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Become a Private Detective through Training and Certification in California

It isn’t easy to become a private investigator in California but those who succeed are proud members of a highly trained and respected profession.

The steps needed to earn a private investigator’s license in California are as follows:

Acquire Stipulated Experience/Education in CaliforniaGet Fingerprinted in CaliforniaObtain, Complete and Submit California Application PacketTake and Pass California’s PI ExaminationBegin Working as a Licensed PI in California

The California Bureau of Security and Investigative Services (BSIS) licenses private investigators in the state. A PI license allows the holder to work independently or manage a private investigative firm. A person can apply for either a private investigator license or a private investigator license with firearm permit.



Step 1. Acquire Stipulated Experience/Education in California

The following experience, training and education is required in order to become a private investigator in California:

  • A total of 6,000 hours of paid, investigative work over a period of three years (2,000 hours a year); OR
  • A total of 5,000 hours of paid, investigative work over a period of two-and-a-half years with an Associate’s degree in criminal justice, law or police science; OR
  • A total of 4,000 hours of paid, investigative work over a period of two years with a bachelor’s degree in law or police science.
  • Applicants for a PI license with firearm permit must also pass an eight-hour “Power to Arrest” course and a 14-hour course on carrying and using firearms (eight classroom and six range hours).

Acceptable investigative work includes: sworn law enforcement officer, military police officer, or doing investigative work under a licensed PI, attorney, repossession firm, insurance agency or arson investigation unit.

Unacceptable work includes: process server, public records researcher or debt collector.

California’s private investigators also have the option of pursuing firearms, baton and tear gas training through agencies approved by the California Bureau of Safety and Investigative Services.



Step 2. Get Fingerprinted in California

It is necessary to fill out a Live Scan Fingerprint Application. There is a separate Live Scan Fingerprint application form for persons who are also applying for a weapons permit. In California, it is mandatory to take care of the fingerprint requirement at one of these centers but there are a multitude of them in all counties. The city of Los Angeles alone has approximately 70 centers and there are over 35 of them within the San Diego city limits. The forms are not available online; however, you can find the Attorney General’s list of Live Scan Centers.

The standard fee is $51 for private investigator and $89 for private investigator with firearms permit. Some centers add a small, local fee. The BSIS uses the fingerprints to do a criminal background check. Applicants need to retain the receipt for inclusion in the application packet.



Step 3. Obtain, Complete and Submit California’s Application Packet

Applications for a private investigator license are only accepted from U.S. citizens or legal residents who are over the age of 18.

Along with your application packet, the following documents must be included:

  • Application Form
  • Personal Identification Form
  • Certificate in Support of Experience
  • Authorization of Business Name (if applicable)
  • Two Passport-Type Photos (2”X 1-1/2”)
  • Firearms Qualification and Firearms Permit Application (if applicable)
  • Live Scan Receipt
  • Check or Money Order for $50 ($130 if requesting firearms permit)

Entire packet should be mailed to BSIS, P.O. Box 989002, West Sacramento, CA 95798-9002. They can be called at 916-322-4000.



Step 4. Take and Pass California Private Investigator Examination

Persons whose applications are approved will receive an examination packet from Psychological Services Industries containing a candidate handbook, study materials and a number to call to schedule the examination.

Tests are given Monday through Saturday at any of 10 California locations. The two-hour, multiple-choice test covers such topics as terminology, laws/regulations, civil/criminal liability, evidence handling, surveillance, etc.

Candidates will be notified if they pass the examination at which time they must submit the $175 fee to receive the license.



Step 5. Begin Working as a Licensed Private Investigator in California

Private investigators in California perform many important functions including:

  • Investigating Crimes
  • Investigating People (their occupations, character, marital status, etc.)
  • Investigating causes of accidents, fires, injuries or losses
  • Locating lost or stolen property
  • Securing evidence for use in court

Private investigators in California may protect individuals if relevant to the investigation but they may not protect property. PIs who carry a firearm must have a minimum of $1 million in liability insurance ($500,000 for a loss due to injury or death and $500,000 for losses due to the destruction of property).

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, PIs in California earn an annual mean salary of $58,970. The annual mean salaries in specific metropolitan areas are:

  • Sacramento:  $50,900
  • Los Angeles:  $63,310
  • Oakland:  $66,820
  • San Diego:  $72,870
  • San Francisco:  $74,470-$79,900
  • San Jose:  $80,870


Private Investigator Salary Information for California

More than 2,900 private investigators were employed in California in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).  Their average salary was $58,970, with those in the 90th percentile earning $92,340.

The average salary and the salaries for top earning private investigators in California are shown below:

California City
Average Annual Salary
Los Angeles
San Diego
San Francisco
San Jose

The Los Angeles area had the third highest level of employment of PIs of any metropolitan area in the country with 800 working as of 2012.  The following cities have the highest paying salaries of any metropolitan area in the country:

  • San Jose – First
  • San Francisco – Second
  • San Diego – Third
  • Oakland – Seventh

According to California’s Employment Development Corporation, the demand for private investigators is projected to increase by 400 positions between 2010 and 2020—a 14.8% increase in the employment level.

The state of California requires that the Bureau of Security and Investigative Services (BSIS) license private investigators. BSIS is part of the California Department of Consumer Affairs.  The process of obtaining this license includes taking a two-hour exam and undergoing background checks through the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the California Department of Justice (DOJ).

Three years of experience working as an investigator is also required for licensure in California.  An associate’s degree in criminal justice, criminal law, or police science will substitute for half a year of the required experience.  A law degree or a bachelor’s degree in police science will substitute for one year of experience.

Information on employment levels and wages in 2012 in various cities in California is provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  These statistics are shown below.

Private Investigator Salaries in California

Area name
Annual mean wage
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale CA Metropolitan Division
Oakland-Fremont-Hayward CA Metropolitan Division
Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario CA
Sacramento--Arden-Arcade--Roseville CA
San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos CA
San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont CA
San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City CA Metropolitan Division
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara CA

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