How to Become a Private Investigator

How to Become a Private Investigator
Last updated at September 2, 2021

Private investigators are highly respected and well-paid individuals who specialize in corporate fraud, marital infidelity, and missing person cases, among others. While expert private investigators are often mainstays in computer forensics investigations, they provide a range of different investigative services.

You will find PIs working for insurance companies just as often as you’ll find them serving cybercrime units and HR teams as they investigate cases to resolve matters in family courts. They are frequently former members of law enforcement, have a criminal justice degree, and sometimes work closely with these various agencies.

Needless to say, private investigators are always in demand, and in most states, one does not need a college education to become a private investigator.

If you’re thinking about how to become a private investigator, besides learning the requirements, it is essential for you to understand everything that entails becoming a private investigator.

This comprehensive guide details the job’s qualification requirements, responsibilities, salary range, and demand to answer all your questions concerning the role.

What is a Private Investigator?

Private Investigators (sometimes called “private eyes,” “private detectives,” or “inquiry agents” ) are hired by private companies to investigate subjects that a client assigns. While the subject is typically an individual, it can also be a business of any size or even a government agency.

What does a Private Investigator Do?

PIs can investigate a wide array of subjects, but some private detectives specialize in investigating specific matters. Private eyes are best known for carrying out insurance fraud inquiries on behalf of insurance companies.

That said, the majority of private investigators work with law firms or are hired by attorneys. A lot of PIs offer their services privately, but some work for companies. Some private eyes also work with corporations to investigate internal matters.

Usually, the investigative cases that a PI takes up do not come under the scope of any government agency. Therefore, PIs typically do not investigate civil matters, and government agencies investigate serious criminal cases.

If you’re curious about how to become a private investigator, it is vital to bear in mind that Private Investigators do not have any unique investigative privileges under any circumstances. In other words, although a PI may have a foundational understanding of criminal justice and have some experience working in law enforcement, they have the same authority as a civilian, except the private offers investigative services to clients.

A private investigator can help someone find their birth parents, ensure that a business is secure for the owner, look for missing people, or find evidence of marital infidelity. These professionals are trained to find a lot of information without breaking the law.

To collect all the information they can, a private investigator may:

  • Look through the subject’s trash 
  • Carry out surveillance and monitor the subject’s movements
  • Find aliases, phone numbers, addresses, and other critical information
  • Interview the subject’s friends, acquaintances, family members, associates, and even their neighbors
  • Search databases to find critical criminal, mortgage, marriage, and voting information

A private investigator’s job does not involve:

  • Trespass private property
  • Tap phone conversations without consent
  • Hacking into the subject’s online accounts
  • Click photos of the subject on private property
  • Wear a uniform, carry a badge, or make an arrest
  • Finding protected information such as the amount of money in the subject’s bank account

While films may depict private investigators doing some or all of these things, in practice, a private investigator cannot do any of these things without facing legal trouble.

Where do Private Investigators Work?

Before you learn how to become a private investigator, it is vital that you understand the work environment you can expect to have. 

The most common services that a private detective offers include civil investigations and background checks. Some investigators choose to specialize in areas of inquiry that they feel more inclined to.

That said, when you first become a private investigator, you will not need to select an area of expertise right away. However, it will be beneficial to read about the different types of investigation before you begin offering services. 

More experienced private investigators offer training and advice to inexperienced investigators. Becoming a trainer towards the end of your career as a private detective can be very lucrative.

What Background Does A Private Investigator Have?

If you’re wondering if you have the right background to become a private investigator, you don’t have much to worry about since earning the right qualifications isn’t very difficult. You can become a private investigator regardless of your background but having a criminal justice degree can be helpful.

Some PIs have relevant experience — typically law enforcement experience — before they enter the field. Other PIs enter the profession with little or no prior training or fall into the profession.

The majority of private investigators in the industry have a law enforcement background. It is common for inquiry agents to have a bachelor’s degree in some related field. Often, legal professionals transition their careers into inquiry agents.

Private Investigator Salary

Reports by The Bureau of Labor Statistics reveal that as of 2020, a private detective’s median annual average salary is $53,320. Further, the bureau estimates a job growth rate of 8%, which is much faster than average. This indicates that inquiry agents will continue to be in high demand in the coming decades. 

If you’re willing to move to another state for a better salary, moving to Texas, Delaware, California, Alaska, or Arkansas is a good idea. PIs in these states get paid in the range of $70,000 annually. PIs in Arkansas making the highest annual average salary of $77,980.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 36,200 PIs in the United States, which is a fair estimation of the detectives working on payroll. However, many more PIs take up pro bono cases or work as free agents that likely haven’t been accounted for in the bureau’s census.

Every municipality where licensing laws apply has individual databases, but there are no national databases that keep track of investigator license holders. Therefore, learning the exact number of working PIs isn’t possible.

That said, a private investigator’s services are always in high demand, and often, a private detective can be selective about the cases they pick up. This creates the opportunity for new PIs to pick up the slack and find answers for clients that need them.

How To Become a Private Investigator?

If you’re wondering how to become a private investigator, you must start by learning about the private investigation industry. The best way to go about this is to learn your region’s licensing requirements since those give you deep insights into what the job involves.

It is crucial to note that the requirements to become an investigator vary from state to state. In some states, you may need to meet various requirements, while other states don’t require you to have any licensure.

Step #1: Learn Your Region’s Licensure Requirements

Most states have a dedicated private investigator licensing board that regulates and oversees the licensing process. The board typically operates under a larger licensing authority established in the state. 

For instance, PIs in Tennessee get licensed through the PIPC. The PIPC operates under the state’s Department of Commerce and Insurance. 

In Texas, private investigators must get their license from the Private Security Board, which comes under the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Some states do not have a standardized state-wide licensing process. However, the jurisdictions in these states may have licensing requirements in place. 

