Singles Guide to Fitting in and Making Friends Overseas

Imagine waking up every day and thinking: I love my life. Imagine sunshine pouring in through picture windows…waking you with its warmth, after a cool night’s sleep, rays glinting on calm, pale blue water, just beyond a green expanse.

You step out onto your balcony to stretch and enjoy the fresh, clean ocean air. You can start your day with a dip in your pool or a walk to the beach. It’s never crowded, but the neighbors you meet smile and say hello. It’s a true community, and you’re a part of it.

I never thought that would be me. But somehow, here I am.

Are you interested in retiring abroad? Yes | Not Sure Yet

By U.S. standards, I am a “person of modest means.” And yet I have a beautiful home in a tropical beach town. I am still working, but I often joke that I’m already living my dream retiree lifestyle. Even when I’m at my desk, I have a spectacular ocean view. There is no way I could ever have afforded all this back in the States. Certainly not on my own.

I’m single—and for the most part, I love being single. But I shudder to think how difficult (and costly) my single-gal lifestyle would be in today’s United States. Navigating an increasingly complex healthcare landscape and being solely responsible for housing and other expenses…it’s a lot. And the stress can be downright unhealthy.

I decided to improve my life by moving overseas—and you can, too. I chose Panama, but there were many countries on my “I’d love to live in…” list. And I could have been just as happy in any of them.

All offered high-quality, affordable healthcare. That was a big priority, because one of the scariest “what ifs” for independent types like me is: “What if I get sick?”

They also have active expat communities and cultures that fascinate me. In my experience, these are just as important as English-speaking doctors, modern hospitals, and reliable, modern infrastructure.

You’ll find it easy to connect…quickly, and on a deeper level… in an expat environment. Everyone’s in the same boat. They’ve moved away from the buddies they went to school with, moved away from kids and maybe grandkids, too. They’re creating entirely new networks.

The friends you make overseas will become your adopted family. That’s what happened to me—and to countless others I’ve met over the years. So instead of feeling alone and isolated in Panama, I feel safe and supported. My life isn’t perfect. No one’s is. But I am truly happy. You, too, can live better—as a single— overseas. Here’s what I recommend:

Use Tech as a Tool

For any potential expat, it’s important to set up online banking and look into mail-forwarding services. But for single expats especially, networking tools help make the transition a thousand times easier.

If you aren’t already, get on Facebook. Other apps may be more popular with whatever we’re calling the Teen Beat generation nowadays, but the expat world is still very much a Facebook world. You don’t have to share private information or click on ads. Like any tool, you should make it work for you.

Once you’ve set up your account, search for expat groups in your area of interest. That’s what I did before setting out for a month-long stay in the mountain hamlet of El Valle, in Panama. I searched “expats in El Valle” and found a group with tons of posts. Doctors and vets in the area…expat happy hours and charity events…it was all there.

When I was looking for a place to rent, I tapped the group for information. Whenever someone helped me, I’d say, “Can I buy you a drink or a coffee when I get there, as a thank you?”

By the time I arrived, I already had more than five “expat dates” to look forward to. Those led to further introductions. Whatever people invited me to, I said, “Yes.”

Once you start making friends in person, you will find that WhatsApp is popular for quick chats and making plans. This year, I moved from the bustling capital of Panama City to the nearby beach hub of Coronado. To thank the neighbors who’d been so kind to me—answering all my questions, giving me recommendations—I decided to host a dinner party. I created a group on WhatsApp so we could settle on a date, discuss food allergies, and more.

Don’t Get Too Comfortable

The days immediately following your move will in many ways be the easiest time for you. Unpack and buy household goods, start language classes, whatever the tasks, your checklist will be full.

However, once you’ve unpacked and got the power and the internet up and running, you may need to give yourself a little push. Don’t stay home all day. If nothing else, grab your tablet or laptop and go to a café. Check Facebook Events and expat groups for news about mixers and other activities. Then make plans to go check them out.

If you’re not a social butterfly, don’t worry. People will talk to you. Folks will smile and say hello, ask you where you’re from, offer advice on what to eat or drink. This has been my experience at expat hangouts in Panama, Costa Rica, the Philippines… you name it.

It doesn’t matter what age you are. When he was 65, Bob Normand moved to Costa Rica and met a couple of fellow expats on the beach. They started a group called ROMEO. “You know what ROMEO stands for? Retired Old Men Eating Out,” he laughs. “We decided to visit every restaurant we could find and rate it. We have 50 or 60, so that kept us busy for a while.”

