How to Become a Private Investigator

How to Become a Private Investigator

What Is a Private Investigator?

A private investigator (PI) or a private eye is an agent who is hired by someone to undertake a period of services usually in reference to the law.

This individual will investigate the practices of a company or a corporation and draw up reports at the end of the investigation period.

A PI primarily works on criminal breaches, but they can also be brought in to investigate civil services and NGOs.

For example, PIs are brought in by attorneys and insurance brokers to deal with dubious claims. If someone is filing for divorce and they have made claims that do not add up, a PI can be hired to investigate these further.

The PI skill set is very specific. They are often well researched in their area of expertise and have excellent attention to detail.

In this article we will cover the types of PIs and how much they typically earn. We will also outline what you can do to begin a career as a PI.

A list of skills will be provided so you can build towards success as a PI.

Types of Private Investigator

Wherever there is the possibility of crime, there are PIs who specialize in that particular area.

There are too many to cover in depth, so we will outline the responsibilities of just a few types of PIs. Their roles and what they need to be successful can be applied to most PI positions.

Electronics and Surveillance

With cyber-crime becoming more prominent, there is also a rise in PIs in these types of crimes.

The PI who deals with electronic security and data must have excellent technological abilities. They must also be knowledgeable about computer forensics and encryption.

PIs working in these areas work with both mobile phones and computer devices. They are often involved with data-vulnerability assessments and online identity theft.

Here are some of the PI careers that fall under this category:

  • Electronic data discovery
  • Social media services
  • Identity theft
  • Mobile phone records
  • Computer forensics
  • Internet dating investigations


Fraud is one of the most common types of crimes that PIs are involved with.

There are many types of fraud, including:

  • Financial
  • Record and identity
  • Death

PIs involved in fraud usually need to embark on long investigations involving large sums of money. They must be able to keep track of various exchanges and conversations.

Fraud can be a stressful area to work in due to how much is on the line. If someone has had their identity duplicated, the repercussions can be expensive.

PIs will need to be cooperative with the clients and the agencies they are working with.

Here are the areas of fraud that a PI typically works in:

  • Corporate
  • Expenses
  • Identity
  • Birth and death certificates
  • Insurance

Missing Persons

The term 'missing persons' refers to when someone needs to be found for court proceedings. It can also be applied to missing children or minors.

Missing persons is a broad category, and it is arguably one of the most emotionally distressing areas a PI can go into.

A PI may be presented with a case linked to kidnapping. For a PI to be successful in this, they must be resilient and cooperative.

Here are the types of missing persons cases that a PI can be handed:

  • Kidnapping and child protection
  • Murder and disappearance
  • Disappearance of a criminal or someone on probation
  • Debt, assets and inheritance


A domestic PI deals with clients who have issues related to their local area.

These PIs usually have a good knowledge of the local laws and jurisdiction procedures.

Domestic problems include theft, fraud and any abuse within a marriage or civil partnership. They also work closely with solicitors who deal with divorce claims.

These investigators are brought in by smaller parties. They usually work on a client-by-client basis and may act as an independent agent.


A private investigator’s earnings vary widely. They are dependent upon the type of work they specialize in and the location where they are based.

On average a PI can expect to earn anywhere between 40,000to40,000 to 50,000 per year.

In the states of New York, Colorado and Massachusetts, PI wages are much higher.

It is hard to determine what the earnings are of a self-employed PI, but lucrative contracts are not uncommon.

It is also worth stating that PIs have job opportunities in many other areas. They are often brought in to help with forensics or any analytical services.

There are also lots of travel opportunities as a PI. If you can find employment as a PI for a corporate business or a law enforcement agency, you will receive good benefits.

Dental care, insurance and flexibility with work are just some of the perks of becoming a PI.

Bear in mind that PIs work long hours and use a lot of technological data. Even though the work is often engaging, it is stressful and hard to switch off from.

How to Become a Private Investigator
How to Become a Private Investigator

Steps to Become a Private Investigator

The first step on the PI ladder is getting the right qualifications through a strong education and policing background.

A degree in criminal or civil law is a great start. You will also be given the opportunity to attend classes during police training.

Each state has different requirements. You may have to work a certain number of hours or for a certain law enforcement agency to initially obtain a license of practice.

