Becoming a Criminal Investigator – In 5 Steps

Criminal investigators are individuals who investigate crimes and other events for legal and official purposes.

They’re professionally licensed, but they don’t work for a government agency like police officers do.

Instead, they work for hire on behalf of private clients.

They might end up using the results of their investigation in a criminal proceeding.

What Does a Criminal Investigator Do?

An investigator for criminal offenses helps their client prove or disprove facts relating to a criminal allegation.

They pursue leads and try to gather information that’s helpful to their client.

That helps their client pursue their claim in court.

They track down witnesses, make observations, gather records, and otherwise help their clients build criminal defenses or criminal claims.

Criminal Investigator Jobs

Working on Behalf of Individuals Facing Criminal Charges

In some cases, criminal investigators work on behalf of individuals who are facing criminal charges.

In that case, they might try to identify witnesses and gather witness statements.

They might return to the scene of the alleged crime in order to conduct their investigation.

They might examine aspects of the case such as cell phone records or GPS data in order to examine and disprove part of the state’s case.

An investigator might testify in court on behalf of their client.

Working on Behalf of Crime Victims

A criminal investigator might also work on behalf of a client who believes another person or company has committed a crime.

In that case, they might want to gather the evidence in order to ask a law enforcement agency to bring criminal charges.

This might include investigating allegations of fraud, falsifying evidence, embezzlement, or all sorts of other crimes.

Steps to Becoming a Criminal Investigator

  1. Meet the age requirement. It’s 18 in most states.
  2. Get the necessary education or experience
  3. Provide proof of clean criminal history
  4. Apply for an investigator license
  5. Obtain a bond and submit proof to the State

1. Each State Has its Own Requirements

Each state has its own requirements to become a criminal investigator.

These state regulations typically require minimum education, practical experience, and character and fitness.

Every state is different, but most states have minimum age, character, and experience qualifications.

2. Experience or Undergraduate degree

Most states have several ways for an investigator to meet their education or experience requirements.

They might allow former military or law enforcement officers to meet the requirement automatically.

Many states allow parole and probation officers to use their work experience to meet minimum requirements.

If a candidate doesn’t have former military or law enforcement experience, they can usually apprentice with a criminal investigator.

The apprentice period runs between two or three years.

Alternatively, some states allow a candidate to substitute a bachelor’s degree in a criminal justice field for the experience requirement.

Joining a criminal investigator association may also be of benefit.

3. Getting Your License

In most states, a license for criminal investigations is called a private investigator’s license.

It’s the state itself that processes the applications and maintains a database of licensees.

To learn how to submit your application, you can look at your state’s informational website.

The web page for your state should have a checklist for what information you need to gather and where you submit the information for processing.

You’ll need to submit an application form, a copy of your criminal history, and other documents to prove your qualifications.

It’s the state’s licensing board that processes your application and makes a decision about whether to approve it.

4. Bonding Requirement

Most states require you to get a bond in order to work in criminal investigations.

To get a bond, you pay a small amount of money to a company.

In return, the company agrees to pay a certain amount of money if you don’t abide by the terms of your state license.

The bond isn’t an insurance policy for you.

Instead, it’s for the benefit of the public.

If you don’t do your job properly, the bond ensures that the public doesn’t suffer as a result.

There are many private companies that offer bonds for individuals seeking their criminal investigation license.

5. Work Environment for Criminal Investigators

The work environment for a criminal investigator varies by the day.

They spend some of their time sitting in front of a computer preparing reports.

They spend time in an office meeting with new clients and reviewing the results of an investigation.

The courtroom is another common location for an investigator.

When called upon, they might spend long days in the courtroom.

They might also meet with police officers at their station or headquarters in order to talk about their investigation.

However, criminal investigators spend a great deal of time in the field.

They might spend hours or even days at a time in a vehicle waiting for movement.

They might spend their days driving to follow a vehicle or driving to see a scene or speak with individuals.

They also may spend a great deal of their time interviewing witnesses or otherwise interacting with people.

The days of a professional investigator are varied.

Jobs in Criminal Investigation

Criminal investigators typically work in their own business or as part of a company that specializes in criminal investigations.

They might run a company that offers investigative services for hire.

When a person or company needs an investigator, they might contract with the company for the work.

Attorneys might frequently use an investigator to help them gather evidence for their criminal clients.

Corporations can also use criminal investigators as employees.

Insurance companies may employ investigators to look into suspected fraud.

When an investigator works for a specific company, they spend all of their time focusing on that client’s needs.

They’re often paid as an employee.

Combining Services

Criminal investigators who run their own companies often combine their criminal investigative work with other services such as private investigating.

Attorneys might need investigators to look into civil matters as well as criminal.

They might also use an investigator for things like serving legal documents or subpoenas.

An investigator might enhance their business by thinking about the client’s needs and offering a range of services.

Key Skills for Criminal Investigators

Criminal investigators need a variety of skills.

They need to be comfortable with high-pressure situations.

Their work involves making observations, gathering evidence, and making reports.

Investigators have to be comfortable interacting with people effectively even when it’s uncomfortable.

Here are some of the important skills for a criminal investigator:


Criminal investigators have to be comfortable with a great deal of modern technology.

It’s important to document your investigation.

You may need to make recordings and take videos in order to have proof of the results of your investigation.

