Ultimate Private Investigator Guide: License, Experience and career
The career of a Private Investigator can be fascinating.
Whether you are conducting surveillance, looking for a missing person, or compiling evidence for a court case, you will need to think on your feet, remain adaptable and have a keen eye for detail.
But in order to become a Private Investigator, or ‘pi’ and get your start in the industry, there are a series of specific requirements you must meet.
Here we will give you the complete rundown of what you need to do, in order to get your pi career off the ground.
From qualifications, obtaining a license and training course, along with salary expectations and what you can expect from your new life as a Private Investigator.
So let’s get started…
What Does A Private Investigator Do?
So what is the job outlook should you become a Private Investigator?
The life of a private investigator can be an interesting and often varied one.
It is rarely as adrenaline fuelled as the movies might want you to believe, but investigative work is wide-ranging, interesting and the level of satisfaction in resolving a case is unparalleled.
Here are 13 types of investigations you may undertake if you become a Private Investigator:
- Domestic cases
- Claims for insurance companies
- Workers compensation fraud
- Assist criminal defense
- Workplace investigations
- Surveillance operations
- Locate missing persons
- Child custody/support claims
- Employment background checks
- Undercover investigations
- Research public records
- Compile evidence for law firms/individuals for court cases
You may choose to work for a pi agency or join the 25% of Private Investigators who are self-employed, giving you the freedom to take on the jobs you want and choose your own working hours.
Within any private investigation, the three main private investigator jobs are:
- Report writing
However, the amount of different skills required to master these three areas, is a much greater question…
Skills Needed For Investigative Work
To be a successful private investigator it is important you have or can quickly obtain the necessary skill set to become adaptable enough for any type of investigation.
Surveillance – This will require great levels of planning and attention to detail. Ensuring you are exactly where you are supposed to be, with the equipment required and without being seen, is no small undertaking.
A keen eye for detail and problem solving, while constantly remaining adaptable to the ever changing environment around you, is essential to gathering the details needed in order to build your case.
Interviewing – This is one of the primary tools for any type of investigation. Asking questions of informants, witnesses and suspects, will allow private investigation agencies to understand the facts of each case.
Rapport building, immaculate preparation, keeping an open mind and confidentiality, are all vital to conducting a good interview.
Report Writing – This is possibly the most important aspect of all three jobs, as no matter how good your surveillance and interview work has been, if you cannot capture it all accurately then your hard work and the case will be lost.
Attention to detail, computer skills, precision and completing your reports on time, are all an essential part of report writing.
Here is a list of other skills and characteristics required to become a Private Investigator:
How To Become A Private Investigator With No Experience
In the United States, there are only 5 states that do not require you to hold a license to become a Private Detective.
It is likely that soon enough, all 50 states will require some form of licensing, even if only at local or state level.
Those with Military experience in policing and Police detectives can have quicker inroads to pi work, but if neither of those backgrounds apply to you, then specific training via a formal educational and qualifications will be the best way to become a Private Investigator.
Here are the handful of states which do not require private investigators to be licensed at state level:
- South Dakota
Alaska and Wyoming have their state’s requirements at local level, which will require you to obtain a permit, while the remaining three have professional associations with defined local laws and codes of ethics.
Operating outside of a professional state association, would make it highly unlikely that anyone in the Private Investigative industry would work with you.
Qualifications Needed To Become A Private Investigator
Before we start looking at the qualifications required to become a private investigator, it is important to know, you cannot have any felonies or misdemeanors appear in your criminal history or background checks at the time of application.
There are some state requirements that will allow you to apply for a private investigator license if you have no criminal convictions on record for the past 10 years.
The following minimum requirements will also play a large part in your journey to become a Private Investigator.
Minimum Age – Depending on the state you are in, 18, 21 and 25 years of age are the lower age brackets for license applications.
Qualifying Hours – Many states will require direct job experience of investigative work, whether accumulated in the armed forces or via law enforcement agencies, or government agencies.
Hours of work completed in the investigative field under the direct supervision of a licensed investigator will also qualify.
Qualifications – If your work experience does not specifically meet Private Investigator requirements, then education is your best route to become a Private Investigator. A relevant college degree is the best inroad to pi work.
- In states which require previous experience, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or related field will act as a substitute for any gaps in experience.
- An associate degree in Private Investigation will take roughly two years and will put you in the position to apply for work at private investigation firms.
- A two or four year college degree in the field of Criminal Justice or Private Investigations counts towards one year of experience.
It’s important you look at the specific regulations for the state you want to work in, as each has variations on education, job training and experience requirements.
For example, according to Citycollege.edu “In Florida, you have to have a class “C” private investigator license, bachelor’s degrees are not a requirement…. to obtain a Class “C” Private Investigators License you must have at least two years of experience in law enforcement, asset management, investigations, criminal justice or related experience.”
So as you can see, understanding varying state laws for investigative services is crucial.
Licensing For Private Investigators
Related experience is a huge asset in this line of work but finding work as a licensed Private Investigator will ultimately rely on obtaining your pi license.
As with qualifications and experience, the licensing costs and requirements also varies from state to state.
As part of your initial application, most states will require you to sit a licensing exam, covering areas such as state/federal regulations surrounding investigations, court preparation, information gathering and documentation.
You can expect to pay a license fee from anything between $20 – $1,500, depending on where you are filing your application.
A fee to renew your license every two years is also a cost to bear in mind for licensing and a secondary license will be required to open your own private investigations agency.
If licensing costs sound like a lot, let’s take a look at how much you could be set to earn…
How Much Money Can A Private Investigator Make?
In 2018, the U.S. bureau of labor statistics (BLS), surveys showed over 33,000 active Private Investigators across the United States. This accounts for those working as a licensed pi, but many more will undoubtedly be working off the books or moonlighting away from day jobs as detectives.
According to careerexplorer.com, “The average salary for a private detective in the United States is around $50,510 per year.”
They go on to show that the bottom 20% of Private Investigators earn $30,400, while the top 20% earn $84,000.
Wages typically start at $30,390, (or an hourly rate of $14.61) and go up to $83,951.
As with any profession, there are a number of things that will impact your starting salary and rate of progression:
- Previous experience
- Willingness to learn
- Hard work
- Capacity to take on instruction
- Building and maintaining relationships
- Ability to work well with others
- Company promotion prospects
- Opening your own agency
How To Get Started
According to PrivateInvestigatorEDU.org
“…there is serious demand for the services PIs provide, and many PIs are able to be very selective about the cases they take. This is bringing more people into the profession to take up the slack and do the all-important work of finding the truth even when it’s elusive and it seems like every stone has already been turned over.”
And hopefully this article has given you a strong insight into the lifestyle, skills and experience requirements to become a Private Investigator.
As you may have probably deduced already, the state you are hoping to conduct business in, and the background requested by each private investigation company will play a key role as you research how to become a Private Investigator.
A criminal justice degree can be completed n around two years and will go a long way in bolstering any gaps in previous experience.
For some additional information, why not check out some qualifying courses and individual state licensing laws: