The Beginner's Guide to Being an Au Pair Overseas
All amazing adventures start somewhere and there are endless options for where to begin your au pair journey.
Some choose not to go through an agency at all, while some prefer the guidance and support that an au pairing agency provides. If you choose Smaller Earth – fabulous choice! Over the years, Smaller Earth have formed extensive relationships with numerous, in-country au-pair partners, meaning that you have decades of experience in providing these programs, both at home and at the destination.
Before we go any further, what exactly is an au pair?
“Au pair” literally translates to “equal to”. You’ll live and work with a host family abroad while caring for their young children. You won’t be a member of staff; you’ll become a member of the family.
Smaller Earth do an amazing job of making the application process as smooth as possible. From your first interview to the journey home, they’re there to help. As they’re members of the International Au Pair Association, there are rules to follow, so you can be sure you’re in safe hands.
The most important question you need to ask yourself when considering au pairing: where do I want to go? Be sure to check out all that Smaller Earth has to offer.
Sun, sand and sea. Spain is a beautiful country with a rich culture.
If you want to learn about the Spanish way of life, and maybe improve your Spanish speaking skills, then this is the programme for you.
Placement locations in Spain include:
Most Spanish au pair placements are located in Madrid, but it is possible that you will be matched with a family in another Spanish city. You may request a specific city, but it is not guaranteed that you will get a successful family match. I recommend staying open-minded and flexible. All Spanish cities are bright and lively, and it’s likely that you will be happy wherever you end up being placed! And if you get itchy feet, rest assured. All host families are located close to travel links, so there will be opportunities to explore other regions and cities of Spain, too!
This programme runs from September until June, for blocks of a minimum of 3 months. The dates of your placement are confirmed once your match is finalised. It is also possible to do a shorter summer programme of 4 weeks. This can be a perfect option for beginners, or for slotting in between academic years.
The land of tea, feng shui and, of course, the Great Wall. China’s cultural landscape is vast and colourful: the perfect setting for an adventure!
In China, there are three different programme lengths on offer: nine weeks, three months, or six months, with the option to extend to a year.
Placement locations in China include:
Again, it is best to go with the flow without requesting a specific placement city, as this may slow down the application process.
The China au pair programme includes 60 hours of Mandarin classes per 3 month stay. This is a brilliant opportunity to become familiar with the world’s most widely spoken language and can open so many doors in terms of future employment. This programme runs all year round, but be sure to leave some planning time. For example, if you’re thinking of ideally jetting off next summer, the New Year would be a good time to get prepared.
Fifty states at your fingertips.
A cultural exchange opportunity, of up to a year long, is the ultimate American adventure.
This programme is different in that it’s for au pairs who have already found a family in the USA. Your American family will need to sign up with Smaller Earth’s America partner agency, Cultural Homestay International, to ensure that they meet requirements.
There are no set locations of host families in America, so the possibilities are endless. For this placement, a driving license is essential, as many families live in rural or suburban areas. Part of your role will be to drive the kids to and from school, so you will need to have sufficient driving experience in all weather conditions.
As this programme runs all year, you can decide what dates are best for both you and your host family. As soon as your paperwork is approved, the journey begins!
2. Application Process
Once you’ve decided where to head for your au pairing adventure, it’s time to tackle the paperwork. It’s very boring, I know, but the fun begins once it’s over with!
The application process requires certain documents:
- 2 childcare references
- Police check
- Declaration of health
If you’re applying to be an au pair, I’m going to guess that you love kids! You’ve probably done a childcare placement or regular babysitting, so that’s your references sorted. As for the police check, don’t stress that either. You simply need to provide some identity documents to Smaller Earth who will get this done for you.
No doubt you have filled out a medical form at least once, so you’re a pro at Declarations of health by now. Of course, if you’re unsure about anything, Smaller Earth are a phone call away.
