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Au Pair Programmes: USA & UK – Part 1

Au pair programmes give you one of the best opportunities to experience living abroad and learn a foreign language fast. I lived as an au pair in the USA and the UK for three years and I have some of the best memories from that time. Because many former au pairs helped me by sharing their advice before I applied, I’m now doing the same for future au pairs. I’ve collected the most frequently asked questions and will answer them in these two articles.

My advice is based on my personal experience only, I don’t work for any agency, nor my advice should be taken as official information – that can be found on government or agency websites.

Is there a big difference between the programmes in the USA and the UK?

There are some differences. In the UK you are expected to do light housekeeping (e.g. washing clothes, ironing, vacuuming, mopping, bathroom cleaning, making beds, shopping, cooking) and it’s what I did most of my work hours. It depends on the hostfamily, though. In comparison, I spent much less time with the kids in the UK, than I did in the USA. In the US, an au pair cleans only after the kids and hostfamilies usually hire a housekeeper that comes about once a week. Another difference is that in the USA there is someone from the agency assigned to be available for you and who organizes monthly meetups with au pairs in your area. The programme also started with a 3-5 day Orientation, where the agency prepared us for our arrival to the hostfamilies. When I landed in the UK, I was picked up by the hostfamily at the airport and the agency was available via e-mail only. No training or preparation, you were kind of thrown in the water to learn how to swim. No worries, though, one of the hostparents usually stayed home with me for the first week (or their former au pair did) and showed me everything. Meeting other au pairs happened usually at kid’s school, playgrounds or at English lessons.

What does my level of English need to be?

Basic or pre-intermediate level should be fine for the UK. Your grammar doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s important that you understand what the hostfamily wants from you. However, for the US programme, they require your English to be on the intermediate level at least. No need to worry, though, the hostfamilies are usually incredibly helpful and patient.

As a guy, do I have a chance to find a hostfamily?

Of course you do, but the number of hostfamilies that would prefer a male au pair over a female one might not be great. I’ve met a few male au pairs, they were usually in families with older boys, which worked great for the hostfamily, because that way the boys had a play buddy and an authority figure at the same time. Female au pairs might have been in a disadvantage here. There is a suitable hostfamily for everyone.

Where can I find any official information about au pair programmes?

On government websites of each country:
USA
UK

Can you share some dos and don’ts on profiles?

It’s important to fill out your profile so you come across as a pro and as someone who can be trusted with kids. Imagine you are a hostparent, your children are the most precious thing you have, you want to make sure you choose the best au pair for them.
You need to have photos with children – if you don’t have any, get a babysitting job, ask your friends with kids, work or volunteer in a nursery/kindergarden/summer camps where photos are being taken (you need to ask the parent’s permission to use those photos).
Don’t use facebook photos! It might be okay to share your party photos with your friends, but these photos have no business on a professional profile. It might seem like a ‘duh’ advice, but I once helped my former hostmom pick their next au pair and I couldn’t believe how many people had such photos on their profiles. Needless to say she passed on all of them.
When it comes to information about you, treat it the same way you would treat any other job interview. There is a fine line between sharing something that lets people know who you are as a person and oversharing. You shouldn’t lie or make things up, but you also need to know how to sell yourself – again, just like in any other job interview. Lately I’ve also seen that au pairs make introduction videos – no need to hire a pro or go to a studio. You can shoot that yourself or with a help of a friend – all you need is a smartphone with a camera/compact camera, well-lit room with a neutral background. Make sure it’s quiet (no TV, music, too much street noise), so the sound is good and you can be heard well.

What questions should I ask the hostfamilies during the Skype interview?

1. Be interested about the kids – how old are they; what are their hobbies and interests; how well do they handle having an au pair/nanny; how do the hostparents raise and discipline their children (that can tell you a lot about them). You can also ask the hostparents about their hobbies and interests (they will usually tell you what job they do right away, so you won’t need to ask that), that way you may find something you have in common.
2. Ask about your schedule – what does the hostfamily expect from you, if you’ll be required to drive, etc. Based on this you can get a feeling of what would your stay be like and if this is the right fit for you.
3. Get some information about the town/city they live in – you can research it online, but the hostfamily can give you their point of view of the place.
4. Ask if they had an au pair before and if you can get her contact info - some hostfamilies offer a reference without asking, but don’t be afraid to ask for it yourself. You are interviewing them as well and you should be able to get a reference, too. If the hostfamily refuses to give you one and don’t have a good reason for it, it’s a red flag. I’d suggest you leave this question at the end of the interview, so they won’t forget.

Is the upbringing style different in the UK and USA?

I get asked this question a lot and it’s very hard to answer it. Each country (or parts of it) and each family is different. You have to discuss upbringing and discipline methods with the hostfamily and adapt to it 100% (don’t apply our own methods). Never use physical punishment, it may be a common practice in your country, but over there it’s considered child abuse and is punishable by law. Be open-minded and respectful, even if the practices seem strange to you. You may actually learn something, I know I have and that I will apply it once I have kids of my own.

Am I going to have to drive?

If you are heading to the USA, you most likely will be required to drive, it’s hard to get by without a car in most places there. I met some au pairs who weren’t driving, but there were but a few of them. Some au pairs didn’t have driver’s licence from back home and got them there. You will have to get the state driver’s licence anyway (the international one is issued only for 3 months). It’s actually very easy, so is driving itself in the USA (most cars have automatic gear shift). In the UK, though, I experienced both, with one hostfamily I had to drive, not with others, it depends how far the hostfamilies live from the kid’s school. Driving on the left side of the road is a bit awkward in the beginning, so is shifting gears with your left hand, but you’ll get used to that soon, trust me.

How does it work with studying?

In the USA it’s a visa requirement – you need to take classes at a local college and earn 6 class credits or prove 60 hours in class. You’ll get a stipend of $500 from the hostfamily for your studies. In the UK it’s not a requirement to study and also, the hostfamily isn’t obligated to give you any money towards your studies like they are in the USA.
It’s important to keep in mind that you need to discuss your study plans with your hostfamily. You need to look for classes that fit your working schedule the best. It’s a good idea to look for evening or weekend classes if you take care of smaller kids who stay at home with you during the day. If you have kids that go to school, the hostfamilies usually let you take day classes.

What if I want to study something else than English?

That’s fine, you don’t have to take English classes. I went for Acting/Theater Arts classes and other au pairs I knew took Psychology, various sports or other subjects they were interested in. If you want to be sure these courses will count towards your visa (are accredited), you can always consult that with your agency.

Is $500 stipend going to cover all costs?

That depends on the course you choose and in which state you live in. I lived in California and the tuition fees are very high over there. Unfortunately, as an au pair, you’ll be considered an international student and for them the tuition fees are higher than for the local students. No worries, it’s possible to find cheap courses, some are even free (usually basic English courses). It depends on your preference – if you only want to get this over with or you want to study something you like no matter the cost. In my mind, it’s all a part of the experience of living abroad and that’s worth every penny.