For many expats, finding new friends can ease the often overwhelming task of adjusting to a new life abroad. But with huge variances in local culture and language capabilities, some places can definitely feel more welcoming than others.
To determine where expats might find the best success of fitting in fast, global community network InterNations recently conducted their annual Expat Insider survey of more than 14,000 expats from 191 countries, asking residents to rate a number of aspects about life abroad, including how easy it was to settle in, a country’s friendliness and ease of making friends.
We talked to residents in the countries ranked high for friendliness to find out what makes these places so hospitable to newcomers.
This East African country received the highest marks for friendliness. According to the InterNations report, 57% of expats in Uganda gave ‘general friendliness’ the best possible rating (the global average was 26%). Not only that, not a single respondent ranked this factor negatively.
Charlotte Beauvoisin, a British expat who writes about living in the capital Kampala at Diary of a Muzungu, said that welcoming all nationalities is an intrinsic part of the culture, and residents are quick to offer smiles to newcomers.
InterNations Ambassador Nadya Mileva, originally from Bulgaria and now living in Kampala, agrees, saying that the people are ‘amazingly friendly’.
“The country has a lot to offer, from breathtaking landscapes to high-end restaurants and bars to year-round summer,” she added.
Uganda isn’t without its problems, however, including its draconian stance on homosexuality, power outages and infrastructure growing pains that can make traffic come to a complete standstill. But “the overwhelming majority of visitors to Uganda love the place. Many of us extend our contracts; many of us decide to settle here,” Beauvoisin said.
The majority of expats live in Kampala, where English is common and international restaurants abound.
“It has a high-energy core with a relaxed periphery well suited for families and others who prefer to stay at home,” Mileva said. While the southern half of the city is culturally diverse and less expensive, with easy access to Lake Victoria and the airport, the northern half is home to more affluent neighbourhoods. But expats live everywhere.
“There are not neighbourhoods predominated by mazungus[foreigners] and others only for Ugandans,” Mileva explained.
The country is also very affordable for food and labour – meaning that expats are usually able to maintain a high standard of living.
The Central American country ranks high across all factors when it comes to how easily expats fit in. Almost nine out of 10 expats (89%) are pleased with the general friendliness of the population, and eight out of 10 (79%) feel at home, according to the survey.
Foreign- or native-born, the community is connected by the ‘pura vida’ sensibility, said Diana Stobo, owner of The Retreat Costa Rica. “The idea of living a ‘pure life’ is the promise here, and those who are tired of the hustle and bustle want to live that way.”
She believes the socialist government plays a part in maintaining this equality and openness. “People all live within the same means; it is difficult to get ahead financially, and therefore most find peace and harmony in what they have. No sweat, no worries, no problems, just ‘pura vida’.”
While English is widely spoken, learning Spanish will get you far with the locals, said David Black, an InterNations Ambassador who lives in Santa Ana, 15km west of the capital San Jose, and is originally from the UK.
“If you make an effort to understand and embrace the Costa Rican culture, you are very much welcomed with open arms and considered a friend.”
While expat retirees flock to beach locations like Guancaste in the northwest and Jacro and Manuel Antonio, both in the central west, many professional expats live in the Central Valley near San Jose.
“Santa Ana and Escazu [8km west of San Jose] are very popular with North Americans and Europeans in particular,” Jones said.
The cost of living in Costa Rica has increased in the past 10 years, with Jones noting that a cup of coffee and a cake can cost just as much as in central London in some places. “However, like most other places, if you know where to look and wish to survive on a modest budget, there are still plenty of local places where you can eat and shop at a reasonable cost,” he said.
This South American hotspot feels like home fast, according to many expats.
“The Colombian people are eager to show their country in a positive light and are very receptive and hospitable towards newcomers,” said Anne Marie Zwerg-Villegas, an InterNations Medellín Ambassador living in Chia (a suburb north of Bogotá) and originally from the US.
“Colombia is one of the countries in the world with the lowest percentage of foreign-born residents, so we are a novelty. Locals tend to think of us as tourists and treat us as tourists.”
