How Do You Become a Private Investigator?

Private investigators typically need at least a high school diploma, several years of law enforcement work experience and a state license. Many private investigators have two-year or four-year degrees in criminal justice or political science prior to gaining professional work experience in law enforcement. Applicants must frequently submit their fingerprints and pass a background check, although some are hired by an accredited organization. Some states also require the placement of a surety bond, a financial commitment that can be forfeited if the investigator breaks the law.

Though no specific time line is common, aspiring investigators must learn the ropes of conducting legal and effective investigations through hands-on work experience. Military experience and federal intelligence jobs are alternatives to law enforcement work experience. PIs are often former police detectives who transition into private investigation during their mid or late careers.

Most states require that a person get licensed to work as a private investigator. However, the specific requirements vary significantly by state. Therefore, an aspiring PI needs to research the licensing requirements of their state. To carry a gun on the job, additional licenses are often required.

People who want to specialize in certain sectors, such as computer forensics, insurance, finance and corporate investigations, often need additional work experience in the appropriate industry. People with backgrounds in accounting or finance often fit well into corporate investigation roles, for instance. Someone who specializes in computer forensics often needs additional computer-related degrees or work experience.

Investigators often walk a fine line between legal and illegal activities. For instance, a private detective may put on the uniform of a utility company and present himself as an employee to gain information from a target. However, pretending to be a law enforcement officer or attorney could land him in jail. Similarly, conducting surveillance from public property is usually allowed, while wiretapping a target often violates state law. The threat of license removal and the loss of a surety bond are usually enough to keep investigators on the right side of the law.