If you were an Au Pair: Agency or Website?

by cv harquail on May 18, 2009

On the heels of our conversation about whether or not we as host families prefer agencies or websites to find our au pairs , comes an email from a potential au pair on the same topic:

Next year I plan to get experience as an Aupair. I’m from Australia, and it has been very hard to decide whether to pay money and go through an agency, or to do it using public websites.

I know of 8 Australian Aupairs that are over in the UK and Netherlands at the moment and they ALL used the website www.aupair-world.net except for one who went through an agency.

I have also heard of other people www.greataupair.com as well. They all did very professionally. When they found a family, or a family found them, they wrote e-mails, spoke on the phone and on the webcam/skype. From what I have heard, they have all found lovely families!

self p.jpg So my main question is: Do most people go through agencies or are there host families out there that use websites like the ones above?

KR, thanks for bringing up the other side.

In the US, the vast majority of host families find their au pairs through agencies. (Maybe one of the LCCs or professional match-advisers has statistics?)

This is largely because many host families want the structure and legality that agencies provide. With an agency, there are formal reference checks, health checks, formal orientation, training in first aid, a Local Counselor to confirm that the family has met basic requirements, health insurance for the au pair, a community for the au pair, procedures in case of emergency (rematch, death in AP family, etc.) and a ticket back home. Both the AP and the host family sign contracts that commit them to acting legally and fairly. When it’s all said and done, the additional cost of using an agency (maybe $2,000?) seems worth it to many host families.

For both the host family and the au pair, the up front cost is higher with an agency than off-the-board. Many of the direct expenses of the au pair year, like airline tckerts, health insurance and training, are included in the Agency fee. And, there is also an administration component, to pay for LCCs and office staff in the US and abroad who do the interviewing, match assisting, and so on. So, with an agency, there is a bigger gap between what the family pays and what the au pair receives in pocket money. Coming About.jpeg

Using an agency may also feel worth the extra cost to the au pair.

One thing that every au pair should keep in mind is that agencies actually screen host families. Sometimes, not well enough (we hear those stories too). Still, agencies even blacklist families that have been cruel and unfair to au pairs– sometimes within an agency, and sometimes they tell other agencies too. With an agency, an au pair can expect that host families have been told the rules, been visited by LCCs, and been educated a bit about what to expect (or not to expect) from an au pair.

On the other hand, it may be hard for an au pair to put up money at the start to find a position. Consider that Au Pair Agencies vary in their policies not only from agency to agency, but country to country. For au pairs from some countries, agencies ask for a commitment ‘payment’ or bond, that they return to the au pair after her year. But in some countries, they don’t ask for this. I didn’t realize that agencies actually ask candidates to pay a fee that is never refunded (how many do that, I wonder?) so I can see how that might be a deterrent for applicants.

There are terrific applicants available through every agency, and terrific applicants available on websites. With a website, both the applicant and the family need to do more to determine each other’s character, training, and commitment.

So let me also ask parents who have used websites:
Is there anything that you recommend for an au pair who plans to use a website? Or anything you recommend for families? If an applicant uses a website, how can she confirm the character of the potential host family? How do these options compare from the au pair’s point of view?

Also, any au pairs: Are there extra steps you’d recommend for potential au pairs who choose to use websites?


Anna May 18, 2009 at 10:17 am

I just want to point out (it wasn’t crystal clear to me from the post) that in America, the only legal way to get an au pair is through an agency. The agency provides a J-1 visa that allows an au pair to work legally for her family (and only for the family) in the US.
Going outside those channels, getting a visa may be more difficult – chance of refusal will be higher, and a tourist visa one might get does not allow one to legally work in the US! Also tourist visas are usually no longer than 6 months, and after that require going back to one’s country to renew it, again with a chance of refusal.
Coming as an au pair without an agency is actually breaking the immigration law on the side of an au pair, and breaking law (immigration and tax law) on the side of a host family.

As to the costs for the au pair – I want to point out that there is at least one agency that tells families that registering through them is FREE for the au pairs (Expert Au Pair); but they don’t recruit everywhere.

Anna May 18, 2009 at 10:31 am

Also, using a website doesn’t preclude going through an agency – many families and au pairs registered with the agencies search on the websites too, to widen their pool of choices. If they match via website, they just go through their agency as “pre-match” (which in many agencies gives the families a discount, don’t know about au pairs..)

