Hailing from backgrounds in law enforcement, military, private security and loss prevention, often with degrees in areas like criminal justice, public safety, and even psychology, real life private investigators are turning Hollywood’s outmoded profile of the sleazy fly-by-night PI on its head. It’s not a description that was ever really accurate, and these days it’s barely even convincing in TV dramas.
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These are skilled professionals with a lot of integrity and an unwavering dedication to their craft working in a regulated field where meeting licensing requirements means passing a thorough background check and often laying down a substantial surety bond. And make no mistake—their earning potential reflects this.
Learn more about what private investigators are earning, and what you’ll need to do to become one of the top earners in the field:
Common Pay Structure and Compensation Models for PIs
This is a field where you’re not always dealing with a conventional pay structure like you might find in other professions. A significant proportion of PIs work independently to serve individual clients and run their agencies as sole proprietorships, while other firms might represent a number of PIs that have either partnered up or otherwise employ investigators on the payroll. Some PIs charge a set rate for certain basic services when they have a sense of how much work will go into it. Charging hourly is also standard, sometimes calculated and billed down to fractions of an hour the same way an attorney would. Some cases are more involved and open-ended, so PIs might hold a retainer as a minimum fee to cover a certain number of hours.
All of this means that in order to give a full and accurate picture of what the income is like, we needed to pull together data from a number of different sources, including reported income that comes through salary surveys conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the reporting arm of the Department of Labor, as well as job listings. In the end, you’ll find that we provide the most complete information available on salary and income in the field of private investigations.
While a good portion of private investigators work as employees of PI agencies, financial institutions, insurance companies, and credit collection companies and earn a standard salary, many also work as independent contractors, calling their own shots and earning an annual income based on the number of cases they take or the hours they bill. Although 2019 BLS stats show that just 6% of private investigators are self-employed, keep in mind that this is based on what the voluntary surveys came back showing. Other figures from PI agencies suggest that this number is likely closer to 25%.
PIs working as independent contractors or business owners charge either a flat fee or an hourly charge for each assignment:
- Flat Fee: Flat fees are ideal for jobs that are fairly straightforward. For example, PIs performing background checks for an employer would likely charge a flat fee per assignment.
- Hourly Fee: Hourly fees are commonplace in private investigations, and the rates PIs charge may differ depending on the complexity of the job. It’s common for PIs to charge additional fees to cover travel expenses, airfare, car rental, hotel, and per diem, in addition to an hourly fee.
PIs charging an hourly fee often require a retainer (an initial deposit) before accepting a case. The amount of the retainer often varies according to the amount of time the PI expects the case to take and is used to pay the PI’s billable hours and other expenses. Billable hours include active working hours, as well as hours spent making phone calls, drafting documents, researching, printing, and traveling, among others. PIs often charge higher hourly rates for evening and weekend work.
Salary Trends in Private Investigations
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), provides a complete breakdown of what you can expect to earn as a private investigator based on surveys of professionals with active licenses working in the field. Surveys provide a snapshot that can be very accurate for certain industries where PIs more often receive steady paychecks as payroll employees as opposed to working as independent investigators that charge set fees or certain services or bil out hourly. Surveys are only limited by the fact that they are voluntary, so they represent information from investigators that made the decision to share information on what they earn.
As of May 2019, the average, annual income for PIs nationwide was $50,510. The highest earners in the field (top 10%)—often those with a lot of experience and some formal education— earned an average income of $89,760 during this time.
You’ll likely be among the top paid private investigators in the nation if you work in one of the following industries, which reported the highest annual mean wages for PIs in 2019:
- Electric power generation, transmission, and distribution: $91,300
- Scheduled air transportation: $83,090
- Securities, commodity contracts, and other financial investments and related activities: $79,530
- Insurance carriers: $74,610
- Telecommunications: $72,760
As expected, the nation’s capital – the epicenter of business, industry, and government – came in at the top of the list for its pay of PIs, followed closely by California, where personal wealth and some of the nation’s largest corporations create a lot of demand for private investigators.
