Living abroad can be tough – being in a new country, far away and most probably on your own. If you are lucky, you are there with your partner. But even then, you will have to start to build up your social network from scratch.
I have moved a lot – when I was single and with a partner. And I have to admit, the first time, it was really hard for me. I moved from Vienna to Nuremberg, a town in Bavaria which is the seat of a lot of big companies. Nevertheless, I found myself at the age of 25 on my own in this town, where most of my colleagues were locals and had their routines and friends. My international colleagues left the town every weekend with their spouses. And there I was, sitting on my own having coffee on Saturday. Sundays were even worse because all the shops and most of the coffee places were closed.
I knew that to change the situation, I had to move out of my comfort zone. If there was no offer, I had to create it myself. I started sending emails out to international colleagues and organized after-work drinks. At the office, I motivated my German colleagues to explore lunch places nearby. And once we had regular lunch dates, I was also taken along to soccer games (yes, I was definitely getting a German experience during the Europcup), Christmas markets and movie nights. Whenever I met someone new, I invited them to our after-work meetups, because I knew how tough it can be.
After eight months, I moved on to Shanghai. I had to change my networking and making friends game completely. But it was a bit easier because there were a lot of networking and social groups for expats. I went to all the events by the Chambers of Commerce and I also used networks such as Internations and ASmallworld. (I am not sure if these are still that useful because I have not used them myself for quite some time now.) Furthermore, I met people in coffee places and at the supermarket.
What I am trying to tell you here is that the most important thing is to be open and not shy to meet new people. A lot of other people are sitting in the same boat and will probably be really happy to also make friends.
My top tips to make friends and network abroad are:
1. Facebook Expat and Interest Groups
Before every move, I join expat groups of my destination city. In some countries, these expat groups are more helpful than in others. You will have to decide for yourself. Alternatively, I also join interest groups like art lovers, foodies or sports. I like the interest groups a lot because it helps you find people with the same interests. The Meetup app is also really useful – however, I made the experience that it depends on the city how active people are on it.
2. Use Your Existing Network
Even though you yourself might not know anyone in the new city, your friends might. Be proactive and ask around if they have friends abroad. Also, you can post on Facebook or Linkedin and make an announcement that you will be moving and that you are happy for contacts.
Another very useful strategy is to use your company (in case you are transferring within your organization). Your boss might have a former colleague or your peers might know someone.
3. Chambers of Commerce
Most of the countries have associations calling themselves “chambers of commerce” (even though very often they are not diplomatic representatives of their home country). These chambers organize events and regular meetups. Because Austria is quite a small country and is not always represented, I also go to the bigger chambers such as the UK, Australia or the US.
4. Sign up with Your Embassy
Most of the embassies will have a service for their citizens living abroad. Enquire if you can sign up for a newsletter or for events. On the national days, there are receptions and there are also cultural or business events. I found those events really useful to meet new people.
5. Further Groups & Classes
Browse the internet if you can find some interest groups and clubs. Very often, there are associations like the American Women’s Club, (female) entrepreneur clubs, etc. I also found it really useful to sign up for classes at the gym or for work-related workshops.
6. Follow Up
So you managed to finish step 1 and you met new people. Do not be shy to follow up. Expat lives can be really hectic and it is easy to lose contacts again. I usually wait for one or two weeks and if I then haven’t heard from the person, I follow up and ask if they would like to meet up again. You will see, most of the time, you will get a positive response.
7. Move Out of Your Comfort Zone
I learned it the hard way that being shy resulted in making me even more lonely. Hence, I trained myself to be proactive. When I see somebody standing on their own at an event, I always try to talk to them and include them in the group. If I go to an event on my own and I do not know anyone, I approach the first group of and introduce myself. This may sound terrifying to you. And do not get me wrong – it also took me some time to move out of my own comfort zone. But you will be rewarded by so many new and interesting people and learnings that it is absolutely worth it. In my experience, events organized for expats or with a certain topical focus usually have a very open atmosphere that facilitates meeting people.
Are you an expat and have you made friends abroad? What are your tips? Let me know if I have missed anything!