Individuals in this profession may need to be comfortable using any of the following technologies:

  • Word processing programs to type reports
  • Typing and using a keyboard
  • Maps and GPS technologies
  • Video and audio recording devices
  • Database research software for researching a criminal or employment history
  • Email software
  • Cell phones

Speaking and Interpersonal Skills

Criminal investigators often have to approach people to do their work.

These conversations might be tense or uncomfortable.

Investigators must know when to appear friendly and when to aggressively pursue information.

Clients often need their investigators to testify at formal proceedings and trials.

Professionals have to be able to testify confidently.

A Valid Driver’s License

According to O*NET Online, 84 percent of investigators report using a motor vehicle every day.

Criminal investigators not only have to drive in order to conduct surveillance, but they also have to drive in order to collect court records and other paperwork.

A valid driver’s license is a must for a professional criminal investigator.

Observation and Memory

Criminal investigators are paid to be the eyes and ears of their clients.

That means they have to pay attention.

Investigators have to be able to concentrate on the task at hand.

They also have to be able to remember what they observe.

Ability to Work Varying Hours

Events that clients need recording don’t always happen during business hours.

Criminal Investigators often have to work on short notice.

They often work outside of normal business hours including weekends. Investigators need to have the flexibility to meet their client’s demands.

Responding to Changing Conditions

Criminal Investigators must be able to think on their feet.

When an investigator conducts an investigation, they must be able to react to the information that they find.

That might mean changing the course of an investigation.

During live surveillance, the circumstances can change quickly.

Professionals must be able to respond and react quickly.


The role of a criminal investigator is one of public trust.

Investigators have to go about their duties with honesty and integrity.

Society counts on them to tell the truth and conduct their business in lawful ways.

Career Outlook at Growth Opportunities

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (Private Detectives and Investigators Handbook), while private detectives and investigators held about 33,700 jobs in the United States, the industry is expected to grow 13% over the next 10 years, which is faster than the average career.

Investigators have the opportunity to grow their own businesses and tailor their clients to meet their skills and interests.


According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (Private Detectives and Investigators Handbook), a criminal investigator can expect to make $53,320 per year.

These figures are based on national data, not school-specific information.  Salaries can vary depending on experience, location, client, and type of work.

Salary Information by State

State Employed Avg. Annual Salary Avg. Hourly Pay Top 10% Annual Salary Bottom 10% Annual Salary
District of Columbia2,870$133,890$64.37$175,340$85,560
New Hampshire390$83,970$40.37$145,270$54,720
New Jersey3,740$103,960$49.98$163,240$60,990
New Mexico1,840$77,480$37.25$99,990$43,830
New York9,950$110,390$53.07$169,100$61,410
North Carolina3,060$66,150$31.80$122,760$43,400
North Dakota370$80,890$38.89$129,750$48,030
Rhode Island390$90,340$43.43$140,860$70,160
South Carolina1,160$68,170$32.77$137,610$40,980
South Dakota220$74,700$35.91$129,750$46,450
West Virginia230$87,670$42.15$149,410$41,700
Puerto Rico520$85,560$41.14$145,480$33,270

Annual Average Salary: Top 10 States

The top earning state in the field is District of Columbia, where the average salary is $133,890.

These are the top 10 earning states in the field:

  • District of Columbia - $133,890
  • Alaska - $128,410
  • Hawaii - $119,290
  • Maryland - $117,800
  • Washington - $110,620
  • New York - $110,390
  • California - $110,320
  • New Jersey - $103,960
  • Illinois - $100,140
  • Virginia - $100,010
* Salary information based on the May 2022 Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) Survey for Detectives and Criminal Investigators, OCC Code 33-3021, BLS.
* Employment conditions in your area may vary.

Why Become a Criminal Investigator?

Criminal investigators help their clients with important matters.

Investigators perform an important law enforcement function.

Their clients depend on them to either fight criminal charges or hold others accountable when they’re the victim of crime.

Some individuals enjoy the profession because of the opportunity it gives them to help others.

Others enjoy the work of criminal investigation after a career in law enforcement or the military.

They might want to stay active in law enforcement.

Working as an investigator often allows an individual to stay in the same field while transitioning to private work.

It allows an individual to continue in a field of work that they enjoy.

Finally, many enjoy the excitement of investigative work.

Criminal investigators might discover new information that’s helpful to their client’s case.

They often have the excitement of conducting surveillance.

For adrenaline junkies, criminal investigative work is often a way to get paid to work in a field that they enjoy.

Find Criminal Justice Schools by State

Michael Morales

About Michael Morales

Michael Morales is the Webmaster and Editor in Chief for With a strong background in Web Publishing and Internet Marketing, he currently works as an independent consultant. A former paramedic and ems educator, he enjoys punishing himself doing triathlons and endurance sports. Michael currently lives in sunny Northern California, home of the highest tax rates in the world.

2 Responses to Becoming a Criminal Investigator – In 5 Steps

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    Zachary Harmon #

    Solving cases and bringing closure to victims and their families can be incredibly rewarding, making a career in criminal investigation both challenging and fulfilling.

  2. Avatar
    Alec Curry #

    Being a criminal investigator is a fascinating and intellectually stimulating career that involves solving complex cases and seeking justice.

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