The following states reported the highest average annual salaries for PIs:
- Washington D.C.: $69,790
- California: $68,570
- Delaware: $65,610
- Utah: $64,440
- Nevada: $64,200
The top-paying metro areas in terms of annual mean wages were:
- Raleigh, NC: $85,480
- Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA: $81,070
- Fresno, CA: $78,590
- San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA: $78,150
- Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT: $73,420
- Rochester, NY: $71,630
- Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA: $71,580
- Baltimore-Columbia-Towson, MD: $68,250
- Salem, OR: $66,030
- Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX: $65,990
The following non-metropolitan areas came out among the nation’s top-paying in the nation, according to annual mean wage:
- Central Missouri: $55,210
- East Central Illinois: $54,070
- Northern northeastern Ohio: $46,900
- Southwest Louisiana: $46,900
- South Georgia: $39,200
Factors that Can Influence What PIs Earn
Not all PIs can and do charge the same hourly/assignment fee, just as not all salaried PIs are paid the same. In the field of private investigations, experience and formal investigative training is everything. Investigators with extensive backgrounds in investigations and law enforcement, and those with formal college degrees in areas like criminal justice often command higher pay.
And that’s not just the case with independent investigators. Many employers look for candidates who come to the table with both education and relevant professional experience, while others have much higher starting offers and pay scales for investigators with comprehensive resumes showcasing both formal education and relevant job experience.
Experience: Private investigations is largely the domain of retired and former police officers, detectives, criminal investigators, and military personnel. And with their extensive experience in the field and deep understanding of the legal process, private investigations is a natural fit for these professionals.
Even for those without law enforcement or military backgrounds, experience can be gained working in a support role for a licensed PI, conducting public records investigations for law offices or government agencies, or even with companies that routinely perform investigations for the purpose of vetting contractors and new hires or verifying claimant statements as is the case with insurance companies. Investigative experience of any kind goes a long way toward building your resume and positioning yourself as an expert in the field – something you’ll need if you expect to charge a premium for your services.
Plus, in many states, experience in investigations isn’t just preferred – it’s required to become licensed. For example, in California, you’ll need at least three years of investigative experience of this sort under your belt before you can qualify for state licensure.
Education: Private investigators who have achieved a solid understanding of the law and criminal justice system through an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, law, police science or a related field often command a higher pay.
An associate’s or bachelor’s degree in an area related to investigations or criminal justice can also be very helpful when taking the state licensing exams required in some states. And in many states, a degree can substitute for some of the experience required for licensure. For example, in California, an associate’s degree in criminal justice, criminal law, or police science can be substituted for a half year of experience, while a law degree or a bachelor’s in police science can be substituted for one year of experience.
Specialization: Although many private investigators choose to offer general investigative services, perhaps just as many choose to focus their careers on one or more areas of specialization. Individual clients and companies that perform investigations in the course of their business may seek out—and pay more for—private investigators who come with expert knowledge (through education and/or experience) in a particular area like:
- Criminal investigation
- Terrorism and intelligence
- Computer forensics
- Marital investigation
- Nursing home abuse investigation
- Insurance investigation
- Pre-employment/employee investigations
Professional Association Membership or Certification: Membership/certification in a professional association is a sure-fire way to set yourself apart from the competition, position yourself as a leader in your field, and command higher fees or paychecks, as the case may be. It’s also where you’ll find outstanding opportunities to network, participate in training and education classes and events, come together with your colleagues through workshops and conferences, and stay up-to-date on the latest legislative changes to the profession. Not only does membership in a professional association allow you to display a commitment to your profession, it adds another layer of credibility.
You’ll find many great opportunities to get involved through state-level professional membership associations. At the national level, ASIS is a big name in security and private investigations, with a membership of more than 34,000.
PIs holding the ASIS Professional Certified Investigator (PCI) credential have shown an advanced level of training in evidence collection, case management, and preparation of reports and testimony. To qualify for the PCI credential, you must have at least five years of investigative experience, which includes at least two years in case management, and you must pass a certification exam.