For example, Alabama does not pose any PI requirements as a state. Nevertheless, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Mobile have unique licensing processes.

It is important to note that the few states that do not have any investigator requirements still require private investigation firms to obtain licensure and adhere to the standards set by the government. 

As a result, these businesses must abide by privacy and enforcement laws regardless of the kind of private investigation services they offer.

Furthermore, some states have entered into reciprocity agreements with other states. These agreements allow private investigators from one state to conduct investigations in the other state without needing a license in the state.

Education and training requirements for a private investigator license can vary significantly by state. Therefore, you must learn about your state’s requirements when preparing for a career as a private investigator.

Step #2: Meet Minimum Licensure Requirements

Most states require the candidate to be between 21 and 25 years old. This means not everybody can obtain a license. Besides being a certain age, you are also required to meet some additional requirements:

  • The candidate must be a citizen of the United States;
  • Must possess a high school diploma or GED;
  • The candidate should not have any felony convictions; and 
  • The candidate should have no dishonorable discharge from the military.

Step #3: Meet Education and Experience Requirements

Education and experience requirements vary most widely from state to state. While having a degree is not a requirement in most states, professional private investigators usually possess an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in their field of choice. 

Most candidates get a degree in criminal justice or a related field. This is typically done to obtain the working knowledge needed to navigate cases of all types.

One of the most common requirements for licensure across states is experience. However, most states give candidates the freedom to substitute education for experience. For instance, in New Hampshire, private investigators must have four years of experience to get their license. 

But if the candidate has an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree, they can substitute two of four years of required experience with education.

To gain the experience and meet the minimum requirements to get your PI license, you can work as an adjuster, risk manager, or claims investigator. Working as a law enforcement officer for any police department will also get you the experience you need.

Step #4: Pass the Licensure Exam

Depending on the state, you will need to pass the state’s licensure exam to get your private detective license. The exam assesses your knowledge of laws and procedural protocols specific to the region you intend to work in.

Besides covering the rules and regulations regarding working as a private investigator, the exam content will likely also test you on the rules of operating a private investigations business.

Step #5: Complete Firearms Training

If you’re in a state that allows private investigators to carry weapons, you will need to complete mandatory training before you can begin offering any services. States that allow PIs to carry firearms accept training through the FBI, National Rifle Associate, SIG Sauer, and Smith & Wesson.

You could also complete firearms training at any professional firearms instruction school accredited by the police standards and training council.

Step #6: Apply for the License

The final step before you can begin offering services is to apply for your PI license. To get your license, you must present the regulatory body with the following:

  • Surety bond
  • Personal and professional references
  • Fingerprints for background investigation
  • Documentation about professional experience
  • Documentation regarding education (diplomas/degrees)
  • Notarized application for private investigator license
  • Fees for processing the application, license, fingerprints, and background investigation

Every state that requires PIs to have a license also requires PIs to hold a valid surety bond. The bond protects clients from any financial responsibility that may arise from fraud or negligence of the PI.

To obtain a license, you will need a commercial surety bond. To get a bond, you must contact an insurance agent or bond company and pre-qualify for the bond. You will need to sign an indemnity agreement to do this.

The minimum bond amount required to get licensure as a private investigator varies from state to state; however, most states require PIs to have a bond of at least $10,000.

Step #7: Maintain the License

Every state requires private investigators to renew their licenses periodically. Most commonly, states require every licensed PI to renew their license biennially. 

Besides the renewal application, you will need to undergo another background investigation and give the state’s regulatory body a copy of the current surety bond.

Some states also require you to meet continuing education requirements for your firearms certification.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Are a state’s private investigations licenses valid in other states?

Many states allow private investigators from other states to operate in their state as long as they follow its rules and regulations. A lot of states also allow PIs to cross state lines for investigations. This is typically allowed even if the investigation was initiated in the investigator’s home state.

Nevertheless, state licenses cannot be transferred to other states. 

Does every state require private investigators to be licensed?

Alaska, Idaho, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Wyoming do not require you to be licensed at the state level. It is important to note that some regions in Idaho and Alaska have licensing requirements.

Furthermore, professional associations in every state require members to abide by bylaws and follow a strict code of ethics. Getting a membership in these associations makes it easier for PIs to find work and sets standards for investigation practice.

In addition, private investigators are required to follow applicable business laws regardless of whether their home state has requirements or not.

How to become a private investigator in any state?

You don’t need to have a specific background to become a private detective. That said, having a law enforcement background gives you an edge over others in the industry. While you don’t need an education, getting a degree in criminal justice is considered conventional by some. Before you can work as a private investigator, you must meet all of the requirements for licensure as stated above. 

To get the license, you must meet the education and experience requirements and complete application procedures. Firearms training is one of the mandatory license requirements in any state that allows PIs to carry weapons. If you’re transitioning your career from a police officer to a private detective, you will likely have already completed the required weapons training.

States like Oklahoma allow individuals to start a career in the field by completing CLEET-approved training. You will learn all you need to know about surveillance and investigation techniques in school.

In contrast, states like Pennsylvania have completely different minimum requirements for becoming a licensed private investigator. In Pennsylvania, you must contact the Clerk of Courts and request a court date so you can become a licensed private investigator.

However, some states have an entirely different process for licensure, such as Pennsylvania, which requires candidates to contact the Clerk of Courts in their county of residence to request a court date and apply for licensure.

Should You Become A Private Investigator?

Regardless of if you want to move on from your career as a police officer or have just finished high school and are looking to build a successful career, you have a shot at becoming a well-paid private investigator.

Drive and persistent focus are what it takes to go through surveillance training and meet minimum requirements. If you work hard, you could be the PI who blows the lid off the kinds of cases you see on the news.

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