How to Actually Become a Licensed Private Investigator (PI): 2024

So you want to become a private investigator? This career path offers excitement, flexibility, and the chance to help people in need. As a PI, no two days will ever be the same. You could be tracking down missing persons one day and performing employee background checks the next. It’s an unpredictable job, but that’s part of the appeal.

To become a successful private investigator, there are some important steps you need to take. Here is a comprehensive guide on how to break into this fascinating field:


Step 1: Make Sure You Have the Right Personality and Skills

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Being a PI requires a very specific set of personality traits and skills. Here are some of the most important ones you’ll need:

  • Curiosity: You need to have an inquisitive mind and derive satisfaction from getting to the bottom of mysteries. You’ll regularly face puzzling situations, so you must enjoy figuring things out.
  • Persistence: Many investigations hit dead ends before the truth is uncovered. You need persistence and determination to see every case through to the end.
  • Analytical skills: You must be able to gather facts, analyze evidence, and use logic to put together the pieces of a puzzle. Strong analytical skills are a must.
  • Communication skills: You’ll need to interact with diverse people while investigating cases. Excellent verbal and written communication skills help you conduct interviews and elicit information.
  • Discretion: Private investigators must keep clients’ personal information confidential. You must be discreet and respectful of clients’ privacy.
  • Organizational skills: You need to systematically gather, record and analyze evidence. Being meticulous is a big plus in this field.
  • Tech savviness: Private eyes rely on computers, cameras, GPS devices, and surveillance equipment. You’ll need some tech skills and a willingness to continually learn.


If this sounds like you, then you likely have the right personality and skillset to excel as a private investigator. These traits and abilities provide a strong foundation as you undertake the licensing process.


Step 2: Earn a Relevant Educational Degree (Optional But Helpful)

There are no strict educational requirements to become a private investigator. However, having a degree in a relevant field gives you important knowledge and makes you more desirable to potential employers.

Helpful college majors if you want to become a PI include:

  • Criminal justice: You’ll learn about the criminal justice system and aspects like forensic science, law enforcement, and criminology. This provides useful background knowledge for investigations.
  • Police studies: Similar to criminal justice, police studies degrees teach criminal law, investigation techniques, report writing, and other relevant skills.
  • Law: While not mandatory, a law degree gives insights into legal system intricacies and helps with evidence gathering.
  • Business: Understanding business operations helps when investigating fraud, theft or other crimes in the business sector.
  • Accounting: Knowledge of accounting methods is useful when looking into financial crimes like embezzlement.
  • Computer science: Learning digital forensics and cybersecurity principles will assist with investigations involving computers and technology.


Degrees in psychology or social work are also good options. Ultimately, any degree that improves your understanding of human behavior, communication, or the legal system can be beneficial. If college isn’t an option, you can take individual classes in law enforcement, criminology or investigations at a community college.

While a degree isn’t required, it gives you a competitive edge when launching your PI career.


Step 3: Gain Relevant Work Experience

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In most states, private investigators need 1-3 years of investigative experience before applying for a license. There are several ways you can obtain this required experience:

  • Law enforcement: Working for the local police or sheriff’s department allows you to hone critical investigative skills. You’ll get first-hand practice taking statements, collecting evidence, conducting surveillance, finding missing persons, and compiling reports. This is perhaps the best work experience for aspiring private detectives.
  • Insurance companies: Many insurers hire investigators to look into suspicious claims and cases of fraud. This exposes you to investigation techniques you can apply to private cases.
  • Private detective agency: Start by working under a licensed senior investigator. You’ll learn the ropes while contributing research, surveillance, interviews, background checks and other assistance on cases.
  • Legal system: Working for a law firm, court system, or in a related role like a paralegal builds useful knowledge of legal procedures and the justice system.
  • Military and government: Former careers with investigative experience like the police force, FBI, CIA, or military intelligence provide solid preparation for private investigations.


Try to gain experience in at least a few of these fields to become a well-rounded investigator. The more diversity in your experience, the better. This hands-on training is the ideal path to accumulating the required investigative work hours needed before applying for your PI license.


Step 4: Get Licensed in Your State

All states require private investigators to be licensed. The requirements differ, but commonly include:

  • Being at least 18-21 years old
  • Having a high school diploma or GED
  • Passing a criminal background check
  • Submitting fingerprints to the state licensing body
  • Having 1-3 years of documented investigative experience
  • Passing a licensing exam
  • Carrying liability insurance


You’ll need to check the specific requirements for your state. For example, while most states require 1-3 years of experience, a few like Alaska and Idaho expect 5 years.

The licensing exam covers state laws plus general investigative knowledge and procedures. You may be tested on surveillance, evidence collection, interviews, report writing, privacy rights, informant handling, and more. Many states use the Certified Investigator Body of Knowledge exam.

Your state’s licensing body may offer study guides and test prep materials. Give yourself a few months to thoroughly study before taking the exam.

