Become a Private Detective through Training and Certification in Washington

Washington state Capitol building with Mt Rainier in the background

With the right kind of drive, focus, and investigative experience, PIs can be the ones that blow the lid off the kind of cases that make the news. You’ll never meet a PI that looks for that – it’s not exactly good for business if everyone recognizes your face from the 6 ‘o’clock news, but sometimes the cases they solve are bigger than themselves.

Meet Washington State Basic Eligibility Requirements
Apply Directly to a Private investigator Firm in Washington
Complete the Washington Licensing Application and Pay the Application Fee
Complete the Washington State Exam

In May 2020, a report from a Seattle-based PI agency revealed that Washington State lawmaker, Matt Shea, who was part of a conservative coalition of anti-government and militia supporters, was guilty of domestic terrorism in three, separate armed conflicts with the U.S. government in recent years, including a 2016 standoff with federal agents at an Oregon wildlife refuge.

The important work of this PI firm included uncovering the details involved with the planning and promotion of these armed conflicts. As a result of their work, Shea was removed from the House Republican Caucus, billed for damages, and chose to not seek reelection.

Primarily in the major metro regions of Seattle, Spokane, and Tacoma, the demand for private investigations continues to grow, particularly for PIs with military or police backgrounds, who tend to be scouted for jobs in the fraud departments of state and federal government agencies and insurance carriers.

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According to the Washington Employee Security Department, there were 1,940 PIs working in the state in 2019. But with about 300 annual openings for licensed investigators, there’s no shortage of work to go around and plenty of opportunities to build a successful PI agency from the ground up.

You must have a private investigator license if you work for a PI agency in Washington providing investigative services, escort or bodyguard services, or if you offer property loss prevention services.

PI licenses are issued to qualified candidates through the Washington State Department of Licensing. To become licensed as a private investigator here, you must meet basic license eligibility requirements and secure a position with a Washington State licensed PI agency. Only once you are affiliated with a state-licensed agency can you apply for your own license.


Step 1. Meet Washington State Basic Eligibility Requirements

In order to become a private detective in the state of Washington, you must meet the following basic requirements:

  • Be over 18 years old (21 if carrying a concealed weapon)
  • Be a United States citizen or resident alien
  • Have employment with, or an employment offer from, a properly licensed private investigator firm
  • Be free of any criminal convictions that directly relate to the duties you will perform as a private investigator

Washington State offers four different kinds of private investigator licenses:

Licenses in any of these four categories require 4 hours of pre-assignment training in EACH of these areas:

  • Legal Powers and Limitations
  • Evidence
  • Report Writing
  • Courtroom Testimony
  • Confidentiality/Privilege
  • Court Systems (Federal, State, County, and Municipal)
  • Common Sources of Public Information
  • Activities that Violate Criminal Statutes
  • Permissible Purposes of Reports


Step 2. Apply Directly to a Private investigator Firm in Washington

The state of Washington is different from many states in that it does not require you to obtain a private investigator’s license in order to apply for employment. In fact, to obtain licensure in Washington you must have either already obtained employment or at least have obtained an offer for employment. This means you do not have to obtain your license in order to begin looking for employment.

An associate’s or bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, law, or related fields are very well suited to preparing private investigators for preassignment training, examination, and ultimately, the job itself.

You must decide if you would like to carry a firearm in the line of duty, which will require a Washington state firearms certificate from the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission. If you decide to apply for a firearm permit, and you are going to work with an agency, you can submit your firearm application through the agency itself.

If you are going to work for yourself or become an employer, you must submit the application yourself, and pay the fee as shown below.


Step 3. Complete the Washington Licensing Application and Pay the Application Fee

The application for Washington state private investigator licensure can be found here.  The fees can be paid in the form of either a check or money order and are as follows:

  • $600 for an agency application in which the principal will be unarmed
  • $700 for an agency application in which the principal will be armed
  • $200 for unarmed private investigator
  • $300 ($200 + $100) for an armed private investigator. This fee represents the unarmed investigator fee of $200 plus an extra $100
  • $25 for the certified trainer exam

It is always best to use a fingerprint card that is produced or endorsed by the state. This will help to avoid any delays in the case the fingerprint card you select is not supported by the state. Also, it is highly recommended that you go to a sheriff’s office, or police office, in order to have your fingerprints professionally recorded.


Step 4. Complete the Washington State Exam

close up a of a studetns hands holding a pencil taking an exam

Washington does not require formal education to obtain your PI license, though, many prospective Private Investigators choose to obtain an associate degree in criminal justice or related fields in order to help bolster their knowledge and competency and to help better prepare them for the state exam.

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The Washington state private investigators exam is broken down as follows:

  • (45%) How Washington law applies to private investigators – Includes questions on privacy, campaign finance, the Washington criminal code, and more
  • (30%) Federal laws – Includes questions on the Federal Privacy Act, Freedom of Information Act, Federal Wiretapping Act, and more
  • (7.5%) Court systems – Includes questions on the Judiciary itself, as well as Judiciary procedures, and more
  • (10%) Legal procedures and definitions – Includes questions on the Washington State criminal code, civil procedures, evidence, and more
  • (7.5%) Other resources of public information – Includes questions on Code reviser’s office, worldwide locator, computer databases, Federal and state laws which can be found on the internet, and more

Washington has provided the following resources to help you:

The International Association of Security and Investigative Regulators (IASIR) provides information about state and local licensure and requirements

The Council on Licensure, Enforcement, and Regulation (CLEAR) is an international organization of professional and

occupational professionals dedicated to helping with issues of licensing and regulation.


Private Investigator Salary Information for Washington*

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the annual, average salary for PIs in Washington State was $54,330 as of May 2020 – that’s nearly the same as the national average. The real money, however, is reserved for those who have a few years of experience under their belt and have made a name for themselves in the industry. According to the BLS, these pros earned a median annual salary of $100,500 during this time.

To apply for a license from the Department of Licensing to become a private investigator, you must be at least 18 years old, pass an exam, and you must have a job offer from, or be employed by, a licensed PI agency in Washington.

To become an armed PI in Washington State, you’ll need to be at least 21 years old and have a current firearms certificate from the state’s Criminal Justice Training Commission.

Private Investigator Salaries in Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, and Olympia

Land yourself a job as a PI in Seattle—or, better yet, get your own PI agency up and running—and you’ll have a good shot at earning well in the six figures after you’ve had a chance to build a strong client list and a reputation as a trusted PI.

As per 2019, the following BLS stats reveal the median-top 10% salary range for PIs working in Washington State’s biggest metros:

  • Seattle-Tacoma: $52,500-$100,030
  • Spokane: $31,840-$59,580
  • Olympia: $58,940-$64,650 
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*May 2020 US Bureau of Labor Statistics Salary and Job Market Figures for Private Detectives and Investigators reflect state data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed September 2021.

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