) we had a great time. Perhaps they weren’t the type of friends I would dance all night with at a discoteca, or take a weekend trip to France. But we had some really fun nights, and astonishingly, they could all drink me under the table.

8) Change your outlook

Don’t consider it defeat if you don’t make a ton of local friends. In Granada I tried so hard to not hang out with Americans, and actually became close with some Spaniards there (one of whom I spent Christmas with last year). And I’m glad I did this, because I wanted my year abroad to be as close to full immersion as possible. In Bilbao, on the other hand, I hung out almost exclusively with four other American girls, who became my rock there.

This year I’m hoping for a balance. Catalans, Spaniards, Americans, Germans, Italians, Russians, Turks . . . . come at me. I’ve come to see my initial avoidance of Americans as unrealistic, and somewhat shallow, really. Some of the greatest people I’ve met abroad have been Americans, despite some others being too loud and completely playing into stereotypes. Locals are harder to meet than equally desperate expats, and while they’re great for the language thing, ANY FRIEND, from any background, is all you need to avoid asking for a table for one at brunch.

9) Be brave

making friends abroad: drinking alone

Table for one at the adorable bar on my corner

Go to things alone. In addition to the inevitability of this—er, you have to go at it alone, since you have no friends yet!—you are also much more open and approachable when you’re not surrounded by a posse. I sucked up the courage to go to the language exchange alone, and now it’s no longer nerve-wracking. My friend never cracked open the book club book, so I went stag to that too. Isn’t it crazy to think that I could pack up my life at home, move 7,000 miles away from friends and family, and still one of the scariest things to do is go to a bar by myself? It’s next on the list. Deep breaths. (Will swig some wine first.)

10) Follow up

What lies between acquaintances and friends? Follow up. Someone doesn’t magically convert into a friend overnight—you need to keep at the relationship. This inevitably means you’ll be drinking more mid-day coffees or beers than you can really handle (or afford) in a week. But someday, a chat over coffee will turn into a day at the beach, a movie, a brunch, going out to a discoteca, even a visit home.

Making friends is platonic dating. And we all know how much dating sucks, but once in a while, you catch a good one, a really dedicated friend who is equally as desperate for companionship. It was meant to be.

Final Notes

I don’t want it to come across like no one should spend any time alone, or that success abroad is measured by mountains of friends. I, too, enjoy being by myself—and my experiencing traveling solo in Poland was one of my favorite trips of all time. There are merits to “me time.”

But of course, new friendships are one of the reasons we head abroad in the first place. New friends keep us from hopping the plane back home the minute we’re having a rough time. Actually, why am I even explaining this? Everyone knows the importance of friends!! (Also, without friends, who the hell am I supposed to have Friendsgiving with this year?!? The clock is ticking.)

So get comfortable being by yourself when you first move abroad. Then push yourself to get out there, because, at least in Spain, the baristas will give you a sad look after your 6th consecutive latte alone.

P.S. Another way to be friends is virtually. Like this blog on Facebook and we can pretend to hang out! Almost as good, right?!? (I’m currently typing this alone in a café. Sob.)

Have any tips you’d like to add? Trust me, I could use them :) Let me know in the comments below! 

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  • Paul

    Thanks Jenny, that’s a cool list ;) You can combined them with those advices too: https://blog.lingolistic.com/how-to-make-friends

    After living a couple of years in Asia, I believe Philippines is one of the best places to make good friends, natives and foreigners.

  • Kax Uson

    Are you still here in Barcelona? Are you still in the hunt for new friends? I just moved to Barcelona 3 weeks ago and this post really hits close to home. I literally googled, “how to make friends in Barcelona” haha. If you feel like hanging out in real life, let me know! :)

    • Hi Kax, unfortunately I left Barcelona three weeks ago! Would have been fun to meet up, but keep in there and you’ll make friends in no time. Go to the Meetups, they really help :) Good luck, and enjoy that wonderful city!

  • Erin C.

    Question: I am looking to do Meddeas in Madrid–Will their be opportunities to meet other language assistants with this program? Or is it pretty isolated work?

    Also, loved this blog post! thank you for all of the advice.

    • Hey Erin, at your actual school you’ll probably be the only assistant, but that’s usually the case regardless of what program you’re with. And there will absolutely be opportunities to meet other assistants beyond the classroom! You don’t just have to just hang out with Meddeas language assistants—there are billions (well many thousands) of language assistants in Madrid through the ministry program, who you can connect with on Facebook (there’s a specific group for Madrid language assistants that doesn’t have to do with the program you’re in). There are also BEDA, CIEE and UCETAM placements in Madrid. It’s the place in Spain where you LEAST need to worry about meeting other language assistants. Good luck!

