Tips for Building Friendships Abroad

I am often asked, “is it hard to make friends moving countries?”  And the answer is YES! I am not going to sugar-coat this part because it would not be fair to someone considering a country relocation. If you clicked on this post maybe you are struggling to meet friends in your new country or this is a concern you have before committing to relocate.

Frequently I meet-up with fellow expats and we have similar conversations. They tell me how difficult it is for them to feel settled in their new location.  One acquaintance said after 3 years abroad that she did not feel deep connections with locals. This is my 2nd move and I have been fortunate to have felt welcomed in both countries. I will say that not everything happened by accident though as I made an effort to put myself out there.  Now I do not consider myself an expert by any means and have never moved to a non-English speaking country.  I can imagine a move like this would be considerably more difficult.  My goal is to simply help others in similar situations by listing a few tips that have aided me during transitions.

You made the big move away from all your family and friends! The first couple weeks are filled with the excitement of exploring your new city, finding somewhere to live, a vehicle to drive, etc.  Then the reality sets in.  For me this happened when I was filling out my daughter’s school application.  I had everything: Visa paperwork, immunization records, proof of address and transcripts from her old school. Then I read the question that stumped me.   What is the name and phone number of your emergency contact?  I had to name someone to be responsible for my kids and I did not know a single person in the country let alone the town I lived in.  I thought for a minute and wrote down my relocation agent and said a quick prayer that they never had to contacted her before I made friends.

Working in an office is an obvious way to form connections but it is not always an option. If you are like me and relocating with young children for a spouse’s work then you may not want to immediately start a new job. It can take time to settle and each country has different Visa allowances with childcare benefits possibly not applying towards expats.  Then there is the issue of finding someone to vouch for you by volunteering to be a reference. When we moved to New Zealand, I often heard people say that you needed New Zealand experience.  There were Kiwi born citizens that left and worked overseas for years only to come back and have to start where they left off before moving. For this reason I am focusing this post towards expats not planning to work outside the home though most tips below could be helpful for anyone relocating.

Tips for Building Friendships Abroad

1. Facebook Groups

Facebook groups are having a moment and the most effective way I have met people quickly. The second you select an area to live in then join as many as possible (you can always “leave group” later). We moved to Sydney area recently and it is a big city so I did a few general searches for: Americans in Sydney, Sydney moms and Sydney with Kids.  Then I broke it down a little more to my small community. Use the key word “everything” and then list the community.  Or Moms of …  The community pages are often private groups so may take a day or two to confirm your request.

The mom groups are particularly helpful.  I started by asking questions like “does anyone have kids at XXX school?”  Or what are good Pre-Schools in the area?  What mommy/me groups are in the area? Parents love to talk about their children (I am one of them) and will chime in to help with questions.  If you have a good answer to someone else’s questions then by all means put it out there.  They are often looking for babysitters, hair stylist, housekeepers, etc. This has been a great network for me.

I have found myself in conversations that went from a simple reply to comments into private messaging. I even recently found someone from Arkansas (where I am from) and she gave me a Woo Pig Sooie before signing off. Oh how I miss Razorback Football!

Expat Facebook groups can be helpful too especially when you are feeling a bit homesick.  I find Expats are more willing to meet-up quicker as they are typically in similar situations with family/friends overseas and can be a great resource for answering questions that locals do not have to think about. For example, how do you pay the government fee so your daughter can start public school? If you cannot find a good Facebook group to join, then maybe start a group.  Who knows others might be searching for the exact thing!

2. Do not say “No”

I cannot stress this one enough.  The key to getting to know people is to accept invitations when offered. They may only ask you one time so why not give something new a try. It might be to join a Nap Yoga class or climb a mountain via stairs (both actually happened) but make every effort to say yes.  I mean who climbs 1300 stairs on a Thursday morning?  By the time I made it to the top, I had found a new friend that would grow into multiple friends.  The added bonus result is that I discovered that I do like climbing mountains!

