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How to Become a Private Investigator and Detective

A private investigator is working on a case late at night

Everyone loves a good detective movie. The life of a private investigator or detective can be exciting, challenging, and rewarding. It can also be demanding and sometimes dangerous. For the right person, this can be a fulfilling career choice. If you are interested in becoming a private investigator or detective, read on!

Many schools and online programs offer training in this field. You will want to make sure the program you choose is accredited and provides a well-rounded education in all aspects of investigation and detective work.

In addition to formal training, most states require that private investigators and detectives be licensed. With so much to uncover about this intriguing field, this article describes the duties of private investigators and detectives.

But more importantly, we elaborate on how one can obtain the skills and qualifications required to pursue a career in private investigations.

What is a Private Investigator or Detective?

Private investigators and detectives are individuals who look for information about people or events. They conduct investigations on behalf of private clients or organizations. Various businesses may hire them to investigate assorted matters, including criminal activity, employee misconduct, or the performance of a business.

Duties of Private Investigators and Detectives

Private investigators and detectives typically do the following:

  • Gather information from witnesses, victims, and suspects. Primarily, a private investigator or detective gathers information. They may interview victims, witnesses, and suspects to collect details about an incident or crime.
  • Interview people involved in an investigation. Private investigators and detectives interview victims, perpetrators, and any witnesses. Information from these interviews helps to solve cases.
  • Obtain documents related to an investigation. Private investigators and detectives obtain documents related to an investigation. This could include search warrants and subpoenas to police reports as well as contact information. It’s essential to have as much information as possible to conduct a thorough investigation.
  • Search for evidence relevant to an investigation. Private investigators and detectives often search for evidence pertinent to an inquiry. This may include searching through records, interviewing witnesses, or collecting and analyzing evidence.
  • Present findings of an investigation to their client or employer. Lastly, private investigators and detectives must present the results of an investigation clearly and concisely. This may include providing written reports, giving oral presentations, or testifying in court.

How to Become a Private Investigator and Detective — A Step-by-Step Guide

Private investigators and detectives typically have numerous skills and lots of experience to conduct investigations. You can take several different paths to become a private investigator or detective. Some of these routes include:

  • Completing a degree or certification program
  • Gaining experience in law enforcement or the military
  • Taking courses from a professional investigative organization

Below we take you step-by-step and show you how to become a private investigator or detective.

1. Research Your State’s Licensing Requirements

Before becoming a private investigator or detective, first check your state’s licensing requirements. In most states, private investigators and detectives must operate under a license.

The requirements for licensure vary by state but typically include completing a training program or certification course, passing a background check, and paying a licensing fee.

While these requirements differ between states, the following conditions are common:

  • 18 years or older
  • U.S citizen/legal resident in the country
  • Should not have been dishonorably discharged from the military
  • No felony convictions
  • No mental defects or illness

2. Complete a Degree or Certification Program

Another way to become a private investigator or detective involves pursuing a degree or certification program from an accredited institution. Many degrees and certification programs focus on investigative techniques and methods.

Completing a program from an accredited institution gives you the skills you need to succeed as a private investigator or detective. It also demonstrates your commitment to the profession.

3. Gain Experience in Law Enforcement or the Military

Before becoming private investigators or detectives, many people gain relevant experience in law enforcement or the military.

Such experience can be beneficial because it gives you a better understanding of the criminal justice system and how to conduct investigations. It can also help you develop relationships with law enforcement professionals who may provide referrals or leads for potential clients.

4. Complete Non-Weapon Self-Defense and Firearms Training

Private investigators and detectives may find themselves in dangerous situations in the line of duty. They must protect themselves physically. Sometimes this requires a weapon, if necessary.

Completing self-defense and firearms training can help investigators feel confident in their abilities to handle difficult situations. Aspiring candidates can complete such training procedures through online courses, local community colleges, or private training academies.

5. Pass the Licensing Exam and Background Check

All states require private investigators and detectives to be licensed. To qualify for a license, candidates must pass a licensing exam. The exam tests state laws and regulations governing the private investigative industry.

In addition to passing the exam, candidates must also undergo a criminal background check. This check reveals any past convictions that may disqualify an individual from obtaining a license.

6. Maintain Your License

Once you have obtained your license, you must maintain it by following state regulations. This may include submitting to periodic background checks and completing continuing education courses.

Failure to comply with state regulations can result in the suspension or revocation of your license. Becoming a private investigator or detective requires dedication and hard work, but the rewards are plentiful.

Necessary Education for Private Investigators and Detectives

Private detectives and investigators typically need a high school diploma or equivalent. However, many employers prefer applicants with a college education or training in criminal justice, law enforcement, or a related field.