Some general requirements include firearms training and intense security checks on your history to ensure you have a clean record.

Someone with a history of fraud and dubious insurance claims may struggle to become a PI because this infringes on PI practices.

You must also be over 18 years old, be a US legal citizen and not have been found mentally incompetent by a US court.

Getting experience as a PI will at first be difficult and you may have to commit to roles you did not have in mind.

Working through the ranks of a fraud or domestic team will get you the right networks and skills to succeed.

Once you have gained experience, you can begin to take on bigger contracts. These contracts will give you the direct experience you need to specialize.

Where you specialize depends on your interests and how you perform on examinations. You should seek to specialize in an area of private investigation you have a talent for as this will provide a better chance for a successful career.

How Long It Takes to Become a Private Investigator

If you decide to become a PI later after your degree program, you can expect it to take up to six years.

To acquire the correct licenses and training the timeframe ranges on average from six months to four years.

You will need at least a good year of experience. It is likely that you will also have to take an associate degree in private investigation, which takes another two years.

If you want to specialize in a certain area that requires a great amount of sensitivity, you will need even more training.

The best way to start your career path is to get into a law enforcement agency early. This way, you can work your way through the required training and licensing procedures.

You can also begin getting the right experience in the correct departments and obtain advice from successful PIs.

Skills to Master

Analytical and Critical Thinking

You will have to analyze a lot of data and people. You must also be able to decide what is conducive towards a successful investigation.

Picking and choosing what material to use in an investigation determines how successful a PI is with their conclusions.

A good PI will know what data to look for and how to analyze it well.

Attention to Detail

As a PI you will have to pick out information from forensics, fraudulent documents and interviews.

You must be able to identify when something is suspicious. Strong attention to detail will help you decipher what material will lead to successful results.

Patience is also needed when looking at research data. Sometimes PIs will need to work through several interview transcripts or videos, or numerous documents before they land on something useful for the investigation.

Examination Skills

PIs involved with interviews need to be able to read when a person is being cooperative with the investigation at hand.

A PI must examine the body language, speech, tone and language of a subject. They must remain calm when doing so and avoid displaying any emotion.


Life as a PI can be difficult, particularly if you are working on a sensitive investigation. In these cases, you will not be able to discuss your work with anyone outside of work.

Your family life may be strained because of this. You must be willing to leave the work behind once you’re at home and you must have this understanding with your family or partner.

PIs may be working on multiple investigations at once, and need to keep each one separate.

Observational Skills

Understanding where to start and where to look during an investigation takes experience, but it also takes instinct.

A good PI has the observational skills to know where to start and how to go about conducting a successful investigation.

It is common for PIs to work alone or in small teams. You cannot expect lots of direction during an investigation due to confidentiality reasons.

Observing what material will lead to success is often dependent on a PI’s natural ability.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I Change My Specialty?

Because a similar skill set is needed across most of the PI specialties, it is possible to change your specialty over the course of your career.

You may have fallen into the fraud department but feel you would be best used conducting investigations into cyber-crime.

However, avoid changing your specialty too much during your career. The more you change your specialty, the less opportunity you get to gain valuable experience on prolonged investigations.

Ensure that you follow your interests early to sustain a successful career.

Will I Receive Any Help During My Career as a PI?

It comes as no surprise that some PI work can be extremely distressing. If you are working with vulnerable people, you may feel emotionally affected by your job.

As mentioned above, if you work for a law enforcement agency, you will receive health and life insurance.

It is best to inquire with the agency you want to work with if there are ways of accessing any psychological aid while working as a PI.

Due to reasons of confidentiality, many of these agencies have in-house psychologists who help with employee issues.

It is also a good idea to ask your HR department if this type of help falls under the insurance policy you might be contracted to.

Even if it does not, you may be entitled to receive discounted or fully paid services.

Final Thoughts

Life as a PI is incredibly tough. The hours are long and it’s likely you will not be able to talk to anybody about what you're working on.

However, it is a very rewarding career with plenty of opportunities to work with some fascinating individuals.

On top of this, the pay and benefits are stable enough to build a prosperous career.

If you want to be passionate about your profession and dedicate your life to it, a career as a PI may be for you.

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