How to Become a Private Investigator

The Definitive Guide to Becoming a Successful Criminal Justice Professional in Your State

Types of Criminal Justice Jobs - Private Investigator

Written by eLawTalk Editorial Staff • Last updated Dec. 14, 2023

Career Overview | Steps to Become | State Requirements | Education Options | Certifications and Specialization | Employment | FAQs

Do you ever find yourself drawn to mysteries, puzzles, and solving complex problems? Are you captivated by the idea of uncovering hidden truths and helping others find justice? If so, a career as a private investigator may be the perfect path for you.

In this guide, we’ll delve into the captivating world of private investigation, guiding you through the essential steps, skills, and educational pathways needed to excel in this fascinating field and how to become a private investigator.

Whether you’re starting from scratch or have a background in criminal justice, law enforcement, or a related field, this comprehensive guide will provide you with the knowledge and insight necessary to embark on a successful career as a private investigator.

Let’s uncover the secrets and start your journey on how to become a private investigator.

What you’re about to learn at a glance:

Become a Private Investigator by meeting state requirements, holding a high school diploma or higher degree in a related field, and gaining relevant work experience.
Essential skills include active listening & observation, legal knowledge & compliance, and honing practical abilities.
The job outlook is positive, with an 8% growth rate expected by 2029 and a median salary of $52,120 per year.

Private Investigator (PI) Overview

A private investigator’s role is multifaceted, requiring them to gather and verify information, compile evidence, locate missing persons, and investigate potential criminal activity. They often work for a diverse range of clients, including:

  • Corporations

  • Law firms

  • Private individuals

  • Insurance companies

  • Security firms

  • Financial institutions

As a private investigator, you’ll be responsible for tasks such as researching subjects and their backgrounds, conducting interviews and surveillance, verifying public records, exploring a subject’s social media presence, and auditing financial records.

To excel in this field, proficiency in various technologies and strong computer skills are necessary. Private detectives often work irregular hours and may exceed 40 hours per week. Understanding and adhering to the legal parameters set by your local jurisdiction is pivotal, as courts can reject unlawfully collected evidence, deeming it ineffective.

Types of Cases Handled

Private investigators deal with a wide array of case types, catering to both personal and corporate clients. They may be called upon for surveillance, financial audits, and criminal investigations, among other tasks. As a private investigator, you’ll have the opportunity to specialize in various areas, such as surveillance, financial audits, or criminal investigations, allowing you to hone your skills and carve out a niche within the industry of private investigative work.

For those looking to work in a larger corporate setting, training in the following areas may be required:

  • Business operations

  • Organizational hierarchy

  • Financial management

  • Computer forensics tools

Diversifying your skill set and specializing in different areas of private investigation equips you to handle a broad range of cases and provide exceptional value to your clients.

Working Environments

The working environments for private investigators are as diverse as the cases they handle. They can be found working in law firms, insurance companies, and private agencies, often juggling irregular hours and extensive fieldwork. Some private investigators choose the path of self-employment, allowing them greater flexibility and control over their caseload but also requiring strong business acumen for advertising and marketing.

Being employed by an agency or corporation can offer benefits such as focusing on investigative work rather than business and marketing aspects. Regardless of the setting, private investigators must be skilled in single-person surveillance, as they often work independently on cases. Understanding the various working environments and choosing the one that best fits your skills and preferences equips you to thrive in your chosen career path.

Essential Steps to Becoming a Private Investigator

If you’re looking to become a private investigator, it requires dedication, perseverance, and a keen eye for detail. The first step in your journey is investigating state-specific requirements, as each state has its own set of regulations and licensing criteria for private investigators. While most employers require a high school diploma or equivalent, some may prefer or require an associate or bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or a related field.

A private investigator looking through a magnifying glass

Aspiring private investigators can also benefit from relevant work experience, such as working as:

  • Paralegals

  • Process servers

  • Collections agents

  • Law enforcement personnel

Specifically, if you lack prior experience with a law enforcement agency, completing at least 100 hours of training on top of any required licensing course is a necessity. This comprehensive training covers a wide range of topics, from local, state, and national laws to surveillance methods and the “investigative mindset”.