William Duran, who lives in Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city, where he hosts a digital nomad bootcamp, says this gives expats a unique opportunity to feel immediately welcomed, without the shine wearing off. “Out of the 40-plus countries I have been to, there is no other place where I've seen foreigners feel such a great balance of familiarity and novelty,” he said. “Colombians are very helpful and cheerful. The country is warm in every sense of the word.”
Most expats live in Bogotá, the metropolitan capital with nearly 8 million residents. Since traffic in the city is ‘horrendous’, according to Zwerg-Villegas, it pays to live close to your office. Most professional expats live in the northeast quadrant of the city, in neighbourhoods such as Chicó, Rosales, Usaquén and Cedritos.
“These neighbourhoods have modern commercial centres with international brands, restaurants with a variety of ethnic cuisine, and social and athletic clubs. Exclusive nightlife spots like Parque 93, Zona T and Zona G are also in these neighbourhoods,” Zwerg-Villegas said.
Younger and more adventurous expats might consider parts of the city further south like Teusaquillo or Soledad, where craft beer bars and inexpensive nightclubs are everywhere.
Since Colombia is an agricultural economy, fresh fruit and vegetables are available year round at affordable prices, and services are cheap too.
“Most expats will easily afford a maid, a driver and a nanny,” Zwerg-Villegas said. That said, expat incomes usually qualify as upper-middle class, which means a surcharge on utilities is levied to support the lower income earners.
As one of the sunniest countries in the world, Oman also has friendly residents who reflect the warm climate. A welcoming culture rooted in faith also leads to an openness with newcomers.
“Traditionally speaking, Omanis are very hospitable to strangers. With their strong Islamic background and belief, they love to help their neighbours or those in need, and will easily bring a stranger or new person into their home for coffee or dates or fruit,” said Nicole Brewer, who lives in Nizwa (160 km south of the capital of Muscat) and blogs about her experience at I Love to Globetrot.
The country is known for outdoor living and adventures, with great weather, camping and adventure spots.
“Don’t consider moving to Oman for the city life,” warned Rebecca Mayston, an InterNations Ambassador originally from New Zealand who lives in Muscat. “Move here with an open mind for outdoor experiences. For me, the life is endless adventures, amazing weather and landscapes, diverse nationalities and friendships.”
Muscat has more bars and restaurants than any other city in Oman, and Mayston says many of her expat friends enjoy clubbing here on the weekends. Nizwa has more of a small-town feel, even though it used to be the capital of the country, but has plenty of history, including the Nizwa Fort and its famous souq, a shopping district filled with gems and pottery.
While the cost of living in Oman is growing more expensive, it was recently ranked by Mercer as one of the more affordable places to live in the Middle East.
“For me, I can live a better life here than I do back home, and still get ahead with financial benefits,” Mayston said.
This island nation has become an outsourcing capital with many multinational companies opening offices here and attracting expats from across the world. Currently, residents of 159 countries do not need even need a visa to enter the Philippines.
English is a primary language and residents are eager to welcome newcomers.
“Locals are very outgoing and helpful, which makes foreigners feels accommodated,” said Eleanor Webley, a Manila native and InterNations Ambassador.
There’s also a strong culture of going out – to festivals and parties, or even just getting outdoors – which means newcomers can easily find opportunities to meet new friends.
“The people here are very friendly and are always smiling,” said Wendell Yuson, an InterNations Ambassador who was born and raised in Manila, adding that the slogan of the Philippine Department of Tourism also reflects this vibe: ‘It’s more fun in the Philippines!’”
While most expats work in Manila, many choose to make their home near the country’s beautiful beaches. Tagaytay, 66km south of Manila, is a popular location for expats who want to be out of the fray, but still within reach via public transportation (buses connect the cities).
“The Philippines has 7,100 islands, and expats love the tropical lifestyle here,” Yuson said. Those who prefer city living usually stay in the Central Business Districts (including Makati, the primary and largest CBD; the newest district Bonifacio Global City; and centrally located Ortigas Center in Manila) or live in Cebu, the second city of the country located in the central islands.
The cost of living here is generally not high, and budget-minded expats can easily make ends meet, with costs in Manila about 60% less expensive than London in housing, transportation and food, according to Expatistan.com. Still, living in high-end districts or using serviced apartments, where residents enjoy hotel-level amenities and services, can push costs up substantially.