A step-by-step guide to making friends abroad

Catherine is studying French and Spanish at the University of Southampton, and spent the last academic year in Puente Genil, in the south of Spain, working for the British Council. She is also a student ambassador for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

So you’ve triple checked the recommended travel checklist and made it through the months of stressful planning, the last minute panic at the luggage weigh in desk, a 5am flight, and an awkward journey with the local taxi driver who doesn’t understand a word of English. You’ve finally made it to your hotel, flopped on the bed among all your bags and … now what?

You didn’t plan for this moment of calm after all the chaos of travel plans, when it suddenly hits you that you’re alone in a foreign country, far from your friends and family, and have no idea what to do next.

Well, fear not comrade, help is at hand.

Step 1: Adventure beyond your hotel room
This sounds obvious but it can be all too easy to fall into the trap of spending the afternoon holed up in your room, struggling and failing to locate the English subtitles on the tinny, old TV set and ending up spending the following hours glued to a marathon of Spanish soap operas – you can’t understand a word but you’re fairly sure that Juan was cheating on María after all... Not exactly the most exciting start to your travels.

As scary as it may be at first, there’s a big wide world beyond that hotel door, and plenty of new friends to be made. Try chatting to other guests and staff in the hotel or, better still, go for a stroll to get a feel for the area – pop into a local bar or café, and don’t be afraid to ask the owner for recommendations of local landmarks to visit, etc. You’ll be surprised at how willing people are to help you out and making friends with the locals is a great way to practice your language skills and to get to know the area even better. Just make sure you are sensible and safe when exploring, especially if you’re female and travelling alone – the FCO has some useful advice.

Step 2: Look online
If the idea of going it alone in a country where you don’t speak the language is enough to make you want to book the first flight home, I’d recommend seeking other English speakers online. There are thousands of Facebook groups, for example “Erasmus in Madrid” or “Au pairs in Paris”, and a great site called Expat which has area specific forums where you can ask questions and arrange meet-ups with other travellers in your area. When homesickness strikes it can really help to have others around who are in the same boat, whether for meeting for a drink on a Friday night, going for a weekend trip together, or even just to help you with the stress of paperwork and settling in when you first move abroad. However, you should always use your common sense when it comes to meeting up with strangers; it’s best to meet during the day in a public place, in a café for example, and to join large group meet-ups where possible, avoiding meeting people one-on-one until you really know them. (Just in case you do get into any trouble, it’s worth checking out the FCO’s advice on what to do if you’re the victim of a crime abroad.)

Step 3: Join a club

Zumba, pilates, sports, dance, book club, church – it doesn’t matter what it is but joining a group or club within the local community is one of the best and easiest ways to meet the locals and make new friends with similar interests. I took up flamenco dance while I was living in Spain and made so many new friends who showed me around the town and invited me to local events and parties. Ask colleagues, try the local paper and tourism office, or have a look online at what’s available near you.

Step 4: Try finding a tandem language buddy
While travellers often rely on using English alone, learning the local language can be a fantastic stepping stone to making friends, especially when travelling to smaller towns and more remote areas. Not only is it practically useful, but the locals also really appreciate those who make the effort to learn their language, so it can help you get closer to the culture and the people in a way that English alone can’t.

One of the most beneficial ways to learn both a language and make a new friend is to find yourself a tandem buddy – two birds, one stone. There are always plenty of people looking to improve their English, so use this to your advantage by asking for help with the local language in exchange. While language apps and courses are no doubt helpful, you can learn a lot more from a native, especially when it comes to local words and phrases. Another advantage, of course, is that it’s free!

Step 5: Keep in contact

Even after leaving the area it doesn’t hurt to keep in contact with the friends you made there. You never know when you’ll be travelling through the region again and it’s always nice to have a friendly face and a sofa to kip on for the night if you do decide to go back and visit. Before you know it you’ll have built an international network of friends, providing you with pen friends, travel opportunities and memories of your experiences together!  

DOs and DON’Ts

Do:

  1. Make an effort. It may seem weird to just start chatting to strangers but when in a new area you have to make an effort to put yourself out there. Sure, you’ll feel uncomfortable at first, but once you push past this shyness you’ll really start to reap the rewards – plus, it’s a great exercise for confidence building. A “good morning” here and a “how are you?” there can go a long way!
  2. Try to learn a bit of the language. Tandem buddies or free language courses are both worth looking into. At the very least try carrying a dictionary/phrase book with you to help when you’re out and about – you won’t always have access to Google Translate!
  3. Read up on the area and local customs beforehand. Putting yourself out there is great but you don’t want to offend anyone on your first day by saying or doing the wrong thing. Check out the FCO guides for country specific tips and advice.
  4. Keep in contact with your friends and family back home. Reaching out with the odd Skype call can give you a boost if you’re feeling homesick.

Don’t:

Be afraid to introduce yourself. And, don’t:

  1. Give too much information away. While it’s great to chat to the locals and introduce yourself, don’t go giving away details of where you’re staying or blabbing to strangers about how you’re travelling alone, for example.
  2. Meet people alone. Try meeting people in groups instead and let someone know where you’re going.
  3. Compare your experiences to others’.  Sure, your friends from home seem to have met loads of people already on their travels and, by the look of their Instagram feeds, are having the best time. But social media can be deceiving and you never really know what’s going on behind the perfectly filtered images – they could be feeling just as lonely as you.
  4. Stress if you don’t manage to meet people right away – it’s really hard so don’t beat yourself up! And remember, it’s normal to have periods when you feel lonely or homesick. There are thousands of other expats in the same boat so even just chatting to other travellers online can help you feel supported.

For all of the latest foreign travel information, head to the FCO's Travel Advice website. Follow the FCO on Twitter @FCOtravel, watch their videos on YouTube and add them on Facebook to get instant access on all of the latest travel updates.

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