In 2017, at the age of 70, Marsha Scarbrough moved to Madrid, Spain. “It was really easy for me to make friends,” she says, “and, for me, friends are what you really need if you’re going to move to a new place.”

She met people by teaching English part-time, volunteering, and just going out and having fun. “I have so many friends, young people who think I’m really interesting. My social life is on fire,” she says.

What are your interests? What have you always wanted to learn or see or do? Search for groups or classes or get togethers, get involved, and you’ll meet likeminded people.

Want to meet locals? One of the best things you can do as a new expat is to learn about and explore your new country. Bob and his ROMEO pals set a goal to try every restaurant in town, meeting plenty of local business owners along the way.

And a project like that can lead to so much more. Bob’s curiosity has spawned a website, a monthly newsletter, and he has even written books on Costa Rica. Today, he is nearly 80, single, and his life is full.

So be like Bob. Ask questions wherever you go. Where is the chef from? What fruit is this? What are you celebrating? How is that made? You meet interesting people by being inquisitive.

Not everything you try has to pan out. Don’t be afraid of the hit-and-miss. I joined a wine club that I thought was going to be tremendous fun. Well for me, it was a big, boring dud.

Around the same time, I met two expat women who wanted to start a professional group. That sounded like a snooze (and a little intimidating). But I gave it a shot. Those women became my soul sisters. I’m so thankful I said yes.

MORE MOVE-OVERSEAS TIPS FOR SINGLES

If you’re single and seriously considering a move, check out International Living’s comprehensive guide: Single and Ready to Move Overseas: Your Guide to Joining Happier, Healthier Expats Abroad. In it, you’ll find lots more singles-specific advice. It’s the ultimate tool for prospective solo expats who are ready to make their overseas dreams a reality. Plus, it comes with a members-only Facebook group for networking among single IL readers. Get your copy here: intliving.com/singlesmag. 

Pay it Forward

The day will come when you no longer feel like the new kid on the block. Other singles will arrive, and you’ll have a chance to do the helping, instead of being helped. So enjoy the feeling, and pay it forward.

Life coach and expat Mel Rhoden says she left the U.S. as a single person and walked into a “huge support system” in Costa Rica. “If someone’s sick, if someone needs to move, somebody’s going to show up to help you…if not five or 10 people,” she says.

“So if you haven’t made the move yet, make it. Wherever you’re going, there will be other expats. And if there’s not already a group in place, start one… because I can guarantee they will want to get together.

DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION: EXPATS ARE EVERYONE

Expat communities are incredibly diverse. As an Asian woman (both my parents were Indian) and a person of color, that’s something I was looking for. It’s nice to live in a country that has welcomed so many people just like me.

Fellow single expat Mel Rhoden says, “Coming from the Black American perspective where it’s not always safe for us in the U.S., in Costa Rica I feel safer than ever. I don’t worry about the cops approaching me, I don’t worry about getting pulled over…I feel way more peaceful here.

“I even have a Black expat group here. We started a tradition called Soul Food Sundays. People host at their homes and it’s potluck style.” Sharing food and stories from back home while enjoying your beautiful new home overseas…that’s what the successful single expat lifestyle is all about.

If you’re wondering about acceptance for people who identify as lesbian or gay, there’s good news on that front, too. Cities in Spain, Mexico, and many more are gay-friendly.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius lived with his husband and children for four years in Hanoi, Vietnam. The city of Montevideo, in Uruguay, hosts events for Sexual Diversity Month every September. Italy is home to several città arcobaleno or inclusive “rainbow cities.”

However you identify, search for groups on Facebook. Terms like “Black Expats in Panama” and “Gay in Hanoi” lead to active, helpful groups. The more you network, the better your overseas single experience will be.

Related Articles

5 Great Places to Retire Where it’s Easy to Fit In

The World’s Best Places to Retire

6 Countries with the Best Healthcare in the World


Upcoming Conferences

Make 2023 Your Best Year Yet. Discover Panama with International Living

Panama has it all: beaches, mountains, a world-class capital city, top-notch, low-cost healthcare and the “World’s Best Retirement Program” that makes the already low cost of living even more affordable.

Join us for International Living’s Fast Track Panama Conference to see all that Panama offers. There’s no better place to be and no better way to make 2023 your best year.

Details Here


Panama 101

Portugal 101

Costa Rica 101