A private investigator sitting in his car taking photos
ComplianceAugust 12, 2022

How to get a private investigator license

The private investigation business is booming. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for private detectives and investigators will grow 13% by 2030.

Because of the nature of the work that they do, private detectives and investigators are often regulated by both state and local licensing authorities.

If you’re wondering how to become a private investigator, here’s what you need to know.

What does a private investigator do?

A private investigator is typically hired by law enforcement or private agencies to locate or monitor elusive people or information. This includes finding missing persons, surveilling cheating spouses, recovering lost or stolen property, locating birth parents, and more.

Private investigators must act within the law at all times.

Do you need a license to be a private investigator?

Whether you need a private investigator license depends on your state, and in some cases city or county. Licenses are often needed to pursue certain activities and use tools of the trade, such as record and database systems.

Be sure to research the law as penalties for noncompliance can be steep. For example, a Mississippi resident received payment in Texas as a private investigator. Although Mississippi doesn’t require industry-specific licenses to conduct private investigations, Texas does. The individual was found to be in violation of the Texas Occupations Code which prohibits private investigative services without a license. The man was charged with a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison and a $4,000 fine.

Meet state prerequisites

If you are applying for a private investigator’s license you must meet certain eligibility requirements. These may include:

  • Minimum age: In most states, the minimum age for a private investigator is 18. In New York, it’s 25.
  • Experience: Applicants must meet a minimum number of years and/or hours of relevant experience.
  • Criminal justice degree: You may be able to skip the experience requirement if you have a criminal justice degree from a college or university accredited and recognized by the state.
  • Personal history: States require that applicants for a private investigators license should not have received a criminal conviction or be found to be incompetent by a court due to mental disease or defect.
  • Military history: You cannot receive a license if you’ve been dishonorably discharged from the U.S. armed forces.

Fulfill state licensing requirements

Most states require private detectives and investigators to have a license. Licensing requirements and eligibility prerequisites vary by state but may include the following:

  • A private investigator examination
  • Fingerprint screening
  • Credit report
  • Criminal check. You may need to undergo an FBI background check
  • A surety bond
  • Liability insurance

Basic business licenses and state business entity registrations may also apply.

Is there state reciprocity for private investigator agency licenses?

There are some instances when a private investigator may work in another state without obtaining that state’s license. These are limited exceptions, and, in most cases, the agency and agents should obtain the state license.

Some states do have reciprocal licensing agreements. These allow currently licensed private investigators to come into the state for a specific period of time. For example, North Carolina has reciprocal agreements that allow currently licensed private investigators from states to come into North Carolina for a specific period (30 days maximum, except for Tennessee, which is 15 days) to work a case that originated in their home state. Likewise, licensed North Carolina investigators may enter that state to work a case originating there. Investigations exceeding the time limits must be handled by a private investigator licensed in the state.

If you intend to operate in the state on a longer-term or permanent basis, you will likely need to obtain that state’s license. The licensing process can take four weeks to three months, depending on the review by the state agency and the complexity of the application.

Common requirements include proof of insurance, surety bonds, and a detailed business plan. Individual investigators and owners of the company must often provide fingerprints, photos, references, and employment history so that the state may run a background check.

How to become a private investigator

In addition to obtaining the appropriate licenses, follow these steps to becoming a private investigator:

  • Find a specialization: Private investigation is a field that covers a lot of ground. The main investigative types are civil and criminal. In a civil investigation, you are responsible for gathering information pertaining to a civil trial. A criminal investigation focuses on gathering evidence to solve a crime. The sub-specialties within civil or criminal investigations include:
    • Background checks: A private investigator researches an individual’s personal and professional history in relation to a specific investigation.
    • Surveillance: Often focused on missing person cases, cheating spouses, workers' compensation cases, corporate fraud, and more.
    • Insurance: Insurance fraud is commonplace, and a private investigation company will carry out investigations using surveillance, records research, interviews, and more.
    • Fraud: Private investigators often work on fraud cases where someone misrepresents their identity, skills, past work experience, etc. with the intent to deceive.
    • Corporate investigation: Companies often hire private investigators to investigate the loss or theft of sensitive information, verify the legitimacy of a new business partner or associate, and more.
  • Gain experience: Work experience is often a prerequisite for becoming a private investigator. This experience is preferably gained in law enforcement, the military, or federal intelligence. You could also choose to work alongside an experienced private investigator or complete a private investigator training program. Your state’s private investigator association can also provide information about how to become a private investigator.
  • Undergo firearms and non-weapons self-defense training: State laws vary, but you may be permitted to carry a weapon for the purposes of self-defense and are required to undergo firearms training. Self-defense training (using tasers, stun guns, chemical sprays, etc.) may also be mandated.
  • Get certification: Although not required to become a private investigator or start a private investigation business, holding a certificate from a professional organization can raise your credibility and help you win business. Criminal investigation certifications can be obtained from the National Association of Legal Investigators (the Certified Legal Investigator certification). Others can obtain a Professional Certified Investigator certification from ASIS International.
  • Get licensed: Check with your state to find out whether you need a private investigator license. You may also need a general business license (among other licensing and permit requirements) from your city or county.

CT Corporation can help

Outsourcing business registration and license research, applications, management, and renewals can help you take the pressure off internal resources. By working with a full-service management provider who specializes in the efficient processing of private investigator and general business licenses you can free up your time to focus on starting and growing your business while ensuring you keep up with changing compliance requirements.

For more information on CT Corporation services and how we can streamline your business licensing, please contact us or call us at (844) 701-2064.

The CT Corporation staff is comprised of experts, offering global, regional, and local expertise on registered agent, incorporation, and legal entity compliance.

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