One of the most frequent questions readers ask me is, “How did you become an au pair?” So I thought I'd take the time today to finally answer that question, as well as talk about my personal experience working as an au pair in France.
What is an au pair?
An au pair is a girl (or sometimes boy!) who works for a family abroad in exchange for cultural immersion and a place to stay. Au pair duties generally include cooking, tidying up, and taking care of or tutoring children.
1. Pick a country
The first step to becoming an au pair is to think of the country where you would like to work.
Listen to your gut on what you find interesting. Do you go crazy for Flemish architecture? Or do you love the cadences of the Italian language? Search for a job in a country where you have always wanted to live and with a language you would like to learn.
2. Decide if you want to use an agency to find a family
There are pros and cons to using an agency. The pros? The agency will help you find a family, apply for a visa, and provide support during your time abroad.
But the biggest con is that au pair agencies charge a hefty fee – often more than $400.
Note – if you want to au pair in certain countries, like the US or the Netherlands, you have to use an agency.
Personally, I wouldn't use an agency – it's just too expensive when you could easily do it yourself. Also, most au pairs I've met found their families independently on websites like aupairworld.com or greataupair.com.
Of course, this depends on your comfort level. If you'd feel more comfortable going through an agency and don't mind spending the money, go for it.
Related post: Should I Use an Agency to Find an Au Pair Host Family?
3. Find a family
Next, start looking for a family to work for. I've met au pairs who have found their families using everything from aupairworld.com to monster.com, but AuPairWorld seems to be the most commonly used website.
My advice is to pick a family with older children if possible and make sure you find a family who (at least seemingly) respects you! And always ask for a higher salary than they want to give you- negotiation is key.
In order to see if you will jive with the family, talk to them on Skype. Over Skype, ask questions such as:
- How old are the kids? What is their current level of English?
- Have you had an au pair before? If so, may I speak to her? (This is actually pretty common and I highly recommend doing it!)
- Will I be required to clean? Just tidying up or deep-cleaning? (Don’t take the job if they want you to do deep-cleaning!)
If I could go back and choose a family I would choose one who both a. allowed me to speak French with the children, and b. lived in central Paris. Those are my two biggest problems with my current family, but beyond that I'm quite content.
*Note- if you use Monster, make sure you use the version of Monster from the country in which you are seeking a job: i.e. monster.fr for France!
Related post: How to Pick the Right Au Pair Host Family for You
4. Apply for your visa
This process really varies country to country (even in Europe), and depends a lot on your citizenship. All of my English or European au pair friends in Paris work under the table because they have EU passports, while all of the American au pairs I know are here on a student visa (this is because technically as an au pair you are supposed to attend school- more on that later).
For my French visa, I had to fill out a ton of paperwork and the entire process start to finish took three months. The process was absolutely out-of-date, as it involved several rounds of sending literal papers across the Atlantic as opposed to scanning documents. (Please France, let's move into the 21st century!)
I technically filed for a student visa, as au pairs legally have to go to school while they are abroad (note- the friends I have here who aren't interested in learning French simply stopped going to school and the government did nothing.)
(Notes on the French visa- I didn't get my documents professionally translated and there was no problem, so just stick it in Google Translate and hope for the best!)
If you are a non-EU citizen, don't even think about working under the table! I've heard of some girls doing this and trust me- it's just not a good idea to live in another country with no rights or health care.
Here are several country-specific guides:
To learn how to apply for your visa, see more country-specific guides here.
5. What to pack for au pairing
Now for something a little more fun – packing!
Packing depends a lot on how long you're going (au pair jobs commonly last anywhere from three months to a year) and when you're going. Packing for summer is very different than packing for an entire year.
Here's more or less what I packed:
- 6 tops
- 4 pairs of pants
- 4 going out outfits
- 2 jackets – one for winter, one for fall
- Casual shirts + leggings for working out and sleeping
- Underwear + plenty of bras (regular, strapless, sports bra)
- 3+ pairs of tights
- Socks (athletic and dress)
- A few pieces of costume jewelry
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 scarf
- 1 pair of sandals
- 1 pair of black ballet flats
- 1 pair of tennis shoes
- 1 pair of comfortable, flat booties that go with everything
- 1 pair of heeled booties or wedges (for going out)
- Driver’s license or national ID
- 1 pair of sunglasses
- 1 cross-body bag (a cross-body bag makes it easier to avoid pickpocketing)
- 1 clutch or dressy cross-body bag for going out
- Toiletries: tampons, face wash, a razor with extra blades, hairbrush, toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, hair ties, sunscreen (you can buy shampoo and conditioner when you arrive)
- Medicine: sleeping pills, ibuprofen, cold medicine, melatonin (for jetlag)
- A lightweight travel bathrobe — this is obviously not necessary, but may be nice to have when you’re walking around the family’s house post-shower.
Pro tip – bring your host family a small gift! It's a nice gesture that goes a long way. Read about host family gift ideas here.
6. Make sure your finances are in order
Before you leave, make sure your finances are squared away. Here are my recommendations:
1. Bring at least one debit and one credit card. While living abroad, I recommend bringing at least one debit card and one credit card, and possibly a backup debit card as well (just in case you lose it).
Additionally, make sure your cards don't charge international transaction fees. If possible, make sure your cards are chip-and-pin cards, which is super common in Europe.
Related post: The Best Travel Credit and Debit Cards
2. Have between $2,000-$4,000 in your bank account when you arrive in Europe. I brought about $2,000 for my year in France. It's nice to have the peace of mind that if something goes wrong I'll have a financial cushion.
