How to Become a Private Investigator

Private investigators can work for individuals, agencies, businesses, or even the government.

Being a private investigator requires a specific skill set.

You’ll need to understand the law, interrogation, how to perform computer research, and more to be successful.

The process of becoming a private investigator varies based on the state you live in, and whether you intend to work as part of an agency, or as an individual.

Private Investigator Job Description

Private Investigator

First, it’s important to understand that private investigators are not members of law enforcement.

However, it’s common for retired police officers, military personnel, and other people involved in the legal field to become private investigators after they leave their original profession.

As a private investigator, you are working as a private citizen, which means you are subject to the rules and laws that apply to regular citizens.

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Private investigators are often called detectives, or private detectives.

You may have a vision of what being a private investigator is like thanks to movies and TV.

Like any profession, the reality is a bit different from what you see on the screen, although there are some similarities.

Your job as an investigator will be to investigate things and uncover the truth for your client.

You can do this through a variety of means, including interviewing, observing individuals, and obtaining criminal records.

Generally, part of your time will be spent meeting with clients, speaking with witnesses, and interviewing or interrogating people of interest. You’ll also spend time doing computer research and browsing other types of physical and digital records.

Footwork may be another part of your job.

This can include performing surveillance or visiting scenes of potential crimes.

Private Investigator Job Duties

  • Conducting Interviews
  • Performing background checks
  • Gathering evidence for clients
  • Writing reports on the case and findings
  • Meeting with clients
  • Conducting surveillance
  • Studying public and criminal records
  • Using the internet to search news reports, criminal databases, and social media

Private Investigator Salary

The average salary for a private investigator is $50,402.

Average salaries range from  $40,000 to $60,000.

The top-paid investigators can make $70,650 or more, while the lowest-paid 10% of investigators make $32,000 a year.

How much you make as a private investigator will depend on several factors.

Your location has a significant effect.

California has the highest-paid investigators, with the average salary in the state being $99,000, nearly twice the national average.

Other factors that influence your salary are your education, years of experience, certifications, and the type of private investigation you choose to go into.

Salary Information by State

State Employed Avg. Annual Salary Avg. Hourly Pay Top 10% Annual Salary Bottom 10% Annual Salary
New Hampshire200$67,960$32.67$102,650$38,020
New Jersey850$60,100$28.90$105,020$36,090
New Mexico140$51,090$24.56$79,730$34,110
New York1,700$69,260$33.30$129,680$35,370
North Carolina710$65,560$31.52$97,380$36,610
Rhode Island210$58,580$28.16$81,880$37,440
South Carolina200$52,270$25.13$82,990$35,360
South Dakota30$54,420$26.17$67,250$41,160
West Virginia60$67,340$32.37$101,480$37,000
Puerto Rico50$37,020$17.80$57,200$23,780

Annual Average Salary: Top 10 States

The top earning state in the field is Oregon, where the average salary is $70,640.

These are the top 10 earning states in the field:

  • Oregon - $70,640
  • New York - $69,260
  • Virginia - $68,340
  • New Hampshire - $67,960
  • Washington - $67,490
  • West Virginia - $67,340
  • Illinois - $66,540
  • Colorado - $66,360
  • Connecticut - $66,350
  • Hawaii - $66,320
* Salary information based on the May 2022 Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) Survey for Private Detectives and Investigators, OCC Code 33-9021, BLS.
* Employment conditions in your area may vary.

How to Become a Private Investigator

The path you take to become a private investigator will vary based on your previous experience, preferences, and the state you live in.

Let’s take a look at the most common ways to get started in this career.

Check Requirements for Your State

The best way to begin the process of becoming a private investigator is to understand what is required by your state.

This allows you to make a plan that meets the requirements of the state you plan to work in.

Some states allow you to get a beginner’s license relatively easily.

You may need to pay fees, complete an application, and undergo a background check before getting this license.

Then, you’ll work under the supervision of a more experienced investigator.

As you gain experience in the field, you can get a more advanced license that allows you to work on your own.

Some states require you to have relevant knowledge or experience before beginning your career.

A few states have no requirements at all for private investigators.

However, if you want to work as part of a firm, you’ll need to meet their requirements.

Most states consider experience in a related field like law enforcement or the legal field and may allow this experience to meet some requirements for experience or education.