The local community can be tough to feel connected to as many have grown up in the same area all their life and have established friends.  They will talk about favorite childhood hangouts and all the local traditions. There will be times that you feel left out even sitting at the same lunch table. Just keep listening and putting yourself out there. They will be interested in your life too and find simple things you did as a child fascinating or even the vocabulary you use while telling a story. They may teach you to see your own small hometown in a new light!

3. Use Your Kids

This one may sound selfish but they need friends as much as you do.  I see it as helping them out by find play dates plus they get a mom with her sanity from having an adult conversation that day.  Parks are one of the best places to meet other parents. The moment I see a mom coming with 2-3 kids in tow and a look of desperation on her face then I know this is my gal.  We have all been there!  Ask if she has lived in the area long and what play groups are around. These are especially helpful if you have babies/toddlers as you will find many other stay at home moms here.  There are often churches and other meet-ups so the key is to get in with a local.

The school Parent/Teacher Organization or whatever your country calls is where the action is found for those with school age children.  Getting involved at your kids’ school is key. This may intel passing out cupcakes on a Friday morning when you would rather be sipping tea on your back patio.  I feel this one has added benefits too because you know exactly what is happening in your child’s day-to-day life. The other parents will appreciate you for being new and not afraid to put in the work. I cannot tell you how many times I have passed out candy at a Disco or chaperoned a field trip. Now I do these things too because I love being around my girls but definitely an easy way to meet other moms.  These are some of the best connections too because our kids are often friends.

4. Community Volunteer

The volunteer opportunity is not just something that helps make connections but most importantly something helpful for your community.  Locals will respect you for coming into a community and then donating your time to help make it better.

I find as an expat people are often hesitant to become your friend due to your possible departure at any time. They want to see you are going to stick around before investing time in adding another friendship. The experiences I have with people is they are friendly but can be standoffish at first. Show them you want to make a real impact in the community they love so much!  Get excited about your new area and all the little things that make it great and the locals will too!

The goal is to volunteer with something you are passionate about and jump in with both feet.  There are many charity opportunities no matter where you end up.  Is there a church that hands out food to homeless or a hospital volunteer program.  My last experience found me at the Red Cross which is always an easy one to get connected with as they have a variety of volunteer opportunities to pick from.

Another bonus for you if you plan to eventually work is that you will have someone witness your work ethic while you are a volunteer.  As a past nonprofit employee I can tell you these community leaders have connections and make excellent references.  Now I did not plan to work but something that is definitely a little added bonus for those that plan to in the future.  Why not feel good about what you are doing for the community by helping those in need all while forming a bond with others that share your same values.

5. Embrace a Hobby

What do you like to do?  Photography? Working Out? Scrapbooking?  There are plenty of clubs and organizations out there for all hobbies.  Here you may want to revert back to Tip 1 and ask in Facebook Groups or find dedicated Facebook Groups for that specific hobby.

I love to workout so always join a gym with amazing classes and have looked recently into running/walking clubs.  Also, I ask others I meet where they workout and if they enjoy nature walks.

Is there a local University or Community school around that offers night or weekend classes?  This may be a great place to enroll for a term.  Cooking or Baking schools are often a good place to find connections. This way you can learn how to create local cuisine while making friends.  Why not try a dinner party at your house to test out your new skills!

I have found friends with similar interests and found new hobbies as well.  People love to talk about what they are passionate about so get them talking about their favorite hobby.  If you share this hobby, invite new friends to join you for a few hours. For example, do a photography sessions at a local garden or have a scrapbooking night at your house.  Better yet, ask them to take a nature walk if you are into that.  There is something about no distractions (kids, cell phones, social media)  from the outside world that gives you a chance to really get to know someone!

The most important thing is to be patient!  The friendships take time to establish and easy to think about your life before the move and the people you left behind. They will still be there when you return but you will have grown and learned so much about yourself.  Best of luck to those relocating and know the experience will be what you make of it!

Amber Herden

My name is Amber and I am finally tackling my bucket list all while relocating countries and raising two beautiful girls with my incredible husband.