Private investigation is a highly respected field that has evolved significantly in the last decade. Private investigators now serve as contractors for law enforcement, cyber crime, surveillance and human resource teams. The services they provide are broad ranging, and can include everything from investigations into marital infidelity and missing persons, to the use of computer forensics to solve cases related to financial fraud or exploitation.
Private investigators most often work for private investigation agencies or operate their own independent firms. They often work on a contract basis for both public and private sector clients, and almost always hold a state license permitting them to conduct legal investigations and surveillance with impunity. Since a state licensing and regulatory body often oversees the field of private investigations, becoming a PI means meeting state-specific requirements for licensure.
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Although requirements and processes differ from state to state, in most states becoming a private investigator follows a similar general outline:
Step 1. Learn About State Licensure
Private investigation regulation and licensing is overseen by any number of state agencies. For example, Texas licenses its private investigators through the Private Security Board within the Texas Department of Public Safety, while Tennessee licenses private investigators through the Private Investigative and Polygraph Commission, which is part of the Department of Commerce and Insurance. Even those states without state licensure, such as Wyoming, Alaska and Alabama, often have regulations and/or licensing requirements in some of the cities or jurisdictions. For example, although there are no state licensing requirements in Alabama, a number of cities in the state, including Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile, have their own licensing processes. Further, even those states without state licensing often require private investigators to license their business and adhere to a number of standard regulations.
A few states have entered into reciprocity agreements, which allow private investigators to conduct business between states without holding a separate private investigator’s license (provided the investigation is started in the investigator’s home state).
Currently, the following states have reciprocity agreements:
- North Carolina
Because private investigators are regulated and licensed at the state level, education requirements, training requirements, and minimum requirements for licensure all differ. It is therefore imperative to research your state’s regulations and licensing requirements.
Step 2. Meet Minimum Requirements for Licensure
Not all individuals are eligible to become private investigators. Although minimum requirements for licensure differ between states, candidates for licensure must be of a certain age, which is usually between 21 and 25.
Other minimum license requirements require a candidate to:
- Be a United States citizen or legal U.S. resident
- Possess a high school diploma or GED certificate
- Have no felony convictions or other convictions involving crimes of moral turpitude
- Have no dishonorable discharge from the U.S. military
Step 3. Meet Education and Experience Requirements
Perhaps the largest difference between states lies with minimum requirements for education and experience. Although most states do not require a candidate to possess an education to become a private investigator, most professionals in this field nevertheless pursue an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or a related field so as to achieve a working knowledge of the criminal justice system law enforcement practices.
A common requirement for licensure is experience, although it should be noted that many states allow candidates to substitute education for experience. For example, the minimum experience requirement in New Hampshire for private investigators is four years, although candidates with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in criminal justice may substitute their education for two of the required four years.
Related private investigator experience may include working as an adjuster, risk manager, claims investigator, director of security for a company, director for a licensed security service, or as a law enforcement officer for a federal, state or local police department.
Step 4. Pass the State Exam for Licensure
Some states require candidates to pass a state exam before they can achieve licensure as a private detective. State jurisprudence examinations, which are usually taken after filing for a state license, assess candidates on laws and procedural protocols specific to the state in which they are working.
Exam content often covers regulations and rules regarding working as a private investigator or operating a private investigative business.
Step 5. Obtain Mandatory Firearms Training
In states that allow private investigators to carry a firearm or weapon, candidates must complete mandatory firearms training to become certified. Most states accept training through the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Rifle Association, SIG Sauer, Smith & Wesson, or through an accredited police standards and training council firearms instructor school.
Step 6. Apply for State Licensure
The final step to becoming licensed to work as a private investigator is applying for state licensure. In most instances, candidates are required to provide the state licensing and regulatory body with the following:
- A notarized application
- A full set of fingerprints for a comprehensive background investigation
- Personal and professional references
- Documentation regarding professional experience
- Documentation and/or diplomas regarding education
- Proof of a surety bond (Most states require private investigators to hold a surety bond of no less than $10,000.)
- An application fee, license feel, fingerprint fee, and background investigation fee
Step 7. Maintain State Licensure
Private investigators must renew their license according to state law, with most states requiring a biennial renewal. Along with a renewal application, private investigators can expect to undergo an updated background investigation and provide the state licensing and regulatory body with a copy of their current surety bond.
Further, some states require continuing education for license renewal, and continuing education for firearms certification is commonplace.