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Private Investigator How to become, career path, income potential

What is a private investigator?

Private investigators and detectives work to find information for individuals and organizations. There are many different types of investigators and specialties, from family law to corporate fraud investigation. The job involves gathering evidence and tracking down the right people. There is often some surveillance and interviewing involved as well.

Information is the key, so private investigators are responsible for sorting through all the information and verifying what is accurate and relevant. Good private investigators are good at reviewing records and documents. Knowing where to find the information and how to search for people are important qualities, so it’s common for private investigators to have some experience in law enforcement or a criminology background. 

Whether a private investigator is hired to search for someone or look for criminal activity, it’s vital to follow the guidelines of the local jurisdiction for lawfully collecting evidence and remaining within the legal parameters for completing their job.

Qualifications and eligibility

Anyone interested in becoming a private investigator should have a high school diploma and secondary education focusing on criminology. The job is learned through experience, so it’s a popular option for people leaving the police force or military. Apprenticeships are also available to receive on-the-job training. 

Private investigators need to be strong self-starters and able to work independently. Communication and problem-solving are essential skills as well. Surveillance requires the ability to stay under the radar and be stealthy.  Depending on the kind of specialty the private investigator works, some soft skills may be required, like family law. 

To become a private investigator, it’s essential to understand the different spaces to search for relevant information. Knowing how to read public and private records is important. It takes practice and experience to understand what to look for and where to find it. Knowing how to interview people and retrieve information, sometimes very sensitive information is also a skill.

Work environment

A private investigator’s work environment could change each day depending on what kind of work they are taking on. Most investigators have an office where they meet with clients and do some of their research. If surveillance is involved, they might spend a lot of time in their car or near the site that they need to keep an eye on.

Typical work hours

Many private investigators work the standard business hours. It is relatively common to have some variation depending on what information they are tracking down. Like law enforcement, some information is better gathered in the evenings or on weekends, so private investigators may work odd hours to get the job done. 


The pay range for private investigators is based on experience, location, and what type of investigating they are doing. According to the BLS, these are the five top-paying states for an annual mean wage for a private investigator:

  • Colorado – $85,160
  • Arkansas – $81,280
  • Oregon – $78,480
  • Virginia – $75,800
  • Nevada – $74,860

Steps to become a private investigator

1. Complete your education

Once you’ve received your high school diploma, work for an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Choose an area of study that is relevant to investigative work. Criminology and criminal justice are great options. Pre-law is another option and gives you a path to continue on to law school in the future. A degree in finance and accounting would be an excellent idea for investigators wanting to work in the financial and fraud specialties.

2. Gain relevant experience

Becoming a private investigator is hard without any experience in the field at all. Many private investigators come from the police force and the military because they have a lot of relevant experience. Having experience as a paralegal is great because you’ll be a pro at sorting evidence and working with records and documents. Other jobs that can provide an excellent experience for aspiring private investigators include collection agents, process servers, or working for insurance companies.

3. Complete training and get a license

Specific training is available for private investigators. It provides the most current and up-to-date strategies for finding information and sorting through documents and evidence. 

  • Udemy offers a Private Investigation – OSINT (Open Source Tools) Course. You’ll receive a solid foundation in private investigation. Learn to conduct background checks and uncover fake and forged documents. The course covers family law, infidelity, insurance matters, personnel screening, fraud, and much more. 
  • Enroll in the Detective Training Institute, an online training problem that lasts a few months. Students will learn critical investigative skills, like surveillance, background checks, criminal histories, and accessing special databases. 

Each state has different requirements for obtaining a license. It’s important that you understand the legal parameters for gathering information, so the states may have a test or course that is required before earning your credentials. Some states require an employment offer, so you may need to acquire a job offer before applying. Check the requirements for your state on the Private Investigator Edu website.

4. Apprenticeship

Some states require an apprenticeship for new private investigators. This is a fantastic experience because you’ll receive on-the-job training. You’ll work side-by-side with a licensed professional to assist them with their investigations and learn more about the processes to complete the job successfully.

5. Get a job or start your own business

Once you are licensed and have some good training and experience, you can begin your career as a private investigator. Get a job at an agency or break out and start your own business. You’ll be ready to work with clients and help solve some open cases. 

Types of private investigators

There are many different specialties for private investigators. They fill in some of the spaces between the work of law enforcement and help people gather information promptly and discreetly. Let’s look at some of the most common spaces that investigators work in.

Corporate investigators are hired by companies to help with all kinds of different interactions. Due diligence is a process that happens with buying and selling commodities where steps must be taken to satisfy a legal agreement. Investigators in the corporate world can also help with background investigations, financial research, and anything else that the corporation needs to gain knowledge of.

Background investigators are experts at searching public and private records. They know how to get address history, study social media activity, and criminal records. One space where this is especially helpful is for bounty hunters. Skip trace investigators help find missing persons by searching for estranged family members, locating witnesses, and pouring over any documents or records. They can assist collection agencies in tracking people down as well.

