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The Ultimate Guide to Au Pairing

By Jessica Lockhart

How to find work—and thrive—as an au pair abroad.

With historic roots dating back to the 19th century, au pairing isn’t just one of the most well-established and storied travel opportunities—it’s also one of the most culturally immersive. If you love kids and want to spend time living with a local family, au pairing abroad might be your ticket.

“Au pairing is one of the best gap year activities out there. You get to travel, make money, meet new people and live in a brand-new country, as well as grow personally,” says Jarryd Wentzel, a South African who spent two years working as an au pair in Texas.

We spoke with au pairs around the world to get their top advice on how to find work—and thrive—as an au pair abroad.

What qualifications do I need to become an au pair?

Let’s get the first order of business out of the way: the difference between being an au pair and a nanny.

As Mary Poppins would tell you, although the two terms are often used interchangeably, they’re actually two distinct roles, with different qualifications, job descriptions and compensation.

A nanny is typically a full-time salaried position, held by an individual of any age, who may also be studying or qualified in a field related to education or childcare. Nannies need to secure a visa to work abroad, which is why many are employed in their home countries.

In contrast, au pairing is considered a cultural exchange, rather than a job. Au pairs are typically travellers between the ages of 18 to 30 (although this can vary regionally), who are still eligible for working holiday visa or special au pairing work permits. They only earn pocket money, although living expenses are covered and language classes may be included. Simply put, au pairing isn’t about filling your piggybank—it’s about filling your cup with experiences.

To become an au pair, you usually need to have a high school diploma, a clean criminal record, experience taking care of children (yes, babysitting counts), and some working knowledge of the language spoken in the host country. A drivers’ license is also an asset, as is a First Aid certificate.

But regardless of whether you’re interested in working as a nanny or an au pair abroad, one thing that doesn’t matter is your gender.

“There are a lot more males in the industry now,” says Wentzel, who runs the YouTube channel, The Bropair, which is dedicated to reducing stigma and encouraging other men to consider au pairing. “If you want to do it, don’t let your friends or family try to talk you out of it. I promise it will be the best time of your life,” he says.

How to find an au pair placement

There are two main ways to find a host family:

1. Apply to an au pairing agency

This is a good option if you have a specific destination in mind or want an organization to help match you with a prospective family that’s already been vetted. In addition to helping you navigate work visas and paperwork, agencies are also a good safety net. If your host family turns out not to be a good fit, agencies will typically help you end the placement and find a new family, or return home. However, the service can come at a cost, with some agencies charging a fee to prospective au pairs.

Most agencies specialize in placing au pairs in a specific country or region. Some examples include: AIFS Educational Travel (placing au pairs in New Zealand, Australia, USA or France), Au Pair BUTRFLY (France), Cultural Care Au Pair (USA) and Go Au Pair (Australia, USA, Austria, China, France, Germany and South Africa).

2. Apply to jobs independently using online portals

One of the most popular (and free) methods for finding an au pair placement is signing up for a profile with a global site like AuPairWorld.com. While agencies are the matchmakers of the au pair world, au pair websites are more akin to dating apps. Au pairs and families can review one another’s profiles, before setting up a video meeting.

If you’re looking for something shorter-term or less structured, listings for childcare help can also frequently be found on Workaway.info, HelpX.net, WWOOF, or within au pair Facebook groups.

The most popular destinations for au pairs

Due to COVID-19, some country’s borders remain closed and au pair programs are temporarily suspended. That doesn’t mean you can’t daydream and plan for the future, though.

AuPairWorld.com offers a comprehensive breakdown of host countries worldwide, including eligibility, visa requirements, expected compensation and working conditions. However, here are a few of the most popular countries for Canadian and American au pairs.

• Germany

Germany is one of a handful of European countries that offers an au pair-specific visa—but it comes with a few strings attached. First, you need to be between the ages of 18 and 26, with beginner-level knowledge of German. Second, you need to have a contract and letter of invitation from the family before you can apply for the visa.

The good news is that your time off will be protected. Au pairs in Germany can work up to six days a week for no more than 30 hours, and in return receive a minimum salary of €280 ($400 CAD) a month.

