How to make friends in a new city abroad (without spending years trying)


I remember the first time I moved across the globe, wondering how to make friends in a new city, if that stuff would work the same way it did at home, and if I could even have fun in English since it isn’t my native language.

A few times I found myself going to an event only to stand in the corner playing on my phone but besides that, it turns out that it wasn’t as big a problem as I had imagined.

Expats seem to be more outgoing in general. In fact, I’ve found it easier to meet new people abroad than at home. Almost everyone moving somewhere new doesn’t have any friends, so most of us are in the same boat and want to make some.

In this guide, I’ll share some of the techniques I’ve found to work well for how to make friends in a new city.

How meeting new friends changed my life

Making lifelong friends feels like a jetpack for other things in life. They are the ones that introduce us to other people, ideas or even hobbies we had never thought of. They are the ones we share our successes and fucked up situations with, and get a second opinion from when we aren’t entirely sure what to do next.

There are a couple of situations in my life that have been truly life changing. I’ve always been curious about living in a foreign country and how it is different from home but I never really felt confident enough to do it. 

In university, I met a guy that wanted to go to Malaysia for a semester abroad–a country I couldn’t even find on a map to save my life. Over time, the idea grew on me and it worked out after a failed attempt at studying abroad in America. An idea that came from another friend less than twelve months before. That experience changed my life and it would’ve never happened had I not met those friends.

Years later, I landed a terrific job with great compensation, meaningful work and an inspiring boss. The timing was uncanny because I wouldn’t have thought that I could do a good job, had a similar gig not worked out just a couple of months prior. A project I landed through another friend. 

Those two moments sound simple but have perhaps been the most life changing and pivotal moments in my career. Life has a fun way of going about things and had it not been for those friends introducing me to new ideas, neither would have happened.

I could highlight what feels like a million other examples such as getting a team to prioritize my project to reach a deadline, getting advice on structuring a company or many others. Our friends touch every part of our life if we let them. I guess that’s where the overused phrase “your network is your net worth” is coming from.

Most of us instinctively know the value of friends, so why don’t we make more?

Why we don’t make more friends

The most common excuse we have for not making friends is that we don’t have time but deep down we know that if we won the Oscars, we’d find the time to fly out and give a speech. We have the same 24 hours a day as everyone else, yet some people find the time even if they live an incredibly busy life already.

Maybe it is hard for us to prioritize at the moment, maybe we feel shy or maybe we just don’t know how. And it’s not like we are taught this stuff in school anyway.

But I’ve found that the real reason is that we logically understand the value of a good network but we’ve never truly FELT the power of it. 

I don’t mean having a friend who will help us move to a new place in exchange for pizza. I mean someone who helps us have a life changing experience like going abroad for the first time, hooks us up with a career changing work opportunity or introduces us to our significant other.

A part of that probably comes down to the fact that many don’t like to ask for favors, we don’t want to be a burden and we don’t want to owe anyone anything. But the problem here is that we are keeping score in the first place.

It’s also hard to prioritize because there is no direct result of meeting someone new except for the potential joy of the meeting itself and there is no reason why we can’t do it next week. If we have to pick between a networking event where we don’t know what will happen and that deadline at work that we’ll definitely get in trouble for missing, it’s easy to see why we prioritize the way we do.

The interesting point is that just like inflation eating away at our savings, there is an invisible cost to not prioritizing making new friends.

The cost of not networking over a lifetime

I’ve been living abroad for years and I tend to divide the experience up into two different chapters. The first stint I did abroad started off well with lots of interesting friends but as time went on and I got busy with work, things started to fizzle out. Some friends moved back home and others went to advance their career in another city.

At some point, I wanted to do an internship and after sending out exactly one hundred cover letters, I didn’t hear much from 98 of them but I got two interviews and landed one internship. I don’t come from a family with a business background, so it felt like a lot of work just for an internship that wasn’t anything special but I figured that was just how people normally did it.

