How to Become a Private Investigator:
The Definitive Guide

Are you the type of person that likes to find out information?

Do you want to help people solve mysteries, and work with Police Officers to look for potential criminal activity?

Then a career as a Private Investigator might be just what you are looking for.

As a Private Investigator, you will work closely with law enforcement, law firms, or even individual clients to help with evidence and searching for missing people.

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What is a Private Investigator?

A Private Investigator has many roles, not only do they collect evidence and surveilling subjects, but they also spend a lot of time researching on the computer and making calls to clients.

Often times, law enforcement or citizens will call a Private Investigator to determine if someone is doing anything criminal, such as fraud, robbery, having an affair, and so on.

There will be times when a Private Investigator must follow someone all day, and other times when it’s crucial to talk to the people that the subject has had contact with.

No two days will ever be the same in the life of a Private Investigator.


Much of the role of a Private Investigator involves gathering evidence and analyzing information that could be important.

Some of the other duties of a Private Investigator include:

  • Undercover investigations
  • Researching subjects and witnesses
  • Interviewing people
  • Documenting everything
  • Surveillance
  • Communicating with law enforcement and law firms
  • Patrolling areas where the subject may be
  • Using a computer to record information
  • Studying court records
  • Performing background checks


The average salary for a Private Investigator in the United States is about $57,000 a year.

Most Private Investigators can make more money working in larger populations, or where clients have more money.

For example, Private Investigators who work in states like California and Washington DC will typically make around $68,000-$70,000 a year.

However, a Private Investigator working in Indiana usually makes around $42,000 a year.

Some of the other factors that can determine the salary of a Private Investigator include how many years of experience the investigator has, as well as the percentage of good results from previous investigations.

  • Annually
  • Monthly
  • Hourly

Annually National Average Salary: $60,970


Average Annual Salary by State

StateAvg. Annual Salary
New Hampshire$72,530
New Jersey$57,820
New Mexico$62,280
New York$66,680
North Carolina$64,920
Rhode Island$64,310
South Carolina$51,820
South Dakota$54,390
West Virginia$54,150
Puerto Rico$41,720

Annual Average Salary: Top 5 States

The top earning state in the field is Colorado, where the average salary is $85,160.

These are the top 5 earning states in the field:

Colorado - $85,160
Arkansas - $81,280
Oregon - $78,480
Virginia - $75,800
Nevada - $74,860
*Salary information based on the May 2021 Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) Survey.
Conducted by: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Department of Labor.
* Employment conditions in your area may vary.

How to Become a Private Investigator

Step 1Have a High School Diploma

The minimum requirement for most Private Investigators is to have a high school diploma or a GED.

Perspective Private Investigators should also be at least 21 years old in most states.

It’s also important that you have no felony charges or misdemeanor convictions on your record that involve:

  • Dishonesty or fraud
  • Unauthorized selling or divulging of information
  • Impersonating law enforcement
  • Illegally using or possessing a firearm
  • Controlled substance
  • Assault
  • Alcohol

You also must not have any dishonorable charge from the military on your record.

Many Private Investigation firms will hire those who do not have a degree, however, there are some who believe that earning further education is important for this career.

Step 2Earn a Degree

Although it isn’t legally required in most states, earning a degree can help you stand out among all the other Private Investigators out there.

Some people choose to earn an Associate’s degree, which takes about two years for full-time students, and four years for people who go to school part-time.

If you are interested in a Bachelor’s degree, this can take about four years as well.

The best major for this career field is Criminal Justice, which has courses like:

  • Criminal Law
  • Intro to the American Court System
  • Theories of Crime Causation
  • Foundations of Criminal Justice Systems

Earning an Associate’s degree can help you with entry-level positions as a Private Investigator.

Having a Bachelor’s degree in your repertoire may earn you higher positions or pay grades.

Step 3Gain Experience

It’s important to gain education on the criminal justice system and how to be a good Private Investigator, but the most important area of this career is a hands-on experience.

Some Private Investigators choose to work in law enforcement before working as a Private Investigator.
This way they learn the ropes of the career and can shadow other Private Investigators.

There are other opportunities for experience in law enforcement, including:

  • Investigator
  • Special Agent
  • Parole Agent
  • Probation Officer

In order to become a licensed Private Investigator, you must have at least three years of experience.

There are many people who become police officers or join the military in order to gain the experience needed.

Having experience as a police officer can help you on your way toward becoming a detective or Private Investigator.

Joining the military will help you obtain experience working with others and about law enforcement.

After a few years, licensing can take place after meeting all of the prerequisites for the state you want to work in.

Step 4Become Licensed

All states except for Alaska, Idaho, Mississippi, Wyoming, and South Dakota require Private Investigators to have a license at the state level.

