private investigator desk

How to Become a Private Investigator: Career Guide

So you want to become a private investigator?

It’s a great career choice with plenty of opportunities for those willing to work hard. But what does it take to become a private eye? What skills and experience are necessary? And what kind of jobs can you expect to find as a private investigator?

In this guide, we will answer all of these questions and more. We’ll provide an overview of the training and education required to become a PI, as well as some tips on how to get started in the field.

We’ll also discuss the different jobs available to PIs. So whether you’re just starting or looking for a new challenge, read on for everything you need to know about becoming a successful private investigator.

What is a private investigator, and what do they do?

Private investigators are professionals who conduct investigations into various matters. They may be hired by individuals, businesses, or government agencies to gather information about people or events.

Private investigators typically specialize in one or more areas of investigation, such as missing persons, divorce, infidelity, insurance fraud, or corporate espionage. Private investigators use various methods to gather information, including interviews, surveillance, public records searches, and background checks.

Private investigators must be able to analyze data and make sound judgments based on their findings. Private investigators must also be able to present their findings clearly and concisely in report format, verbal communication, and with photographs or video.

Skills and traits necessary to become a private investigator

Many people erroneously believe that private investigators are nothing more than glorified detectives, spending their days solving crimes and catching criminals. While sleuthing is undoubtedly a part of the job, there is much more to being a successful private investigator.

To become a private investigator, one must possess many skills and traits, including tenacity, resourcefulness, and discretion. Private investigators must be relentless in their pursuit of answers, able to track down even the most elusive clues. They must also be resourceful, utilizing traditional and innovative methods to gather information.

Finally, they must maintain the utmost discretion, as they often deal with sensitive and confidential information. Those with these skills and traits have the best chance of succeeding as private investigators.

Becoming a private investigator

Although fictional private investigations are often inaccurate, they are gripping and fascinating. If you’re the curious type who also wants to delve into the minute details of an investigation, you may want to consider becoming a private investigator. It’s a very rewarding field, albeit one that requires different credentials from state to state.

Most people complete some education or training to obtain a private investigator license. However, the requirements for this vary by state. You should check with your local licensing authorities to determine what is required in your area.

Many online courses, college courses (criminal justice), and certificates can help you qualify as a private investigator. Usually, an undergraduate degree in criminal justice or a GED is required. In many states, you must be a US citizen or legal resident and be at least 18 years old. Private investigators must obtain many hours of professional experience for an internship.

You might also want to contact your local private detective association to join this field.

Generally speaking, commissioned investigation services include criminal investigations and background checks.

Day-to-day work as a private investigator

Some days are used for surveillance, and some are spent conducting line research, communicating with clients, and managing cases.

As PIs, you usually investigate court cases, so you should understand your local legislation regarding the evidence.

I spend the first hour or two managing cases from the previous day’s surveillance. I’ll send email updates to clients, send video footage we obtained, and then follow up with a phone call if needed.

Then the rest is spent selling and marketing. I’ll have calls booked on my calendar that require a 15-minutes consultation or longer. Then I’ll write blog articles and Linkedin posts, make YouTube videos, answer Quora questions, and Google My Business posts. The list goes on.

A full-time investigator can expect to have early mornings in the field conducting surveillance. Or interviewing witnesses, testifying in court, documenting scene investigations, or conducting activity checks.


Desktop investigators can utilize Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) skills, search engine techniques, social media searches, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), public record requests, phone calls, emails, and even faxes.

How long does it take to become a private investigator?

How long do I need to get into private investigations? Becoming a licensed physician PI generally takes between 4 and 6 months. PI courses cannot be a prerequisite for higher educational qualification. Some of the basic requirements to becoming a PI include your location, which decides where you need to become a PI. Luckily in certain areas, you can fulfill a number of those demands at once.

By the way, it does take a lot longer to become a company private investigator license holder in my state of Ohio. On top of that, I have several private investigator licenses, one in Ohio, one in Kentucky, and one in Indiana. Each requirement is slightly different from becoming a licensed agency.

For example, to get a Class B private investigator license, Ohio requires two years of experience (minimum of 4000 hours) in investigatory work. This requirement can be waived if you have equivalent experiences, such as working as a military police officer, sworn law enforcement officer, working for a law enforcement agency, or a peace officer.

Getting formal criminal justice training, such as obtaining an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, can count for half of your experience requirement. A criminal justice degree is not mandatory but a common path for incoming applicants.

To become a licensed agency, you’ll need to apply, pass an exam, submit five character references, get your fingerprints and background check, pay a license fee, and get some business insurance. A lot of boxes to check, but once you do, you can hang up your shingle and make some money solving cases and finding the facts.


private investigator

You can also work as a private investigator as an employee in many states under an already licensed private eye without going through all the stringent tests and fees. That’s how I got my start.

How can I become a private investigator without experience?

Although many private investigators begin their careers without experience, it isn’t easy to find a job in this field if you don’t have any connections. And you don’t always need a criminal justice degree.

Almost everyone who employs private investigators will only hire those with prior knowledge and experience. For entry-level jobs, you generally need at least a high school diploma. In some states, you can only become a private investigator once you have completed a course and passed the local license exam.

I’ve been a private investigator for 16 years and had no prior experience in an investigatory capacity. Let alone law enforcement experience or military background.

I’ve owned my firm for seven years and hired, interviewed, and vetted dozens of PIs. Here are six ways I would gain experience to become a private investigator with no experience:

Know the avenues

Know what avenue you want to get into. Ask yourself what interests you about the private investigator industry, and go from there.