A degree in an appropriate field like criminal justice may also count towards the experience required, depending on the state.

Previous Career in Related Field

One way to become a private investigator is to start with a career in a related field.

There are several career fields that can help prepare you for a career as a private investigator.

The most common is law enforcement.

Police officers, particularly police detectives, have many of the same duties as private investigators.

They are also very familiar with legal procedures and laws, so they know what they are allowed to do as a private citizen.

A career in the military can also lead to a career as a private investigator.

Lastly, private investigators often have a background in the legal field.

You may be a paralegal, attorney, court reporter, or hold a similar role.

These careers allow you to become very familiar with the law and procedures, which can help when you become an investigator.

Your state may consider experience in these fields as equivalent to experience as a private investigator or allow you to skip educational requirements due to your experience.

Private Investigator working in the office


If you don’t have experience in a related field, you’ll need to start your journey with education.

Generally, states and employers require you to have a high school diploma or GED.

While this is the bare minimum, it’s common for both state license boards and employers to require you to have some type of post-secondary education.

Some states, like Georgia, require you to take a short training course before becoming certified as a private investigator.

Other states can require an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or a related major.

Another option is to choose career training as a private investigator.

These programs are typically short and focus on the skills you need for your career.

Work Experience

Work experience is often considered more important than education in this field.

There are many things that you’ll need to learn on the job.

Generally, you can expect to work with an experienced investigator for one to five years before working on your own, depending on your education and experience in related fields.


40 out of 50 states require some type of certification.

Many states have different certifications for different levels of knowledge and experience.

Certification can improve your job prospects and increase your earnings.

It’s a way to show your knowledge to potential clients or employers.

As mentioned previously, your state may or may not require you to get an education before becoming a private investigator.

However, even if it’s not required, it’s still beneficial for your career.

Career Certificate or Diploma

Many people choose to get a certificate or diploma as a private investigator.

These programs are designed to give you the knowledge and training you need to begin your career successfully.

Some programs only take a few weeks, but most take a few months.

Penn Foster offers an online private investigator program that can be completed in as little as 2 months, with most students taking about 6 months to complete it.

Detective Training Institute is another option.

This program takes 3-6 months and is completed online.

The program is nationally endorsed and should teach you everything you need to know to enter the field.

Degree Programs

Your other option when it comes to education is to get a degree.

Criminal justice is often recommended, but you can also choose psychology or pre-law.

Getting an associate’s or bachelor’s degree can give you a strong foundation, but you’ll still need on-the-job training as well.

Self Defense Training

Self-defense training isn’t usually required, but it can be a good addition to your education.

As a private investigator, there’s a chance you may find yourself in dangerous situations.

Self-defense courses will teach you to defend yourself, diffuse situations before they escalate into violence, and identify risky situations.

Firearms and Weapons Training

You aren’t required to carry a firearm as a private investigator.

However, you may choose to do so, for the same reason you should get self-defense training.

You will probably find yourself in a dangerous situation at some point, so it’s a good idea to be able to defend yourself.

Most states require you to be licensed and undergo a training program before carrying a handgun.

Licensing and Certification

Licensing and certification vary greatly from state to state.

You can expect states that require certification to require a valid photo I.D., a few clear photos of you, fingerprints, and a background check, along with the licensing fee.

Many also require you to take a test to show that you have some knowledge of the field.

Some require you to complete some type of education or have previous experience in a related field as well.

Most states have licensing fees that range from $50 to $500.

Connecticut has the highest licensing cost, at $1,450.

The costs of becoming a private investigator vary.

Most states require you to renew your license every one to two years.

The fee for renewal is often less expensive, typically about half of the original licensing fee.

Job Outlook for Private Investigator

Demand for private investigators is expected to grow faster than average over the next decade.

In fact, the career is projected to grow at a rate of 6%, which is faster than average.

Yearly, about 4,000 positions as private investigators are expected to become available due to workers retiring or moving to other careers.

While AI has slowed the growth of some occupations, this isn’t expected to happen with private investigators.

Should You Become a Private Investigator?

If you are considering becoming a private investigator, there are some factors you should consider.

These include the overall satisfaction with the job, the education needed, and the salary.

Overall Satisfaction

Private investigators have a higher rate of job satisfaction than average.

The career gets a rating of 3.5 out of 5, which puts being a private investigator in the top 30% of careers in terms of satisfaction.