Compared to that terrific job I later landed through a friend, it feels like two entirely different worlds. Imagine them represented as two old friends: Eddie and Sandy. 

Eddie continues to apply for jobs by sending out his CVs no matter how many times he has to, to get a response because that’s what he’s always done. And things have been going just fine for Eddie, he has been getting his 5-10% raise every year at work and has recently been promoted to manage a small department.

He recently ran into his old friend Sandy and a party. They have the same background, came from the same small town and both moved to the same city for work.

As they catch up, Eddie comments on how many people Sandy knows at that party-”you seem to know everyone here!” he says. She proudly shares how lucky she has been to become promoted to the chief of marketing for a well-known brand and how it comes with a great salary.

How does something like that happen?

It isn’t their knowledge, background or the city they moved to. 

It’s the people they know. While Eddie made new friends along the way as they happened to enter his life, Sandy went out of her way to make friends in that new city and build her network both professionally and personally. Over time, those friends would sometimes reach out with hidden job opportunities that helped her fast-track her career.

Over a longer period of time, looking at their career, it’s almost not fair how our trajectories change and the opportunities we get because of our friends. 

Who am I?

I’m Aske. I almost didn’t move abroad because I was too afraid of what it would be like. Yet when I mustered up the courage, it completely changed my life in so many ways that it cannot be overstated. 

I’ve written this guide to share what I wish I knew back when I first moved abroad as moving to a new city can be one of the most daunting or exciting experiences… and to be honest, it’s probably a bit of both. 

For me, making new friends has meant meeting people on the same path as me, that get me, but also some that are ahead of me and can share a different perspective from time to time. Besides having memories I’ll never forget, figuring out how to make friends in a new city have also helped me:

  • Take important clients out at work (and get comments like ‘you should come work with us’)
  • Landed jobs in foreign countries that was created specifically for me (and wasn’t published anywhere)
  • Gotten advice from experts or mentors for free (on things like how to open a business abroad or insights into companies I wanted to work at)
  • Earn thousands of dollars as freelancer as clients were praising me for my collaboration skills and referred me to other clients

With the introductory insights out of the way, let’s get to the meat of how to make friends in a new city abroad.

How to make friends in a new city even if you are busy

Before diving into how to make friends in a new city, we first need to figure out what kind of friends we’d like to meet.

We love having the same friends since forever, and there’s definitely space for that but I challenge you to think about it in a different way too. 

The more we learn about life and the older we get, the more our values change and new hobbies we discover, the more we need to make new friends. 

That doesn’t mean we can’t have the old ones too but everything is more fun with friends and sometimes our old friends just don’t like that new stuff. For example, I have come to love wakeboarding and most of my old friends just aren’t interested in that. If I didn’t make new friends who also enjoy it, I could either do it alone (boring) or change my interests to align better with theirs, which would make me unhappy. Neither is a good solution.

Making friends consists of two things: meeting new people and befriending them. The first step is to figure out which of the two we struggle the most with and start there since we can’t do a million things at once. 

A good approach is to look at it as a marketing funnel. If you are not a marketer, don’t worry it’s easier than you think. Here is a standard funnel and its purpose is to display how a random person discovers the company and becomes its customer. It has different stages that someone can go through or drop off at, and at the end, the final step is that they become a customer.

We can exchange each of those steps into a ‘friendship funnel’. While we can’t really systematize friendships, we can systematize our approach to meeting new people and that helps us avoid worrying about whether we are meeting enough people on a regular basis. 

One of the biggest mistakes I made (and I see so many others make too) has been neglecting meeting new people because I was “busy” with other stuff. That led to one day waking up feeling like I had no true friends of my own in the city. 

Sure, I had many people around me. They were good people but I felt as if they were friends I knew through my girlfriend or more acquaintances than friends you need on a rainy day. It tends to come as a combination of people leaving the city from time to time and we not continuing to meet new people.

The worst part is that we might mistake that for thinking we’ve tried hard and it’s simply this city that sucks. Unless we live in the North Pole where that might be relevant, the problem is usually that we aren’t being honest with ourselves or that we are simply looking in the wrong places. We often feel as if meeting new people is tiring, hard work and who the hell knows if it will pay off? 

