If you’re between the ages of 18 and 26, you may be eligible to come to the U.S. on a J-1 visa to work as an “au pair.” The job of an au pair, also called “nanny,” is to provide child care services to an American family with whom you live. Under the terms of the J-1 visa program for au pairs, you also take classes at an American college or university.
There are many organizations that sponsor J-1 au pairs. You begin the process of getting your visa by contacting a sponsor organization and applying for acceptance into its program. You can apply for a regular J-1 au pair program, or for an EduCare program, which places you with a family that requires child care before and after school.
Who Qualifies to Be a J-1 Au Pair?
To qualify for the J-1 au pair visa, you must have graduated from a secondary school or its equivalent. You can’t start work as a J-1 au pair if you are younger than 18 or older than 26.
The organization sponsoring your J-1 au pair program will have application requirements for participation. At a minimum, it will interview you to determine whether you would make a good nanny. It will give you a personality test to see how you react in different situations. You must also successfully pass a background check and submit personal and employment references.
You’ll need to be able to speak English well enough to do nanny work and communicate with your host family. Also, a doctor will have to give you a physical exam to make sure you’re physically able to do nanny work. While in the U.S., you must be covered by a health insurance plan that provides certain benefits. You’ll need to find an insurance company that understands what type of policy is required for J-1 visa holders.
Au Pair Training
If a sponsor accepts you into its J-1 au pair program, it will give you child development and child safety training before you start work. You will get at least eight hours of child safety instruction, which will include at least four hours of training on infant safety issues. You’ll also get at least 24 hours of child development instruction, which will include at least four hours devoted to specific training for children under the age of two.
Your Host Family
Before you leave for the U.S., your sponsor will find a host family for you to live with. The host family will interview you by telephone. You and the host family will need to sign a contract that sets forth your obligation to provide child care. The host family members can’t be relatives of yours.
If there are any children under age two in the house, you can’t be a nanny there unless you have at least 200 hours of documented infant child care experience. You can be placed with a host family that has a child under three months old only if a parent or other responsible adult will be present in the home with you.
If you’re taking part in an EduCare program to care for kids before and after school, you can’t stay with a family that also has preschool children unless the family has plans for full-time supervision by someone else.
Finally, if the host family says it has a “special needs” child, you can’t be a nanny there unless the host family is satisfied that you have experience, skills, or training in the care of special needs children.
You’ll get your own private bedroom in the host family’s home. At least for the first three days after you arrive, a parent or other responsible adult will be at home.
The amount you get paid, sometimes called a “stipend,” is usually determined by the sponsor and the host family. It must be at least a certain amount (calculated according to the “minimum wage” as required by U.S. law), which in 2013 is $195.75 per week if you’re participating in the regular au pair program.
You’ll have to pay U.S. income tax on what you earn, but most likely there will not be any other deductions from your paycheck.
Your Work Schedule
You can’t work any more than ten hours a day or more than 45 hours a week. If you’re an EduCare au pair, you can work only 30 hours a week. You’ll get at least one and one half days off per week, and one complete weekend off each month. You’ll also get two weeks of vacation during which you will receive the same stipend as usual.
Your School Requirement
While you’re in the U.S. working as an au pair, you must register with and attend classes offered by an accredited U.S. postsecondary institution for at least six semester hours of academic credit or its equivalent. This usually means taking two regular full-time classes. If you’re an EduCare au pair, the requirement is double.
Your host family must help you help you get into school, and pay $500 of the cost ($1000 if you’re an EduCare au pair).
If you extend your stay as an au pair for nine months or a year, you’ll have to take six more semester hours of classes (twelve more if you’re an EduCare au pair), and your host family will pay another $500 (or $1,000 if you’re an EduCare au pair) toward the cost. If you’re extending your stay for only six months, those obligations are cut in half.
Getting a J-1 Visa
The sponsor of the au pair program will issue you a form called a “DS-2019,” which certifies that you are eligible for a J-1 au pair visa.
That’s only the first part of the process, however. Unless you’re Canadian, you still need to get a visa so you can travel to the United States. To get a visa, you might want help from a lawyer who knows U.S. immigration law.
You will go online and fill out a form called a “DS-160,” which is your application for the visa. Print out the receipt to take with you to your visa appointment.
After submitting the DS-160 online, you’ll have to pay a visa application fee, usually by going to a designated bank. Again, make sure you save the receipt. Then, you will need to set up an appointment for an interview at the U.S. consulate in your home country. At least three days before the interview, you need to pay a “SEVIS fee,” which helps fund the system that tracks J-1 visitors.
At the interview, you’ll present all the documents that support your application for a J-1 visa, including the DS-2019 form you got from the sponsor. Applicants from certain countries must pay another fee, called a “reciprocity fee,” on this day. See "The Day of Your Consular Interview" for more information.
A consular officer will ask you questions (in English) to make sure you’re eligible for the visa. You’ll go through some security checks, too. For one thing, the U.S. will want to make sure that you (like any other visa applicant) are not barred from entry due to health, security, or other issues, as described in "Inadmissibility: When the U.S. May Keep You Out."
The officer must be satisfied that you intend to return home after your au pair job is finished. If everything goes well, you will get your visa and can start planning your trip to the United States.
If you’re Canadian, you don’t need to fill out the DS-160 form or go to a U.S.consulate for a visa. You can bring your DS-2019 form to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer at the airport or the U.S. border and ask to enter the U.S. in J-1 status. You’ll have the pay the SEVIS fee at this time. After a short interview, the officer should allow you into the country if you qualify for entry.
Length of Stay in the U.S. as a J-1 Au Pair
A J-1 au pair visa initially allows you to work for one year. If you want to stay longer, you can apply for an extension of six, nine, or 12 months. You’ll have to apply 30 calendar days before your initial authorized stay expires. (Check the end date listed on your DS-2019 form.) The program sponsor submits the application electronically through the SEVIS system and pays a SEVIS fee. Within 30 days, the sponsor then must submit supporting documentation to the State Department.
After your time as an au pair is done, if you want to come back to the U.S. as an au pair again, you’ll have to reside outside the U.S. for at least two years first. Then you can get another J-1 au pair visa, but you must still be under age 26 and qualify for the visa as before.