Ever wanted to make the leap and become a private investigator—at least once, maybe? We also have had our share of private investigators brought to life over several generations, from Magnum P.I. to Veronica Mars.

If you are serious about pursuing it as a career, it’s important to research what’s involved in the day-to-day aspects of the job; how you can get the training and certification you need to work in your state.

How investigators use phone records and cellular data to solve crime

What is it like to be a private investigator? Really.

Not surprisingly, a career in the field of private investigation won’t likely match up with what you’ve been watching on the screen. 

But you can count on it being a career that changes from day-to-day. Since every client and every case will demand that you take a different path, it’s unlikely that life in this field will be monotonous. Your responsibilities as a private investigator could include:

  • Researching public and records
  • Identifying various people to interview for eyewitness accounts
  • Finding evidence in missing person cases
  • Reviewing documents
  • Conducting surveillance
  • Analyzing evidence, photographs and other information.
  • Investigating consumer fraud
  • Investigating computer-related crimes, including identity theft.
  • Working with attorneys, law firms to gather evidence to support a case
  • Conducting background checks on people who want to be hired in various roles

Depending upon the areas of expertise you focus on, your clients could include:

  • An attorney or legal agency needing support in the litigation process, including checking backgrounds, interviewing witnesses and identifying the location of plaintiffs
  • Insurance claim adjusters who need evidence of clients committing insurance fraud
  • Landlords needing background checks on potential tenants
  • Individuals looking to find evidence in a divorce proceeding, or to conduct background checks for a babysitter, a house sitter, or an elder care provider


Job prospects, salary for private investigators

Unfortunately, fraud is increasingly a huge problem in the United States; with consumers and businesses reporting it as a top concern. Globally, fraud—including cybercrime and identity theft—is costing its victims a total of $42 billion a year, according to a recent PwC report.

While that’s bad news for those impacted by fraud, it’s good news for anyone interested in becoming a private investigator. The demand for private investigators is steadily growing, at a rate of 13 percent—better than average for most professions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

For the next 10 years, according to the BLS, the United States is expected to have 3,500 new openings for these positions. While 75 percent of private investigators are employed by companies, including law firms, financial institutions, security companies, identity protection firms and other businesses, the remaining private detectives are independent; working for themselves.

As far as salary, you can expect to earn a median salary of $53,320 after some time in the field, according to the BLS report from 2020. And, like most careers, years of experience, level of expertise and location can make a difference in that pay scale — from as low as $31,500 to a high of more than $97,000.


Job training and certification for a private investigator

Now that you have a basic understanding of the job responsibilities, job demand and salary of a private investigator, you need to explore what it takes to become trained and certified as one. And the answer all comes down to where you want to work, as requirements can vary from state to state.

While many states don’t require education beyond a high school diploma, most do require you to undergo training before gaining your certification to work independently as a private investigator. However, there are some exceptions. Check this link by PI.now to review more information specific to the state you’re hoping to operate in. 

To give you an idea of how requirements can vary from state to state, the following is a comparison of requirements for a private detective in several states:

North Dakota’s requirements for a private investigator include: 

  • License is required to work in the state
  • Must be 18 years of age or older
  • Must have a high school diploma 
  • Must be of good moral character
  • Must pass an exam under the supervision of the North Dakota Private Investigation and Security Board 
  • Must have conducted a minimum of 2,000 hours of private investigative work as an employee of a detective agency

Delaware’s requirements for a private investigator include: 

  • License is required to work in the state
  • Must be 21 years of age or older
  • Must not have any felony convictions or misdemeanor convictions related to theft, drug offenses, or moral turpitude
  • Must have completed 16 hours of security guard training 
  • Must meet and maintain the qualifications set and approved by the Board of Examiners

California’s requirements for a private investigator include:

  • Must be 18 years of age or older
  • Must submit to a criminal history background check through the California Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Must have at least three years of experience in investigative work (including at least 2,000 hours of actual paid work OR an associates degree in police science, criminal law, or justice for a credit of 1,000 hours (or six months of experience) towards the required three years
  • Pass a two-hour multiple choice examination that covers state laws and regulations, terminology, how to handle evidence, civil and criminal liability, undercover investigations and other topics

Texas’ requirements for a private investigator include:

  • Must be 18 years of age or older
  • Must not have any felony convictions
  • Must be free of mental defect or disease
  • Must not be a registered sex offender in Texas or any other state.

Keep in mind that most states require that you renew your license to act as a private investigator. Also, to keep on top of the latest tools and state requirements in effective investigation work, consider joining the private investigation association in your state. For a list, check this link for more information.


Moving forward with a career in private investigation

Whether your state requires it or not, gaining experience by working with a seasoned pro — whether at an agency, police department or a self-employed private detective — can give you the insights you need to be successful at the job. 

While it’s typically not required, enrolling in college to study a related field — including criminal justice, criminology, psychology, and police science — can give you an edge over competitors if you’re looking for employment at an agency. Some schools offer degrees ranging from associate to master to provide you with a foundation for private investigation careers. 

Some of the schools that are well-known for their criminology courses include:

  • Florida Tech: Offers online learning in criminal justice and psychology.
  • Purdue University Global: Offers online learning in criminal justice programs with focuses on crime scene investigation, law enforcement, Homeland Security and juvenile justice
  • Southern New Hampshire University: Offers online learning in criminal justice, security management, public safety, emergency management, Homeland Security, corrections, police administration and operations and counterterrorism
  • Strayer University: Offers online courses in criminal justice, with a focus on administration concentration, computer security and forensics, and Homeland Security and emergency management
  • University of Arizona Global Campus: Offers online courses in criminology and psychology, with a focus on law enforcement and corrections administration, Homeland Security and emergency management, and justice


Tools used by a private investigator 

With advances in technology emerging at a rapid rate, it’s important for private investigators to stay up with the latest tools to successfully and quickly find answers for their clients. One of the most significant investigation developments in recent years has been the proliferation of surveillance cameras throughout the United States.

According to a BLS report, the number of installed surveillance cameras nearly doubled in a three-year period — from 2015 to 2018. That number grew from 47 million to 70 million during that time frame, and was expected to climb to 85 million cameras by the end of 2021.

While cameras and other equipment, including GPS tracking devices, video cameras, and recording and wiretapping tools, can help you find the answers you need, it’s important to understand the laws governing their use in the state you’re operating in. This is where a membership in a private investigator association can help you stay up to date.

Your life as a private investigator won’t likely end up as a script for a TV series or as the basis of a literary masterpiece, but it can provide you with the ability to be the hero for many of the clients you serve.



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