Becoming an Au Pair: Who, What, When, Why, How?

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series A Guide to Au Pairing
  • Becoming an Au Pair: Who, What, When, Why, How?

We all have those moments where we dream of dropping everything and moving to another country, but usually snap out of it pretty quickly when thinking about the logistics of such a decision. However, au pairing is an easy way to move to another country for as little as a month to over a year, and is a great way to travel without paying for your food or accommodation. Although it involves a bit of work, altogether it is a great, different way to travel. This article should introduce you to the basic questions around au pairing.

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Questions about au pairing? Not sure if it’s for you? Read on! (Photographer: airpix; Flickr)

 What does au pairing involve?

Being an au pair is essentially being a nanny/childminder in another country. It does not count as official work so in European countries you are not likely to need a visa. You are not paid a typical salary but instead you are given free accommodation and food along with a weekly allowance. Different contracts with different hours exist, however I officially work 30 hours a week which includes one full day off and a couple of evenings of babysitting — this is a pretty typical set up. Au pairs are expected to play with the children, help them around meal times, help them with language practice and tidy up a little after them. You are not meant to be treated like a housemaid or cleaner so it is important to establish what your family expects from you before you make any agreements.

 Why would you become an au pair?

There are many reasons to become an au pair. Career experience, language practice, travelling. Having existing childcare experience is a bonus and as a language student myself I am aware of the importance of keeping up my Spanish practice during time away from university. Although it is commonplace to have to speak English with the family’s children, I try to mostly speak Spanish with the parents, local residents and other au pairs that I’ve met.

Becoming an au pair is also a unique way to experience a country from a different perspective. You are welcomed into someone’s home which allows you to learn a lot about the nuances of their culture. For example, the mum has taught me how to make salmorejo, an Andalusian cold tomato soup. It is normal to be given an allowance by your family and this can be used to explore the local area and the nearby towns and cities. Many au pairs I know have travelled to places in Spain such as Córdoba, Malága, Granada, Seville and have even ventured to Portugal!

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One of the many perks of being an au pair is learning new things, and if this means getting the chance to eat new things too, all the better! (Photographer: ShashiBellamkonda; Flickr)

Who can become an au pair?

In theory, anyone can become an au pair. Whilst it is much more common for women to be au pairs, men can do it too. It is normally younger people who au pair so it is the perfect summer job to do before or between university. It is mostly important to have experience with looking after children and to find a match with a family. Therefore, if you have any doubts it is best to discuss them with your potential families and take things from there. For example, because I’m a vegetarian, and a lot of meat is eaten in Spain, I forewarned my family to ensure that they could accommodate my eating habits (I’m aware that this seems strange but they find vegetarianism even stranger!), and they were completely fine with it. In fact, they buy me lots of different food to make sure that I feel welcome.

How do I become an au pair?

There are many ways to become an au pair. However, I highly recommend doing it through an agency. It is common for agencies to try and charge you to process your application, but it is possible to find ones that don’t. I used ServiHogar and had a really good experience but it is specific to Spain. You are unlikely to encounter any problems but it is comforting to know that there is someone present to discuss any worries that you might have. It also means that the families are background checked, as are you. There are often a number of documents you are required to show before you become an au pair, such as a medical check, a DBS check (which universities often provide for free), childcare references and a photocopy of your passport. On top of that, I was required to provide my CV and a letter to the family introducing myself with photos attached. The family also provided a letter like this and I think it is really useful to get to know a family and what they like to do and whether your interests would match up with theirs. For example, I read the letter of a really sporty family, and as someone who likes sport for fun but is pretty lazy, that wasn’t something that I wanted to spend my summer doing!

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It might sound like a lot of paperwork, but being organised and making sure everything is done legitimately is so important to avoid any issues later on (Photographer: Epicantus; Flickr)

It is also possible to find au pairing jobs on Facebook groups and websites such as Au Pair World, which is not an agency. This way there are fewer checks involved, however the host family has to become a premium member on the website before they can get in contact with au pairs.

After you’ve decided you like the sound of a family you then arrange to have a Skype conversation. This is normally with one or both of the parents, but sometimes the children join in too. This is the perfect chance to see how you get along and ask any key questions you have such as what you’d be expected to do. I would also recommend trying to get the contact details of any previous au pairs that the family have had. This is a great way to ask questions you’re too shy to ask the family, such as how well do the kids really behave? And what are the family dynamics like?

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It’s always good to know what you’re getting yourself into, so do some extra research if you can.
What the parents say might be very different from what previous au pairs tell you!
(Photographer: lucyfrench123; Flickr)

After this, all you have to do is arrange your dates and your journey! I recommend keeping an open dialogue with the family in the months/weeks before you arrive.

Also, a tip: prepare a little goodie bag for the kid/s that you will be looking after — they’ll be very excited! Or, in my case, have a tantrum over not getting the colour they wanted. Alas, I tried…

Where should I au pair?

It is normal for host families to ask you to speak English with their children, but it is also common for you to have to speak in the parents’ first language when communicating with them. I wouldn’t let this put you off if you don’t have any language skills. Although it is useful, there are a massive range of families around, many of whom can speak English.

Finally, my biggest piece of advice would be to pick a country that you want to learn more about and then settle with a family you like. It is more common to au pair across Europe, but it is possible to do so in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and America too.

Featured image © Kat Grigg

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