For sure this will be too much for some people to prioritize but most of them wouldn’t read this far, so for the rest of us there is a solution to make it a little easier. It turns out that doing something new is energy consuming but doing something that is a habit becomes almost automatic and we spend a good chunk of our day autopiloting anyway.

If we can create a habit out of meeting people on a regular basis, it won’t feel so tiring and more like something we just do, even if we are on a busy schedule. That in turn will create a snowball effect that leads us to meet more people through our friends and friends of friends.

As we ‘click’ better with some people than others, they will automatically flow through our ‘friends funnel’ or drop off altogether if we just don’t connect well with them.

Here’s an example of what our friends funnel might look like: 

This is a watered-down version to get a simple overview of the process. Some will just be friends for a season and drop off at step three if they or we move to a different city at some point, while others will become close friends even through the distance.

Time plays a key part in this and while we can’t bypass it, there are things we might be able to do instead. For example, by doing challenges, going through hard times or taking up a new hobby together, we might create a closer bond in a shorter period of time. In some ways this happens more when we both move to a foreign country simply because it is foreign and strange to the both of us.

In order for us to make great, close friends we need to feed this friend funnel with new people regularly. The goal for us is to get brutally honest with ourselves in terms of at which step we struggle the most and then start there. 

For example, we might be outgoing and love meeting new people but feel as if we don’t have too many close friends. Other people might feel like they are good at connecting with people but also feel a bit shy when going to events and meeting people for the first time.

Later in this guide, we’ll dive into how to befriend people and create closer connections with people we already know but first, let’s look at meeting people as that presents its own set of challenges.

How to make friends in a new city: meeting new people

I’ve gotten comments from hundreds of people in different cities all over the world about making friends and interestingly, most shared the same problem: there is something wrong with the city they live in, that city, in particular. Take a look at these examples:

how to make friends in a new city
how to make friends in a new city

What do you think is going on if so many people say this across many cities around the entire globe? 

Are almost ALL cities bad for making friends? Are locals closed off EVERYWHERE? And if so, how come other people say the city is just fine or some say this city isn’t great but the city they used to live in was (yet other people say that city is no good)?

What’s going on here?

I have a sneaking suspicion that it might be something else. My bet is that their priorities changed or they became more selective without realizing it.

It could also be that they might be putting out some strange vibe, have the wrong expectations, or simply give up too fast because we’ve never been taught how to make new friends without the aid of school, work, etc… or perhaps a combo of them all.

5 ideas for where to meet friends this week

Meeting people in itself is pretty simple: go to a place and introduce yourself to those who are there. Most of us can come up with a couple of ideas on our own like go to networking events or ask around in Facebook groups.

Here’s a list of the most common places that expats and other people who move to a new city use:

1. Connect with colleagues at work and over time build a friendship outside of work

2. Find events at Internations, Eventbrite or Meetup.com

3. Find meetups in Facebook groups e.g. language meetups

4. Ask friends of friends

5. Use mobile apps like Tandem

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By creating a simple system and habit of meeting people using those examples, say, 2-3 times a week, we will automatically funnel new people into our lives. For example, by having a fixed thing we go to every Saturday afternoon, Thursday evening and Tuesday for lunch.

But if a list of places to meet people was all we needed, things would already be working well and you wouldn’t be reading this. It isn’t always that simple. Sometimes we feel shy when the meetup is coming closer, maybe we aren’t sure what to say but at the same time we don’t want to be the one everyone thinks is weird for sitting quietly in the corner.

Why do we feel shy? Can we change it?

Compare that with someone who is a natural. We all know that one person who is amazing at connecting with strangers — you know who I’m talking about. They are so smooth and always say the right thing.

I have a friend who was celebrating his birthday just three months after arriving in a new city. When I went to his party it was packed with people. I later spoke to him about it and he confessed that he felt shy as a kid but the first time he went abroad, he decided to change it. 