As well as your CV, you’ll need to provide a ‘Dear Host Family’ letter. This is just a friendly introduction to you! In mine, I included information about where I’m from and what I love about my city, as well as a bit about my hobbies, childcare experience and personality. Think about what you’d include on a cover letter for any other job, just more informal.
You will also have a phone interview with one of the au pair agencies travel experts. It’s really more of a friendly chat than a formal interview. It’s your chance to show how excited and confident you are about au pairing! The interview lasts around 15 minutes, and you’ll go over your childcare experience and why you want to become an au pair.
Once you go into matching, your profile is published online.
Potential host families will browse your profile, so an impressive application letter and a friendly profile picture are key. First impressions are important. Show families what a great au pair you’ll be.
Smaller Earth’s placement partners in Spain, China and America will play a bigger role in the process from now on. They will have thoroughly screened and interviewed host families to ensure that the matches are safe and successful.
The matching process can take up to 12 weeks, but often it takes less time.
Smaller Earth will let you know as soon as you’re matched with a host family. This email is so exciting as it signals the start of your adventure!
4. Skype Interview
Some au pairs match with multiple families, some with just one. I matched with two families, of which I needed to choose which I preferred.
You’ll need to send your host family (or families) a short, friendly introductory email about yourself. Let them know you’re keen to have a Skype chat. Stay cool about the Skype interview: be your friendly, caring and motivated self! Let the family see why they should welcome you into their home. Take this opportunity to also ask any questions that you have about the family, their routine or your daily tasks. This will show that you’re interested, engaged, and care about the job. The Skype chat will normally last between 15-30 minutes and it might be with the parents or the whole family.
After the Skype interview, you’ll need to tell the au pair partner agency what you think of the family! You’re totally in control of which family you’re ultimately matched with. Both you and your family need to be 100% comfortable. If you decide to stay open to other possible family matches, the au pair partner agency will do their best to accommodate your decision. If the match is successful, then congratulations, your placement is secured!
You will receive a Letter of Acceptance, which is a kind of contract. This details your start date, pocket money and your hours of work.
- Fluency in the language of your host country is not required. However, I would recommend getting yourself a phrase book, or doing a few lessons on Duolingo! It’s so useful to be able to maintain a basic conversation with your host family, as well as communication in cafes and shops. Before you go, get a few key words under your belt.
- Book your flight in good time. This way, your family will know when to pick you up, and it avoids any stress nearer your arrival date. For China and Spain, you will be responsible for funding your own travel to and from your host country.
- I suggest arriving in your new home with a few gifts for your host family. This offers an instant good impression and shows that you are willing to make a connection with your new family. For the parents, I brought a piece of Britain with me: strawberry jam and biscuits. For the girls, I had bought jangly bracelets from my favourite shop and sticks of rock, which my hometown is known for… all of which were well received!
You’ve confirmed your placement, completed your paperwork and hopped on a plane to a different country. Here is where your au pairing adventure truly begins!
Your Spanish family will be there to welcome you into their home from the moment you step off the plane. Once you’ve settled in (and maybe got stuck into some yummy Spanish food!), you’ll need to get in touch with the placement coordinator at Club RCI. Let them know that you’ve arrived safely. You’ll then receive your welcome pack by email, with tons of information about life in Spain and tips for settling in. You will also be added to a Facebook group, where you can find all the other international au pairs who are on the same programme in Spain!
Once you arrive in America, your host family will be there to greet you. They will help you settle into your new home and get used to their routines. You will need to complete some online training and orientation on the first days after arrival - this will help prepare you for your year of au pairing.
On arrival in China, you will be met by the placement partner for China (LoPair) at the airport. With this programme, you have the added benefit of a 2-day Arrival Orientation and Training Camp (AOTC) before you meet your host family. Here, you will be able to connect with other au pairs and learn everything you need to be a great au pair! This is an amazing way to socialise and to spend some time settling into a new country and culture.