Must-Have Skills and Traits for Success

Possession of a set of essential skills and traits is crucial for ensuring success as a private investigator. These include active listening, observation, critical thinking, patience, and resourcefulness. Soft skills, such as excellent verbal and written communication, effective problem-solving, sound decision-making, and the ability to maintain confidentiality, are also vital in this profession.

Apart from acquiring the necessary qualifications, private investigators must also develop their practical abilities, such as:

  • Desk investigations

  • Pre-surveillance

  • Surveillance

  • Mobile vehicle surveillance

  • On-foot surveillance

  • Obtaining evidence

  • Litigious reporting

Honing these skills and traits better equips you to handle the varied and complex challenges that come with a career in private investigation.

Active Listening and Observation

Active listening and observation are two critical skills for any private investigator. These abilities allow you to:

  • Accurately and efficiently gather information during interviews and surveillance

  • Ensure that you don’t miss any crucial details

  • Build a solid foundation of evidence and information

Whether you’re conducting an in-person interview or monitoring a subject from afar, being able to actively listen and observe is essential.

Another aspect of active listening and observation is the ability to communicate clearly over the phone or radio, often using tools like the NATO Phonetic Alphabet to ensure accurate information transmission. Mastering these skills puts you well on your way to becoming an effective and successful private investigator.

Any private investigator must possess a strong understanding of legal knowledge and compliance, especially when dealing with lost or stolen property. This includes being well-versed in local, state, and federal laws that govern your work, as well as the legal parameters prescribed by your local jurisdiction and official law enforcement. Unlawfully collected evidence, such as stolen property, can be rejected by courts, rendering it ineffectual, so it’s essential to always operate within the bounds of the law.

In addition to general legal knowledge, private investigators may also need to undergo specific training to be authorized to carry a weapon for self-defense, such as firearms and non-weapons self-defense training. Ensuring that your actions always comply with the law enables you to carry out your investigations effectively and maintain your professional reputation.

Educational Pathways and Training

When it comes to educational pathways for aspiring private investigators, there are several options to consider. Criminal justice degree programs offer a comprehensive understanding of the field and can serve as a strong foundation for a career in private investigation. While many employers require a high school diploma or equivalent, some may prefer or require an associate or bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or a related field.

A person studying a criminal justice degree program

Another valuable avenue for acquiring the necessary skills and knowledge is through on-the-job training and internship opportunities. These hands-on experiences allow aspiring private investigators to learn from seasoned professionals, gain practical skills, and build a network within the industry.

Exploring these educational pathways and training options prepares you well to embark on a successful career in private investigation.

Criminal Justice Degree Programs

A degree in criminal justice or a related field can provide aspiring private investigators with a strong foundation for their career, although it is not always required. Degree programs often cover topics such as:

  • Local, state, and federal laws

  • Comprehension of the court system

  • Privacy regulations

  • Criminal and civil law

  • Documentation and preparation of legal proceedings

  • Various types of investigations

Additionally, these programs can help enhance computer skills and knowledge, which are crucial in the field of private investigation.

Enrolling in a criminal justice, criminal law, or criminology program can also open doors to potential internship opportunities, allowing you to gain hands-on experience and build connections within the industry. Pursuing a degree in a related field equips you with the knowledge and skills necessary to excel as a private investigator.

On-the-Job Training and Internship Opportunities

Gaining hands-on experience through internships or on-the-job training is crucial for developing the practical skills needed for success in the field of private investigation. Many private investigators possess a background or prior professional experience in law, law enforcement, or the military, which can provide valuable insights and skills for their work.

Seeking out opportunities for on-the-job training and internships allows you to learn from experienced professionals, build your network, and gain the practical skills necessary to excel in this field. These experiences will not only help you hone your investigative skills but also provide a better understanding of the day-to-day challenges and responsibilities of a private investigator.

Licensing and Certification Process

The licensing and certification process for private investigators is contingent upon the state in which they are operating and may include meeting certain criteria, taking examinations, and undergoing background checks.

