The experience of working as an au pair in a foreign country
// Samantha Thompson

The idea of moving to another country can be daunting, but when you can move there and already have a place to live and the cost of food taken care of, the idea of traveling suddenly seems a little more realistic.

This is why many people have decided to try out life as an au pair, including Emily Ware, who is currently working as an au pair for a family in England: “I just want[ed] to see the world, [and] live in new places,” she explains regarding why she chose to become an au pair. The job provides a host of opportunities, as well as giving the opportunity to gain work experience with children.

An au pair is a position that typically allows someone to travel to another country on a temporary work visa and work as a live-in caregiver for a family’s children. There are numerous ways to enter this line of work, including through an agency, or through various forums that advertise host families and au pairs looking for work.

However, finding an au pair position can be a lengthy process, filled with many unknowns. There are agencies available to assist with the process, but there isn’t a standard answer for how an au pair experience will work out.


Jess McElroy, a current student at Capilano University, is hoping to become an au pair beginning in the spring of 2013. She is planning on getting her degree in social work, which contributed to her desire to become an au pair. McElroy feels that being an au pair “would be a good way to get experience working with children while also traveling and living in a different culture.”

To begin the process, McElroy created a profile on a website that matches potential au pairs with families who meet the criteria she provided. “I get to look over the families’ profiles and I contact the families that I want,” she says.

“It’s like online dating, really,” says Ware, jokingly. She points out that there are a lot of differences between each au pair’s experience, and what they have to pay for once they have been hired by the family. Some families will pay for the airfare for the au pair to get to their country of residence, and some will also pay for language classes, if the country is not English-speaking, as well as health insurance and a city transit pass. It is pretty standard for the host family to pay for their au pair’s room and board, and occasionally they will also pay a wage in some form, sometimes labelled as weekly “pocket money”.

“I was looking for a family with kids who are already pretty independent. I don't think I could handle taking care of someone else's baby,” says Ware. “I wasn't overly specific about location, but my preferred countries were England, Spain, and – because I'm interested in learning German – Germany, Switzerland, and Austria.”

There are many different websites set up to help connect au pairs with host families, and vice versa, including Aupair World, Go Au Pair, and Great Au Pair. Most websites feature a section where you can create a profile as a family or an au pair, specifying things like language, the age of children, and the country.

“A lot of families are looking for someone to become a part of their family and to show their kids a new culture,” says McElroy on what she’s seen on the websites so far.

In addition to these websites, there are many agencies in assorted countries that help with connecting au pairs to families as well, many of which are members of the International Au Pair Association. This association has more than 170 member organizations, and each member organization must meet what the association refers to as “firm business and ethical standards, and agree to abide by IAPA’s Code of Conduct which signifies competence, fair dealing and high integrity.” Their members include organizations in countries like Australia, Brazil, and Ecuador, as well as France, Canada, and China.

After the au pair has contacted the family they are interested in, or the family has contacted the au pair, Ware says it is common to exchange emails, and talk on Skype and other forms of communication before they “hire” the au pair. Once the family and au pair have connected, it is a matter of getting a visa, booking the flight, and getting prepared to go.

“You just have to trust that it's legitimate and that they're good people,” says Ware. “But it's usually really obvious when you start getting to know them.”


Once the au pair begins working with her host family, the adventure truly begins. Although au pairs are typically responsible for childcare, they will also sometimes be responsible for basic housework, and, in Ware’s case, looking after the horses, dogs, chickens, and cats that her family owns. “It’s a lot more involved than the average au pair job of school runs and making dinner,” she says.

For Ware, her average day begins around 8am when she feeds the animals, turns out the horses, tidies up the house, and walks the dogs. The mother of her two boys (aged five and seven) gets the children ready in the morning and takes them to school. During the rest of the day, she mucks out the horses’ stalls and occasionally does other chores like ironing and vacuuming. Once the children get home from school, she says, she is responsible for looking after them in the evening, making them dinner and other similar things. Typically, she will work from 8am. Until 1pm, and then 4 or 5 pm until 8pm.

While it sounds like a busy day, Ware points out that she can ask for certain days off, and usually doesn’t have to work bank or stat holidays, with some exceptions. In return for her work, she gets a place to live, her food paid for, and £80 a week (approximately $125CAD). In other jobs, the British minimum wage is £6.08 for workers 21 years of age and older, and £4.98 for workers aged between 18 and 20.

Although compensation for doing au pair work varies greatly, often people do it for the experience and for the benefit of having their room and board already provided for.

“I wanted to do some traveling, but also make a bit of money,” Ware says. “It’s really difficult to get on your feet in a new country so I thought if I had a job where a place to live is provided for you it would be much easier … I like kids so it seemed like a perfect thing for me to do.”

McElroy, who is planning on being an au pair in France, is looking forward to working with children. “I want to get skills working and communicating with children and families. … I’m also excited to learn how to adapt to a new culture.”


Many au pair experiences are good, but there are several accounts of both au pairs and host families concerned about their living situations. On websites like Great Au Pair, for example, au pairs can write specific complaints, naming the family, location, and child – and host families can do the same about au pairs.

On Great Au Pair, complaints vary from au pair accusations of sexual harassment to families not following through on promises made in the initial interviews. The host families’ complaints include au pairs not showing up for prepaid flights, stealing, and leaving without any notice.

There are other, more interactive forums as well, like Au Pair Mom and Au Pair Clearing House, where people post their questions about the au pair industry and others reply. One poster wrote that “my au pair does not bathe or wash her hair frequently enough and she smells. I mean, she really smells!”

However, as all of these are public forums, the complaints are very rarely looked into and often are simply personal claims. There doesn’t appear to be a formal complaint body, but is possible that agencies, as the go-between, assist with resolving complaints independently.


Perhaps the most difficult thing about becoming an au pair is not knowing what to expect. There are many variables, and much of the information available does come from forums and agencies. McElroy pointed out that she had an idea of what she wants but doesn’t really know what she should expect from her experience.

“I'm honestly not quite sure what to expect, so I don't have many expectations at this point,” she says. “I would really like to have a family who treats me as one of the family and not just a maid. … I am really hoping to get kids who are respectful of me.”

Ware so far has been having a good experience as an au pair, but she warns of the culture shock that accompanies the position.

“It's interesting meeting all these people and it's a really good learning experience,” says Ware. “The hard thing to deal with is the difference in lifestyles.”

She notes that many au pairs come from middle-class backgrounds, but there are families sometimes who are quite wealthy. Speaking from her own experience she says, “Most of the families are very wealthy and have employees for everything. It's a culture shock to live in a huge mansion and have housekeepers and gardeners and parents who aren't often around. It's a really different way to live and it's definitely a learning curve.” There are host families who are middleclass too; it all depends on where individuals end up working as au pairs.

Although there are au pair horror stories floating around, with enough research and some good luck it seems as though becoming an au pair has a lot of potential as an overseas adventure.

“It's a great job to do,” says Ware. “You just have to be prepared for anything.”

//Samantha Thompson, editor-in-chief
//Graphics by Stefan Tosheff

Enjoy it? Share this on Facebook


© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com