I’ve looked into what makes us feel shy in the first place and it turns out that there are a few things that are common:

  • When we have negative expectations about what will happen in a particular social situation
  • When we are in a situation where we feel that we’re going to be judged or evaluated by other people
  • The (negative) stories we tell ourselves about what other people might think of us e.g. will they like us? (no matter if it is true or not)

Practicing to be better in social situations can make us feel anxious because we put high expectations on ourselves. For example, feeling that we have to be funny or interesting all the time. It takes a lot of practice (if it’s even possible) and creates a feedback loop from hell that makes us anxious when we feel like we aren’t living up to our own expectations. 

What do you notice about those challenges? I’ve noticed that they all point to something within our own head rather than something that is actually about other people. It is all within our control.

I’m not sure if we can completely get rid of shyness for the rest of our lives but I’ve found that we can make it easier by creating habits that get us out of our own head. 

How to overcome shyness

If you feel that it is weird to practice making new friends, you are not alone. 

Maybe it is weird. But the reality is that we are not taught this from birth and the only other alternative is for things to stay the same for the rest of our lives. At least we don’t have to tell anyone about it.

I’ve found that just having a list of ideas is a good start but to really feel different, we need to practice to change the habits that have been ingrained in us for our entire life.

You’ll notice that some of these examples are different approaches to thinking about meeting or connecting deeper with friends while others are specific tactics you can use when you meet someone or go to an event.

The perhaps most useful (and difficult one) for me has been practicing not beating myself up if things didn’t go well. We can always try again. Everyone else also makes mistakes sometimes and it would be weird if we never did.

I’ve also found it useful to investigate ourselves to figure out what it is that makes us feel anxious? Is it appearing boring? 

When we have a clear idea about what it is, we can start to work on changing it.

The simplest approach to figuring it out, that I know of, is asking yourself “why?” a few times: Why do I feel nervous about going to a gathering? People might think I’m not interesting. Why? Because I don’t know what to say and I’m not good at small talk. Why? Because I don’t like small talk.. I want to talk for real.

Then we can ask ourselves, can I prove myself wrong? Do I have friends that think I am interesting and like what I have to say? You might realize that you do. Of course, just doing that alone isn’t going to change our life but it can be a good start.

Next, we might think about how we can change our own perception of being boring. “What would it look like if I wasn’t boring?” We might ask ourselves and list down ideas. We can experiment with our ideas until we find something that works for us.

Another good way to think about overcoming shyness is to remind ourselves that people don’t see how we feel on the inside most of the time. 

We don’t look as anxious as we think we do (most people are too focused on themselves and what to say next), and even if they did people won’t judge you for it since we all have been in that situation before. In fact, many other people feel slightly nervous going to an event where they don’t know anyone so they are in the same boat as you.

One approach is to focus on how we can help them. If someone looks nervous, go say hi and ask if they have been to the event/venue before, before you pick up a drink.

If you think it might be easier, consider going to a thing where no one knows you so you can start fresh.

Next, let’s dive into some specific ideas to overcome feeling shy when going out.

Ideas and techniques to break the ice

Before going to an event, we can plan our exit and how long we’ll stay. Perhaps you might want to stay for 20-30 minutes at first and set a goal to speak with, say, 2-3 people.

It might seem pointless on the surface but it works because we are playing the long game.

If you want to solve this challenge for the rest of your life, you have all the time in the world. It’s better to go about it in a systematic way and truly change it than to go crazy one time and then never again. Feeling comfortable with it is a habit that takes time to create.

One of the best things I’ve found is to go talk to someone before the shyness kicks in. A nice way to warm yourself up is by talking to the taxi driver or saying hi to the doorman on the way in since those are quick conversations that aren’t supposed to last long anyway.

Working to remember people’s names from the beginning will also help give you confidence. They will appreciate it — especially, people with a difficult name because they are so used to people glancing over it that they can tell the difference within a second.