These states have other laws that you should look into if you are interested in working in one of these areas.

In the other 45 states, local and state laws may vary but the majority require Private Investigators to:

  • Be at least 21 years of age (in most states, in some states, like Michigan, the age is 25)
  • Possess a high school diploma or equivalent
  • Have US Citizenship
  • At least 3 years of experience as a Private Investigator

Some states may require different education and experience levels.

All states require Private Investigators to hold a current surety bond.

A surety bond protects clients if something that the Private Investigator does is fraudulent or illegal.

Consider this like an insurance for your car.

A surety bond can cost anywhere from $100 to $250 a year to maintain.

If you have a surety bond that is up to date, you are able to become licensed in most states.


It’s not legally required to earn any sort of higher education in order to have a career as a Private Investigator.

However, many clients and employers require their Private Investigators to have at least an Associate’s degree, and many others are requiring a Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

There are some ways to bypass an education, that includes joining the military or law enforcement.

If you work as a police officer or in the military, you can gain quite a bit of experience to work toward becoming a Private Investigator.

Most states require at least three years of experience as a Private Investigator before allowing you to become licensed.

If you would rather gain an education, most employers require at least an Associate’s degree in criminal justice.

This takes about two years to finish and may require you to work an apprenticeship with a Private Investigator to learn the ropes of the career.

It’s possible that you’re interested in a Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

This degree can take about four years to finish, and often requires taking prerequisite classes as well, like English, math, and sciences.

The other classes that you will likely be required to take for a degree in criminal justice include:

  • Contemporary Issues in Criminal Justice
  • Cultural Awareness
  • Technology in Criminal Justice
  • Criminal Punishment
  • Ethics in Criminal Justice
  • Women and Crime

Most importantly in this career, you should acquire as much hands-on experience as possible.

Having abilities that are above and beyond will significantly increase the chances of employment.

For example, Private Investigators with experience with surveillance, accident scene reconstruction, and strategies for collecting information will have higher chances of getting hired.

Gaining employment with law enforcement or other government sectors will lead you to a great career as a Private Investigator.

If you are interested in working as a freelance Private Investigator, then you may want to work as an apprentice to another Private Investigator before going out on your own.

Video About The Career


Almost every state in the United States requires a Private Investigator to become licensed in order to work legally.

Besides states like Alaska, Mississippi, Idaho, South Dakota, and Wyoming, a license is required to perform Private Investigator duties.

In those five states, other requirements may be necessary.

So, if you are planning to work in one of those states, contact the local association to find out more information.

Licensing requirements will vary from state to state, but the majority agree that all perspective Private Investigators must:

  • Be at least 21 years old
  • Possess a high school diploma
  • Have at least three years of Private Investigator experience

In some states, the required age is 25 years old.

In other states, an Associate’s degree or Bachelor’s degree is required as the education minimum.

Most states also have the same process in order to become licensed.

This includes the following:

  • Meet minimum requirements for your state
  • Achieve educational requirements
  • Complete fingerprinting process
  • Receive a background check
  • Complete license application
  • Pass state exam

States like Pennsylvania have an entirely different process, so contact your local Clerk of Courts if you are planning to work in this state.

A crucial part of this process is to make sure you have a surety bond, which is basically insurance for all of your clients.

A surety bond is legally required in every state, regardless of the license requirements.

Some states require Private Investigators to pass the Jurisprudence exam.

This exam is given all over the United States, but can also be taken online.

Typically there are 50 multiple choice questions on the exam.

Some of the topics to study for include:

  • Information gathering
  • Planning
  • State laws and regulations
  • Trial Preparation
  • Ethics

Most states allow up to two hours to take the exam, some states allow only 1 ½.

You will know if you passed or failed the exam as soon as you are finished if you fail the exam you are able to retake it, but the time frame depends on the state you live in.

Certification Example:

private investigator certificate

Average Training Program Duration: 2-4 Years

In order to be eligible for a Private Investigator license, you must have at least three years of experience.

There is no training program to become a Private Investigator because the best training is on the job.

Most people who are interested in working as a Private Investigator will shadow or become an apprentice to a seasoned Private Investigator.

With at least three years of career experience, you are able to take the Jurisprudence exam to become a licensed Private Investigator.

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Job Outlook

Job opportunities for Private Investigators are expected to grow around 8 percent over the next decade.

This is faster than most other occupations in the same field.

The reason for the increase is due to crime, lawsuits, and fraud that demand investigations.

Another source of job security is background checks, these are becoming more prevalent among employers and landlords.

Those who have more experience and education in this field will likely find more opportunities.

Areas with large populations will likely see a bigger increase in job opportunities than smaller towns.