This satisfaction comes from finding the truth, solving mysteries, and helping others.

It’s particularly satisfying for those who have a strong sense of values and justice.

Average Salary

The average salary for a private investigator is $50,000.

The average salary for workers who have a diploma but no college education is $40,000, so you can expect to make a better salary than you would at a non-skilled job.

As mentioned previously, some private investigators make as much as $70,000 to $100,000 a year, which makes it a very lucrative career choice.

Job Growth Outlook

The job growth outlook for private investigators is better than average at 6%.

This means you’ll have good job security if you choose to become a private investigator.

Education Duration

How much education you’ll need depends on the state you want to work in.

Some states don’t have any educational requirements, while others require an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

Most states will allow you to be a private investigator with no education or with a career diploma, which takes 6 months or less to complete.

Personal Skills Needed

As a private investigator, you’ll need certain personal, or soft, skills.

While you can learn these in a training program, ideally they will be skills that come easily and naturally to you.

You’ll need to enjoy problem-solving because this is the heart of the private investigation.

If you enjoy solving puzzles and mysteries, you’ll likely make a good investigator.

You’ll also need computer skills.

You may need to perform in-depth research about people online.

This can include their employment history, social media, education, and criminal records.

It’s also important to be friendly, yet assertive.

The best private investigators are “people people”.

They read people well and know which approach to take to get the results they want when interacting with someone.

Some people respond well to friendliness, while others may respond to a matter-of-fact or authoritative personality.

Personal skills you will need include:

  • Analytical skills
  • Detail oriented
  • Patience
  • Strong communication skills
  • Conflict resolution
  • Control over oneself and the situation
  • Decision making
  • Critical thinking

Frequently Asked Questions

How long do you have to go to school to become a private investigator?

You may not need to spend any time in school to become a private investigator.

Generally, you can expect to spend a few months taking a career certificate course to be prepared for this career.

How much money does a private investigator make a year?

Most private investigators make about $50,000 a year, with most investigators making $40,000 to $60,000.

However, you can earn up to $100,000 a year, depending on your location and experience.

What kind of education do you need to be a private investigator?

It’s a good idea to take a career certificate program before becoming a private investigator.

If your state requires you to take a test before starting your career, this will give you the knowledge you need to pass the exam.

You can choose to get an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

You can expect to learn about investigative procedures, interviewing techniques, and legal processes.

You’ll also learn how to conduct computer research and perform background checks on individuals.

Are private investigators in high demand?

Private investigators are in high demand because their job growth is faster than average.

Investigators may work for individuals to answer questions, gather proof about inappropriate activities, or work for businesses or corporations, so it’s no surprise there’s a high demand for them.

What skills do you need to have to be a private investigator?

One of the skills you need to be a private investigator is curiosity.

Curiosity is what fuels you to find answers.

If you enjoy mysteries and problem-solving, chances are you’ll be good at this career.

You’ll need to be detail-oriented, assertive, and patient.

It’s also important to be good at communication because you’ll spend a lot of time speaking with people.

Computer skills are important as well.

Notable Resources

Chelsea Wilson

About Chelsea Wilson

Chelsea Wilson is the Community Relations Manager for Washington University School of Law’s distance learning LLM degree program, which provides foreign trained attorneys with the opportunity to earn a Master of Laws degree from a top-tier American university from anywhere in the world.

6 Responses to How to Become a Private Investigator

  1. Avatar
    Kevin #

    Being a private investigator seems like a cool profession to get into where you can work on something interesting while being your own boss, I have been thinking about it for a while now but don’t know if it’s good for my personality. thanks for the guide anyways.

  2. Avatar
    Abigail Allen #

    The suggestion to gain experience in related fields like security or law enforcement before pursuing PI work is spot on.

  3. Avatar
    Joshua Foster #

    The recommendation to build a strong network within law enforcement and legal circles makes a lot of sense.

  4. Avatar
    Amanda Moore #

    I’ve always admired the work of private investigators in movies and books. It’s fascinating to learn about the real-world process of becoming one.

  5. Avatar
    Nate Baker #

    I’ve been considering a career change, and becoming a private investigator seems like a thrilling option.

  6. Avatar
    Josh West #

    The idea of being a PI has always intrigued me, but I had no clue where to start. This guide is exactly what I needed.

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