If you’re planning to study abroad soon, you may be wondering, “Is studying abroad lonely?” Or, if you’re already abroad, you may be feeling lonely and wondering, “Is this normal?” The quick answer to whether or not studying abroad is a lonely endeavor is: it depends. But, it doesn’t have to be lonely.
There’s nothing inherently lonely about studying abroad, but if you find yourself feeling lonely there are plenty of things you can do to start feeling more connected. Studying abroad is a big step towards becoming a World Traveler, and thus you’ll want to learn to navigate feelings of loneliness, discomfort, and uncertainty. It may never feel easy but, with some practice, it will start to feel manageable.
My experience living abroad
I studied abroad in Amman, Jordan when I was in college with the School for International Training. Overall, I had a wonderful experience and was able to make several wonderful friends while I was there. I lived with a wonderful host family (don’t forget to bring a gift if you’ll be staying with a host family!) and learned about Jordanian culture both from my classes and my experiences in the country.
In 2020, I moved abroad to Ireland and have been living as an expat ever since. Studying abroad and moving abroad share some of the same challenges. It can be hard to make friends, you may struggle with feelings of homesickness, and you’ll likely experience some version of culture shock. However, you will probably experience many of the same feelings of joy and accomplishment at having successfully navigated a new culture.
I’ve written before about the ways that you can mentally prepare for studying abroad, and also what to do if you’re feeling nervous before your program. In this post, I’ll be exploring all of the root causes of loneliness for international students, as well as sharing my tips for making connections and feeling less lonely.
Why do international students feel lonely?
International students, and students who are studying abroad, tend to feel lonely because they’re in a new environment and away from their familiar social circles. Most students won’t have ties in the country where they’re studying abroad, and they may not speak the local language. While some programs will have ample programming to help students form friendships (SIT was great for this), others may only offer an hour-long orientation.
Studying abroad requires a big step outside of your comfort zone. Being far from home in a foreign place, especially for the first time, is a big accomplishment! You’ll be asked to learn and grow in ways that you didn’t know were possible, but sometimes there can be some bumps along the way – like feeling lonely.
Remember: it takes time and effort to form new friendships. Don’t feel discouraged if you’re finding it challenging or it feels like it’s taking a while. Keep trying and be willing to try new tactics if you’re not finding success.
Why does loneliness impact some students more than others?
There could be many reasons why one student might struggle more than another student while studying abroad. Every student comes to study abroad with their own life experiences, social life, and desires for their time away from home. It could also come down to your program and how much of an effort they make to introduce you to local students.
The best thing that you can do to avoid feeling lonely while studying abroad is to decide that you’re going to build community and actively work towards this goal. Chances are, there are other people in your university or program who would like to spend time with you or be included. Commit to trying several different tactics, and give them each several solid tries before you give up.
Is it difficult for an introvert to study abroad?
Introverts may find themselves having to manage their energy more while studying abroad. If you need time to yourself in order to recharge and restore, be sure to actively make that time in your schedule. Set a precedent with your host family that you’ll need a few hours alone from time to time, and communicate this as clearly and straightforwardly as needed.
Does everyone experience loneliness when studying abroad?
I would assume that most people experience at least a little bit of loneliness while studying abroad. Even if you make good friends while abroad, it can feel isolating to be surrounded by people who are new and perhaps different from you. Whether you feel lonely occasionally or frequently while studying abroad will depend on a number of factors, from the size of your program to the culture you’re visiting.
Know this: if you’re studying abroad and feeling lonely, you’re not the only one.
How do I deal with loneliness while studying abroad?
If you’re studying abroad and feeling lonely, start taking action as soon as possible. Humans need to feel connected to others in order to feel happy and fulfilled. Take feelings of isolation seriously and immediately start reaching out to both your existing and potential social circles for support and companionship.
There’s nothing wrong with finding yourself feeling lonely while abroad, but those feelings will only build over time if you don’t address them.
✅ Keep in touch with family and friends at home
Try to schedule plenty of check ins with family and friends back home, starting as early as possible. By keeping in touch with people who matter to you, you can ward off some feelings of isolation.
