Private Investigator License Requirements By State

As of last count in 2018, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) surveys showed there were some 33,000 private investigators working throughout the United States. That’s likely a fairly accurate estimate of the number of investigators on the payroll of established firms, working on the claims investigations teams of major insurance companies and for state L&I and revenue agencies investigating workplace injury claims and questionable tax reporting. But it’s unlikely that number accounts for all the hired gun independently licensed PIs out there taking cases pro bono, free agents that contract with law offices, or moonlighting law enforcement professionals. And it’s even less likely the number reflects all the PIs working in the handful of states out there that still don’t have licensing laws on the books for private investigators.

Since every state and municipality where licensing laws exist handle the entire process of vetting applicants and issuing credentials, there is no national database and no official  count of the number of license holders across the country.

This is a field made up of true investigative professionals who very often have military experience or come from backgrounds in law enforcement. It’s a profession where   diligence and truth-seeking lead to real results, and that’s something that can’t happen without a lot of integrity and professionalism. It’s also a profession where operating covertly is the key to success, so official counts on the number of people out there doing the work may not tell the whole story.

We do know there is serious demand for the services PIs provide, and many PIs are able to be very selective about the cases they take. This is bringing more people into the profession to take up the slack and do the all-important work of finding the truth even when it’s elusive and it seems like every stone has already been turned over.

That means there are a lot of questions swirling around as new blood considers their options for getting into the field. You’ve got questions, and we’ve got answer to some of the most common questions people ask when looking to hire an investigator, and among prospective PIs looking to break into the field.

Q: Do all states require private investigators to be licensed?

Answer: To date, just 5 states do not require private investigators to be licensed at the state level:

  • Alaska
  • Idaho
  • Mississippi
  • South Dakota
  • Wyoming

However, of those 5 states, 2 have licensing requirements at the local level: Wyoming and Alaska.

Those states without licensure for private investigators at either the state or local level—Idaho, Mississippi and South Dakota—all have active professional associations that have defined bylaws and codes of ethics. Membership in these private investigator associations provides a clear set of standards for the practice of private investigation.

Further, regardless of the absence of state license requirements, private investigators operating businesses are always subject to applicable business laws.

Q: What is required to become a licensed private investigator?

Answer: The remaining 45 states (plus the District of Columbia) do license PIs, and therefore have specific licensing requirements, which include education and experience requirements, application procedures, and renewal procedures. Further, a select number of states allow private investigators to carry weapons; as such, mandatory firearms training, certification, and certification renewal are commonplace.

However, because each state has their own legislation regarding the practice of private investigators and private investigative businesses, licensure requirements and the licensing process varies from state to state.

Generally, minimum requirements for state licensure include: being at least 21 (some states have age requirements as old as 25); possessing a high school diploma or the equivalent; and have U.S. citizenship or residency. Most states also have strict statutes prohibiting candidates who have felony convictions or misdemeanor convictions involving crimes of moral turpitude from becoming private investigators.

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Education and experience licensing requirements differ among states. Common education requirements include possessing an associate’s degree or higher in criminal justice or a related program, while experience requirements vary based on a number of factors, including the field in which the experience was obtained. Many states allow candidates to substitute education for experience so as to meet minimum guidelines for licensure.

Some states, such as Oklahoma, allow candidates with no experience to become licensed, provided they complete CLEET-approved training.

Q. Which state agency or department licenses private investigators?

Answer: State licensure for private investigators is overseen by various state organizations or agencies.

For example, Arizona private investigator licensure is handled by the Licensing Unit of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, while private investigators in California are licensed through the Department of Consumer Affairs, Bureau of Security and Investigative Services.

Other states, including New Hampshire and New Jersey, regulate and license private investigators through the state police, while still others license private investigators through dedicated commissions, such as Tennessee’s Private Investigation and Polygraph Commission and North Dakota’s Private Investigations and Security Board.

Q. What is the process for applying for licensure as a private investigator?

Answer: Most states have a similar process for applying for state licensure as a private investigator, which generally includes the following:

  1. Achieve minimum licensure requirements
  2. Achieve required education/experience for licensure
  3. Complete fingerprinting process for background investigation
  4. Complete license application and provide necessary documentation
  5. Pass state examination
  6. Maintain state licensure through continuing education and license renewal

However, some states have an entirely different process for licensure, such as Pennsylvania, which requires candidates to contact the Clerk of Courts in their county of residence to request a court date and apply for licensure.

Q. Are there any specific requirements for licensure?

Answer: In all states where they are licensed, private investigators must hold a current and valid surety bond to practice, which protects customers or clients from financial responsibility resulting from fraud or negligence. Specifically, commercial surety bonds, which are designed for non-contract items, are often needed to obtain a license as a private investigator.

Obtaining a surety bond involves pre-qualifying for the bond with a surety bond company or an insurance agent that can issue surety bonds, and signing an indemnity agreement. The minimum surety bond amount for state licensure varies, with many states requiring private investigators to hold a surety bond of at least $10,000.

Q. Are state licenses valid across state lines?

Answer: Private investigators may travel to and operate in other states, provided they follow the state requirements for doing so. Many states allow private investigators to cross state lines for private investigative purposes, provided they initiate their investigation in their home state.

However, state licenses for private investigators cannot be transferred to other states, with one exception. A few states have entered into reciprocity agreements, which allow private investigators to conduct business between these states without holding a separate license. Currently, the following states have reciprocity agreements:

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