How to Make Friends Abroad – the Key to a Happy Expat Life

Moving to a new country is a fresh start, which can feel exciting, scary, fun and challenging all at the same time. The quickest way to settle in abroad and make your expat life a fulfilling experience is to make new friends. But that can be one of the biggest challenges of all. So I asked expats from around Malaysia and throughout the world about how they made friends among locals and other expatriates. Many people responded with thoughtful, inventive and fun ideas from their unique perspectives as working people, retirees, spousal visa holders and global nomads. I hope these ideas help you develop some new friendships!

Ashley Eng

For local friends [in Penang, Malaysia], we have been very intentional in getting to know our neighbors. When we first moved here we held an open house, where we catered a meal and invited all of our neighbors. We were so humbled and excited when they all showed up and brought food to share! Just in the process of inviting our neighbors we were invited into many homes and welcomed to the neighborhood. We have also thrown a Christmas party and passed out goodies at different holidays. From all of this, I met my now closest local friend, who also became my son’s babysitter in the mornings. I have also met local friends taking my kids to play at the local library and then setting up play dates to come back together or participating in the parties at my daughter’s local kindergarten. We live on the mainland, so there aren’t many expats that we see over here, but I feel like my experience in Malaysia is so much richer because I’m more immersed in the local culture.


Firstly, cast a wide net, sort who likes what and have different friends spread over interests. Also have a mix of local, permanent here or temporary stay expats as the expat population is usually in flux. Expats come and go so having many good friends helps the balance when people leave and also helps the new people find connections. Enjoy the differences in the mix of countries and cultures and ideas and customs and smile a lot, laugh a lot and be your own odd mix of whatever you are. There will always be people who like and accept you and those that don’t. But the expat population is so big here that it will make little difference. Oh and for the locals, learn just a little Malay and you will make them very happy. An instant plus when trying to get a smile or a nod from a local. And join local Facebook groups, they have tons of information and tips.


Put yourself out there and don’t be afraid to lead! Over the past 10 years as expats in South Korea, my husband and I have started and led a running club, a book club, monthly hash runs, clothing swap, and a monthly Korean-Foreigner dinner that brings strangers together over a meal. I’ve found that expats are almost always up for making new friends and having new experiences. They were, after all, brave enough to move to a foreign country! 🙂 So basically, my advice is to do what you love and invite all those around you!!

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Of course work is the easiest place to make friends, but I’ve found it’s really important to widen beyond the work circle or you’ll go insane. You just have to force yourself to do things you would never bother to do back home – dance classes, play tennis, hiking, whatever. People are eager to make friends just like you so bonding happens really quickly. And the number 1 rule is to say yes to everything you are invited to! Can’t be picky (yet) ;-).


Get out!! I’ve been fortunate to make some amazing friends here – from varied circles. I found if you’re always friendly, open to meet people then you’ll have no issues. Bootcamp, coffee mornings, schools and fitness groups help too! Penang I’ve found really easy to meet people who I gel with!


Joining a gym is the best option for moms who love fitness and you will meet (most of the time) happy people. As we love horses and own a horse, meeting people with the same interest makes it so easy. Equestrian/polo club is the option for us. (Hello from Thailand – we’re Malaysian-Swedish family in Chon Buri.)


I have the same experience: clubs, gym and any type of activities are good place to meet people! And meeting friends of friends gives you a wider network. Trying to bond with locals is also great because it can be easier to understand the culture you are living in.


I was lucky to already know someone here and that really helped. For the rest it was school, hanging out by the pool, and SPORTS! The Tabata class has been one of my lifelines. So I’d say getting involved in activities as much as possible and going toward people.