Marco Polo is an app (think: a mix between WhatsApp and SnapChat) that works really well for asynchronous communication. You can leave video messages of any length for friends and family to watch and respond to when they have time. Premium account subscriptions include the option to watch the videos at 1.5x or 2x speeds.
✅ Take a proactive approach to making new friends
Many of us can be guilty of feeling like friendships should just “happen” but that’s not always the case. You may need to be more proactive and organize or attend events in order to meet people. Reach out to people online, in person, between classes, or even if you start a conversation in the park.
✅ Be willing to make the first move
Start conversations, invite people to events, and generally put yourself out there as much as you can. Others may be feeling shy, so you can sometimes make new friends by being the person to make others feel welcome. If it doesn’t work the first time, don’t give up – try again with a few different people!
Anytime you’re not sure if someone is actually busy or if they just don’t want to spend time with you, try making plans at an undetermined time/place. If they still don’t seem interested, they’re probably not interested in friendship with you right now. No bother, just move on and try befriending someone else.
✅ Say “Yes” to invites as often as you can
Turn your study abroad experience into your proverbial “Year of Yes” and accept as many invitations as you can. It can be tempting to turn down invitations, especially if you’re not sure that you’ll have fun or you don’t know anyone else who will be there. Make it your mission to not only attend the events, but to get to know at least one new person.
Be very careful not to turn down invitations from potential new friends when they first ask you, unless you’re not interested in pursuing the friendship. Similarly, never cancel your first or second time meeting up unless you absolutely have to and can immediately reschedule. Most people won’t try twice, so don’t miss your chance.
What do you do when you feel lonely in a foreign country?
It can feel scary to start experiencing loneliness while you’re in a foreign country. You may not know the social rules, language, or customs of the place you’re living, which can add to the social challenges of moving. If you start to feel lonely while abroad, here are some concrete things to do right away to start to feel better.
✅ Force yourself to go outside and be in public
Self-isolating is one of the most surefire ways to continue feeling lonely. Try not to sit alone in your room, there’s no one to meet in there. Even if you don’t talk to anyone, going to the grocery store, gym, or park will typically put you face-to-face with others.
Try this: spend 30-60 minutes walking through town or a public area without headphones or looking at screens. Take in the people around you, the smells, and the sights. Do this every day for a week, along with the other items on this list, and see if your feelings of isolation begin to improve.
✅ Get some exercise
Go for a walk, join a gym, or attend a yoga class if you’re feeling lonely. Most forms of exercise involve at least seeing other people in passing, and you may even make friends while out walking. As a bonus, movement will help you to feel healthier and more energetic, fighting off some of the sluggish feelings that can accompany loneliness.
Even if you like to exercise in your room, try to also spend time fitting in some movement in public. Again, even a leisurely walk through town is sufficient.
✅ Call someone who will support you
Address acute feelings of loneliness with a call home to someone supportive. A friend or family member who can lend a curious and empathetic ear is best. You can let them know how you’re feeling or not, the important thing is to feel connected to someone who cares for you.
✅ Strictly limit your use of your phone and social media
It can be tempting to turn to your phone when you’re feeling inadequate, unsure of yourself, or just plain lonely. Unfortunately, your phone is unlikely to help you feel more grounded and connected, and may instead leave you feeling worse than you did before. Unless you’re using your phone to actively connect with people you know and enjoy in person, try to limit your screen time.
As a bonus, if you’re not on your phone in public it will signal to others that you’re open to communication and connection. If you must turn to your phone, try to stick to music, podcasts, TV, the news, or other apps aside from social media.
How to make friends while studying abroad
I wrote another post about how to make friends as an adult, and those tactics have worked for me since moving abroad. The best advice I can give you is to put yourself out there and commit to not giving up. Many people stop trying to make friends if they have a disappointing experience or if they feel rejected; keep trying!
