Do you dream of living in Europe?
Of sitting in cafes, eating pastries and learning a new language?
Ashley Fleckenstein did.
But, like most young Americans, she didn’t have the money to just pick up and go — or the right qualifications to get a full-time job abroad.
So Fleckenstein decided to become an au pair, an international nanny who typically provides live-in child care services to a host family.
If you’re young, open-minded and love children, it could be your ticket to living abroad.
What’s an Au Pair?
An au pair is a young person — usually a woman — between the ages of 18 and 30 who provides child care for a foreign host family in exchange for room, board and cultural exchange.
You’ll also receive a small weekly stipend.
Au pairing originated in Europe more than 50 years ago with an agreement between European nations. Today, au pair programs exist all around the world, though the majority of au pair jobs are in Europe and Australia, making it a low-cost way to live in these expensive parts of the world.
Your stay abroad would be temporary, usually lasting a maximum of one year.
Depending on the country, you might be required to take a language course to maintain your au pair visa.
Au Pair Requirements
Au pair candidates are expected to meet certain requirements. Each au pair program is different, so research age restrictions, visa requirements and other criteria in your prospective host country.
In general, should:
- Be between 17 and 30 years old.
- Speak a second language (if your au pair program is in a non-English speaking country).
- Enjoy working with children.
- Be unmarried with no kids or dependents.
- Have a high school diploma.
- Be active and in good health.
- Have no criminal record.
- Have a valid passport.
Most host families want to see at least two references or prior child care experience on your resume. Working at daycare centers or babysitting family members are two examples.
You’ll also need to get a new cell phone and bank account after you touch down in your host country.
Au Pair Visas and Work Permits
Each country sets its own au pair visa and work permit requirements, so make sure to check the rules for your specific host country.
You might be able to get a temporary visa while you’re still state-side, but may need to extend it after arriving in your host country.
European countries may require you to pass language courses or earn academic credit, show proof of employment and digital registration for entry along with a negative COVID-19 test and proof of vaccination.
Speaking of COVID, some countries continue to restrict foregin travel due to the pandemic. Make sure your country is accepting visa applications.
Finally, get the visa and passport process under way well before you leave the U.S. It can take several months to process your application if demand is high.
What Is an Au Pair Expected to Do?
Au pair duties and work hours vary depending on the host country and family.
“Every family is different,” Fleckenstein said. “You might be in charge of anything from triplet infants to two teenage girls.”
Generally, au pairs provide child care and perform household duties totaling 20 to 40 hours per week.
An au pair’s responsibilities can include:
- Preparing school lunches and making meals.
- Taking care of the children’s laundry.
- Helping with potty training.
- Vacuuming play areas.
- Loading and unloading the dishwasher.
- Taking care of pets.
- Helping with the children’s daily routines (dressing, bathing, meal time, bed time, etc.)
- Taking children to school and activities.
- Homework help.
- Light shopping and other activities.
How to Find Au Pair Jobs Abroad
Until recently, au pair agencies matched most travelers with their families.
Now, you can take matters into your own hands by searching for au pair gigs online.
Here are a few resources:
- AuPairWorld: This is the most popular site for finding au pair jobs. It has more than 8,000 families in its database and is free for au pairs to use. It also offers answers to all of your au pairing FAQs.
- AuPair.com: Though not as popular as AuPairWorld, this is still a solid choice for finding families.
- Work Abroad as an Au Pair or Nanny: This post gives a general overview of au pair culture in different European countries. It’s a good place to begin your research.
- List of agencies: If you think you’d like some extra hand-holding, try an au pair agency.
- Au Pair Mom: This blog is from a host family’s point-of-view, but also has helpful information for aspiring au pairs.
If you want to au pair in the United States (as a non-citizen), Switzerland or Norway, you can search for jobs online, but will eventually have to use an agency to arrange your paperwork and visas.
How Much Do Au Pairs Earn?
Au pairing can be a great way to spend a year living, working and learning abroad.
But pay is minimal.
