You don't need to travel to make new friends.

By Stephanie Vermillion
March 25, 2020
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Self-isolation and shelter-in-place orders mean, among other things, that wanderlust is at an all-time high. But travelers are born innovators. Many are refusing to let the pandemic crush their bucket lists, flocking to virtual museum tours and "skipping the line" for Disney rides via YouTube.

But what about those of us who travel for connection? Meeting locals and fellow travelers is one of the most rewarding parts of any trip, and right now, it’s also the experience many travelers miss most. The days of mingling and making friends aren’t over, though. All you need is a new pen pal.

It may be a blast from school days past, but the pen pal world is still around. And now, these pen pal-matching platforms are more relevant than ever. All of the platforms have safety guardrails in place to foster high-quality international friendships — some offer texting or video-chat services, while others encourage handwritten notes.

Here are seven pen pal platforms to maintain cross-cultural connection while practicing social distancing:

Compatipal

Compatipal unites like-minded people for digital conversations about everything from football to food. This platform is a newer entry to the pen pal world; it focuses on shorter and more immediate communication (no hand-written notes) and offers instant messaging through the site. Compatipal users can search for people based on interests and location, and also form groups to build digital community around shared interests — business, arts, travel, language learning. The site is free to use and accepts members from anywhere in the world.

Conversation Exchange

Practicing a new language with a native speaker is one of the best ways to build cross-cultural friendships — and Conversation Exchange makes these connections possible, even during a pandemic. The global language-learning platform allows users to choose from over 100 different languages, from English, Mandarin, and Arabic to constructed languages like Esperanto, and even Ancient Greek and Latin. It matches speakers with students who want to build their fluency through voice, video, or writing, and also offers a collection of language resources. Basic membership is free, with the option to go ad-free for a small fee.

International Geek Girl Pen Pals Club

Founded in 2013, Geek Girl Pen Pals connects self-identified nerds through written and digital communications. Despite the name, this 17,000-member community is open to all gender identities, ages, cultures, and backgrounds. Pen pals are matched by age group and interests; you can request international matches, even down to the specific country. Most pen pals communicate with handwritten letters and small packages, although the founders encourage digital communications during the COVID-19 crisis. Beyond writing, volunteers host digital meetups, like a virtual summer camp — blanket fort and friendship bracelets included. The platform is free, although their Patreon supporters get access to exclusive experiences. The next pen pal application deadline is March 31.

Credit: Getty Images/Westend61

PenPal World

PenPal World, founded in 1998, connects millions of global users through its safe, fast matching portal. To maintain security, members make their first interactions directly through the site — then transition their conversations to email or hand-written letters. A free membership lets you reach out to up to three members each day, while VIP memberships (at 10 cents per day) let you reach out to 50 members every 24 hours. The PenPal World founders review every profile application, and respond swiftly to any flagged issues or suspicious content.

Postcrossing

You may not be traveling any time soon, but that doesn’t mean you can’t send postcards. Postcrossing is a project that connects people through the art of physical postcard-writing. The idea is simple: send one to the address you’re given, then receive one from another random “postcrosser.” If you want to keep the conversation going, use the ID number on the postcard to find, and message, the sender via the Postcrossing site. Membership is free and also includes online forums and in-person meetups.

Wanderful

Built by women who travel, for women who travel, Wanderful brings its thousands of members together through meetups, group trips, and global events. The Wanderful community, which welcomes trans, nonbinary, and genderqueer travelers, is making the most of the pandemic with digital experiences centered on connection. Members can sign up for one-on-one language-learning chats, or join virtual yoga, happy hours, and travel souvenir show-and-tells with other jet setters. An annual membership starts at $69, but Wanderful is giving away 600 memberships through April 1 to help women stay in touch while social distancing.

Worldwide Snail Mail Pen Pals

With over 19,000 members, Worldwide Snail Mail Pen Pals is an active Facebook group that fosters friendships across the globe. Navigating the group is simple: members post calls for pen pals, and those interested respond in the comments. Moderators oversee the interactions to ensure safe and kind responses. At time of writing, queries are popping up almost hourly as members seek a respite from social distancing. You’ll just need a Facebook account to join the group; new members fill out a quick qualifying survey and, once accepted, can post calls for pen pals or respond to other posters at no cost.