While being an au pair isn't all sun drenched afternoons drinking wine on cobblestoned streets (you are living with your employer after all), it's a great way to go overseas, learn a new language, and travel around Europe all while making a little bit of money.
In Europe, many families want au pairs so they can introduce their children to natively spoken English early on.
I spent four months as an au pair in Rome, Italy and get a lot of questions about what it's like to be an au pair in Europe. Here are my answers to some of the most frequently asked questions, which will hopefully get you started on your journey to becoming an au pair.
What is an Au Pair?
For many people, especially in the United States, the concept of an au pair is a foreign one. Au pairs are generally young people (some countries in Europe have age restrictions) who work taking care of children part-time in exchange for a small stipend and room and board.
Au pairing in Europe is seen as an opportunity for cultural exchange rather than solely employment. The word au pair means “equal to” in French and thus the au pair is meant to be seen as part of the family.
In Europe, many families want au pairs so they can introduce their children to natively spoken English early on. As such, they're eager to host young women (and men!) from the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and Australia. So much so, most governments in Europe have special visas in place to support this.
How Can I Find an Au Pair Job?
The two most common ways to find au pair jobs in Europe is to either use an agency or to find a job independently online -- both having their own pros and cons. While we can't tell you which one is right for you, we can give you an overview to help you decide:
1. Finding an au pair job independently
To find a family yourself, you'll need to set up a profile on an au pair website. Great Au Pair and Au Pair World are the most common and both are free for au pairs. Remember to complete your profile in full and emphasize any sort of childcare experience you have.
Include a few clear photos of you smiling, and if you have any with children, use those. Keep the photos of you holding bottles of booze on Facebook (and, actually, you might want to consider taking those off completely -- employers do look at that).
Going sans-agency means you are completely responsible for negotiating a contract, figuring out your visa, and should anything go wrong while you're abroad you will have to find a new family without any agency support.
2. Using an agency to find an au pair job
Typically, agencies charge a fee to both the au pairs and families, though this isn't always the case. They will guide you through the process of finding a family and usually help negotiate contracts and sort out visa requirements.
The downside, though, is that your search is limited to families who have also signed up with this agency and your candidate pool may be significantly smaller.
If you want to go this route, Go Overseas has a list of au pair program providers and agencies (along with reviews from past au pairs) to help you find the right agency for you.
How Do I Choose a Family?
The first thing you need to do is make a list of your non-negotiables. These are things you absolutely want out of your au pair experience and could be things like location, age of the children, time off, or salary.
Once you’ve decided what you absolutely must have from a family, begin your search. If you’re with an agency this will involve telling them your preferences, and if you’re doing this alone you can use these terms to filter families.
If you really like a family, don't be afraid to tell them you want to be their au pair.
Start by messaging or emailing with any families that catch your eye and meet your requirements. Don’t be afraid to ask any questions you might have about life with them. This is a time to weed out the people who aren’t good fits -- remember, you're not just trying to prove that you'll be an amazing au pair for the families, but to make sure they'll be a great family for you to work with as well.
When you’ve narrowed it down, start video chatting with the parents and kids. While there’s no sure fire way to guarantee a good match from thousands of miles away, video chat can help determine if you click.
If you really like a family, don’t be afraid to tell them you want to be their au pair. They probably feel the same way and you could soon be arranging flights and start dates.
Conversely, if it doesn’t feel like a fit, definitely don’t string them along or feel pressured to say yes. Don’t put yourself, or this family, in a situation that will make for a really bad year.
Do I Need a Visa to Be an Au Pair?
If you hold only a non-EU passport and want to stay in Europe for more than 90 days, you will need a visa.
For au pairs in Germany and Switzerland, there are visas specifically for au pairs. These countries will have rules about your age, working hours, salary, and more. Sweden also offers a special work permit for au pairs who are not EU-citizens.
Citizens of Tier 5 states, including Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, can work in the UK as an au pair on Youth Mobility visa.
Other countries, like France and Italy, don’t offer au pair visas and instead you must enroll in (and pay for) a language course and apply for a student visa.
Before deciding on a country to be an au pair, make sure you do your research on all visa requirements so you don’t find out you’re too old or can’t afford a 3,000 euro language course after accepting a job.
What are the Duties of an Au Pair? How Many Hours Will I Work?
The duties and hours of an au pair in Europe will vary not only by country, but also by family. You average day may not even be very consistent from day to day or week to week.
Regardless of where you are living as an au pair, your main duties should be related to childcare. This means not only looking after the children, but also preparing meals for them or tidying their things.
Au pairs generally live with the family. At the very least you should have your own furnished room.
Some families may require more housework, like laundry, more intense cleaning, or meal preparation for the entire family. This is something that should be outlined in the interview process. Don’t be afraid to say no to a family that also wants to hire you on as a cheap maid.
Being an au pair is a part time job and you’ll find au pairs working anything from 2-6 hours a day five or six days a week. Countries with more official au pair programs may have a limit on the number of hours you can work.
During the interview process make sure you have a very clear idea of how much and when you will be working. Inquire about the daily schedule and don’t forget to ask if you will be required to work weekends.
Where Does the Au Pair Live?
Au pairs generally live with the family. At the very least you should have your own furnished room. Often you will also have your own bathroom, but you might have to share -- usually with the children.
If you’re living outside of a major city, you will probably have more space than if you are in a big city like Paris or Rome. I had friends who lived in suburbs with an apartment in the basement and separate entrance, while I had a box of a room and shared a bathroom with my host dad in central Rome.
The few really lucky au pairs will have their own apartment completely separate from their family. Don’t hold out for this though, as it is extremely rare.
Make sure you ask about the living arrangements during the interview. Some host families have curfews and I had friends who weren’t even given keys to their apartments. Hash out all rules and expectations related to living arrangements before you arrive so there are no surprises later.
What Salary and Benefits Can I Expect as an Au Pair?
Every au pair receives a weekly or monthly stipend, often referred to as pocket money, as well as room and board. The amount of money and other benefits will vary by country and family.
When negotiating your stipend, don’t forget to ask about assistance paying for language school, flights, and transport passes and discuss the amount of time you get for vacation.
These benefits will once again vary greatly depending on both your family and what country you live in.
For example, I was an au pair in Rome and made 40 euros a week for 15 hours of work. I received no help with language school, flights or transportation.
A friend who was an au pair in the same city made 80 euros a week for 25 hours of work and received a transport pass, but no help with flights or language school.
Compare that to a friend in Switzerland who made the equivalent of 100 euros a week for 25 hours of work and received help with transport passes and flights.
Do your research, spend time carefully selecting a family, and get ready for all sorts of ups and downs in Europe.
Don’t be afraid to negotiate a little, especially if your visa requires a language class and you don’t think you can afford it without a higher salary or assistance. Families are willing to give a little for the right au pair!
Get Ready for a Wonderful Experience
My experience as an au pair in Rome wasn't always easy, but it provided me with valuable insights into Italian culture and some lifelong friends. Do your research, spend time carefully selecting a family, and get ready for all sorts of ups and downs in Europe. Being an au pair in Europe is a wonderful experience if you have the chance to do it!