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Private Investigator Career Guide

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.

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.

Duties and responsibilities

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. 

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 finish the job. 

How to become a private investigator

In order to become a private investigator, you will need a combination of education, training, and experience. In this career guide section, we cover the steps you’ll need to take to achieve your goal:

Step 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.

Step 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.

Step 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.

Step 4: Find an 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.

Step 5: Secure a job or start your own business

Once you are licensed and have 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. 

How much do private investigators make?

There are many variables that go into determining how much a private investigator makes, from company size to experience to education just to name a few.

Highest paying states

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

Browse private investigator salary data by market

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 investigator

Companies hire corporate investigators 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 investigator

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 investigator

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 investigator

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.

Forensic investigator

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 less common types of investigators

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.

Top skills for private investigators

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 specialty of the private investigator, 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.

Private investigator 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.

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.

Employment projections for private investigators

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

Private investigator career tips

Soft skills and traits

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. Practice puzzles. Each case will require some problem-solving, so exercising your brain is essential. Perfect your ability to work alone. There might be hours spent watching and waiting, so it’s good to have audiobooks or ways to stay alert and be good in those situations.

Commonly required skills and qualifications

Understand legal parameters for gathering information in your local jurisdiction and anywhere you might work. 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. 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. 

Develop a professional network

Build a good network. Having sources who are willing to help is crucial in gathering information. Here are a few professional networks to start with:

  • World Association of Detectives (WAD)
  • Council of International Investigators (CII)
  • National Association of Investigative Specialists (NAIS)
  • National Association of Legal Investigators (NALI)

Where the private investigator jobs are

Top companies

  • Foglight Investigations
  • BCI
  • Gold Shield Security and Investigations
  • CPI
  • Sherlock Investigations

Top states

  • California
  • Montana
  • District of Columbia
  • Delaware
  • Oregon

Top job sites

  • Indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • ZipRecruiter
  • Careerbuilder
  • Monster


What education do you need to become a private investigator?

Required education for private investigators can vary from state to state. You will need at least a high school diploma, and getting an associate or bachelor’s degree in a related field is recommended, along with some training specific to private investigations.

Where are the easiest places to become a private investigator?

Alaska is the easiest state to become a private investigator because it has the most minimal requirements. You do not need a specific license to be a private investigator, only a business license if you are running your own business.

Do private investigators work with the police?

Private investigators work on a variety of different cases. If there is a criminal case that they have been hired to help with, they can share evidence with the police and work in tandem with them to obtain information. All evidence is gathered legally and can be used in court if the investigator follows all the appropriate rules and stays within legal parameters.

Are there any companies that hire private investigators?

Many companies use private investigators, and some have them on staff. Insurance companies often need additional information on claimants to ensure there was no fraud. Other common areas where investigators can help include finances, due diligence in acquisitions, and obtaining background information on potential hires.

What types of personalities make great private investigators?

Private investigators spend much time working independently, so self-motivation is important. Having tactfulness, observation, communication, and resourcefulness skills is extremely beneficial as well. Solving puzzles and thinking outside of the box will help solve cases that others haven’t been able to assist with.

Are real private investigators like the movies and television portray them?

Show business often portrays private investigators as shady characters that sneak around in the shadows. In reality, private investigators operate within the legal parameters and obtain information using all kinds of resources. Some surveillance requires them to be discreet, but it’s usually very different from what you’ve seen on screen.

What are the main duties of a private investigator?

Private investigators collect all kinds of information and evidence. Their primary duties are searching for information and organizing it in a way that is easy for the clients to understand. Surveillance, reviewing documents, interviewing persons of interest, and researching the topic at hand are also common practices.

Is it dangerous to be a private investigator?

Some investigative work can be dangerous, especially when doing surveillance or helping with a criminal case. It’s not dangerous for private investigators with experience and proper training. Private investigators reduce the risks by using the appropriate skills, resources, and information. 

What is the difference between a detective and a private investigator?

A detective works for a law enforcement agency and handles criminal cases only. A private investigator can work on various cases, including civil and criminal. They are hired by a private client, where the detective works for the people. Both jobs require many of the same skills, so the biggest difference is who they report to.

Why do people hire private investigators?

Private investigators are hired for a variety of reasons. Anyone looking to gather information about someone or something can hire a private investigator to help obtain that information. Common reasons include missing persons, insurance fraud, infidelity, and child support. 

What are the biggest risks of being a private investigator?

There aren’t many risks to being a private investigator if you are skilled and have the right tools. Unqualified PIs might get into dangerous situations or have mistakes in gathering data and doing something illegal. Always follow the law and stay within the legal parameters when working; you will reduce the risks.

How do private investigators gather evidence?

Private investigators have access to all kinds of databases to help gather information. They are experienced at searching through public records and understand how to find things that might be trickier for the layperson to spot. Surveillance is a common method to gather information as well. Cyber investigations have become an important part of evidence gathering now, with so much happening over the internet.