Family law and infidelity investigators help in divorce and custody battles. They gather information on either spouse and their parenting abilities. Often, surveillance is used to determine if there has been any infidelity by checking social media activity and using OSINT software tools to find hidden assets and track down suspicious activities. 

Fraud investigators work for insurance companies. This specialty’s primary role is to determine if someone received an insurance payment using fraudulent claims. This can happen in workers’ compensation, arson/fire, medical, and house-related claims.

Law enforcement handles most of the detective work in the criminal space, but there are often holes in cases, and victims are left wondering. Forensic investigators can help gather additional evidence to help solve a crime and work alongside law enforcement. A common use for these investigations is cold case work. They revisit cases by contacting persons of interest and re-interviewing, searching records, reworking evidence, and searching for new angles.

Other types of private investigators include those who do bug sweep and detection, which means searching for recording devices and location trackers. Cyber investigators are becoming more necessary as technology becomes more and more prevalent in every part of our daily lives, from internet dating to identity theft.

Tips for becoming a private investigator

Private investigators must have some unique skills to succeed and build their business and reputation. These tips will be helpful, along with experience and education, to boost your chances of becoming a private investigator.

  • Practice your communication skills. It’s important to be able to report your findings in a clear and concise manner and cover some sensitive information with clients.
  • Understand legal parameters for gathering information in your local jurisdiction and anywhere you might work. 
  • Build a good network. Having sources who are willing to help is crucial in gathering information.
  • Practice puzzles. Each case will require some problem-solving, so it’s essential to exercise your brain.
  • Improve camera skills. Surveillance will require the ability to snap photos for evidence, so practice using your camera and taking pictures in all kinds of settings.
  • Perfect your ability to work alone. There might be hours spent watching and waiting, so it’s good to have some audiobooks or ways to stay alert and be good in those situations.
  • Remain in good physical shape. The job can require long periods of standing, sitting, or needing to move quickly. Keep up with your fitness to be prepared for anything.
  • Gain experience with OSINT (open source intelligence) software tools. 

Position trends

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics projections, the jobs for private investigators are estimated to grow by around 8%, which is faster than the national average for all occupations. 

Expertise in investigating is required for individuals and corporations who expect to deal with any lawsuits. There is also an increasing need for companies to gather the types of information that private investigators have experience with, like background checks, corporate information, and general surveillance.

Career path

Large corporations can hire private investigators with the potential to advance and take on leadership positions within the organizations. Many also work for firms that might have management positions available. 

Another large sector of private investigators works directly for clients. The opportunity for growth in this situation is expanding the business. The more clients you take on, the more money you’ll be able to make, and you can increase your prices. It’s more about how much you’re willing to take on instead of a specific career path.

1. What are the most important skills for a private investigator?

An excellent private investigator’s skills should match your skill set. Talk about your resourcefulness, communication, tactfulness, and problem-solving ability. You can highlight your experience and any successes you’ve had while utilizing these skills.

2. How do you remain undetected when doing surveillance?

Surveillance is common for private investigators, but staying under the radar is important. Discuss your strategies for doing surveillance and how you perform your work without your subject noticing you. If you have real-life examples, highlight them here. 

3. Describe a tough situation you’ve faced while working on a case. What did you learn from that?

Consider everything you’ve encountered during your apprenticeship or previous work experience, and share a situation in which you were challenged. Think about a case you couldn’t solve or a piece of information mishandled. Showing that you learned something from the mistake or challenge shows your ability to grow and improve.

4. What are the most important questions to ask a new client that has hired you?

Describe your process of gathering the initial details. What are the most important things for you to find out before beginning your investigation? Gaining the trust of your clients is essential, so touch on that piece as well. It’s also important to ensure you get the full story, so you might need to fact-check a bit of the story on your own.

5. How would you describe your process for documenting your findings?

Showcase your organizational skills with this question. Reporting your findings is a critical part of the job, and you want to highlight your ability to present the evidence in a factual and easy-to-understand way. Explain how you organize notes, photos, documents, and anything else related to the case. 

6. Do you like working on your own?

Private investigators spend a lot of time working independently. Talk about your ability to self-motivate and stay on task. Use this as an opportunity to share your preferences for working alone to avoid distractions and remain unseen.

7. What would you do if you encountered a violent situation while working?

There will definitely be uncomfortable moments while investigating when you are faced with people who do not want to be interviewed or involved. Explain your process for remaining safe and following the laws. If you have experience dealing with someone uncooperative, you can also share some details about that.

8. Have you ever succeeded in gaining access to difficult places?

This is another opportunity to talk about your experience. There are many situations where you will need to be able to gain someone’s trust to get information. Talk about the strategies you use to find the best people to help you gain access to what you need. Do you have contacts in essential places that are willing to assist you? Share some of your strategies and methods.

Private investigator FAQs