Fancy Yourself a Sleuth? Become a Private Investigator in 9 Steps

private investigator with binoculars peering through blinds

Adobe Stock

Leslie W. Price
Leslie W. Price10
Theatre director, writer, and arts educator.

Magnum P.I., Jim Rockford and Nick and Nora Charles make the world of private investigating look cool and (sometimes) sophisticated. They’re smart and funny, and they always catch the bad guy. In reality, becoming a private investigator is, like any other career, something that takes time, talent and hard work. There will be thrilling moments just like on TV and in the movies. However, there will also be plenty of dull ones — the moments that they never show on screen — when you’re waiting and waiting for someone to do something. Here’s what you’ll need to do to launch your own career as a P.I. and a little bit more about the highs and lows you can look forward to.

What does a private investigator do?

While your favorite fictional private investigator might not show you a totally accurate picture of what their real-life counterpart does, they're all accurate in showing that private investigators spend a lot of time gathering clues and analyzing evidence. This work might be for a personal client who's looking for a missing loved one or having a partner surveilled to see if they’re cheating. It could also be on behalf of a legal client to help gather and review evidence in preparation for a trial. While some P.I. professionals do chase down the subjects of their investigations (though, most don’t drive Ferraris — sorry!), many more spend time at computers analyzing facts, figures or even cybercrimes.

Beyond possessing a fair amount of patience and dedication, the qualifications you'll need to become a private investigator include an analytical and curious mind. You'll also need to be open to lots of possible outcomes to a given case. While some situations can be fairly predictable, that's not always the case. Being able to examine all of the evidence available to you will help you do solid work and build trust with your clients. 

Whether someone is gathering evidence on the street or in the office, patience and attention to detail are incredibly important. It takes time to put together the puzzle pieces of any investigation, but the payoff is very satisfying.

Steps to becoming a private investigator.

1. Education.

Most private investigators have at least a bachelor’s degree, and some states have requirements regarding education. At the very least, a high school diploma or equivalent is required. For those candidates who have associate’s or bachelor’s degrees, many find that studying criminal justice or forensic science is helpful.

2. Experience.

Virtually every state in the U.S. requires aspiring private investigators to gain some sort of law enforcement experience before they can consider taking the next step in their career goals. The amount of time varies, though typically, thousands of hours are required. You can gain that experience via military service, working on a police force or working under a licensed P.I., attorney or other professional firm that uses private investigators regularly. Even the private eyes on TV have some kind of experience.

3. Getting fingerprinted.

You’ll probably need to get fingerprinted to even apply for a license. This is a simple process, but it’s an important one to make sure private investigators don’t have anything in their backgrounds that might compromise their professional work. Note that some higher-level jobs might eventually require a more comprehensive background check.

4. Firearms training.

If you’re planning to be the kind of P.I. who carries a gun, you’ll probably need to do some specialized training. This will include not only training on how to use a gun itself but also how to use a gun in certain situations when you encounter dangerous suspects. Once you get that training, many states require written and performance testing to prove that you’re ready to work safely with a firearm on a day-to-day basis. 

5. Applying.

Most states have an application process whether you’re planning to go out on your own or work with an existing agency. The application materials are different from state to state, but most will require a background check and the information on those fingerprints you’ve already had analyzed (see above). In some states, applicants who are approved will need to pass an exam. There are five states that don’t require a license at all: Alaska, Idaho, Mississippi, South Dakota and Wyoming. Of those five, local municipalities in Alaska and Wyoming have their own requirements. Be sure to do your research!

6. Exam.

Some states require you to take an exam before becoming a private investigator. These tests cover areas such as laws, how to handle evidence and liability. Prior to the exam, you’ll be sent a packet with test prep materials, so you’ll have what you need to study. As with any career that requires passing a test to move forward, you should spend the time studying so you don’t have to take it more than once. 

7. Paying the licensing fee.

Once you pass your exam (if required), you’ll need to pay a fee. The amount is different from state to state, but most fees are under $200. Depending on where you practice, you may need to renew your license from time to time. Note that your license may not be transferable from state to state, so be sure to check if you think you'll need to cross state lines in the course of your work or decide to relocate.

8. Getting insurance.

It’s not a glamorous part of the job, but getting insurance is required in all states. This protects clients from financial responsibility due to fraud or negligence. The amount of insurance required is different in each state, but you’ll generally need at least $10,000 of insurance coverage.

9. Practice.

Some newly minted P.I.s prefer to work with an existing firm to gain more experience and because there’s a bit more stability. Other folks set out on their own. It’s up to you and what you want. One of the ways you can make the most of your experience prior to becoming a licensed P.I. is by exploring all of the different options that will be available to you once you finally get that license. That way, you’ll be ready to make an informed decision about which path you’re most interested in.

How long does it take to become a private investigator?

Because you need so much experience to even think about becoming a private investigator, you’ll need to plan on investing at least 4-6 years in your education and on-the-job training. In some states, the number of required hours of experience goes up if you don’t have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, so there really aren’t a lot of shortcuts in those locations.

Even if you opt not to get a formal education, it’s well worth it to get the professional experience in law enforcement, legal work or the military. You’ll have a better chance at doing well in your chosen career, and you’ll avoid making costly mistakes thanks to your years of work before taking the next step. 


According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual salary for private detectives was $50,700 per year as of 2017. The top 10% earn more than $86,730.

Don’t miss out on articles like these. Sign up! 


Leslie W. Price is a theatre artist, educator and writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her on LinkedIn or visit her portfolio.