      • Sima Greenfield

        I’m doing BEDA in Madrid by the way. It is one of the largest expat communities in Europe.

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  • Ve

    “Isn’t it crazy to think that I could pack up my life at home, move 7,000 miles away from friends and family, and still one of the scariest things to do is go to a bar by myself?”

    SO true, that comment really made me think. Yesterday I went to a language exchange event near Gran Vía here in Madrid. I only stayed for a little while since I felt pretty uncomfortable and it seemed like a lot of older men were there to pick up the few women at the bar. But it didn’t kill me, I’ll just go to another language exchange event, or try during a different week.

  • Ryan Zieman

    I can honestly relate to every point of your post and know exactly what you mean. I can imagine, though, that it is much harder to make friends in Barcelona than her in Madrid. Maybe I need to perfect my Spanish or just throw back a shot before heading out to a Spanish bar. I couldn’t agree more that Meet Up and Couchsurfing meetings are great ways to meet new people. I just went to a ‘Sushi and Coffee Lovers’ meet up the other day (a strange combo, but thankfully not eaten together). Also, I got roped into hosting a monthly Meet Up/Couchsurfhing event at a local bar, which is a ton of fun and there is usually a good deal of Madrileños who attend too. Just remember that you have a friend (for your other thumb if you don’t lose it!) just a 3hr AVE ride away ;) Hopefully I’ll see you in December!

  • Francesca

    I cannot imagine you having any difficulty making friends, Jenny. But I do understand it’s a bit challenging in a different country, out of your comfort zone. Glad to see you’re trying and making the most of it. xo

  • …I’d just like to add this: Remember that it gets better–you just have to TRY, :-)…

  • Great post Jenny :D

    I remember when I moved to Korea alone in 2010 and had to make friends. Luckily the program I was in had an orientation so I was able to meet people fairly easily.

    To make even more friends, I used to attend an English class in my neighborhood where Korean students were there to practice their English, and I was the token ‘Native speaker’, but I gained lifelong friends from the exchange. :D

  • Mindi @ 2foodtrippers

    I’ve never lived abroad, but I have moved solo to the cities of San Francisco, New York, Denver and Philadelphia during my life. My best advice is to accept all invitations, even when you’re tired (i.e. be a yes person). It seems that you’re doing everything right and will surely make plenty of friends before you know it.

    • I sometimes forget, but all these things I’ve mentioned would just as easily apply to moving within the U.S. Who knows, maybe I’ll be going through it all again when I move back stateside, since I don’t know where I’ll end up yet! And definitely, I think being a Yes Person may be the number one important thing.

  • This is great advice, Jenny! I’m definitely going to have to look further into Meetup, especially when I move back home to the states, most likely away from DFW.

    • Oh wow how telling is it that I never even THOUGHT about using Meetup in the States? But you’re completely right, sooner or later our lives will probably start there, and not necessarily in the place we grew up. *deep breaths* luckily living abroad will (hopefully) make us pros at starting over in a new place.

  • Alexzandria Siprian

    Awesome! I actually have gone to Couchsurfing to look for friends! I got one response (from the girl I was hoping to get a response from – she’s got lots of awesome reviews) and will be setting something up….I’m having trouble with the “follow up” tip. Haha. But I had no idea about Meetup.com!! This is very exciting for me. Haha. I’ve been wanting to do something interesting with people…everyone keeps telling me to join a gym, but I’m in Murcia…so I won’t be getting paid for a while. Haha. And homegirl is balling on a budget.

    You’re awesome! Thank you!

    • Omg Meetup will change your life, haha. I haven’t found that joining gyms helps that much with the social thing, but then again, I never partook in the classes they offered. Some of my friends met people through their gyms, but maybe they’re just better at talking to people when they’re sweaty than I am. And ya…..with Murcia’s pay record, that gym membership will start in April, lol.

      • Alexzandria Siprian

        Oh god, don’t tell me that!! Hahaha. I might have to just drop it and go home if I don’t at least get paid in December!

        In other news, Meetup has nothing for the Caravaca area. Womp. Everything is in Murcia. I’m supposed to meet with a girl from Couchsurfing tomorrow, so hopefully she’ll love me and be my bff! Hahaha