Becoming an American Au Pair in France
In the winter of 2017, I fell in love with a French man over the internet. When I told my family and friends about him, they were happy for me, but they didn’t understand how I could fall in love over the internet or how the relationship could survive the 5,000 mile distance. After a month of daily FaceTime calls, this French man became my boyfriend. He promised to come to see me the next summer. Being as impatient as I am, I knew that I couldn’t wait 6 months or more to meet the man of my dreams.
A few months passed, and I grew increasingly impatient.
Both of our families and friends expressed concern about falling in love too quickly. No one thought it would work, except for him and me, but that was enough. I was determined to prove them all wrong.
Then something occurred to me – I remembered a girl I once knew who had taken a break from university to go to France as an au pair.
An au pair, as defined by Google, is “a young foreign person, typically a woman, who helps with housework or childcare in exchange for room and board.”
It struck me – I could become an au pair in France. Even though I had never traveled far from my hometown in Colorado, I was ready. I would finally be able to meet the man I loved.
It was decided. I instantly hopped on the computer and began my job search.
Finding the Right Au Pair Website
At first, it was hard to figure out where to start. There are so many options for au pairs looking for work:
The obvious choice in terms of safety, but they can be quite expensive, anywhere from $100 to upwards of $7,000, and that’s just the agency fee. It doesn’t include the membership fee and travel costs. The perks of working with an agency are that they provide background checks for both the au pair and the family, as well as the legwork of matching up the family to the au pair. It feels like a secure option for families and au pairs who want to be 100% sure they’re getting a legit deal.
These can look a little shady compared to the agencies, but the key word here is “free.” I began doing my research about which free au pair websites were the most reliable.
Those first few hours were tough, digging through websites until I finally found aupairworld.com. It was the only website that was free, with absolutely no hidden membership fees, and a clean interface where you could connect to thousands of families all over the globe. I was able to search within specific regions of France, ensuring that I would be as close as possible to my love.
Finding the Family
American au pairs are in high demand. I was told by many host families that they preferred American English to British English in terms of accent because they’ve heard American voices so often in music and film. They want their children to learn American English, so don’t settle for the first family that shows interest. There will be many offers.
It’s okay to be picky about your host family. After all, you’re going to be living in their house, eating meals with them, and possibly even going on vacation with them.
This is a big decision. Living with a family you met online can be a freaky feeling, but remember there’s no shame in saying no to a family that doesn’t jive with you. Use that good old fashioned gut-instinct.
Making a profile that will stand out
Make sure that you strongly highlight your childcare experience, whether it’s babysitting, nannying, or just watching your friend’s baby. Show that you are a competent child care provider.
Don’t be afraid to talk about yourself – remember that these host families don’t know anything about you, so be sure to really talk about who you are. “I am a patient 22-year-old woman who is passionate about music.”
Talk about your interests and skills. If you play basketball well, play an instrument, sing, draw or paint, write it down. These seemingly irrelevant facts about you are important and will make you stand out in the sea of profiles.
Don’t be too formal. Host families want to know the person behind the profile. They want to choose someone who will fit with their family and be fun to be around.
Be specific about the duration of time you’re willing to spend as an au pair and be honest with yourself about how long you are willing to be an au pair.
I made my profile over the course of a few days. Once that was done, I was able to start sending out private messages to the families in the north of France where my boyfriend lived.
The visa you need will depend entirely on the duration of your employment. Do your research.
As a US citizen, you can enter France through the 90-day Schengen travel visa. You’re technically not allowed to work while using this travel visa, but many au pair families are ok with operating under the table.
You do not have to obtain a visa before arriving, all you need is a valid passport. This is by far the simplest way of entering Europe. The only downfall is that you are only allowed to stay in the EU for 90 days (about 3 months), after which you will have to leave the EU for another solid 90 days (another 3 months) before re-entering.
If you would like to stay longer than 90 days, you will need to obtain an Au Pair Visa.
This can be valid anywhere from 6 months to a few years. It’s up to you. Here’s more information regarding French work visa requirements for US citizens.
Meeting the Family (Online)
After reading through the profiles of hundreds of French families, I managed to find a beautiful family of three in a little countryside village only 8 miles away from my boyfriend’s home. It was ideal.