• Switzerland

Like Germany, Switzerland offers a structured au pair program that welcomes Canadians and Americans between the ages of 18 and 25. Your work hours will be limited to 30 hours per week, and you can expect to be paid between CHF500 and CHF700 ($675 to $950 CAD) per month. It sounds like a lot, but keep in mind Switzerland has a notoriously high cost of living. On the flip side, your language course will be paid for.

• France

Ready for your own Emily in Paris moment? France’s au pair visa allows Canadians and Americans aged 18 to 30 to stay with a host family for a minimum of three months. You’ll need to have a basic working knowledge of French and an interest in learning more, as taking a language course while you’re in-country is mandatory (a cost au pairs are expected to cover). In exchange for working a maximum of five hours a day and 25 hours per week, you’ll receive a stipend of between €271.50 ($385 CAD) and €325.80 ($460 CAD).

• Australia

For Canadians to au pair Down Under, you have to be eligible for Australia’s working holiday visa program. (This program is open to Americans aged 18 to 30 and Canadians aged 18 to 35.) There isn’t a set wage, but you can expect to earn somewhere between $150 and $250 AUD per week ($130 CAD to $225 CAD).

You’ll generally only be allowed to work for one employer or family for a maximum of six months. But, if you want to extend your stay in Australia for another year, finding an au pairing gig in the countryside may count towards your three months of “farm work.”

• New Zealand

Much like Australia, Canadians aged 18 to 35 and Americans aged 18 to 30 are eligible for New Zealand’s working holiday visa program. Expect to earn between NZ$170 ($150 CAD) and NZ$300 ($260 CAD) per week.

Before you sign your contract

• Find a family that’s a good fit—and set up a video call to meet them

Having an online chat via Zoom, Skype or FaceTime isn’t just a chance to meet parents and ask them any questions—it’s also an opportunity to potentially meet their children and see the space you’d be living in.

Whatever you do, don’t rush into a placement, or commit to the first family you meet with. Wentzel says that he interviewed with at least eight different families—a process that took months—in search of one he felt he could relate to. When his agency reminded him that placements are more difficult for male au pairs to secure, he held his ground.

“I was like, ‘You know, I’ll be spending a year or three years with a family. And I need to be certain to some extent that it’s going to work out, to ensure problems aren’t going to arrive down the line,” he says.

He was rewarded for his patience with a placement with a single mom of seven-year-old twin boys in Texas. Wentzel—who was raised by a single mom—says it felt serendipitous. It was such a success that he ended up extending his stay for a second year.

If you’ve been burned by a prior experience, know that not all placements are built the same. That’s what Erin-Louise Gwynne learned as an au pair in Germany, where she frequently felt taken advantage of by her host family, with a long list of expected chores even in her off-hours.

“I stuck it out for the three-month contract, but it put me off au pairing,” she says.

She returned home to Wales and was disillusioned with the process, until a friend who was working with another German family said she’d be leaving her posting. Gwynne took the chance and now lives with a “super lovely” family in Frankfurt, where she has her own apartment, isn’t expected to clean, and feels her work hours are respected.

Her top piece of advice? “Don’t just go with the first option because they sound good on paper.”

As an au pair, your services are in high demand. Host families need you more than you need them, so the choice is in your hands.

• Check the family’s references

Gwynne’s experience also highlights the value of asking to speak with a family’s former au pairs, to get a sense of what you can expect or whether they’ll good fit. Not only that, but former au pairs can be an invaluable resource on everything from how to calm crying kids, to how to best communicate with parents.

“They’ve already gone through everything,” says Wentzel. “You can learn from them what the kids like and what they don’t like, and just hit the ground running.”

• Research the neighbourhood or city you’d be living in

One final quality that au pairs say can make or break an experience is the location of the home. Living on a farm in the countryside may sound terribly romantic, but it also has the potential to be isolating, particularly if you don’t have access to a vehicle. Likewise, suburbs on the outskirts of major cities may have limited public transit.

Instead, choose a placement that will give you ample opportunities to get out of the house during your days off, to meet other people and practice your language skills. Gwynne also suggests choosing a destination where there are other au pairs nearby, which you can determine by searching for au pair Facebook groups in the area.