Training and Experience for Private Investigators and Detectives

Private detectives and investigators may receive on-the-job training from their employers. Many acquire additional skills through experience working as police officers, detectives, loss prevention specialists, or security guards. Some private detectives and investigators have college degrees in criminal justice or a related field.

Licensing and Certification

Most states require private detectives and investigators to be licensed. Licensing requirements vary by state but generally include passing a background check, completing a training course, and paying licensing fees.

Many professional organizations offer certification for private detectives and investigators. Certification indicates that the investigator has met specific standards of experience and education.

Valuable Degrees for Private Investigators and Detectives

Several degrees can prepare you for a private investigator (PI) or detective career. Degrees in criminal justice, law enforcement, and forensic science can all provide the skills needed for this profession.

Alternatively, suppose you have experience in law enforcement or the military. In that case, you may be able to skip some of the required training and become a PI sooner.

Criminal Justice Degree

A criminal justice degree can help you become a private investigator or detective by providing the necessary knowledge and training to investigate crimes. You can find Criminal Justice programs at many online colleges and universities across the country.

Law Enforcement Degree

A law enforcement degree offers an alternative to becoming a private investigator and detective. Many private investigators and detectives have degrees in criminal justice or law enforcement.

Forensic Science Degree

A forensic science degree may also benefit those interested in becoming a private investigator or detective. This degree can provide you with the necessary skills to work in a crime lab and analyze evidence.


Any of the degrees mentioned above can pave the way for a private investigator or detective career.

10 Special Certifications for Private Investigators and Detectives

Certifications for private investigators and detectives are typically state-specific. However, some general certificates are available across the country. The Private Investigator License (PIL) certificate is the most common. This program can take up to three years to complete after meeting all minimum state requirements.

Essential certificates for private investigators and detectives may include:

Arson Investigation Certificate

Arson investigation certificate programs offer instruction on detecting, investigating, and prosecuting arson.

Crime Scene Investigation Certificate

Certificate programs for crime scene investigation teach students about evidence gathering, processing, and preservation techniques.

Computer Forensics Certificate

Computer forensics certificate programs provide training in digital investigations, including the recovery and examination of data from computers and other digital devices.

Private Security Officer Certification

Private security officer certification prepares individuals to work as security guards in various settings such as corporations, schools, or hospitals.

Fingerprinting Certification

Aspiring private detectives can obtain fingerprinting certification through the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). It is important to note that not all states accept NIST certification.

Forensics Evidence Collection Certificate

With this certificate, aspiring candidates know how to collect and preserve evidence from crime scenes. The skills learned in this program can be applied in many industries such as insurance, accounting, and law.

Law Enforcement Certification

While most private investigators learn their trade on the job, some states do require law enforcement certification. A degree in criminal justice may also be helpful.

Training and Standards in Homeland Security Certificate

A certificate in homeland security may give you an advantage when seeking work as a private investigator. This certificate can be earned online or through a traditional school.

IT or Computer Security Certificate

The private investigation and detective industry are rapidly advancing with technology. To keep up with the latest trends and to be able to investigate cybercrimes, you need to have a strong understanding of IT security.

Continuing Education

Private investigators must keep up with new technologies and changes in the law. Many states require continuing education credits to maintain a license.

States may also offer additional certificates specific to their region or area of expertise.

Private investigators and detectives must keep up-to-date on changes in the law and technology used in their industry to maintain their certifications.

Work Environment for Private Investigators and Detectives

Private investigators and detectives work in various environments, depending on their specific jobs. They may work for:

  • Insurance companies investigating fraudulent claims
  • Law firms conducting background checks on potential employees or clients
  • Individuals tracking down missing persons or investigating suspected infidelity

Some private investigators and detectives work freelance, taking on cases that come their way.

Regardless of their working environment, private investigators and detectives must think critically and problem-solve. They must also have excellent research skills, as much of their work depends on gathering information from various sources.

Attention to detail is also essential, as many PIs and detectives are responsible for piecing together clues to solve cases.

Work Schedule for Private Investigators and Detectives

Licensed private investigators and detectives usually work full-time schedules. They may work odd hours, such as evenings, weekends, and holidays, to conduct surveillance or take statements from witnesses.

Private investigators and detectives do not work a standard workweek. They may toil long hours, especially when they’re in the middle of a case.

Additionally, private investigators and detectives often travel to meet with clients or conduct investigations. They may also have to testify in court.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Being a Private Investigator or Detective


There are many benefits of becoming a private investigator or detective. Some of these benefits include:

  • Variety of cases: This can include investigating crimes, conducting background checks, and finding missing persons.
  • Flexible hours: Flexible hours can be an excellent benefit for those who want to balance work with other commitments.
  • Independent work: The opportunity to work independently, providing a sense of freedom and flexibility.
  • Paid travel: Travel is sometimes required for the job. This can be a great way to see new places and learn about new cultures.
  • Challenging work: This career often faces complex work environments which can be a great way to test your problem-solving skills and learn new things.