2020 Job Trends and Hourly Pay Rate
Recent job postings (June 2020) provide valuable insight into what employers are paying private investigators in different areas of the country. But more than that, it gives a sense of who is hiring investigators into the more traditional salaried and hourly positions – from local and regional PI agencies to larger outfits that contract their services out to both private companies and government agencies to private security firms to specialized firms that work to vet prospective private sector and government employees for positions that involve working with sensitive information:
- Private Investigator, National Investigations Inc., Pittsburgh, PA: $19-$26/hour
- Cybercrime Private Investigator, Universal Investigations Agency, Chicago, IL: $15-$20/hour
- Private Investigator, Claims Bureau USA, Hollywood, FL: $15-$25/hour
- Surveillance Investigator, DigiStream Investigations, Inc., Charlotte, NC: $20-$40/hour
- Surveillance Investigator, Torres Protection Group, Papillion, NE: $38,000-$42,000
- Field Investigator, Coburn Investigative Agency, Jacksonville, FL: $20-$30/hour
- Entry-Level Field Investigator, DigiStream Investigations, Denver, CO: $40,000
- Surveillance Investigator, Torres Protection Group, Plymouth County, MA: $40,000-$45,000
- Private Investigator – Surveillance, NC Global Solutions INC., Raleigh-Durham, NC: $25-$40/hour
- Intellectual Property/Anti-Piracy Investigator, Lynx Investigations, Denver, CO: $25/hour
Private Investigators Salaries by State*
The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides a breakdown of the number of licensed PIs by state, along with the range of salaries in each location (median- top 10%):
- Alabama: $51,690-$96,970 (approximately 240 licensed PIs)
- Alaska: $56,800 – $87,850 (approximately 80 PIs)
- Arizona: $53,180 – $90,070 (approximately 370 licensed PIs)
- Arkansas: $54,260 – $69,480 (approximately 160 licensed PIs)
- California: $64,110 – $106,300 (approximately 3,390 licensed PIs)
- Colorado: $49,550 – $81,150 (approximately 410 licensed PIs)
- Connecticut: $61,570 – $80,390 (approximately 490 licensed PIs)
- Delaware: $64,480 – $84,790 (approximately 260 licensed PIs)
- District of Columbia: $70,570 – $99,380 (approximately 150 licensed PIs)
- Florida: $36,180 – $64,900 (approximately 4,350 licensed PIs)
- Georgia: $49,610 – $78,550 (approximately 980 licensed PIs)
- Idaho: $60,490 – $83,140 (approximately 60 PIs)
- Illinois: $57,000 – $91,420 (approximately 1,180 licensed PIs)
- Indiana: $37,530 – $60,780 (approximately 440 licensed PIs)
- Iowa: (approximately 100 licensed PIs)
- Kansas: $51,520 – $82,740 (approximately 150 licensed PIs)
- Kentucky: $48,690 – $76,170 (approximately 240 licensed PIs)
- Louisiana: $46,610 – $68,930 (approximately 480 licensed PIs)
- Maine: $51,230 – $77,790 (approximately 40 licensed PIs)
- Maryland: $59,56 – $96,320
- Massachusetts: $56,250 – $84,250 (approximately 530 licensed PIs)
- Michigan: $43,400 – $74,330 (approximately 740 licensed PIs)
- Mississippi: $53,910 – $79,310 (approximately 140 PIs)
- Missouri: $57,220 – $91,610 (approximately 300 licensed PIs)
- Nebraska: $41,210 – $64,610 (approximately 320 licensed PIs)
- Nevada: $69,780 – $85,050 (approximately 340 licensed PIs)
- New Hampshire: $51,780 – $98,930 (approximately 150 licensed PIs)
- New Jersey: $62,800 – $98,520 (approximately 810 licensed PIs)
- New Mexico: $56,900 – $78,910 (approximately 70 licensed PIs)
- New York: $53,700 – $85,040 (approximately 1,480 licensed PIs)
- North Carolina: $48,570 – $78,420 (approximately 680 licensed PIs)
- Ohio: $47,690 – $73,870 (approximately 1,510 licensed PIs)
- Oklahoma: $39,570 – $68,330 (approximately 260 licensed PIs)
- Oregon: $54,290 – $73,670 (approximately 390 licensed PIs)
- Pennsylvania: $43,390 – $76,170 (approximately 3,330 licensed PIs)
- Rhode Island: $51,950 – $90,000 (approximately 50 licensed PIs)
- South Carolina: $53,570 – $75,340 (approximately 200 licensed PIs)
- South Dakota: $45,840 – $67,020 (approximately 80 PIs)
- Tennessee: $52,410 – $101,970 (approximately 680 licensed PIs)
- Texas: $57,550 – $77,930 (approximately 2,260 licensed PIs)
- Utah: $51,570 – $118,280 (approximately 130 licensed PIs)
- Virginia: $47,770 – $96,010
- Washington: $52,340 – $99,500
- West Virginia: $ – $ (approximately 130 licensed PIs)
- Wisconsin: $42,590 – $63,860 (approximately 340 licensed PIs)
*Salary and employment data compiled by the United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics in May of 2019. Figures represent accumulated data for all employment sectors in which private investigators work. BLS salary data represents state and MSA (metropolitan statistical area) average and median earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries.
All salary and employment data accessed June 2020.
Examples of private investigator positions were taken from a survey of job listings in June 2020 and are shown for illustrative purposes only. These examples do not represent job offers or positions that are currently available.