Jenny May 18, 2009 at 10:34 am

That’s a question I would like to have answered too… I mean, I’m currently an au pair and I guess most of you know that, I’ve posted on here a few times, thing is I may look for some other experiences, in other countries, so that I can learn all the languages I want before going back to my country, and being an au pair is the cheapest way I found to gather experience, knowledge and learning up without having my mom monetarily involved.

So, when I decided to come to the US I chose to come with an agency because of the safety of it, all the screening family, legal process, support… I really value BEING legal, not the you aren’t when you go without an agency, but things with the agency feel way more formal and safe. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I always think back when screening families’ profiles on greataupair.com (the only website I have seen). As much as I’ve heard stories of au pairs that had an amazing experience with families found on sites of this kind anyone can put a profile up there, lie a little bit (or a lot) and deceive innocent au pairs to be, same with au pairs to host families. I don’t know, maybe I’m just being extremely cautious, or paranoid. Anyway, I’d like to know how many on these websites are REAL host families, willing to be fair and respect the rules… and who am I going to count on if I have any problems? That’s something to think about to, huh?

That’s why I chose the agency the first time and that’s why I’ll probably choose one again if I am to be an au pair in another country next year.

Anna May 18, 2009 at 10:50 am

Jenny, you don’t understand, without the agency you ARE working in the US illegally. You might not be IN the US illegally, but it is certainly illegal to work for a family for money.

Jenny May 18, 2009 at 10:57 am

I don’t know, Anna. From what I’ve heard, not sure though, one can get the J1 visa and come to work here on it legally without the agency… but the possibility of getting a visa denial is higher. I’d have to check this information to tell you for sure, but I’d guess it’s right.

Anna May 18, 2009 at 11:04 am

Jenny, really? I had no idea. Thanks for telling me.

Marguerite May 18, 2009 at 1:53 pm

Anna is correct. It is illegal to work as an aupair or engage someone to do so without benefit of an agency. Legitimate websites carry banners that advise patrons that they can select an aupair they like through the website but they must go through a US govenment approved agency.
We all know families and aupairs who are here without agencies but it is illegal. It is also illegal to work on a travel visa.
Other organizations like colleges , theatrical groups and sports organizations use a J1 Visa but those organizations are acting as a sponso ring agency. They are subject to rules set by the US government.

Canadian HM May 18, 2009 at 2:31 pm

In Canada, we don’t have an official au pair program, there is only a live-in caregiver program that appeals to and caters to immigrants who want to become citizens. I would say that more that half of au pairs I’ve met here don’t have a work visa, and are here on a tourist visa which is extended at the end of 6 months. These ones without a work visa met their HF thru a website, mostly aupairworld. The ones with a work visa I don’t think truly working in the anticipated way, as they are receiving pockey money and not paying income tax (but I may be wrong about this).
We have had 2 au pairs, one better than the other, and we found both thru aupairworld. We did a lot of emailing back & forth, phone interviews and so on before picking someone. Also checked personal and work references. Our first AP, we had about 100 applications and for the second about 70 before we chose someone. Each time we interviewed 3-4 candidates after a couple of weeks of emails.
From what I’ve read about the agencies and comments throughout this website (great site, BTW), having an agency doesn’t guarentee a good family or AP, but makes the process legal, which is important. We just don’t have that option up here, so it is considered a gray area.

Miranda May 18, 2009 at 2:42 pm

If I were an au pair going to the US, I would definitely go through an agency in order to be legal. However, if you are going to almost any country besides the US, you don’t have to go through an agency to be legal. I am an American going to Norway to be an au pair in a couple months, and I went through the website newaupair.com, which I found was alot easier to navigate than many of the other au pair/family matching websites that I looked at. The website does not formally screen the families or the au pairs, but of course you can pre-match and then go through an agency if you choose to.

In my experience, after you have been emailing with a family for weeks, it is fairly easy to tell if they are legitimate or not (if you have ANY doubts about that aspect of it, I would steer clear of that family). I emailed for about a month with the family I ended up matching with, had a phone interview, and then emailed their current au pair to see what she had to say about her experience. The family also called my current employer (I am a nanny) to make sure I was a good choice.

