It seems that every decent job that’s available today requires a relatively high level of experience to even submit an application. In qualifying to apply for a private investigator license, perhaps the largest obstacle most people face is gaining the necessary experience. Most states that require licenses also allow education a substitute for experience, though. Simply put, the best way to become a private investigator with no experience is to accumulate education that will count toward getting a license.
How to Become A Private Investigator with No Experience?
45 states in the US require a license to conduct private investigations. The other states are not far away from requiring licensing, and a few of those have licensing requirements at the local level. So if you’re not coming from a law enforcement or military background but you have a strong desire to get into the investigative field, education is your best option to get your PI license without qualified experience.
What qualifications do you need?
Regardless of your experience level, the first hurdle in the process to obtain your license is meeting the minimum age requirement. In some states, 18 is the minimum age. In others, it is between 21 to 25 years of age. The minimum age requirement is kind of funny when you also think about the minimum experience required to apply for a license. Not many 18-year-olds would have the 6,000 hours (or 3 years) of qualified investigative experience for the California license, but I digress.
The second qualification in the process is to have a clean criminal history. For some states, this means no felonies or serious misdemeanors. In other states, this could mean no criminal convictions before a specific time of your license application, usually about ten years.
Along with age and criminal history, most states require a specific number of qualified investigative hours before you can apply for a PI license. Qualified investigative hours are defined as experience working in either law enforcement, military police, or under the direct supervision of a licensed investigator. Some states will substitute education for experience, but most require direct investigative experience rather than education.
Can you be a private investigator without a degree?
In nearly every state you must first be licensed before conducting any private investigations. For the states that do require a license, nearly every state requires a high level of investigative experience to qualify for a license – anywhere between two to four years. Often though, education is an approved substitute for education.
Even though a degree isn’t necessarily required if you want to become a private investigator with no experience, gaining a relevant college degree is the best way to get into the field. For the states where investigative experience is required, a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or a similar field will substitute for experience.
A combination of investigative experience and education is often acceptable to qualify for a private investigator license. For instance, in Texas, you can qualify for a license with an associate degree and two years of investigative experience. In California, though, you would still need a year of qualified experience even when holding a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, police science, or law.
What skills do you need?
Even with little to no experience, a private investigator must have certain skills to successfully complete any assignment. Interviewing, surveillance, and report writing are perhaps the three most important skills a private investigator must-have, especially as a beginner.
Most new investigators start by completing surveillance and interview assignments. In fact, many can make a good career out of these two skills alone. Domestic cases, insurance claims, and workers compensation fraud are some of the most common case types that require both surveillance and interviews. Criminal defense is another investigative niche that requires a great deal of interviewing skill.
Report writing is perhaps the most important skill a private investigator can possess. You can get everything else right, but if the information is not properly documented, your hard work can be completely wasted. An incomplete report is equally problematic.
In addition to these basic skills, some characteristics you should develop to be a good private investigator include:
- Common Sense
- Empathy and Compassion
- Problem Solving
How much does it cost to become licensed?
In terms of only the licensing fees, the cost to become a private investigator depends on which state you apply to be licensed. Fees range from as low as $15 in Maryland to $1,450 in Connecticut. Each state has license renewal fees to be paid about every two years, and some states require a second license with additional fees to run a private investigations company. Most states also require insurance and a surety bond to operate as a PI, most commonly about a $10,000 bond.
The cost to become a licensed private investigator also depends on what path you take to become qualified – experience, education, or a combination of the two. In either case, you’ll spend at least three to four years accumulating experience or education. For the education route, you must take into consideration the price of getting a relevant degree. If you land a job with a PI firm before you get licensed, you’ll work for significantly lower wages compared to what you can demand working for your own company.
How long does it take to become a private investigator?
As previously discussed, you’ll need about four years of experience or education to qualify to apply for a private investigator license. After accumulating the necessary education and experience, you must submit your application packet to your state’s governing board. Most states take about four to six weeks to process your initial application.
After that, you still need to prepare for your state exam. If you feel like you have a solid grasp of your state’s privacy laws and other laws relevant to PI work, then you can take the exam as soon as you pass the initial application process. If you still need time to prepare, give yourself a solid month of study before scheduling yourself for the private investigator license exam.