Retirement could also be a factor in the increase of career openings, as older Private Investigators retire, they make room for new ones.

Employment Growth Projection: 13%


That's a higher than average projected growth of 4,400 jobs.

Private Investigator: Interest Over Time

Should You Become a Private Investigator?

Overall Satisfaction: High

Overall Satisfaction

Having a career as a Private Investigator will likely bring you much joy.

According to more than half of Private Investigators, the job is gratifying, and it feels nice to help other people.

However, this job can be stressful especially when surveilling or following a subject.

The working hours can be a bit chaotic as well, as you never know when you’ll need to follow a subject or find out new information that needs attention right away.

Time-sensitive materials can cause a lot of tension in this career as well, that doesn’t mean that most Private Investigators find their jobs to be enjoyable.

Average Salary: High

Average Salary

Private Investigators make an average salary of around $57,000 a year.

For those who are just beginning a career as a Private Investigator or those that work in smaller populations, the salary is typically closer to $42,000 a year.

After several years of working as a Private Investigator, it’s possible to gain clientele and make more money-depending on how good you are at your job.

Private Investigators at the top of the salary chain can make over $70,000 a year in some areas, like Washington DC.

It’s possible to earn a great living working as a Private Investigator, but you must first find your niche to gain clients and experience.

Job Growth Outlook: High

Job Growth Outlook

There will be more career opportunities for people who are interested in working as a Private Investigator over the next decade.

This career will grow around 8 percent in the next ten years, which is a lot more than many other careers in the same field.

The reason for this growth is due to ongoing lawsuits, criminal activity, and the increased use of technology.

If you are interested in a career as a Private Investigator, you should think about working in areas with higher populations and more criminal activity.

Education Duration: 2-4 Years

Education Duration

There are some options for people who want to pursue a career as a Private Investigator.

Even though working as a Private Investigator doesn’t legally require a degree, many clients appreciate it when a Private Investigator has some formal education.

Earning a degree in criminal justice, whether an Associate’s degree or Bachelor’s degree, will help Private Investigators find employment much faster.

An Associate’s degree takes about two years to finish, however, some accelerated programs may only last around 18 months.

Most Bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice take about four years to finish.

Personal Skills Needed

Personal Skills Needed

When you think of a Private Investigator, do you think of someone silently watching another person?

That’s part of what a Private Investigator might do, but there are many more aspects of this career.

Because of the closeness to law enforcement and the criminal justice system, a Private Investigator must also have some other qualities.

Particular skills that work great for Private Investigators are:

  • Research and interviewing abilities
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Communication skills
  • Ability to focus for long periods of time
  • Organization skills
  • Understanding of the law
  • Photography skills
  • Ability to work alone and stay on task

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. What is the average salary for a Private Investigator?

Most Private Investigators in the United States will make about $57,000 a year.

If you are thinking of beginning your career as a Private Investigator, it’s likely that you will make closer to $42,000 a year to begin.

Once you earn a reputation, clients, and have experience in the career, it’s likely that you can make over $70,000 a year as a Private Investigator.

Areas with larger populations and with higher socioeconomic statuses will likely pay their Private Investigators much more per year.

Q. How long does it take to become a Private Investigator?

When you are thinking about pursuing a career as a Private Investigator, there are a couple of options.

First, you can wait until you are old enough to apply for a job, which is 21.

However, many employers, police departments, or other law enforcement won’t likely hire someone off the street with no experience, no matter how old they are.

Instead, you can earn an Associate’s degree or Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, or join the military or police force.

It can take about 2-4 years to earn a degree and several months in the military and police force.

Q. What does a Private Investigator do?

A Private Investigator is hired by law enforcement or individual clients to find out if someone that they are looking for is guilty of a crime.

This might include following the subject, researching them, doing background checks, and so on.

There is a lot of paperwork that comes with this career as well.

It is also likely that Private Investigators will spend a lot of time with lawyers, police officers, and other government offices to help with cases.

Q. What is the demand for Private Investigators?

More people are using Private Investigators, which means that this career is in demand now more than ever.

Within the next decade, this career should rise again as well.

If you are looking to gain employment as a Private Investigator, now is your time.

The reason for this demand is due to ongoing lawsuits and legal matters, as well as the use of technology.

This career will grow by about 8 percent over the next several years.

Q. How much does it cost to become a Private Investigator?

The cost of becoming a Private Investigator can vary depending on which route you take.

For the people who are interested in earning a degree before entering the workforce, an Associate’s degree can cost about $15,000, and a Bachelor’s degree averages about $35,000.

After several years of experience, it’s possible to gain licensure as a Private Investigator.

This license can cost about $500 and needs to be renewed every three years.

Private Investigator Information by State

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