The family and I both signed a legal work contract which I then sent to the Norwegian embassy. The family is also paying for my language classes, my flights to and from Norway (which is somewhat uncommon), and I will be covered by Norway’s insurance plan with my au pair visa. Everything is completely legal. So yes, if you are going to the US, I think an agency is definitely the way to go. But it saves alot of money to NOT go through an agency if you are going to another country.

chithra May 19, 2009 at 9:13 am

hello, sorry if i sound dense but what is wrong with employing an american for the job of an au pair? there must be a lot of young people near your area/locality who wouldn’t mind a career in childcare… and all this cultural shock and visa problems can b eliminated…

i’m asking bcos i am an au pair in london and most families here have employed local girls (often students who work part time but some are also dedicated childcare providers) to be their au pairs…

Anna May 19, 2009 at 10:03 am

nothing is wrong with employing an american, chithra. But there are no americans that will do this job for $320/week, before subtracting employment taxes, which is what on average an au pair costs to the family.
Also with a workweek of a typical american parent, a part-timer won’t do.

Jill May 19, 2009 at 1:50 pm

As an LCC, I highly recommend using an agency. An AP must come over on a J1 visa & working with an agency is really the only way to get one & be here legally. Plus both the AP & HF have a support system. I can’t imagine having to go through some of the issues that I’ve seen without guidance. If anyone wants more info, please e-mail me at jill.shapiro@lcc.culturalcare.com

Franzi May 19, 2009 at 2:49 pm

i think the main distinction you have to make is APing in a country that legally requires to go through an agency and APing in a country where an agency is not a legal requirement.

personally, i would not want to go illegally. the families and the APs are screened, you have the support net of clusters, you have some prep time, and the fact that you are legal helps you with anything (college, when stopped by police, when there are problems with the family etc). yes, you can still end up in a terrible situation but this is what the agency is for.

in europe and also australia, it’s very easy to AP w/o agency. the selection process is all up to the family and AP to be. that requires thinking about more issues (such as who pays for traveling to the family and back home, what should be in the contract etc). especially because the contract is usually in language that is not native to the AP, i would be cautious to “just sign anything”.

in the end, the AP (and the family) need to know if they are ready and experienced enough to do this on their own.

Marguerite May 19, 2009 at 6:16 pm

The reason to engage someone from a country other than the US is to enjoy a cultural exchange of ideas and outlook. Childcare is a huge part of these programs but so is the cultural basis.
There is no question that international cooperation and understanding can be advanced one relationship at a time.
Lately, people have talked about aupairs who have friends and family come here to visit. Has anyone ever visited their former aupairs abroad ? Anyone gone to a former aupair’s wedding ? I would love to hear those stories, too. Maybe a special post ?

Mom of 2 Girls May 19, 2009 at 8:53 pm

Good questions, Marguerite. I’d be interested to know also. We have had exchange students (high school age) about 15 years ago and have attended both their weddings in the past three years. It was a wonderful experience for our eldest daughter, as well, although she wasn’t born until many years after the “girls” had left (but had met them both when they’ve visited us). The cultural aspects and long-term friendships are part of the reasons we were keen to try the au pair experience as our child care option. At this point, however, I have to say that we’re only batting about .333, as I doubt that either our our first two will invite us if they do get married, nor would we care to attend, as we never developed that close a relationship with them. Possibly our current one – we’ll see! ‘-)

Calif Mom May 20, 2009 at 1:20 pm

We hosted exchange students, too, and have visited them over the years. But there is a big difference between an “exchange” student, where the person doesn’t work for you, they are only here to study and experience the culture, and an au pair program, where the relationship is much more influenced by the employer/employee overlay. There’s just no way around the fact that you are paying them to do work for you. Yes, it’s also different from paying money for kids to be cared for at a center, or by a nanny, but I don’t think you’d have an au pair just to give someone a cultural experience. They have a job to do for you, first and foremost.

That said, I could see traveling to visit them in their home countries in the future, attending weddings, meeting babies. At least one or two of them. If they are actually still in their home countries and not back in the states somehow! :)

Marguerite May 20, 2009 at 1:34 pm

I knew an aupair whose parents came to visit at year end and they rented a house at the Jersey shore for a month and invited the host family and their children to join them. It was a wonderful time for everyone.
And the parents of another aupair from Finland ” traded ” houses for Christmas break with their daughter’s former host family several years after the aupair year. How cool is that ?