Obtaining a private investigator license typically involves passing the licensing exam, which covers a variety of topics. These include:

  • Criminal laws

  • State or federal regulations that dictate investigator behavior

  • Protocols and procedures for gathering information

  • Producing documentation

  • Preparing for court

While certification is not a requirement for private investigators, it can serve as a validation of their expertise and understanding, enhancing their professional credibility. Prospective private investigators must research the specific licensing requirements and certification options in their state to make sure they are well-prepared and meet the necessary eligibility criteria.

Obtaining the appropriate licenses and certifications enables you to demonstrate your commitment to professionalism and uphold the highest standards within the field of private investigation.

State Licensing Requirements

State licensing requirements for private investigators may vary and can include educational qualifications, relevant work experience, and passing a licensing exam. It’s essential to research the specific requirements for the state in which you plan to work, as each jurisdiction has its own set of regulations and licensing criteria.

Meeting these state-specific requirements enables you to obtain licensure and operate as a private investigator within your chosen jurisdiction. It’s essential to stay up-to-date on any changes to these requirements and maintain your license in good standing, ensuring that you continue to operate within the bounds of the law and provide exceptional service to your clients.

An image showing the process of how to become a private investigator according to state licensing requirements

Professional Certifications

Professional certifications can enhance a private investigator’s credibility and demonstrate expertise in specialized areas of investigation. Some examples of professional certifications include the Professional Certified Investigator certification and the Certified Legal Investigator certification. These certifications attest to a private investigator’s knowledge, skills, and experience through comprehensive examinations, oral ethical testing, statement-taking, role-playing, and white paper authorship.

Obtaining professional certifications enables you to:

  • Showcase your proficiency in specialized areas of private investigation

  • Bolster your credibility and increase your marketability within the industry

  • Serve as a testament to your commitment to upholding the highest standards of professionalism and expertise in your chosen field.

Private Investigator Requirements By State

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Career Opportunities and Job Outlook

Career opportunities for private investigators are diverse and plentiful, with the potential to work for:

  • Law firms

  • Insurance companies

  • Corporations

  • Self-employed professionals

The projected job growth rate for private investigators is 8% by 2029, owing to heightened security concerns and the necessity of safeguarding confidential information. The median salary for private investigators is $52,120 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

With a variety of employment settings and opportunities for specialization, private investigators can carve out a niche and advance in their field, ensuring a rewarding and fulfilling career. Some ways to stay current with industry trends and continually hone your skills include:

  • Attending conferences and workshops

  • Joining professional organizations and networking with other investigators

  • Participating in online forums and discussion groups

  • Reading industry publications and books

  • Taking continuing education courses

By staying proactive and continuously learning, you position yourself well to seize new opportunities and excel in the dynamic world of private investigation.

Employment Settings

The employment settings for private investigators are diverse, offering opportunities for specialization and growth within the industry. Private investigators can be found working in a variety of environments, such as:

  • Private investigation agencies

  • Law firms

  • Insurance companies

  • Corporate security departments

  • Government agencies

Understanding the various employment settings available lets you choose the best fit for your skills and preferences, allowing you to focus on the areas of private investigation that interest you most. This flexibility and variety make a career as a private investigator an appealing choice for those who thrive on new challenges and opportunities for growth.

Job Outlook and Salary Expectations

The job outlook for private investigators is positive, with an expected growth rate of 8% by 2029. Factors that may influence a private investigator’s salary include:

  • Location

  • Educational attainment

  • Certifications

  • Relevant work experience

The median annual salary for private investigators is $52,120, making it a potentially lucrative career path for those with the right skills and experience.

Staying current with industry trends and continually honing your skills positions you well to seize new opportunities and excel in the dynamic world of private investigation. A career as a private investigator offers not only financial rewards but also the satisfaction of helping others and making a difference in people’s lives.


In conclusion, a career as a private investigator offers a unique blend of challenge, excitement, and fulfillment. With the right combination of education, training, skills, and determination, you, too, can embark on this fascinating journey and make a difference in the lives of others. From uncovering hidden truths to helping individuals find justice, the role of a private investigator is as diverse and multifaceted as the individuals who pursue it.

So, are you ready to take the plunge and start your journey into the captivating world of private investigation? By following the steps and guidance outlined in this comprehensive guide, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a highly skilled and successful private investigator. It’s time to embark on your new career and uncover the secrets that await.

Frequently Asked Questions

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