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When I was learning English, I just learned the word 'friend'.

Now I begin watching some British TV series, I hear the characters say 'You're my mate', 'He's my mate', 'Cheers mate', etc.

There seems to be some subtle differences between 'friend' and 'mate', but I can't tell. In which situation(s) would 'mate' be more appropriate than 'friend'?

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Friend is the term used in AmE meaning someone with whom you have a bond.

Mate is the term used in BrE to refer to a friend (in the AmE sense) but may also be a cordial way of referring to another person whom you may or may not know.

These two phrases are equivalent in their respective meaning of someone close

We're friends
We're mates

In AmE, one's mate is usually though of as one's significant other or romantic partner.

These phrases are equivalent ways of greeting someone:

Hello (AmE)
Hey mate (BrE)
G'day mate (AusE)

In BrE, "Hey mate!" can be used as a general greeting (usually amoung males), however
"Hello friend!" is usually not used in AmE, more often "Hi there!" might be used.

Without any context, if a boy and a girl are said to be friendly

In AmE it may be thought they are friends or cordial
In BrE it may be thought they are more than just friends, they are friends with benefits (AmE)

One would never say they are matey.

Other BrE words which convey friendship are pal and chum.
Pal is more often used in Scotland than mate but is interchangeable in meaning.
When two people are chummy, they are very close friends.
Chums was a parody of the AmE series Friends.

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Urban Dictionary notes it this way:

Slang for "friend" used in New Zealand, Britain, Australia and Tasmania

It is just a cultural difference as there a number of terms that may be used. In Canada, there is buddy, pal, friend, ally and a lot of other terms that could be used to describe a positive relationship with another.

There can also be more than a few other 'mates in English if one wants to add another word to it: Housemate, roommate, and classmate. (Carmate would be one that I haven't ever heard.)

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    For some reason, 'mate' is mostly used by men. It's less common for British women to refer to their friends as mates. – ssav Jan 15 '16 at 11:07

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