Jeana May 20, 2009 at 5:50 pm

I’ve had five different aupairs, and I wouldn’t consider doing this without an agency. I chose the agency that is the largest in our area, for many reasons. I appreciate that we have an active cluster, where my aupairs have a chance to make friends with other girls from our cluster. They have nice, safe activities to engage in, and my aupairs have taken advantage of travel opportunities, offered through AuPair in America.

I’ve had three wonderful experiences with aupairs, and two problem situations. I was so thankful to have my agency help when two aupairs didn’t work out. My agency showed me that they were also with me when there was a problem.

My first Chinese aupair came from the area where the horrible earthquake occurred, in 2008. Her family was okay, but what if that hadn’t been the case, and I had an aupair who needed to depart quickly? Our third aupair had friends (aupairs) who were involved in a tragic accident in our state. One aupair was killed. The second aupair, who was the driver, was in very tough shape, emotionally, and not allowed to leave the US until legal issues were dealt with. I don’t know what agency these two aupairs were from, but I know I’d want an agency to be helping if this situation had affected our family.

My older daughter tells me that she hopes to be an aupair someday, and I would want her to be in a program with an agency. I joke with my aupairs that when our cluster leader visits she’ll have some private time with them to make sure we’re treating her okay. As the mom of a future aupair, that’s what I’d want for my child, too. If anyone would do this to avoid agency fees, they’re saving money in a risky way. Having aupairs has been a wonderful blessing for our family, and I’m so grateful we’ve had this opportunity. Just like I would not drive without car insurance, I wouldn’t consider hosting an aupair without the structure of an agency that is there to protect the well-being of the aupairs, and the needs of our family. I love the years when I have limited contact with our cluster leader, although she’s delightful and an awesome human being. I can’t begin to say how thankful I’ve been for her support the two times that there were problems.

Ann May 29, 2009 at 8:04 am

This is Ann (host mom from New England, I’ve posted before). Since my daughter is being raised bilingually, I’ve wanted only APs who speak the national language of a small former Soviet republic in Eastern Europe where my parents were born. Since the US agencies don’t have much of a presence there, or if they do, in the past one of the larger agencies was located in the industrial area with predominantly Russian speakers (not the national language) and even those agencies located in the capital city appear to accept more Russian-speaking girls, than native speakers of the national language, who appear to be less aware of the AP program or maybe don’t travel or study as much English.

Thus without the help of websites I wouldn’t have found what I want. Both times, I’ve successfully used a combination of searching for candidates who had posted profiles on http://www.greataupair.com, as well as I posted an ad myself on that country’s equivalent of Facebook. I was a regular “lurker” for several years on the IVillage Host Mom discussion board and know that several host moms there used http://www.greataupair.com to sucessfully pre-match with APs as well. They found that it gave them more initial control over the selection process. IEven though I have relatives/friends on the ground in that country, I have not found their network of contacts useful for generating a list of good qualified candidates up to US standards. And relatives can’t be employed as US au pairs. After screening myself by email/phone, and asking local relatives/friends to meet with the “successful” candidate as a final check, I’ve asked each candidate to apply to the US agency with which we were registered at the time and be processed fully legally and in usual AP process as a “pre-match” (for which the agency will give you a discount) to get the J-1 visa etc..

The first time around, I started the web / pre-match search process about 4 months ahead of time, the second time I gave it 9 months, which was good, because the agency representative situation overseas had gotten worse. Once I’d narrowed down the candidates to the girl I wanted, we tried for about a month, but neither of the two largest US agencies had an active representative in the country who would return our or the candidate’s or the US agency headquarters’ calls!! So in the end our AP candidate had to take a bus to a neighboring country (thankfully nearby) to find an official agency representative to interview her!

Each time when pre-matching I have talked directly to the agency’s representatives overseas and to the pre-match coordinator at the US headquarters office and I’ve found that that has helped avoid misunderstandings. For our first AP candidate, who had to travel a long way from the countryside, the local agency rep was willing to meet her half-way for the interview. And then in the middle of the summer the agency rep quit her agency job and moved to London and someone else took over. But I think because I continued to bug the agency rep via email from the US she still provided email and phone support even from London to make sure all the paperwork got properly finalized for my candidate. It was also odd that the up front costs for the AP varied so much from agency to agency. With the first AP, she had to pay almost $1000 up front (including the refundable) 3 years ago with the first agency, a huge sum of money given local average monthly incomes (which is why we refunded her a part of that amount as a “signing bonus”, the financial deposit is another stumbling block for AP applicants from those countries), and our second AP had to pay just about half of that amount (a year ago, to the 2nd agency).

