How to Make Friends While Studying Abroad

AnnaMarie Houlis
Topic Expert

AnnaMarie is a freelance writer who studied abroad in Rabat, Morocco during her time as a student at Gettysburg College.

How to Make Friends While Studying Abroad
Photo by Taisa V., SIT Argentina

People who meet me now are surprised to learn that I’d never left the country prior to studying abroad.

As I began planning my semester abroad, Paris was a priority on my list. The textbooks I’d read during seven years of studying French romanticized the city, and I was desperate to witness the iridescent Eiffel Tower illuminate Champ de Mars at night myself.

But, a number of students from my college chose abroad programs in Paris, and I was keen on going someplace solo to break out of my comfort zone and meet new people. So I chose a study abroad program in which I knew no one: a journalism program in Rabat, Morocco, where I could still practice my French, but also cultivate new friendships.

Making friends while studying abroad in a foreign city doesn’t always come easy but, if you put yourself out there, you’re bound to build lasting connections as I did. I made a number of close friends in Morocco in 2012, many with whom I still keep in touch and with whom I still travel today. Here’s how to make friends studying abroad both in your program and outside of it within your new community.

How to Make Friends in Your Study Abroad Program

How to Make Friends While Studying Abroad: Inside Your Program
Photo by Jude H., Rustic Pathways Costa Rica

1. Choose a Program that Genuinely Interests You

I, for one, chose a journalism program with the School of International Training. I knew by choosing that program that I’d inevitably meet other like-minded journalists and creative minds: writers and photographers who also probably wanted to hone their French skills. I certainly did meet those people.

The science is simple: humans convene over shared interests. It’s easy to start up conversations with others in your fields of interest because you can all speak on the same topics, share insights, and relate to one another’s similar backgrounds. Choose a program about which you’re passionate and you’ll basically have an automatic social circle of potential friends awaiting your arrival.

2. Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket

As humans, we’re all creatures of habit. We tend to flock to people who look like us, speak like us, and act like us because those people tend to share our habits. It’s especially easy to be drawn to seemingly similar people while traveling in places foreign to us because, at some point, most of us start to miss and crave familiarity.

It’s also human nature to constantly compare others to ourselves, in how they talk, how they eat, how they pray, how they balance work and life and so on. While recognizing those differences is a critical step toward appreciation, respect and even assimilation, you should neither define others by their differences nor fear their differences.

Keeping an open mind will help you form even more friendships with people you might have otherwise dismissed -- and it’ll help you grow as a person.

3. Go to as Many School Events as Possible

A lot of study abroad programs will hold events like lunches, dinners, and get-togethers for students to meet one another. Take advantage of these events by going to as many as possible. They’re the easiest way to get to know your peers because the chances are that other students are there for the same reason you are: to make new friends.

If your program doesn’t offer school events, consider hosting your own. If you have your own student housing (as opposed to a homestay with a local family), you could consider throwing a dinner party with different foods from the area; people naturally congregate over food, and experiencing new meals together provides easy conversation. If you are living in a homestay, ask your host if you can invite a guest to a family meal or have some friends over for a study group. Just be respectful of their home.

4. Plan Group Activities After Class

You can make friends from your study abroad program outside the classroom too. Check out a museum together, take a cooking class, volunteer, learn to surf, or something else entirely depending on where you are. Shared experiences form bonds, so find some post-class activities that you can do together.

Check out travel blogs or sites like Lonely Planet to scope out activities for which the city of your studies is known. Likewise, use Facebook’s “Explore” tab to find “Nearby Places” and events like exhibits, concerts, markets, and more in your area will help you meet people with common interests. If you’re somewhere like Paris, most visitors will want to go see the Louvre; if you’re somewhere like Rabat, you could shop the medina together. The possibilities are endless because if it’s your first time there, you’ve got everything to see. Grab some classmates (aka future friends) and enjoy the experience together.

5. Study Together

I fell into a routine every day by studying at a downtown café with renowned cheesecake (who knew I’d find the best cheesecake in Morocco?). Going there to eat and study quickly became “a thing” my new friends and I would do.

Don’t keep cooped up inside your homestay or your student housing to do your homework. Sit in the library or cafés around your campus to meet other students and actually get work done together. Not only will you probably do better work by helping and learning from one another, but you’ll also make some friends in the process.

How to Make Friends Outside of Your Study Abroad Program

How to Make Friends While Studying Abroad: Outside Your Program
Photo by Olivia S., Middlebury Schools Abroad Brazil

1. Do Some Solo Exploring

If you surround yourself with familiar faces in your study abroad program, you’ll seldom break out of your comfort zone. You could easily become a bystander to the culture around you, instead of immersing yourself in it.

If you surround yourself with strangers, however, you’ll be more inclined to engage with them, learn their stories and, sometimes, even adapt to their ways. Doing some things in solitude, therefore, will help you to build bonds with new people. You may meet the cafe owner where you stop for coffee on Fridays en route to class, or find a few new friends at a local restaurant counter where you grab dinner a few nights a week.

2. Unplug

Put down the iPhone and back slowly away! You’ll have an easier time meeting new people and making candid connections when you’re in the moment, not glued to your technology checking your emails, texts, Facebook notifications, Instagram direct messages, whatever it is. While you may physically be in a situation that’s outside of your comfort zone, you’re still mentally removing yourself if you’re stuck in some virtual world.

Put your phone away and live in the moment. Embracing the present and the space in which you occupy will also help you find personal meaning from an experience that might just build even deeper connections than you’d ever anticipated.

3. Volunteer

You can find people outside your program by joining other volunteering programs in the area. Check out Go Overseas’ volunteer abroad page to search opportunities in your new country. You can get involved with anything from community development to childcare to restoration, marine conservation, refugee relief and more.

Whatever you choose, you’re likely to begin meeting people with similar values and life goals as you, since they’re spending their free time the same way you are.

4. Take Advantage of Social Media

The converse of unplugging, be sure to take advantage of technology to meet new people outside your typical circle of friends. Use your social circle to connect with friends of friends on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Just make your friends aware of where you are by posting a status, and ask if anyone has connections in your city. After all, social networks are intended for social networking.

You can also ask friends for tips by turning on “Recommendations” on your posts, and Facebook will automatically map them out and save them in one place for you. You’re likely to meet people with whom you’d probably be friends at those recommended spots, since your friends were the ones to have been to those spots before.

5. Utilize Sites Like Couchsurfing & Meetup

Couchsurfing is a free social networking site and hospitality service for over 14 million locals and travelers committed to sharing authentic experiences. Simply, members create profiles and offer up their couches, spare rooms or entire homes to each other -- all of which are for free. The site can quickly turn strangers into friends, since summoning strangers off the internet to sleep in their homes means placing a lot of trust in each other. If you’re not totally comfortable being part-time roommates, though, you can also just use CouchSurfing to meet up with locals, attend traveler events in cities across the globe or start discussion boards to research destinations.

Meetup is another website with a corresponding app with the sole mission of bringing people with common interests together. There are all types of groups across a wide spectrum of categories: outdoors and adventures, sports and fitness, food and drink, music, film, dance, book clubs, you name it. Most are free, but some will charge you small fees. And, if you don’t find something for you, you can just start your own.

Studying abroad can be equal parts exciting and nerve-wracking, but it’s a time for you to explore a new culture, expand your horizons and make some new friends with whom to share once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Be confident and be yourself, and you’ll have travel buddies in no time.