How to Make Friends when Living Abroad: 3 Mistakes I Made So You Don’t Have To

Making friends abroad can feel like dating. You’re in a new place, surrounded by new people, and you want to meet someone. So, you put yourself out there and hope for the best. If you’re lucky, I mean really lucky, you find your people right away. But like relationships, expat friendships are complicated. People are constantly on the go, and often, without the proximity that brought you together in the first place, these friendships come to an end. In my travels, I’ve made many amazing friends, but I’ve lost some too.

Here are the top 3 mistakes I’ve made while making friends abroad.


Mistake 1: Not Defining The Relationship

Making your first local friend, whether in Spain or Korea, feels like a big accomplishment. Finally, there is someone to show you how the locals truly live and explain all the cultural nuances. Someone who doesn’t think your English-only brain is a burden. You hang out together, once, maybe twice, until slowly requests for grammar correction start to creep in. As an English-speaker in a foreign country, locals tend to see our interactions as a free conversation class. It’s hurtful when you thought someone wants to get to know you for you, but actually they like you because English is your first language. If your local “friend” is making it obvious that the purpose of your friendship is for them to perfect their English, then sit them down and set some boundaries. I hear the going rate for a conversation classes in Madrid is 20 euro an hour.


Mistake 2:  Lowering My Standards

Have you ever hung out with someone  that could not stop checking their phone? I have. Are you such a good listener that your friends always come to you with their problems, but they never seem just as interested in yours? That’s me. We all have a friend that at one time or another made us feel like they didn’t appreciate our friendship. At home, we may not put up with these behaviors, but abroad we tend to be less picky (must be the loneliness). Listen Sis, don’t settle for a friend that doesn’t value your presence. I don’t care if this person is the only other foreigner for miles. You don’t have to ruin your time abroad by settling  for a bad friendship. Remember friendship anywhere is all about communication and respect.


Mistake 3: Not Doing More Things Alone

Living abroad, or anywhere for that matter, the chances of you and your friends all living in the same neighborhood, or city even, are slim to none. I spent two years living in a city that was a 30 minute train ride from my two closest friends. We would take weekend trips together during the summer and once winter rolled around we would take turns visiting each other at least once a month. But as the saying goes out of sight out of mind. On weekdays, they could have dinner after work and gossip over a bottle of wine. In our little circle, I became the last person to know things or get  invites. I felt like an afterthought.  In hindsight, it was a great thing, because it forced me to do more things alone. My friends and I did a lot together, but those were things we all enjoyed. What about what I liked? Doing things alone is a great way to explore other interests you may not share with friends and be unapologetic about it. Yeah, it may feel strange at first to try that new restaurant in town or go to a concert alone (if you’re not use to it)  but once you start, you’ll eventually start to feel more confident.

Beyond the beautiful landscapes we see or the delicious foods we eat, the people we connect with while traveling make it the transformative experience that it is. This post was in no way meant to scare you from your fellow expats or the locals within your community. Instead, I hope it reminds you to appreciate all the good friends you’ve made so far (seriously, send them some love). No matter where you are in the world you can open yourself up to a new friend. A potential sister (or brother). Just as always, choose wisely.


Jalena is a traveler first, design enthusiast second, and a wine connoisseur last. And by connoisseur, she means she sometimes swirls the glass. You can find her living the nomad life between Asia and Europe, and hopefully one day Latin America.