“Yes you get housing and food, but the pay is absolutely nothing,” said Hallie Hall, a full-time nanny in Seattle.
Hall — who spent a year as an au pair in Sydney, Australia when she was 21 — says she only made the U.S. equivalent of $170 a week.
“I had to get a second job as a cashier on the weekends to make ends meet,“ Hall says. “I got paid more working two days a week there than five days a week as an au pair.”
Saving up money before you leave the U.S. can make a big difference, Hall says.
“I came to Australia with $300 to my name,” she says. “Other au pairs had money from their families or left over from graduation, which made things easier for them financially. It let them use their au pair money for whatever they wanted because they had this extra money saved up for other expenses and bills.”
There are other costs to consider, too. Health insurance may or may not be covered by your host family, leaving you on the hook for foreign medical bills if you get sick.
Also, your student loan payments don’t go away just because you live overseas for a year. Once student loan forbearance ends and federal loan payments resume, you’re responsible for paying them while living abroad.
The amount of pocket money au pairs receive varies widely, but it must meet each country’s minimum standards.
Many host families will pay for half of your plane ticket there. Others may also pay for your bus pass, cell phone bill or language course.
Much of your experience and compensation will depend on the host family, so it’s essential you clarify everything before accepting a position.
Here are the au pair minimum wages in several popular countries:
- Australia: $580 to $720 per month
- France: $364 per month
- Germany: $327 per month
- Norway: $668 per month
- Spain: $311 to $364 per month
“Always ask for a higher salary than they want to give you,” Fleckenstein advises. “Negotiation is key.”
What Should Au Pairs Expect?
The au pair experience is one of a kind — but is it right for you?
Here’s what a few former au pairs have to say.
Many au pairs say the opportunity is less about making and saving money and much more about getting a chance to immerse yourself in a different country and cultural experience.
“I was comfortable in my family’s home, and the money I earned allowed me to explore surrounding areas, enjoy the food and acquire some cherished mementos,” says Janine Sobeck.
However, you should go into an au pair program with realistic expectations. Taking care of children is hard work.
“My host family made their daughter seem like an angel over Skype, but she actually had some of the worst behavioral issues I’ve ever dealt with,” Hall says. “You don’t always know what you’re getting into until you’re there.”
Selecting a Host Family
Follow your gut when searching for your host parents — and host kids.
Remember, you’ll be spending an entire program year with these people. You want to find a family unit you get along with, or your au pair experience may turn into a nightmare.
“A little research can go a long way,” Alex Butts says. “Shop around and explore your host family options. I spent hours on Au Pair World — I’m talking hours. I exchanged emails with several families and Skyped with about five. Explore your options and your heart will lead you the right way.”
“When choosing a family, location should be a primary factor,” explains Rachel Ward.
“You’ll be alone with children rather than working with other adults, limiting your networking opportunities…No matter where you move, understand that as an au pair you’ll undoubtedly spend a lot of time alone and must ask yourself how you handle solitude.”
It’s vital to lay out expectations and compensation with your host family prior to leaving the U.S.
There are plenty of costs you’ll encounter during your au pair stay, like public transportation. You may have a valid driver’s license in America but that won’t get you very far in a foregin country.
“Some families provide train/bus passes — and I highly recommend asking for one of these when negotiating,” Hanley Russell says.
Negotiating expenses like this lets you keep more of your pocket money — well — in your pocket.
“I would have saved so much money if I had a bus or train pass,” Russell says. “If there’s something you want, ask in the beginning. It’s a whole lot less awkward than asking once you’re here.”
It’s also important to outline your specific au pair duties and pay rate in a written contract, or work with an agency like Au Pair International.
You don’t want your fun cultural exchange program to turn into glorified slave labor.
For the young and adventurous, working abroad as an au pair is a unique way to live in a foreign country and expand your horizons — and perhaps, gain a very special second family in the process.
Rachel Christian is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance and a senior writer for The Penny Hoarder. Former staff writer Susan Shain contributed to this story.