These are just a few of the many benefits of becoming a private investigator or detective.


Despite the many benefits, there are some challenges you should be aware of before making a decision.

First, this is not an easy career to break into. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to become successful, even more so to maintain that success.

Another downside is that the work can sometimes be dangerous. Private investigators and detectives often deal with criminals and other dangerous individuals, so there is a risk of getting hurt.

Despite these drawbacks, this career can be a gratifying. If you are willing to work hard and take on the duties, it may be the perfect career for you.

Average Salary for Private Investigators or Detectives

As outlined on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website, private detectives and investigators earned an average annual salary of $53,320 in 2020.

The lowest-paid 10 percent of this occupation earn less than $31,440 annually, while the highest-paid 10 percent make more than $96,950. Note that salaries vary depending on experience, skills, and the company’s size. There are a lot of great entry-level law enforcement jobs you can get with a criminal justice degree.

Unique Skills of Private Investigators and Detectives

There are a few unique skills that every private investigator or detective should have to succeed in this career field.

These skills can range from interviewing people to gathering information. Other valuable skills include:

  • Strong Investigative Skills: This is arguably the most essential skill. Investigative skills involve gathering facts and evidence and analyzing that information to determine what happened. Such measures could include interviewing witnesses, looking through records, and performing research.
  • Strong Analytical Skills: Analyzing information is critical. They need to look at the facts gathered and determine what happened, who was involved, and the next steps. This could include piecing together evidence, looking for inconsistencies, and using deductive reasoning.
  • Adept Interviewing Skills: It is essential to interview people effectively to gather information. This includes asking the right questions, reading body language, and getting people to open up. They also need to be able to deal with difficult or hostile subjects.
  • Research Skills: The ability to gather information from various sources is fundamental. This could include looking through records, finding people who can give them information, and using the internet to do research.
  • Technology Skills: Technology plays a critical part in most jobs in today’s world.  Using technology to help with investigations by using online databases, tracking people’s information online, and using software to analyze data is an important skill.

How to Advance as a Private Investigator or Detective

Rising in the ranks in a law enforcement organization or private investigations company requires dedication and experience. The best way to move up is to show that you are reliable, competent, and have an understanding of the law.

Therefore, PIs who want to advance in their fields need to take these measures:

  • Follow the law and regulations of the letter. This means abiding by local, state, and federal laws, as well as the policies of your PI company. Failing to do so can quickly get you fired — or worse, arrested.
  • Maintain a high level of professionalism in your work. Carry yourself with poise and always be polite, even in difficult situations. Remember that your actions reflect on the entire profession.
  • Stay up-to-date on the latest trends, technology, and techniques in private investigations. Learning new methods will make you a more valuable asset to your team.
  • Take continuing education courses to improve your skills and knowledge. Many PIs find forensics, computer hacking, and surveillance are especially useful.
  • Get involved with professional organizations related to private investigations. This can help you stay connected with others in the industry, exchange ideas, and learn about new opportunities.
  • Demonstrate your dedication and competence through hard work and successful cases. Always put your clients’ needs first and be willing to go the extra mile.

By following these tips, you can make sure that you are on the path to advancement in the world of private investigations. Remember to stay focused, professional, and always up for a new challenge!

FAQs About PIs and Detectives

What qualifications do you need to be a private investigator?

Each state has different requirements, but in general, you need to be:

  • A U.S. citizen,
  • At least 18 years old
  • Have a clean criminal record
  • Complete a training course

Can I become a PI by taking online programs?

Yes. Many schools and organizations offer online courses in private investigation.

What type of jobs will a PI be qualified for?

A PI can work in various industries, including insurance, accounting, security, and law enforcement.

What is the average salary of a PI?

The median annual salary for PIs was $53,320 in 2020.

What is the job outlook for PIs?

Private detectives and investigators will see a 13% increase in employment from 2020 through 2030, compared to the average for all jobs.

What type of person makes a good PI?

PIs need to be resourceful, have good observation skills, and think on their feet. They also need to be able to keep a cool head under pressure.


To sum it up, becoming a private investigator or detective is not easy. It requires a lot of hard work, dedication, and determination. However, suppose you are passionate about helping people and have the drive to succeed. In that case, this may be the perfect career for you.

It’s imperative to meet all the requirements and have the necessary training and experience before applying for a job in this field. With the right tools, you can become a successful private investigator or detective and make a difference by being on the side of justice.

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