When I moved abroad and found myself feeling lonely, I made a point of checking Meetup, Eventbrite, and Facebook every day for new events to try to attend. Then, I went to as many as I could until I started to build up a social circle. Attending these events, along with meeting others on BumbleBFF, helped me to make a circle of friends in Cork, Ireland.
✅ Attend events hosted by your exchange program or university
Check a variety of sites every day for a few weeks to get a sense of the event schedule. There could be an event calendar for your program, university, department, dorm, or other affiliation. Sometimes calendars are infrequently updated, so you may want to ask your program where to find the most current information.
✅ Look for location-specific expat groups on Facebook
If you’re someone who prefers older friends, or if you’re not having luck finding friends in your program, consider looking for expat groups online. Most major cities will have Facebook Groups dedicated to connecting expats, and they might hold events or allow you to organize a get together.
✅ Use BumbleBFF to meet others looking for friendship
Depending on where you study abroad, you may be able to use apps to find friends. These didn’t exist when I was studying abroad, but I’ve made several friends using BumbleBFF.
My best advice for using an app is to try, as soon as you can, to meet up with people in person. There are some people who use the apps just to find someone to talk to, but this probably won’t help you to feel less lonely. Try to meet up in person after you’ve established a connection so that you can tell whether or not the friendship is viable.
✅ Attend events on Meetup or similar sites
Meetup is an event organizing website that allows people all over the world to form public groups and coordinate events. In my experience, these events attract all sorts of people, so you never know who you’ll meet if you go. If you go to a Meetup and don’t enjoy yourself, I’d encourage you to try going 2-3 more times to determine if you don’t enjoy the other attendees or if the format is just awkward. You might feel differently about the group once you’ve become a familiar face.
Larger cities will have Meetup groups for different ages and interests, while smaller areas will be much more restricted. You can also check Eventbrite, a website that posts free and ticketed events that is active in many cities.
How do I feel happier when studying abroad?
We all need most of the same things to feel happy and thrive. Studying abroad is a new adventure, but there are bound to be bumps in the road that you’ll need to navigate. To give yourself the best chance of success, here are some concrete ways that you can work towards feeling happier while studying abroad.
✅ Cultivate a social circle
Either form a friend group or make a few friends independent of each other. Ensure that you have a network of people with whom you can spend time, share experiences, and feel a sense of belonging.
✅ Embrace the new culture
Feeling invested and interested in the culture of the country you’re studying abroad in will help you to fit in. Try the food. Watch local films. Visit authentic local restaurants. There may well be things that you miss from your home culture, but don’t try to force the new place to resemble home.
✅ Connect with locals and other international students
As an expat and someone who has studied abroad, I think it’s important to connect with both locals and other international students. Connecting with locals will give you a deeper appreciation for the culture you’re visiting and help you to grow as a person. Other international students will likely empathize with any struggles you’re having, and it can feel validating to know you’re not alone.
✅ Notice the things you love about studying abroad and share them with friends and family at home
Attention is not a neutral force. The places where you put your attention will change the way that you perceive the world around you. The small act of practicing gratitude – placing your attention on the positive aspects – will change your relationship with the experience.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t also share the hardships. But do be sure that you are noticing and communicating the things you’re enjoying and appreciating.
✅ Replace the word “hard” with “new” whenever you can
You’re having an entirely new experience while studying abroad. It can be easy to label all of this newness as “hard” but consider, for a moment, that it’s all simply new. Don’t worry if you haven’t got it all figured out just yet, you’re brand new at this!
Final thoughts: Is studying abroad lonely?
Study abroad is a time for personal transformation, growth, and experimentation. In the midst of all that excitement, you may find yourself feeling some loneliness. Accept your feelings for what they are: signals that you may be desiring more social connection.
In my experience, it takes courage, dedication, and time to make new friends. You have probably been doing this your whole life, but the short timeframe and new environment can make it feel much harder than it was previously. That’s OK, just resolve to start making new friends and put forth a concerted effort using the tips I included in this post.
When you do start to find your people, try to take a few photos so that you can remember your time together. Stay in touch when you get home, and try to make concrete plans to meet up when you’re in the same city. You’ve got this!