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How to Become a Private Investigator: A Simple 6-Step Guide

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Is private investigation your dream job but don’t know how to get into it? The abundance of information about starting this career can be overwhelming.

What’s even more confusing is that the rules governing this job are also different in each state.

But don’t worry. In this guide, we’ll explain how to become a private investigator regardless of your state. We’ll provide all the steps you need to follow to become a successful PI.

An Overview of Private Investigators: A Primer

As a private investigator, your primary role is to gather evidence for your assigned cases. Then, you document this information for presentation in court or to solve the case.

The information a PI collects can involve background checks on individuals or information about missing people.

It can also include digital or physical transactions of suspicious individuals or any other vital facts in the assigned cases.

PIs work discreetly. So, usually, these types of people are reclusive. Private detectives can work for corporate clients, individuals, attorneys, and a variety of other entities. 

They can undertake various cases, such as cyber, personal, financial, and legal investigations.

In their mission to collect and document information, PIs can perform some or all of these tasks and responsibilities:

  • Surveillance 
  • Look up online public records and data
  • Interview individuals 
  • Conduct phone calls to verify evidence 
  • Research criminal histories and conduct background checks
  • Record all collected information in a secure database

How Much Do Private Investigators Make?

The average pay of private investigators in 2022 was around $59,380 annually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The report also states that the hourly rate of those professionals is approximately $ 28.55.

However, the annual salary of a private investigator can vary based on the employer and the state.

That way, you should check the average pay in your state to get an idea of what to expect.

What You’ll Need to Become a Private Investigator [& Associated Costs]

Here’s a list of the requirement you need to embark on your private investigation journey:

  • High school diploma: To become a private investigator, you should have at least a high school diploma or equivalent. A high school degree from a public school is an affordable option. For private schools, you can expect to pay tuition fees from $8,000 and up to 30,000 a year.
  • Private investigator license: To work as a PI in most states, you need to get a license. A private detective license can cost between $650 and $1,500, depending on the state. You also need to pay, on average, $250 to renew your license every one to two years.
  • PI training program: Acquiring all the essential private investigation skills through training is crucial when starting out as a PI. The cost of a quality training program can range between $200 and $1,100.
  • Self-defense and firearms training: Firearms and self-defense training are vital for PIs. Receiving basic firearm training will cost you between $100 and $300. You’ll also pay around $30 per hour for self-defense training.
  • An associate or bachelor’s degree: Obtaining a bachelor’s or associate degree in criminal justice or any related field increases your chances of getting hired. Such a degree will cost you between $11,000 and $35,000 annually.

How Much Does It Cost to Become a Private Investigator?

The cost of becoming a private detective varies hugely depending on whether you’ll pursue a college degree.

A close-up of private investigator working on a new case in his office

You’ll need as little as only $2,500 to get started as a private investigator without a college degree

This is the cost of the basic PI program and self-defense training. It also includes the fees of obtaining a license. 

However, if you’d consider getting an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, the cost will significantly increase to become at least $45,000.

Is It Hard to Become a Private Investigator?

Generally, it’ll take you considerable time and effort to become a private investigator due to the sensitive nature of this job.

Still, the difficulty level of getting into this career varies depending on your previous experience.

For an individual with a law enforcement, military, or legal background, becoming a private investigator is much easier than a person without such experience.

This background drastically accelerates the process of obtaining a PI license.

Private investigators can also benefit from the transferrable skills they’ve gained while working in these previous roles.

You can still become a private investigator if you don’t have law enforcement or military experience.

However, you’ll need to make extra effort to develop your investigation skills. It’ll also take more time to get your license and start working officially.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Private Investigator?

You need to obtain a license to work as a private investigator in most states. This process will take anywhere between eight months and four years. 

It mainly depends on your previous experience and your state’s laws. The type of education and training you’ve undergone will also affect the duration you need to start as a PI.

The more related experience and higher education you have, the faster you’ll get the license.

How to Become a Private Investigator in 6 Simple Steps

The requirements for starting this job vary from one state to another. However, there are some general steps anyone should follow to become a private investigator. 

A team of private investigators working late on a case in the office

Here are they:

1. Check the Minimum Requirements

The following are the minimum requirements that any private investigator needs to meet:

  • Be 18 years or older. Some states like New York and Pennsylvania require you to be 25 at least 
  • Be a citizen or legal resident in the United States
  • Don’t have a previous dishonorable charge in the military
  • Haven’t committed any felony-level or sex offense crimes

2. Meet the Required Education

Many employers only hire private investigators with at least a high school diploma or equivalent

Some agencies also prefer candidates who hold a bachelor’s degree. Other agencies even consider associate’s and bachelor’s degrees as essential requirements.