If you are going to a gathering, can you research some of the people coming to the event before? People often like to be recognized (you might say “I saw you did….”).

But honestly, generic meetups and events tend to suck. Instead, I’ve found it easier to meet people when doing things e.g. painting, sports or whatever you are into, so there is a blend between talking and doing something together. I find that my best friendships are built on experiences we have together, not just talking a lot.

It doesn’t have to be an event or something for a large group of people. Rather, find something you are keen on trying out (for me that was ax throwing, wakeboarding, and archery tag). Then invite a friend or a few and tell them that you’ve never tried this activity before but they can join if they’d like since it seems fun to do a few people together.

How to make friends in a new city: befriending people (even if you don’t have years to do it)

Back to the friend funnel. At this point, we have a system for regularly meeting people and it’s time to turn strangers and acquaintances into friends.

The benefit we’ve had with our existing friends is that we’ve had time–often years–to get to know each other. And while we’ve become friends with new colleagues or school mates at university, we’ve had our old friends to hang out with.

That’s not a privilege we have in our new city, so let’s look at how to make friends in a new city if you don’t have years to do it.

While time is an important factor, it isn’t the only factor. Think about soldiers at war, there is a reason that the well acclaimed tv series from the 90s about soldiers is called Band of Brothers. Challenges can bring us together as well.

We can get a lighter version of that by going to a foreign country since we both live through a similar experience. 

I don’t mean getting ourselves into trouble on purpose. Obstacle courses like Tough Mudder or the Spartan Race can be great options if you are into sports. Other hobbies can be good too and especially trying something new together but even work challenges and finding common ground can work well. 

Within the aspect of making friends, another question that often comes up is joining a group of existing friends without looking desperate, so I’ll give you some ideas for that too.

How to join a group of existing friends without looking desperate

The challenge with joining an existing “adopted family” is that they are close with each other and so we have a lot of catching up to do. The bad news is that there is no secret phrase we can use to magically get invited to the private Sunday BBQs and group chats, it is something we have to cultivate over time.

The worst approach I’ve seen is to ask to be invited. By doing that, we put the other person in an awkward situation if they aren’t ready for whatever reason and they might feel like they are vouching for us by inviting us to an intimate gathering.

A better approach is to make friends with group members individually and we will naturally become part of the group. First hang out with 1-2 people, then a few more and later in minor groups and let it evolve over time. If most people in the group enjoy hanging out with us, it is more likely that we will be invited to hang out with the group as well, and it won’t feel as new when we do since we know most of them well already.

Another option is to find something we can help them with to provide value or make ourselves useful. That might be an interest in craft beer that gives us access to amazing products we can share with our friends or invitations to a fancy bar, or whatever floats your boat. The point here is to give first and ask second.

A group tends to evolve over time as life changes, some get new jobs in other cities, change their lifestyle, have kids, leave and newcomers join. Alternatively, we can also create our own group by inviting people first and over time it might become a tight knit group because of the things we do together – you wouldn’t believe how many people are in the same situation and would love to be invited to stuff, too.

The fun game that never ends

The reality is that while these techniques have been field tested and work well, there are often city-specific things that would work well only in your city. That might be specific sports or facilities that are only available where you live such as skiing or surfing.

Testing and experimenting with different ideas for meetups and how to make friends in a new city is a great way to figure out what kind of things you love to do the most, whether that is specific sports, other hobbies, large or small meetups, etc. 

Finally, although social skills are an important part of making friends in a new city, I’ve not included much about it here simply because there is so much to uncover that it could take up an entire ultimate guide on its own. If you’d like to hear more about that, please send me an email or comment below.

Takeaways

  • Having the right friends can change not only our experience in the new city but our life trajectory altogether. There is a reason that people say ‘your network is your net worth’.
  • We can take a systematic approach to meeting people and build a habit around it so we don’t wake up lonely and with no friends three months down the road
  • Making lifelong friends takes time and doing challenging things together can help speed that up but don’t give up if it didn’t work the way you wanted it to the first time

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