Being an au pair is a great way to finance longer term travel and really immerse yourself into a new country.
Being an au pair is a time-honored way for young women (and increasingly young men as well) to finance a stay abroad and get a taste of “real life” in another country. Unfortunately, one of the reasons this type of work is almost always available is that it is in no way shape or form easy, and childcare may not be everyone’s cup of tea.
Integrating into a foreign family and essentially helping raise their children can be incredibly exhausting, frustrating and poorly paid.
Here’s what you should know about becoming an au pair.
What exactly is an au pair, and who can be one?
Simply put, an au pair is a foreigner who lives with a family and provides help around the house. This usually takes the form of childcare, but often includes minor to heavy housework, caring for pets, running errands or helping care for family members with health or age-related problems.
The term itself comes from French, meaning “on a par” or “equal to”.
An au pair position, as opposed to that of a nanny, caretaker, cleaner or other professional household helper, is meant to be a means of cultural exchange and not a career. As such, an au pair should be treated as a “member of the family” (albeit a hardworking one) and not a servant or employee.
What do you get as an au pair?
Au pairs are provided with room and board (except for in the rare ‘live out’ au pair positions) and weekly or monthly “pocket money”, which is often mandated by the government but is usually in the range of $400-800 per month.
The job is most often undertaken by people straight out of high school or university, but au pairs in their mid to upper 20s to early 30s are becoming more common. In general, countries set a lower age limit of 17-18 and an upper age limit from 24-34.
Check the visa rules of the countries you’re interested in (usually available on the website of the country’s consulate or embassy to your home country) before getting your heart set on anything.
It isn’t easy to become an au pair
Many countries restrict which nationalities are eligible for an au pair visa, and many others make it more difficult for people from certain countries to obtain a visa.
Italy, for example, is a notoriously hard place to get an au pair visa for anyone outside of the European Economic Area.
Childcare experience is a plus
There are usually no minimum experience requirements for au pairs, although some countries do ask that au pairs have “some childcare experience”. In most cases, even babysitting younger siblings every once in awhile is enough to fill this requirement.
The level of experience demanded by individual families, however, varies greatly. Some request several years childcare experience, while the majority place more value on enthusiasm and personality.
How long do you work as an au pair?
Many countries require a minimum stay of 6-12 months, and the majority of families look for au pairs that are willing to commit to stay through at least one school year.
Some families look for short-term au pairs to help them over the summer holidays or even during the school year (often to maximize their exposure to new cultures and/or avoid the complicated and expensive visa process).
In most cases these short-term positions coincide with the length of time a foreigner is allowed to stay in a country as a tourist.
Not technically legal, but the “contributing family member with pocket money” format of an au pair position makes it difficult to prove that the au pair is any more than a friend visiting the family, and this kind of arrangement works out for a lot of people – as long as they are careful to not mention the word ‘work’ when going through customs!
Learning the local language
Most countries require au pairs to undertake language study during their stay and/or to be able to prove a minimum proficiency in the language of the country before getting an au pair visa.
The number of study hours per week and acceptable language schools are often mandated, and providing a certificate of enrollment in such a program is often a required part of an au pair visa application.
In many cases the family is required to cover or at least help with the cost of the language courses.
Working Conditions and Hours
Some countries require au pairs to work part time only, while others mandate a full work week. Certain countries also specify whether au pair contracts can or cannot include housework and other duties.
All of this obviously varies from family to family as well and some au pairs have loads of free time, while others feel like they are almost always working, or at least “on call”.
Know the details of the job before you take it
It’s important to specify ahead of time what the general working hours and schedule will consist of and how much they can expect you to keep your schedule open for changes.
Even if you technically don’t have to work most evenings or weekends, for example, not being able to make any plans because the family may need you may not be considered real time off.
Interested in learning more about being an au pair? Check out our related post – Step by Step process to becoming an au pair.