Private Investigator Careers

From resolving disputes related to divorce and infidelity, to bringing convictions in cases concerning insurance fraud and cyber crime, private investigators are there to reveal the truth and bring resolution to complex civil and criminal cases. Find out if you have what it takes to become a licensed PI in your state.

How to Become a Private Investigator - Your Step by Step Guide

The field of private investigations is highly respected, evolving significantly over the years to include specialized work in computer forensics and corporate fraud investigations in addition to mainstays like missing persons and marital infidelity cases. 

PIs perform a wide range of investigative services, and are now just as often found serving as contractors for law enforcement cyber crimes units, insurance companies and human resource teams as they are investigating cases related to divorce and child custody to resolve matters in the family courts. Now that you know what PIs do, let’s move into knowing more about how to become a private investigator.

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PIs most often work for larger private investigations agencies or operate their own independent firms. They typically work on a contract basis for both public and private sector clients, and almost always hold a state license permitting them to conduct investigations within the parameters of state laws concerning surveillance protocols and privacy.

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Although requirements and processes differ from state to state, in most states, the private investigator requirements follows a similar general outline

Step 1. Learn About State Licensure

A dedicated PI licensing board, often operating under a larger state licensing authority, is typically in place to regulate and oversee the licensing process for individual private investigators and PI firms.

For example, Texas licenses its private investigators through the Private Security Board within the Texas Department of Public Safety. In Tennessee PIs are licensed through the Private Investigative and Polygraph Commission, which is part of the Department of Commerce and Insurance.

Even in states without a statewide licensing process, there are still often regulations and/or licensing requirements in some 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 states that don’t license individual investigators still require PI businesses to be licensed and adhere to a number of standard regulations related to everything from privacy laws and impersonating law enforcement to insurance and bonding.

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 in place:

  • California
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Louisiana
  • North Carolina
  • Oklahoma
  • Tennessee
  • Virginia

Because private investigators are regulated and licensed at the state level, education, training and other requirements can differ significantly from state to state. This makes it imperative that you research your state’s regulations and licensing requirements as part of your career preparation.

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 to become a private investigator. 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 and law enforcement practices. Want to know more about private investigator schools, programs and education options, here’s what you should know about the requirements.

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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.

To carry a concealed firearm, every state always requires a legal licensing to carry the weapon which is why the applicants must ensure that they fill the form and apply for the licensing to undergo firearms training. As per the states, the fees of the application changes as well as a few minimal changes in the requirements.

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 fee, 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.

Step 8: Private Investigation Certification

Now that you know how to become a PI, it is time you get some legitimacy through private investigation certification. This examination will now consist of MCQs that score 125 which may also contain 15 randomly distributed pre-test questions that may be unscored that make a total of up to 140 questions. There are 2.5 hours that are allowed to take into consideration the review of pre-test items that help you in getting private investigators certification.

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Getting a Professional Certified Investigator (PCIⓇ) designation will provide you with an independent confirmation of your specialized skills in security investigations that may be include case evaluation and review of options for case management strategies. It then validates the ability to collect information through the effective usage of surveillance, interviews, and interrogations for PIs.

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