The challenges of developing and maintaining friendships as an expat

The challenges of developing and maintaining friendships as an expat

To give full meaning to our life, we all need to connect with other people. There are certain relationships that we go through as we grow up. As we get older, we develop a closeness to certain people. These people are our childhood, school, college etc. friends.

A friendship is a magical tool which can bring out the positive energy in your life when everything seems negative. I believe that it is truly one of the most precious things in life. How do expats deal with friendships?

Friends, the family we choose

As an expat, I have always built a family from my friends and they remain a top priority for me.

Maintaining a friendship takes work and commitment, flexibility and understanding- but the payoff is huge. My good friends are as close to my heart as my own family, regardless of the geographical distance between us.

Building friendships as an expat

Making new friends and maintaining an established friendship is one of the biggest challenges for expats. Building your own social network can be just as difficult as dealing with other aspects of life abroad.

There must be other people looking for friends like yourself, new to the city, hoping to make indelible impressions that will translate into long-lasting friendships. Friendships that will evolve into late evenings, trying out new restaurants together and having brunch on Saturday mornings.

Forming long-lasting bonds

Some people are lucky enough to form lasting bonds. Given that most expats are almost always in transit, friendship in the form of seeing the other often may only last a short while. Some stay friends on social media while other friendships fizzle out, having served their purpose.

Some people are brave enough to try it again with another friend or couple. They are in it to win it. They believe that somewhere out there is the friend or group of friends that will just be the match they are looking for.

They will go on long weekend trips together and sit around a bonfire while their children play together etc.

Yes, that is the goal after all, to create a "new family" abroad and this is what real friends are. 

The challenge for long-term expats

I think we can all agree that one of the worst parts of being an expat is having to say goodbye to friends so often. Either they are leaving or you’re leaving or both.

I have experienced (and heard from other long-term expats like me) the pain of saying goodbye over and over again. This is difficult and sometimes makes you wonder what the point is of investing in friendships when you know that the other person (or you) will move in a couple of years.

It gives a sense of the temporary and less stability. Friends come and go, you invest in them, they leave and then you feel lonely in a host country which seems so familiar but without real friends to enjoy.

I have even heard long-term expats saying that they always ask how long the other person will stay and if the answer is a year or around this, they simply distance themselves. They get detached to protect them from another painful goodbye.

Don’t let fear rule

But I wonder, can you really choose who you will like? How can you stop yourself when you are attracted to a person’s friendship? Why lose an opportunity for friendship because of fear or a past experience?

Perhaps you should see it from a different perspective: because your time together may be limited, you know to enjoy the friendship to the fullest and make the most out of it.

What about the locals?

Here is another solution for having meaningful friendships as long-term expats: what about making friends with the locals?

Mingle with them, learn about the local culture and the language. Moreover, there is a bigger chance that the friendship will last longer since they are not as likely to move away.

Of course, nobody can guarantee that just because you have made friends with a local, that your time together is infinite.

Real friendships last a lifetime

Friends do not always have to be together to remain friends. There are times when good friends are separated for years, but when they meet again, they feel as close to each other as they used to be. Real friendships last forever.

And even though your friends might get busy with their own families, love life or work, all it will take is a little message or a reunion to rekindle all the happy memories and make new ones in the process.

For the long-term expats out there who have said goodbye too many times to their friends or who may feel lonely because some of their best friends are a continent away, remember your friends abroad and know that the friendship and love are not gone! Still there, perhaps in different times zones, but still waiting for you to (re)connect or plan your next meet up.

Also, remember that having to say goodbye to your friends is one of the worst things of being an expat, but saying hello to them again is just about the best thing ever!

Don’t let yourself be discouraged

Having a strong friendship is one of most beautiful parts of life and aspects of us being human: laughing out loud, going out for movies, singing songs, making crazy plans about marriage, career and life etc.

To all the expats out there sitting at home waiting for that Skype call, shorten the conversation on Skype and get out.

Don’t be discouraged if your first evening at a social event doesn’t yield a Saturday spent at the beach with your newly found friends. Attend the next meetings, and the next one. Eventually, bonds will form, and you will have your coveted long weekends or day at the beach with friends.

It takes time to build long-lasting friendships, and common experiences and values will lead you to this gift!

As an expat, how have you dealt with the difficulties of making new friends in a foreign country and/or keeping old ones? Let us know in the comments!

Vivian  Chiona


Vivian Chiona

Vivian Chiona is the founder and director of Expat Nest (, which provides emotional support to expats and their families through online counseling services. A bicultural, multilingual expat with family...

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Leave a comment

Noélia Macedo 12:51 | 29 July 2017

This is so true and you made me miss everyone of them. It's easier to say than done, I never realize how difficult it was for me making friends and how few I had...

vivianchiona 23:19 | 13 August 2017

Hi Noelia, Thanks for your comment and glad to hear that you found the article valuable, even with a sense of nostalgia. Indeed it is easier said than done but our little actions towards our goal make our reality. Enjoy your friends wherever they are in the world; that's one of our blessings as internationals. Best wishes Vivian

RADWAN 20:41 | 4 August 2017