Once approved, you’ll receive your license allowing you to work as a private investigator. This usually needs to be renewed every 1-3 years by paying a fee and showing you completed any continuing education requirements.


Step 5: Consider Getting Additional Certifications (Optional)

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Along with state licensing, various optional certifications demonstrate your investigative expertise.

For example, you could pursue:

  • Certified Legal Investigator (CLI) credential from the National Association of Legal Investigators (NALI). This requires several years of experience plus reference letters and passing an exam. It certifies your specialized competence in legal investigations.
  • Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) certification from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. This validates your expertise in financial crimes and fraud-related investigations after passing an exam.
  • Professional Certified Investigator (PCI) designation from the Professional Investigators Alliance of California. This shows you follow industry standards and ethics.
  • Certified Professional Inspector (CPI) certification from the World Association of Detectives (WAD). This is an internationally recognized credential for private investigators.


Consider getting certified in niche areas relevant to the types of cases you want to take on. This further boosts your qualifications.


Step 6: Take Some Key Additional Steps

Here are a few other steps to take as you prepare to launch your PI career:

  • Enroll in continuing education: Take relevant classes and seminars to keep your knowledge current. Some states require ongoing education to renew your license. Topics like cybersecurity, financial forensics, and legal procedures are useful.
  • Build a professional network: Join industry associations and network with other investigators who can become mentors and partners. This gives you an invaluable support system.
  • Get insured: Contact business insurers to get appropriate liability and errors & omissions insurance tailored for private investigators before taking on clients.
  • Handle financing: Obtain business financing and capital if needed. Costs like equipment, insurance fees, education, and licensing applications add up when starting your PI firm.
  • Develop marketing: Design a logo, website, and brochures to market your new PI agency. Spread the word to law firms, businesses, and online to attract clients.


Thoroughly prepare yourself and lay the groundwork for success. This will lead to an outstanding launch of your fulfilling private investigation career.


Step 7: Join a Private Investigations Firm or Start Your Own

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Once licensed, you can either join an established firm or branch out on your own:

  • Join a firm: This allows you to immediately begin investigating for clients under the wing of experienced private eyes. You’ll keep honing your skills and building up your reputation before potentially starting your own agency down the road. Look for firms that align with your interests and specialty areas.
  • Start a PI company: This path gives you full independence and creative control. But it means handling all the demands of entrepreneurship. You’ll need to secure financing, establish a business entity, manage paperwork and taxes, find clients, purchase equipment and supplies, handle marketing, and manage your own caseload. Starting a sole proprietorship allows low startup costs, but an LLC offers liability protection. Weigh the options to choose the best path for your goals.


Either route, persistently grow your expertise with each case. As you rack up successes, your career satisfaction and reputation will flourish.


Final Tips to Become a Standout Private Investigator

an unidentified man browsing through files

Follow these additional pointers to excel as a private eye once licensed:

  • Develop specialties like fraud investigation, missing persons, corporate espionage, accident reconstruction, background checks, asset searches, or computer forensics. Specializing makes you a top expert in high-demand niches.
  • Build relationships with law firms. Many will regularly source investigators for cases. Reliably provide high-quality work for attorneys.
  • Stay on top of technology. Master using surveillance equipment plus tools for recovering deleted files and extracting smartphone data. Stay updated as technology evolves.
  • Commit to continuing education. Attend conferences and classes to constantly advance your skills in areas like forensics, surveillance, and data analysis.
  • Maintain ethical standards. Follow industry codes of ethics and your state’s laws to protect clients and maintain your reputation.
  • Collaborate with colleagues. Fellow PIs can provide insights and become partners on complex cases. Expand your network of reliable colleagues.
  • GetObjective evidence. Don’t rely on hunches. Thoroughly document your findings to justify conclusions with evidence that will hold up in court.


By developing specialist expertise and stellar ethics, your investigative services will be in high demand.

Becoming a private investigator lets you help people get justice and find answers. With this comprehensive guide, you have all the key steps to prepare for an exciting and rewarding career as a licensed PI. Stay persistent through the licensing process, continually build your skills, and uphold impeccable professional standards once qualified. Your unique talents and passion for this work will drive success. Soon you’ll be making a real difference in people’s lives with every case you take on.


What does the licensing process involve?
Typical licensing requirements involve meeting age and education criteria, passing a background check, submitting fingerprints, gaining experience, passing an exam, getting insurance and paying fees.
Most states require 1-3 years of documented investigative experience before licensing. This can be gained working in law enforcement, the legal system, insurance firms, private detective agencies or government.
Exams test your knowledge of state laws, surveillance, evidence gathering, interviews, privacy rights, informant handling and other investigative procedures. Many states use the Certified Investigator Body of Knowledge exam.
Optional certifications like Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) and Certified Legal Investigator (CLI) credentials validate specialized expertise. Getting certified in your niche makes you more marketable.
Joining an established agency lets you gain experience under seasoned PIs before potentially starting your own later. Starting a firm gives you independence but more responsibilities.
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