When I was first hired in the mid-2000s, I thought it would be cool to be a private investigator. Doing surveillance work in the field was part of the job description, which intrigued me.

So if surveillance interests you, learn anything you can about it – pick up some books for starters, watch videos, and reach out online to other private investigators and through online private investigator forums.

Right now, you could get tech-savvy. Open Source Intelligence (or OSINT) is a term in the PI industry. OSINT is anything publicly available on the internet or in the public domain.

It’s an avenue for growth, and it has been for over ten years. If you can display some capabilities in handling OSINT, you’ve got a leg up on most applicants. Think, social media, public records, databases, search engines, and the deep and dark web.

Many private investigator firms are looking for that now because it’s done from your desktop. I once hired a freelance private investigator who specialized only in OSINT. And that was because she showed a huge interest in the topic.

Create a brand

Along with your resume, have a few things in place:

  • Be active on Twitter with your value statement in the bio.
  • Have a personal LinkedIn page displaying your private investigator expertise
  • Have a website that features your resume and credentials.

I once hired a surveillance investigator who had crafted a personal “About Me” website. I was searching “private investigators in a city in Kentucky” and found his site. He posted his photo, the model # camcorder and covert camera, vehicle type, and his college degree.


Interning with local law enforcement or County clerk is helpful. Not every state has an apprenticeship program with a fellow private investigator. Yet, getting involved as an intern shows a certain level of commitment that you want to be in this field.

It will also give you knowledge of the court and policing system and how public records get filed. You may also network with some investigators and attorneys already in the field.

Join a trade association

Each state can have one or more private investigation associations. There are also national associations. Meetings happen once a month, and there are many associations out there.

Do this: make a business card for $25 (you can get 100 or 200 cards), go to a meeting, chat with private investigators, and hand your card to every private investigator you meet. Then, ask for theirs.

Afterward, follow up. Call or email them every month or so and ask if they need anything.

Or if they can refer me to someone. And then keep doing that for a couple of months. If you want to become a private investigator, this is what you’ll have to do.


I’ve often received random emails with resumes and no follow-up. No second email, no call, no text. Not even a follow-up on my social media.

It shows you’re not committed if you don’t even send a second email.  And you’ll fall out of the front of the mind fast.

Online Classes

Online education, especially now, is more valuable than ever. A private investigator must take Continuing Education (CE) in many states to maintain their licensed private investigative agency status. Research some private investigation classes from reputable sources and take some online.

The different types of investigations that private investigators conduct

Private investigators are often associated with cases of infidelity or divorce, but the reality is that they can be hired to investigate a wide variety of cases.

For example, private investigators are often called upon to conduct background checks, locate missing persons, or gather information for insurance claims or lawsuits. Understanding how to solve problems in the civil and criminal liability space is also essential.

They may also be hired to provide security for special events, investigate instances of employee fraud or theft or serve processes for law firms.

As a result, they often use various investigative services, including surveillance, interviews, and public records searches. By understanding the different types of investigations that private investigators can conduct, it is easier to see how they can be invaluable assets in both personal and business contexts.

Private investigation general practitioners can perform all big and small investigative tasks. They develop relationships with sources that help them understand the industry and its tools. To become a private investigator, it’s important to self-assess the skills needed for the job and align your specialty with the industry you want to work.

A private detective can have clients, including law firms, solo attorneys, paralegals, businesses, human resources, third-party administrators, claims adjusters, field adjusters, and individuals. Many types of people hire private investigators.

who hires a private investigator

No matter what type of case they are working on, private investigators must be skilled in research and able to think outside the box to solve complex problems.

Salary and job outlook for private investigators

While salaries can vary depending on experience and location, the median salary for a private investigator in the United States is $50,090 annually. In 2020, BLS figures showed that an individual in the field of private investigation averaged $68,598 annually. The job outlook for private investigators is positive, with a projected growth rate of 8% between 2019 and 2029. This growth is due in part to an increase in public concern over issues such as identity theft and fraud.

In addition, a private detective is often hired to conduct background checks and surveillance, both of which are expected to be in high demand in the coming years. As a result, those interested in a career in this field can expect strong competition for jobs.

Is being a private investigator worth it?

$50,000 to $70,000 is real money for people who possess impressive resumes with some experience. The top 10% of these people earn about $105,300 in salaries.

Those with experience and a solid track record of success will likely find plenty of opportunities in this growing private investigation field.

Understanding both ethical and legal considerations

If something is unethical but not illegal, private investigators sometimes have to be careful about how they proceed. You can’t investigate a situation without being impartial, and your actions will usually come under scrutiny.

You must find ways to do your job within the bounds of the law. It’s important to learn about all the relevant laws and stay up-to-date with any changes.

It would help if you also considered taking a course in ethics. Many professional private investigation organizations, such as the National Association of Legal Investigators (NALI), offer courses that teach you how to approach cases ethically.

In addition to ethical considerations, private investigators must also be aware of the legal implications of their actions.

For example, they must be careful not to invade someone’s privacy or break any laws while conducting surveillance. They could be sued or even prosecuted if they do not adhere to the law.

As a result, private investigators must be familiar with the legal landscape in which they operate and take measures to ensure that their actions are above reproach.


Private investigators are in high demand, and the field is growing. It can be a very rewarding career if you have the skills and traits necessary to become a private investigator. The different types of investigations that private investigators conduct can help solve crimes, track down missing persons, and more. Salary and job outlook for private investigators are positive, so this may be the perfect time to consider a career change in this exciting field and become a private investigator.

Do you want to become a private investigator?

Leave a comment below with your questions.