This orientation lets you train alongside new au pairs, making friends along the way. You will learn everything you need to know about your placement, from information about your city to payment. You will be assigned a local coordinator, who will provide you with full support throughout your placement and will maintain regular contact with you.
Au pairing is super intensive. You spend at least five hours a day with the children, and it’s not like you can call it a day once the parents arrive home. Your home is theirs!
A few of your tasks may include preparing simple meals for the children, school runs, ensuring that their rooms are tidy, and, in most cases, helping them with their English.
You will be expected to help keep common areas clean and tidy, and maybe chipping in with the household chores, such as laundry and washing the dishes. The more effort you make, the better your relationship with your host family will be.
Aside from the obvious benefits of being a part of a new family, developing as a person and expanding your cultural horizons, each au pair experience comes with tons of bonuses.
The Spain summer programme is, of course, more demanding than the year-long programme, as the children are off school for the summer! Even so, your host family will ensure that you have ample time to explore your city and the surrounding region. I’d recommend joining in with your host family’s weekend plans if you’re invited to do so, but don’t feel obliged to spend every weekend with them – this is your free time to do with what you choose.
For the year-long programme, your primary daily duties will include taking the children to school and helping them with their English in the evening. This means that you will have most of the day to immerse yourself in Spanish culture and even take a few Spanish speaking classes!
A bonus of au pairing in America is, of course, that English is the first language! Rather than having foreign language lessons, you will receive a $500 educational grant for a prescribed college course. This is a great opportunity to meet new people and learn even more skills.
In addition to your weekly pocket money of $195.75 USD, you will also have 2 weeks paid holiday! This is the perfect opportunity to spend some time exploring your state or beyond. You will also have up to 30 days travel after your placement is complete. Make sure to save the dosh so that you can really make the most of your free month exploring America.
As part of the au pair China programme, you will get the opportunity to attend Mandarin classes. Per 3 month stay, you are entitled to 60 class-hours of Mandarin. Not only will this facilitate your stay in China, but it is an exceptional addition to your ever-growing CV. With small class sizes, you will quickly expand your knowledge of the language. As well as this class, you will also have the chance to attend monthly cultural courses, so you can really soak up all there is to know about your host country!
Furthermore, your local coordinator will organise social trips to discover China’s sites. This will ensure that you have a supportive social life with other au pairs during your time in China. You will also see your new friends at your cultural course and Mandarin classes, meaning that much of your au pair experience will be shared and you will create close connections with the other au pairs.
- However exhausted you are when you arrive in your host country, try to summon some energy to make a good first impression.
- The placement coordinator in your host country is your first port of call for any issues you may have while au pairing. Don’t hesitate to contact them! I had trouble disciplining the girls at first but Club RCI offered me some great tips that really improved my relationship with the girls. They encouraged me to put in place various reward schemes such as a sticker chart and a book of smiley faces. I took the girls to the market and asked them to choose the sweets they wanted so they knew the prize was worth it.
- Never take things personally - if the children reject you occasionally, or say something that seems harsh, just be patient and don’t force the relationship because it improves naturally over time, so stick it out!
- Make sure to have some time alone- it’s only fair to have a rest once the parents return home, especially after a difficult and frustrating day. The first few days I felt obliged to play with the girls if they wandered into my bedroom five seconds after I’d closed the door… but it’s okay to tell them to go elsewhere for a while once your shift has ended.
- Constantly speak in your own language- remember that’s what your host parents are paying you for and the primary reason they wanted an au pair in the first place. I regularly spoke in Spanish to the girls for the first few days because I was frustrated by the lack of communication but when they tuned in to my English, they learnt very quickly.
- When you are happy with them, let them know that! I never saw the girls so smiley than when I told them I was very happy with how they had behaved one day.
For more information on au pairing, check out the comprehensive programme-specific pages on Smaller Earth’s website, or drop them an email. For assistance while you’re in your host country, contact your local placement coordinator. Both Smaller Earth and your host country coordinator have years of experience in the au pairing business, so you will be supported every step of the way.