That way, having a degree in criminal justice, criminology, political science, or any related field can increase your odds of being hired.

3. Understand Your State’s Licensing System

The process of obtaining a private investigator license differs from one state to another. Each state sets its minimum number of working hours required to get the license. 

In some states, completing official PI training and classes reduces the number of required hours. 

In other states, your educational background can be translated into a certain amount of the required hours.

If you have experience in the military, as a police officer, or in any law enforcement position, the licensure process can be expedited.

In this case, you can get the license with minimal to no PI experience required.

4. Get Proper PI Training 

As a private investigator, you need to possess various skills to succeed in this profession. 

That way, you should consider attending private investigation classes to boost your knowledge and sharpen your skills. 

Many educational institutions, Like Penn Foster, offer high-quality training courses.

Try to select a training program that provides an internship opportunity at the end. This is to gain hands-on work experience, which most employers prefer over education alone.

5. Master the Basics of Self-Defense

As a private investigator, there’s a degree of risk involved in your work. That way, you need to undergo self-defense training. This training is also required to obtain a license in many states.

Plus, as a licensed private investigator, you can use a weapon for self-defense in some states. If this applies to your state, consider getting firearms training.

6. Ace the Licensure Test

Besides meeting the minimum required working hours, you’ll need to pass the licensure exam to get your private investigation license. 

This exam covers various topics, from criminal laws to private investigation regulations and information-gathering methods.

To prepare for this test, refer to the study guide available by the licensing body. You have to also pass a background check as a part of the licensing process.

Reasons to Consider Becoming a Private Investigator

A private investigator looking at evidence board at his office

Achieving work/life balance while working as a private investigator is challenging.

However, this profession has a lot of advantages that make it a desirable job for many. Here are they:

  • Increased income potential: As you advance in your private investigation career and establish a strong track record of work, you’ll attract countless clients. As a result, you’ll be able to double or even triple your income.
  • Plentiful transferable skills: Working as a private investigator improves a wide range of skills. These skills, like problem-solving, communication, and critical thinking, are highly desirable in many other professions. That way, you’ll find it easy if you decide to transition from being a PI to another job.
  • Adventurous job: You’ll unlikely perform repetitive tasks for a long time as a private investigator. Each case and client presents different challenges and responsibilities. Oftentimes you’ll work overnights or from unusual places. So, if you enjoy this type of job, being a private investigator can be your ideal career.
  • Flexibility: You can set your schedule as a private investigator as long as you adhere to the deadline. This can be hard for a new PI, but you’ll be able to manage it over time. Some experienced PIs even pick the cases they want to work on and turn down the offers they might not like.

Frequently Asked Questions 

What is the best degree for a private investigator?

The best degree for a private investigator depends on the cases they’ll regularly work on. 

If you plan to work on criminal cases, a criminal justice degree or any law-related field would be your perfect choice. 

A degree in computer forensics is perfect if you’ll work in technology-related cases. 

If you plan to work on financial-related cases, a degree in accounting, finance, or business is the way to go.

Who is the best private investigator?

This question has no decisive answer, as determining the best private investigator can be highly subjective

However, here’s a list of some of the most notable private investigators in the world, according to ranker.com: Anthony Pellicano, Dawud Wharnsby Ali, Michael Hatton, John Walsh, and Jack Palladino.

Similar Gigs to Check Out

If you’re looking for private investigator-like gigs, take a look at these three guides:

  • How to Become a Hacker: Entering the world of hacking can be challenging. This guide will provide a simple approach to starting your hacking career.
  • How to Become a Bounty Hunter: If you’re eager to join the law enforcement realm, this guide will help you to become a successful bounty hunter.
  • How to Become a Locksmith: If you’re a great problem solver, you can get paid to help individuals and businesses facing issues with their locks. This post will explain the steps to becoming a locksmith.

Check out this guide if you’re looking for an uncommon side hustle.

Wrapping Up

By now, you’ve learned the six steps of how to become a private investigator.

This guide can be your reference whenever you face any confusion on your journey to becoming a PI.

If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments. Please share this post with someone interested in becoming a PI,

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