3. Call your bank to let them know that you'll be leaving the country. Let them know how long you'll be gone and to which country you're moving.
4. Finally, you will mostly likely want to open a bank account when you arrive in your new country. Here's how to open a bank account in Europe.
7. What to expect when you arrive
This is the factor of au pairing that differs the most – every family is different. You might be in charge of anything from triplet infants to two teenage girls. While families in France must pay their au pairs a minimum of 80 euros a week, I have several friends who earn upwards of 1000 euros a month.
To show you how radically situations can vary, let me give you the stats on my job as well as those of a few of my friends:
My set-up: 2 teenage girls, live with the family, 125 euros a week, family pays for school, airline ticket and cell phone, family doesn't pay for subway pass
Friend 1: 4 boys under 12 years old, has her own apartment (paid for by family), 250 euros a week, doesn't go to school, family pays for her utility bills at apartment and cell phone, family doesn't pay for airline ticket or subway pass
Friend 2: 3 kids under 9, lives with the family, 80 euros a week, doesn't go to school, family doesn't pay for… anything
Friend 3: 1 eleven-year old boy, lives with the family, 150 euros a week, doesn't go to school, family pays for everything
Another thing that differs is workload. I work around 30 hours a week (which is legally how much you're supposed to work) but I have another friend who basically never has time off, and then another who works about 10 hours a week.
Here's my schedule: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday: 5-9 p.m., Wednesday: 12-9 p.m., Saturdays: 4-9 p.m. and no work on Saturdays. My duties includes tutoring, entertaining kids and helping cook and clean. Your schedule could be very different though- most of my friends drop and pick up the kids from school, and thus work both early morning and evenings.
Related post: A Day in the Life of an American Au Pair in France
8. Living with the family vs. living alone
In terms of living situations as an au pair, there are two general situations: you will either live with the family or have your own apartment.
Here is the main rule of living situations as an au pair: if you live with the family, you will learn more of the language but if you have your own apartment you will be less stressed out and have a better social life.
I live with the family, so while it is great because I am around a lot of French and learn a ton about French culture and food, I also kind of feel like I am on call all the time and I have little privacy. I also can't have friends over or have parties, which I miss.
9. Foreseeing problems
a. Don't be afraid to talk to family
If there's a problem, talk to your family. I personally had a row with my family because they expected me to take one weekend off a month, and be at home with the kids for the rest of the weekends. I told them that if they didn't give me time off on weekends then I would have to find another family. In the end we compromised, and while I still work Friday night and Sunday afternoon, I have all day Saturday and most of Sunday to do as I please. I also have one paid long weekend off a month to travel.
Related post: How to Get Along with Your Host Family
b. Don't be afraid to switch families
I met an au pair who was working for a complete madwoman- she demanded that my friend walk the dog for two hours a day, and would make her take the dog out again if she deemed his paws “not dirty enough.” She found a new family via the Paris au pair Facebook groups (a great resource to find a new family because au pairs post listings for their old families all the time) and is worlds happier.
c. Making friends
Making friends is something I struggled with at the beginning because a. I was the only under-40 in my language class and b. I lived 30 minutes away from the nearest town. (not even Paris!) I made friends through a variety of ways, but random encounters and the Facebook Paris au pair group served me the best.
My personal experience – how I became an au pair
Picnicking on the Seine, per usual
While I've already talked about my personal experience a bit, I wanted to elaborate on the pros and cons. The pros are that my family has been extremely generous in terms of salary, air fare and paying for my school and cell phone bill, as well as been very kind in including me into the family.
But here are the cons: my biggest problem with my au pair living situation is that I live an hour and a half from Paris, which has put a damper on my networking opportunities as well as language learning progress.
Also, the main reason I came to France was to learn French. I'm finding this to be incredibly difficult as I'm forbidden from speaking in French to the kids, and only have a few minutes a day to talk to the parents in French (and they sometimes switch to English, which wasn't our agreement!)
While legally as an au pair the family can't force you to speak a certain language, in most cases families choose English-speaking au pairs in order to help their children improve their English skills.
If I could do this again, I would find a family that both lives in Paris and allows me to use French. While I love my family, those were the two biggest downfalls of my job.
Au pair FAQ
- How did you find your au pair jobs in the past?
The way I found my au pair job is unusual- when I was in high school I babysat for a French family and when they moved back to France, they invited me to come work for them every summer. After three blissful summers with them, I told them I wanted to stay in France longer in order to learn fluent French, and they then recommended me to their good friends which is whom I work for now.
- What's a “regular” amount an au pair could expect to make per month?
In France you will make at least 80 euros a week, but the average salary seems to be around 100 euros. I make 125 and have friends who make 250 a week.
- How far in advance did you find the au pair job (in order to get a visa, etc.)?
I started communication with my family in late July and was working in France by the end of October. I would start the search at least 4 months in advance.
Would you ever considering working as an au pair in a foreign country?
This post was originally published in April 2013. It was updated in May 2017 to improve accuracy and relevancy.
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Have more questions? Read my ebook, The Insider's Guide to Au Pairing in Europe!
Au pairing can be scary. After all, you're choosing to move to a foreign country and live with a family you've never met. It's not easy.
Which is where this guide comes in. My guide will walk you through every step of how to become an au pair.
Inside you'll learn:
- How to find a great family using an au pairing website
- How to apply for your visa and sign up for language school
- How to negotiate the highest salary possible
- How to make friends, get along with your family, and love your life abroad