Working as an au pair is ideal for those who want to experience living in a foreign country for an extended period of time but aren’t ready to make the commitment of moving there on a permanent basis. Equally it’s a great option for those who want to practise their foreign language skills, or have a destination in mind but a restricted budget. Becoming an au pair makes the dream of living abroad a possibility – a possibility with plenty of benefits and without financial hassles.
What is an au pair?
Generally, an au pair is simply a foreign national who provides childcare for the host family they reside with. Some people assume that an au pair will be treated poorly or viewed as domestic help but this is rarely the case. The French phrase ‘Au pair’ translates as ‘on par’ (or on equal standing) and the majority of those who take such a position are treated as part of the family. Placements as an au pair can last from several months to several years depending on the requirements of the host family and the wishes of the au pair.
The duties an au pair is expected to undertake can vary significantly depending on the family, the culture and the needs of the children. Often childcare, speaking in your native tongue and occasional/light housework is all that is required. As schedules and duties are family specific it’s always best to do thorough research before you go and ask your host family as many questions as possible.
Where can you be an au pair? And how do you become one?
There are many opportunities for becoming an au pair in a host of countries across Europe and beyond. Countries which particularly seek British au pairs include America, France, Spain and Germany, but if you’ve got your heart set on a particular destination a little research is all that’s needed to find opportunities.
Once you’ve picked your destination of choice finding a suitable family can be a quick process. There are hundreds of agencies out there which allow potential au pairs and host families to create profiles and browse for a fitting match, either for free or at a small cost. Some are country specific and others are more open, but most can be found online. When creating your profile be honest and detailed about what work you are, and are not, willing to undertake. Also detail any special skills, allergies or dietary requirements. If you can make a strong match with a family your time as an au pair abroad will be much more enjoyable.
Before accepting any position, make sure you speak to the family over the phone and feel comfortable with them. Although the majority of agencies have stringent safety measures in place it’s essential that you find out as much about the family as possible and that you feel safe.
You may also need to consider the legal rules and regulations of the country you will be living in. If your placement will last for longer than 90 days you may require a visa. Do your research far in advance to avoid complications later on.
Other than health insurance the only expense most au pair’s incur is the cost of flights to and from the country they have chosen to work in. Room and board are provided by the family on arrival, as is a weekly or monthly allowance. It is up to the family to decide how much allowance their au pair receives but it should cover activities like shopping, sightseeing and weekend travel. Generally an au pair will be given a furnished private bedroom, all meals and access to the family’s facilities. Some au pairs also receive added bonuses like holidays, gym membership, car use or language classes. Remember though, the majority of families which engage an au pair might be financially secure, but the types of homes they occupy can vary – don’t go expecting a palace or a guaranteed swimming pool! Before hopping on a flight it’s really important to know as much as possible about what you can expect from your family and the place you’re going to.
Questions you should always ask include:
- What will my duties include?
- How much will I be paid?
- How will I be paid?
- Will I be living in a city?
- Will I be living in a rural area?
- What are the transport links like?
- What attractions/facilities are nearby?
Most families are happy to provide photographs of their home and the surrounding area if asked.
The main requirement for becoming an au pair abroad is simple – you have to like children. Whether your placement with your host family lasts a couple of months or a couple of years, enjoying working with children is an absolute must. Before going to work with a family it is essential to appreciate the level of responsibility you will be undertaking. Make sure you consider not only how many children the family have, but how old they are and what sort of activities they enjoy.
Previous childcare experience and a personal/professional reference are not a prerequisite but they can really help in securing a position. Au pair’s aren’t expected to formally teach the children in their care, but by speaking in their native tongue they can help them to learn a new language. Many families seek an au pair who can help their children improve their foreign language skills in this manner so the ability to speak a sought after language, such as English or French, fluently is a bonus. It isn’t essential for an au pair to speak the language of their host family, but a rudimentary understanding can help them acclimatise and settle in more quickly.
Some host families are looking for an au pair with specialist skills (musical, athletic etc) so if you have particular strengths advertise them! As au pair’s have to play with children on a daily basis patience, enthusiasm and creativity are all useful attributes.
Most families prefer to hire a female au pair between the ages of 18 and 30. If you fall outside these parameters it is still possible to find a position but it will probably take longer and you may have to be less selective about the area you live in.
The typical working hours for an au pair are around 30 hours a week, though this does vary. If the children in your care are of school age, working hours are likely to be the early morning and afternoon/evening. This leaves the majority of the day free for exploring the area, experiencing the culture and making friends. At least one day during the week (often Sunday) will be completely free of duties. Although the provided allowance should cover any additional living expenses, the generous amount of time off means that many au pairs supplement their income by giving private English lessons or talking some other kind of part time work. On accepting a position as an au pair it is usual for no contracts or formal agreements to be exchanged. Whilst this does leave you free to leave your position at any time should it not work out the way you hoped, it can also leave you vulnerable to exploitation. Make sure you know your rights and take an exact note of the duties and perks your family told you to expect.
Being an au pair might not be a dream job for everyone but it can be ideal for anyone wanting to immerse themselves in a different culture and earn a little money while doing it. There can be drawbacks and annoyances to experiencing a country this way but there can also be significant perks.
Remember, research is key when it comes to finding a place and position to suit you!