What is an au pair? Here's everything you need to know

Sept. 20, 2019
Should You Hire an Au Pair? Here’s What You Need to Know
Image via Stocksy.com/Hillary Fox

Finding affordable and qualified caregivers for children can be overwhelming. Anyone on the child care hunt for a while will likely come across day care centers, babysitters and nannies who all offer the help parents need. But sometimes a more affordable, home-based care is desired.

While babysitters and nannies are commonplace in child care, many families opt to hire an au pair for their children, and here are some reasons why an au pair might be right for you.

What is an au pair?

An au pair is a person from another country who provides live-in child care in exchange for room and board with their host family, along with a stipend. Au pairs must have over 200 hours in child care experience and often have additional education and training that qualify them as care providers. 

The stipend au pairs earn, according to the U.S. State Department's J-1 Au Pair Program, is at least $195.75 per week. Au pairs can provide child care up to 45 hours a week and up to ten hours at a time, but because of work visa protection, they cannot be scheduled for more than that.

All au pairs that come to the United States must receive a J1 visa from the Department of State and be a part of one of the 16 designated au pair programs.  Agencies charge program fees that cover au pair travel costs, the J1 visa attainment process, screening and orientation, training, onboarding and ongoing program support throughout the au pair’s time in the program.

Because there are many elements that go into choosing an au pair, an au pair agency can help with the entire process and can advise you on the things you should consider regarding choosing the right au pair for your family.

Au pair agencies must be approved by the U.S. State Department, which has a list of designated sponsor organizations. If an agency is not on this list, it may not have the proper designations to legally connect au pairs and families in the United States.

State department-approved agencies

As of September 2019, there are only 15 agencies designated by the State Department. Each of these agencies has all the proper designations, processes and capabilities to sponsor au pair visas.

Which agency is the best fit for you?

There are a handful of ways to choose an au pair agency, including reputation, program fee cost, nationalities of au pairs available and local child care coordinator.  There are many sites where you can learn more about each au pair agency, including the Better Business Bureau.  Each agency recruits its own pool of au pairs from various countries. Au pair agencies vary in size from placing a few hundred au pairs a year to thousands of au pairs per year.  Additionally, au pair agencies are required to have a trained local child care coordinator who resides within 60 minutes of each au pair and host family.  You will want to be sure that the agencies you are considering can service your family and to find out how many other au pairs are in your immediate area.   

Aside from geography, each agency has different strengths and programs that help it match each family to its perfect au pair.

Comparing agencies

There are three important components to choosing your au pair agency:

1. Cost
One advantage of hosting an au pair is that no matter how many kids you have or how many hours your au pair works (as long as it is not more than 45), you will pay the same amount of stipend to the au pair.  There are some agencies that offer a premium au pair option and require a higher stipend.  Agencies can very in their program fees.  Some agencies provide one program fee that includes everything.  Other agencies break down their costs and give more choices to families (higher or lower flight costs from au pairs from certain countries). Choose an agency that has fees and weekly stipends that are reasonable or that can provide a payment plan if you get “sticker shock” at the upfront costs. Au pairs are generally a more affordable option for full-time, in-home care.

2. Availability
All au pairs arrive on a one-year J1 visa.  At the end of the au pair’s first year, the au pair has the opportunity to renew or extend her visa for six, nine or 12 months.  The au pair can remain with the same host family or match with a new host family for this extension period.  Depending on how experienced the au pair needs to be or how long you want her to stay, each agency can provide a selection of au pairs who fit your needs.

3. Type of care

Au pairs are not allowed to care for children under the age of 3 months, unless supervised by a parent. On top of that, au pairs must get special infant certification to care for children 3 to 24 months. This infant certification can be obtained by the au pair prior to her departure by completing 200 hours of infant care experience that is verified by the agency. If you need someone to care for your infant, make sure to find an agency that has a number of infant care au pairs available. There are some designated programs that also offer early childhood education and special needs care au pairs.

Each agency also has its own “standards,” including extra training or certifications, host family requirements and even home country specifications for au pairs. It’s a good idea to interview au pair agencies to see which ones can provide the best care at a comfortable price before asking to see the list of available au pairs. Reading reviews and testimonials can also be helpful in choosing the right agency.

Finding an au pair

While au pair care may seem to cost more upfront and may have more “administrative” costs than other child care options, it can be one of the most affordable solutions for many families. It’s also a great way to share another culture with your children and to open your home to someone who wants to learn more about life in the United States.

The most important thing to remember when looking for an au pair, though, is that the sponsored programs are the only agencies you should work with. They know the J-1 Visa program well, have all the required standards in place and continually meet the regulations set forth by the U.S. State Department. From there, location, cost, length of stay and the type of care are all variables to consider.

And finally, remember that “au pair” is French for “equal” or “on par.” Choosing to host an au pair in your home means welcoming them into your family and community. It’s an enriching and mutually beneficial experience.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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