Becoming a Private Investigator (PI) Isn't as Far Fetched as You Might Think

Not all private investigator jobs are high drama TV. More practical PI work may be looking for missing persons, doing background investigations, or researching for insurance companies.

by Jennifer James, a author

Steps to a Fab Job as a Private Investigator

You have seen them on television and in the movies. They use their knowledge and skills to solve cases when no one else can, and have exciting and challenging work.

As a private investigator, you too can enjoy challenging work that helps people in a meaningful way. Whether you're reuniting an adoptee with her birth parents, helping to solve a computer crime, or keeping an innocent man out of jail, the work of a private detective can make a big difference to many people's lives. In addition to the other rewards of this job, the potential exists for a successful investigator to earn up to $100,000 a year.

If you are interested in breaking into this career, here are some steps you can follow, based on the FabJob Guide to Become a Private Investigator.

1. Develop your detective skills

Vital skills for a private investigator include observation and listening skills, critical thinking (you don't just take information at face value), research skills, problem-solving ability, and verbal and written communication skills. It also helps if you have computer skills and can take photographs. Many of these skills can be self-taught with online resources.

2. Consider taking a course

A criminal justice background or education can be a big help in getting hired. There are many private investigator training courses available, including some you can take online. Make sure you investigate any course to ensure you get what you pay for - consider it your first PI assignment.

3. Learn about licensing requirements

In most cases, the only qualification you absolutely need to become a private investigator is a license from your state or province to operate as an agent. Generally, this will require you to be 18 years of age, of sound mind and with a clean criminal record. In some states, you may also need to pass a course or exam. Licensing for PIs varies from state to state (and province to province), so make sure you find out what is required to operate in your area. Your local police service, government, or PI association should be able to direct you to what is required.

4. Get experience

Start by taking stock of the experience you already have. If you have ever worked in any kind of legal or research position, or done security work, you are already a step ahead of the competition. However, almost any experience could be helpful at some point. For example, if you have ever worked in retail, you might be able to do undercover work at a department store. If you feel your experience is limited, consider asking a working private eye to serve as a mentor to you and guide you towards success.

5. Find job openings

Once you have some experience, your next step will likely be finding work with an agency or other employer. You can contact PI agencies, lawyers, and insurance firms in your area to meet with them and offer your services. If you aren't having much luck, initially offering your services for free might help you land your first few cases and get you on your way.

6. Start working towards a specialty

Many private investigators choose an area to specialize in, such as missing persons, background investigations, computer crime, executive protection, forensics, or insurance fraud, among others. When you are starting out, get involved in a variety of cases and see what satisfies or interests you the most. Most successful PIs eventually choose an area or two of specialization and set out to establish themselves as experts on these topics.

7. Set up your own agency

Many private investigators eventually choose to start their own agency. Even though not all states require it, it is a good idea to get a few years' investigative experience under your belt before you go into business for yourself. Also, make sure that you plan adequately for marketing your agency, as this is an area many would-be PIs overlook - cases will not fall into your lap, so be prepared to market yourself to potential clients through a variety of methods.

8. Become an expert in your field

Once your agency is up and running, you need to continue to develop yourself as a private investigator to stay current and competitive. One of the best ways to do this is to become a recognized expert in your field. This can be accomplished through methods such as presenting seminars to local business groups, publishing articles, and getting involved with local and national PI associations. Once you are the expert in your chosen niche, you may find yourself so busy that you will be hiring PIs yourself just to keep up!


Jennifer James is co-author of the FabJob Guide to Become a Private Investigator. The guide offers detailed information about how you can break into this career and get hired as a private investigator. Visit for information.

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