After the initial contact with a family through the website, it was time to set up a Skype interview. The most challenging part of this step was the 8-hour time difference.
Over the Skype call, I was finally able to meet the family I would be living with and the child I would be nannying. They gave me a quick tour of the house and showed me the bedroom where I would be staying. This is when it became real. I was going to France.
The family and I talked about how long I would be willing to stay as their au pair. I initially wanted to go for 6 months, but after some consideration, the family and I decided to go “under the table” and opt for the 3 month Schengen travel visa option so we wouldn’t have to go through the hassle of obtaining an au pair work visa.
We agreed on pay – €300 a month, plus room and board – and signed the contract. The pay was arbitrary. I just wanted to be in the same country as my boyfriend for once. After setting up a date to show up, we planned the trip. I bought a ticket, and it was official. I’d be in France for 90 days.
Landing in France
After leaving my job, my family, and my two cats, I got on the airplane to my new life. The travel was tiresome and slow, but after nearly 24 hours of traveling, I felt like I’d gone through a portal into a new bizarre dimension.
Here I was, in Charles de Gaulle Airport, a 22-year-old woman without even a beginners level of French language under her belt.
I was able to meet the love of my life there for the first time at a nearby hotel. We spent the weekend in Paris getting to know each other. Walking on the cobblestone streets of Paris toward the Eiffel Tower that was glittering in the night sky, I knew why I had gone through so much trouble to get here. This was living.
After our magical and romantic weekend in Paris, we drove a few hours north toward Lille. Our time was over, and before I knew it, we were on our way to meet my host family. I was scared, nervous, and afraid of being alone in this big country.
There was no turning back. I knocked on the door of my new home and was greeted with a sign that read “Welcome home Julia!” and the bright faces of my host family.
The little girl ran to me, wrapping her arms around me like we were already best friends.
It was a little strange to ‘Faire la bise,’ or greet each other with kisses on the cheeks, but when in France, do as the French do. They had already had many au pair girls from all over America, so they understood my confusion with their customs. We got know each other over some pizza, and before I knew it, it was time for me to say goodbye to my boyfriend.
I must admit, that first night there was one of the hardest nights.
I felt so lost, confused as to why I was there. The only comfort I had was in knowing that my boyfriend was only a 20-minute car ride away. I unpacked my suitcases and prepared for my 90 days there.
Being an Au Pair
I began the next morning at 8 am. I learned the schedule: I was to help with breakfast, walk the little girl to school, pick her up from school, prepare lunch, give her a nap, play with her, bathe her, help with dinner, and clean up the house, not to mention keeping up with the laundry.
It was a lot. I added a little run while the girl was at school. But other than that, I didn’t have a lot of time to myself. I found it hard to keep in contact with my family due to the time difference.
The homesickness and loneliness set in. It felt so lonely when the only person I had to talk to was a little girl who spoke English as well as I spoke French.
On the weekends I was free to do what I wanted, and I opted to stay with my boyfriend. That’s when I remembered why I worked so hard during the week.
As time went on, my workweek felt easier, the family and I bonded, and the schedule became routine. I started to make friends with the neighbors and began to feel like I was home.
Despite the arduous process of finding the right family, the long travel, trouble with learning the French language, and the bouts of homesickness, I realized that going home was the hardest part. It was a tearful goodbye.
The three months as an au pair were some of the hardest and most rewarding months of my life.
In those 90 days, I discovered more of the world than I ever thought I would. I got to live the French life first hand. I genuinely enjoyed trying all of the stinky cheeses and local dishes and watching how different their holidays are from ours. It was a truly once in a lifetime experience.
I’ve been in and out of France four times now, and every time I’m there I have to stop in at my au pair family’s house for dinner. My boyfriend and I even had the honor of singing at their new baby’s baptism. I consider them my French family. They’ve even come as far as to visit me while vacationing in America.
Although being an au pair was one of the most trying times of my life, I will treasure the discovery, adventure, and life-changing moments. I’m especially grateful for the freedom it gave me to meet the love of my life and explore one of the most cultural and beautiful countries in the world.
It’s been two years since I was an au pair and I treasure having a host family that always welcomes me, along with these special memories that will be carried with me forever. The French boyfriend I got out of the deal ain’t so bad either.