How do expats make new friends?

The happy expat needs friends’, yes, but how does this work? What helps and what doesn’t? And what can expats do to help the process along? Read here some of the highlights of my research based on 72 interviews with expats around the world, and how they made new friends1.


Expats often leave behind a large part of their existing social network, and only bring their partner and/or children. They also might know one or two persons in the host country, but that might be it. For this reason, many expats are motivated to make new friends, which starts off the cycle of expatriate social network formation (phase 1). It is important to realise that this motivation comes and goes, depending on how satisfied an expat is with the state of their social network, and aspects like how much time and energy the expat has and how soon the expat is leaving the country again.


Once expats want to meet new friends, they have to create opportunities to meet new people (phase 2). This can happen in a many different places, for example in the neighbourhood, at work, or at the local tennis club. There are many factors that influence who an expat meets, for example, the extent to which the expat wants to meet locals and the neighbourhood they live in. Context also plays a role in who one meets and whether someone becomes a friend (phase 3). For example, living in an expat compound makes it easier to connect with other expats, and I have also already written about the difficulty that many expats face in connecting with Danes. Expats have similar difficulties in other countries, for example South Korea.


Expats often also meet new friends through an existing connection, for example their partner. Expats with children also often meet other parents through their children. This ‘snowball’ effect is a very easy way to meet new friends, because simply by being with friends they might meet new friends. As Heike says, a Swiss/German expat in Argentina: “So many locals I met through referrals from other people I knew, because I was specifically asking to meet Argentines.”

What can the expat do?

Many expats don’t really think about the social aspect of their new life abroad. Having people with whom one can do activities and who could offer support in what is often a stressful time can really help deal with challenges. It is worthwhile to put an effort into building new friendships, so one can make the most of living and working abroad.

Here are some tips2:

  • When arranging your accommodation, make sure you also consider your social life. Would you like to meet locals? Then try to steer clear of the neighbourhoods where many expats flock to.
  • You can shape your own social network by choosing which social activities you join. You are more likely to develop friendships with people you meet more often. Always say ‘yes’ when you get invited. And try to talk to strangers.
  • It is important to have a balanced social network with both expats and locals. In some countries, it is more difficult to connect with locals. Educate yourself on the situation in your new host country and how locals make new connections, and don’t let it scare you off. It’s just one of the many factors that influence who you make friends with.

Curious about the icons on the illustration below? I will be blogging more about some of these aspects in the future. You can also read the full story in chapter 2 of my book Breaking out of the Expat Bubble (available in Open Access).

Illustration made by Heldermaker.


1 Read more in Chapter 2 of my book Breaking out of the Expat Bubble; this chapter is available in Open Access.

2 Read more in Chapter 10 of my book Breaking out of the Expat Bubble.