First things first: if you are intending to au pair in the USA or The Netherlands, you legally have to go through an agency*. However, for those interested in heading to other countries, there are two options for finding a host family: signing up with an agency, or going it alone online.
Au pair agencies can be found all over the internet. There are, broadly speaking, two different types of au pair agencies: those that charge the au pair a fee, and those that don’t. The agencies that charge the au pair a fee usually claim to offer extra support, both during the application process and during your time as an au pair. Think very carefully before spending any money—be on the look-out for scams and make personal contact with the agency before signing up.
The largest website for finding your own host family is aupairworld.net, but there are many others out there.
Reasons why you might want to use an agency:
If you are going to need a visa, an agency can help you and the family with the necessary paperwork to sort it out. In most countries it is not strictly necessary to go through an agency in order to secure a visa, but they can help explain the process to both parties and ensure that all boxes are ticked.
Most agencies purport to offer support to au pairs in case of emergencies. Heading off alone to a country far from home, where you don’t know anyone and perhaps cannot speak the local language fluently (if at all), can be daunting. It can be reassuring to know that you have someone to call in case it all goes wrong with your host family. In practice however, many agencies are quite ‘hands-off’. It is recommended that you speak to potential agencies to find out what their support for actual au pairs actually entails.
If your first au pair placement doesn’t work out, agencies will usually help you to find a new placement (though reports vary on how hard they actually try for you). Finding a new placement is especially important for those who are in the country on a visa that is tied to their au pair position.
Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous and/or ignorant families out there who don’t follow the rules. It can be very hard for lot of au pairs to enforce their rights once they are in the foreign country and living under the family’s roof. Ideally, families who have gone through agencies to find their au pair will have been briefed on their responsibilities under the program and been vetted to make sure their situation is appropriate for an au pair.
If you do decide to go it alone, become familiar with the au pair rules (hours of work, minimum pay, etc) in the country you are going to, and make sure that potential families intend to follow these rules.
Exposure to More Families
Some families only search for au pairs through an agency. This means that if you’re just looking online yourself, you won’t be exposed to those particular families. Exposure to more families is especially important if you have specific requirements for your au pair placement (location, diet, religion…) and are worried about finding a suitable family. Plus, as long as the agency doesn’t charge the au pair a fee, you haven’t got much to lose by signing up!
Reasons to go it alone online:
Some au pair websites charge a small fee to be able to message potential families (not unlike a dating website), but this is rarely substantial. When it comes to agencies that charge the au pair fees, the extra cost is a definite downside. An agency that doesn’t charge anything may seem like the perfect choice for you, but nearly all agencies charge host families a substantial amount of money. It can be harder to secure a higher pay rate if you go through an agency, as the actual cost to the family of having an au pair is already higher.
Reduced Negotiating Power
It is not just because families have to pay extra fees that it is harder to secure a higher pay rate through an agency. Many agencies use the low legal minimum monthly au pair salary as a way of attracting families to the program. These families are unlikely to want to pay more!
Additionally, many agencies make policies regarding whether families have to pay for your language courses, transport passes and flight from your home country. If the agency tells the family they do not have to pay for these things, you will find it difficult to negotiate to receive them.
With a lot of agencies, the au pair submits their profile and then waits for interested families to be sent through to them. In contrast, searching online means that you can send personalized messages to as many families as you like. For those who don’t like just sitting around and waiting, searching online is a much better way to feel in control of your search for an au pair placement.
Why not do both?
Going through an agency and going it alone online are not mutually exclusive options when looking for a host family. As long as the agency doesn’t charge potential au pairs a fee, why not try both options out?
*Technically you can find your family online first and then sign up with an agency together (pre-match), so some of these tips are still relevant.
Other useful posts about au pairing:
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About the author: Melanie Holt is a self-proclaimed nerdy Australian living in Belgium. She loves fries, train travel and exploring the heartland of the USA.
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