I lucked out with my choice of AirBnB hosts [in Penang]. We hit it off…they invited me to quiz night at Healy Macs (I joined their team) where I got to meet other folks and it spiraled from there. Just shows you…one serendipitous decision (the host’s name is the same as my son’s – and it’s an unusual spelling) and bingo! a full life. In fact, just got back from 8 days in Bali and already have three invites for this weekend. In 17 years of living in the US I never made as many friends as I have here in just over 3 months…maybe it’s something to do with the expat community, although I’m delighted to say I have made many local friends, too — not just Westerners. 🙂


I joined a gym when I arrived in order to keep fit and meet new people. One of the gym bunnies introduced me to Dragon Boating. One of the dragon boaters helped me become an extra on Indian Summers where I made more new friends who also introduced me to Boot Camp where I made even more friends…… now I’m exhausted but surrounded by some of the best people of all races and backgrounds. Penang truly is the gift that keeps on giving!


Always make sure you welcome new people and encourage them to coffee mornings exercise groups etc. And when they do make sure you say hi. It only takes one social occasion to make a connection.


[In Penang] every Monday from 10am-noon there are meet-ups at the Brown Pocket Café, 6th floor of Gurney Paragon. [It’s open to everyone – expats and locals alike. It’s a wonderful way to meet new people].


As a long term expat here [in Malaysia] I would say the best way of making friends on arrival is through your children’s school, assuming you have children of school age. When we first arrived we had a school age child so this was the first point then I would say the Expat Groups such as British Women and MANZA which were very helpful and friendly. Otherwise I would say through work colleagues. Meeting locals is not as easy I think but having lived in a condo for many years we have met locals who are neighbours.


Actually anything where you have a shared passion. Cooking, yoga, running, motorbikes. All you need is something in common. Transcends origin and race. I joined a cricket club when I arrived in Kuala Lumpur 19 years ago and many of those people are still my friends.


Join clubs! The best website and technology cannot replace the human element. And yes, expats are only human so we cannot escape problems. But we are lucky to have an understanding expat community. We would not be where we are today had we not have that supportive expat community.


I make friends with expats through friends. I am into fitness, and sometimes just talking to people in yoga classes works.


Being a traveler (and not working) and based here in Malaysia for a year I used Couchsurfing and Tinder [to find friends]. Also used Internations and of course you meet people when you go out.

These lovely ladies are loving expat life 🙂

Cimeron: (hey, that’s me!)

In Malaysia, there are tons of really fun parties and festivals that are usually open to anyone, which is an excellent opportunity to meet people and have a memorable evening out. If you live in a condo with lots of other expats, many have “sundowner gatherings” as a way to meet neighbors – if they don’t, then start one yourself. Volunteering is also a great way to meet people who are passionate about the same things as you, be it animal rescue, working with the blind, helping refugees. Since most people find they have more free time once they move to another country, taking classes is another fantastic way to make friends while also reinventing yourself, like a TESOL course to learn how to teach English as a foreign language, yoga, group music lessons, Bollywood dance, or anything else you’ve always wanted to learn but never had time to do until now. You can also meet lots of friends by joining one of the many expat community groups on Facebook, such as PERC-Penang Expat Residents Community. For more ideas, check out this story on finding fulfillment.

If you’d like to learn more about expat life, follow me on Instagram to see what it’s like. (Spoiler alert: it’s pretty funny and entertaining!)

2 thoughts on “How to Make Friends Abroad – the Key to a Happy Expat Life

  1. Thank you for this! You guys are great, sharing your experiences. We’re from the US and are thinking of retiring in KL. Any thoughts/suggestions on who to meet up with or meetup places? Thanks a lot!


    • Hi Tony! Sorry for the delayed response. Work, holidays and travel got the better of me. There are a few expat groups in KL that can help you. I’d suggest that you get in the Facebook groups called KL Expats and KL Expats Malaysia. They will be able to let you know of meet-ups and will have lots of suggestions for you. My husband and I live in Penang (which we like a lot – I’m not a huge fan of KL since I don’t like big cities much), so if you’re considering moving to Penang, just let me know and I’ll hook you up with lots of local resources.


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