Questions to ask your potential host family

• Have you had an au pair before? If so, may I get in contact with them?
• How would you describe your ideal au pair?
• What does a typical day look like in your household?
• Will I just be responsible for childcare, or for other household tasks as well?
• What will my working hours be?
• Will there be any potential for travel elsewhere?
• What are the ages of your children?
• How much English do they understand or speak?
• Do your children have any special needs?
• What do you hope to get out of having an au pair?
• What is your neighbourhood like?
• Will I have access to a vehicle, bicycle or public transit?
• What will I be paid on a weekly or monthly basis?
• Would you be willing to supplement my stipend to help pay for a language course?
• What are my living quarters like? Will I have my own bedroom or my own apartment?

Getting the most out of your experience

• Navigating relationships with your new family

Unanimously, the au pairs we interviewed said the biggest challenge they faced was establishing a work-life balance. Au pairs are in a unique position: they live in their workplace, where they’re considered both an employee and a member of the family. It can also be disconcerting to have to ask for permission and live by the rules of a new household.

“It's quite weird to have to live with your boss. It's an odd dynamic,” says Wentzel, adding that while your host parents may know when your time off is, kids may not—particularly if you live in the family’s home (rather than in a separate apartment). “There were times I’d wake up and there’d be a kid on my bed waiting for me to wake up,” he says.

Inès Laverdure, a Canadian au pair in Germany, agrees: “It’s really hard to understand the limit between work and free time, especially when the kids aren’t at school,” she says. “You don’t want to stay locked up in your room. But if you go downstairs, you’re going to have to play with the kids and help with cooking, which is normal. And although I’ve been very fortunate and it’s not the case for me, some parents forget that au pairs are not slaves.”

Communication is the key to navigating this balance, as is establishing yourself as a respected member of the household.

“Make an effort to spend time with your family and don’t just stay in your room,” advises Wentzel. “Know boundaries, but also realize it’s not a typical employee-employer relationship.”

• Keeping the kids happy

If you were inspired by Netflix’s The Babysitter’s Club reboot to become an au pair, know that what you’re signing up for will likely require a lot of patience and next-level negotiation tactics.

“When you babysit, it’s special for the kids because you’re only coming for three hours. But as an au pair, it’s a very different dynamic, where you spend the whole day in a family routine,” says Laverdure.

Once the novelty of your presence wears off, the kids might treat your more like an older sibling. Establish your boundaries early on, as well as consequences for actions—and confer with your host parents to determine their preferred disciplinary actions. Finally, remember that it will take time to find your place within your new family. Once the kids get settled into a new routine, things will get easier.

• Making friends

When you’re feeling homesick, or when you don’t know how to navigate a situation with your host family, friends will be your lifeline. But while it’s helpful to have a handful of other au pairs on speed dial, don’t forget to meet locals—particularly if your goal is to learn a new language.

“Au pair communities are fine, but getting to know the real, local people can improve your language skills even more,” suggests Austrian Marlene Mittermayr, who signed up for a sports club while she was working as an au pair in Paris. “It’s important to be open-minded and just try new things even if you’re scared,” she says.

What to do if things go wrong

As with any job, make sure your terms of employment are clearly laid out in a written contract. This will help guide discussions if something goes awry.

Bring up any issues as soon as they occur, instead of letting them build up.

“Talk with your host family and say, ‘Hey, I’m not really comfortable with this. Can we go over the contract together?’” suggests Laverdure. “It can be really scary to confront the parents, but communication is the basis of any relationship, and this is a new relationship for most au pairs.”

If you arranged your placement through an agency, you may also want to contact them to act as an intermediary. If the terms of your contract are not being met, they’ll help you to resolve any issues—and help you to find a new family in a worst-case scenario.

Au pairing horror stories abound, from parents who don’t respect privacy or work hours, to spoiled or entitled children. But if you’ve done your research before selecting a family, know that these stories are the exception to the rule—and that most issues can be solved with clear communication.

“It can be scary to become an au pair,” says Laverdure. “But it’s so worth it. You really experience another culture. You won’t regret it.”

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