The trick with pre-matching is that some agencies don’t accept pre-matched candidates and any candidate you bring to an agency doesn’t “automatically” get accepted, she must pass the agency’s full regular screening process and criteria. So when I posted my own ad in that country’s version of Facebook, I was sure to list the US AP requirements (age, English language, childcare experience, etc). to screen out people who would never make it through the agency interview or process. I found that driving was optional. Since we live close to public transportation and don’t require our APs to drive as part of their job description, both times the agencies have been willing to waive that requirement for our pre-matched candidates. That has widened the candidate pool, because in the Eastern European country our APs come from, it is relatively expensive and difficult to get a driver’s license, so not many people have one or own cars.

Because my APs are both pre-matches, and we do have a linguistic tie, I, and they do, I feel, more vested in sticking the year out and making sure things work out. But it does make us a bit more “hostage” to the quality of the pre-matched AP we find. Re-matching with just any local AP in the agency’s system who doesn’t speak the language I want isn’t really a desirable option for us, except in a worse case scenario.

Re: long-term relations, I feel that we will stay in touch with both APs and their families long-term. They now feel like extended family that we can visit when we are in that part of the world. I’d be honored if my daughter ever chose to work for then as an AP 10-15 years down the road…:)

I was truly gratified when this fall our 2nd AP on her own initiative sent an email to our 1st AP in which my daughter “dictated” a letter, telling our 1st AP how much she loved and missed her.

Certainly the pre-match system isn’t a bed of roses, and just because you speak the same language doesn’t mean you’ll always get along, I’ve had the same management issues and frustrations as all host moms with both my APs, but the linguistic results for my daughter and the continuity of care for my family and the sense of gaining two new “extended family” members have been worth enough for me to stick it through with both APs.

CV June 1, 2009 at 8:48 pm

Hi Ann- this got caught in the comments queue b/c of the urls…didn’t see it till today. Thank you so much for such a comprehensive comment! cv

Sarah-Louise Clark July 22, 2009 at 4:47 am

I was wondering, if i ws to go the Los Angelos in California to be an au-pair, is the only legal way to go through an agency? if this is so, what is the best agency that you can recommend through experience as either an au-pair or a family.

If there is another way, please could i know the details of how you make it legal and what visas/working permits/travel documents/J1 etc that i would need and also how you can find out the authenticity of the job offer when not done through an agency.

Any reply would be gratefully apprciated.

Many Thanks

Emma July 22, 2009 at 6:29 am

Yes, the only legal way to Au Pair in the US is through an agency. You can find legitimate agencys here: http://www.iapa.org/Docs/02_organisation/Member_Directory.php4 As I’m an Au pair from the US, not going to the US I don’t really know which is best, I’d say look at the websites and see which one feels right for you.

westcost mom September 2, 2009 at 10:28 am

All Au Pairs wanting to go to the U.S.:
Don’t go to the U.S. without a J-1 Au Pair visa sponsored by an U.S. Au pair agency. It is not only illegal to work for a family without that, but should you get into an accident like it happend to a girl we knew, you are in big trouble. Unfortunatly, I know several au pairs who came here to work for families just on a tourist visa and stayed longer then their visa was issued, and they could not reenter the U.S. since that. You give up your future to come to the U.S. again just so the family can safe some money.

aussiegirl October 5, 2009 at 3:32 am

I have been an Aupair in the US through Cultural Care on the J1 Visa a few years later iIreally wanted to do it again, but at the time couldn’t as I had already had one. The only other way was to apply for a Green Card. I opted to go to Canada and went to Canada on a working-holiday visa. On my own through the website greataupait.com Now the US are allowing Aupairs who successfully completed there year doing a repeat year something I am now considering.

Lucy January 24, 2010 at 9:58 am

I was an au-pair in Italy with an agency called totalannnies They are really good, screen the host families and offer back up support if things don’t work out. They will also replace you in another family if you don’t get along with your chosen family. This didn’t happen to me because my host family was great but it did happen to another girl I met whilst over there. Also the host family signes a contract so they have to respect the salary, working hours etc. The great thing about this agency is that they only charge host families so for girls looking for a job it is free. I did look at some websites before going with totalnannies but could not see any advantages

Comments on this entry are closed.