When you’ve passed your exam, expect about another two weeks to receive your license. Once you’re licensed, you’ll also need another few weeks to set up your business name and decide if you’ll be working as a sole proprietor or as a corporation.
Does a private investigator make good money?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, private investigators make an average of $50,510. Keep in mind this is an average of all private investigators throughout the United States. Some make much more, and others probably make a bit less. How much you can make depends on your investigative skills, your business and marketing abilities, and the market in which you plan to operate.
Working as a sole proprietor, building a client list is largely a game of word-of-mouth and relationships. Steady work comes from attorney clients, insurance companies, and businesses that need investigative services that a PI can provide.
To make good money serving attorney clients, you first need to get an audience with a local attorney. Do an excellent job for the ones who hire you, and then your attorney clients will start to refer you to their peer group. The same principle applies to getting work from insurance companies. When you do good work for one client, they’ll pass the word along to other businesses until you have a steady roster of clientele.
Attend local Chamber of Commerce meetings and state association events to get work with local businesses and sub-contract work from other PI firms. You’ll get more work as local business owners get to know you better. Some PI’s make a great living simply through sub-contracting for other PI firms. This can be a bit risky, though, because your business becomes completely dependent on another firm’s ability to also stay in business.
What states do not require a license to be a private investigator?
The only states in the US that do not require a private investigator license at the state level are:
- South Dakota
But don’t think you can move to one of these states and set up shop as a PI. You still need a business license to operate any business in Alaska. And Fairbanks and Anchorage (the two biggest cities, hence the largest markets for PI’s) require city permits to do private investigations.
Wyoming is another sparsely populated state that doesn’t require state licensing. But just like Fairbanks and Anchorage in Alaska, if you want to work in Cheyenne (the largest city in Wyoming), you’ll have to qualify for a city permit to operate as a private investigator.
Idaho, Mississippi, and South Dakota do not have state or local licensing requirements. However, PI associations tend to regulate the industries in those states, and their strict codes of conduct ensure that only the most ethical and law-abiding persons enter their associations. If you’re not a member of the state association in Idaho, Mississippi, or South Dakota, hardly any business or private person would ever work with you.
How do I start a private investigator career?
As stated, the only two ways to get a private investigator license are through education and experience. Many former police officers and criminal investigators get into PI work as a post-retirement second career. The laws regarding the necessary experience to get a license even seem to favor former law enforcement. If you’re motivated with a clean record and in good physical shape, law enforcement might be the best way to start a private investigation career. You wouldn’t necessarily need to wait for retirement to get your license too.
While on the job, you can document all your investigative work and get your supervisors to sign for it as qualified investigations. This way you can get licensed and start doing PI work as a side hustle. It’s a far less risky business decision, and you can start to learn the business processes you’ll need to know when running a full-time business down the road.
Waiting until after retirement to start a private investigator career is an excellent option too. With a pension to support yourself, you can work as a sub-contractor for other PI firms or you can start your own company without the pressures of needing to make ends meet from your PI work alone.
The other path toward starting a career in private investigations is by earning a relevant degree. Earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice will satisfy the education requirement in most states. You’ll learn the justice system and some basic investigative techniques. A criminal justice degree will prepare you to work as a solo investigator, but you should also take classes in business management and entrepreneurship if you plan on starting your own agency.
Interning with a private investigation company is another great way to start a private investigator career. Interning with a PI firm is can also count toward college credits while completing a degree toward becoming a private investigator. Even if you chose another career path after earning your degree, many of the skills you’ll learn while working for a PI firm provide immense value in other related fields such as law enforcement and the legal system. Check with your academic advisor to see if interring with a private investigation company will count toward academic credits.
After building experience and education, you can apply for your state license. Prepare your resume and start searching job boards as you would with a typical job search. You might have to go directly to the websites of prominent investigative firms in your area to find open positions. Connecting with investigators on LinkedIn is another way to land your first job. Also, by joining your state association you can attend networking events and meet other investigators in your area that may be hiring.
In all likelihood, your first job as a PI will be an entry-level position, so be prepared to work your way up the ladder if you start with a private company. Even when starting your own company, it will take time to build contacts and a client list.