What Does a Private Investigator Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

A Day in the Life of a Private Investigator

Danie Drankwalter/The Balance

Private investigators are hired by clients to do detective work. They may work on their own, for an agency, or for a corporation such as an insurance company or law firm. Individual investigators may have a specific specialty, such as forensic computer investigation or forensic accounting, or they may provide general investigative functions.

A vast majority of the job of a private detective is information gathering and fact-finding. This may be accomplished through computer searches, surveillance, conducting interviews, and going undercover. Private detectives may conduct follow-up investigations of already closed criminal cases. They may also be called to look into instances of insurance and worker's compensation fraud. In these instances, they may spend a great deal of time surveilling suspects to collect photographic or recorded evidence.

Private Investigator Duties & Responsibilities

The job of a private investigator often requires the following skills:

  • Perform surveillance
  • Prepare reports
  • Conduct background checks
  • Interview people
  • Gather intelligence
  • Provide security services
  • Assisting in locating missing persons
  • Provide courtroom testimony

Though they are not government agents, the information private investigators gather may be used later for criminal investigations. For this reason, it is important that, like police detectives, private investigators adhere to established rules of evidence.

Private Investigator Salary

A private investigator's salary varies according to the years of experience and the skills they can offer. It also depends on whom they work for and the clientele they can attract. Hourly wages are based on a 40-hour workweek.

  • Median Annual Salary: $50,090 ($24.08/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $89,200 ($42.88/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $29,310 ($14.09/hour)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018

Private investigators who work for themselves will need to spend money on surveillance equipment and marketing to attract new clients.

Education, Training, & Certification

A college degree isn't required to become a private investigator, though some level of education in a criminal justice program may prove helpful. Prior experience in a related field may be beneficial and at times required to advance in a private investigator career.

  • Experience: Relevant work experience can include past employment as a loss prevention specialist, a police officer, or detective. Jobs as private investigators can be great second careers for former law enforcement officers. Conversely, private investigators can later go into law enforcement.
  • Licensing: Most states require private investigators to be licensed. Specific licensing requirements vary from state to state but may include attending a private investigation course or school, testing, and a background investigation. A concealed weapons permit may also be required.
  • Certification: Private detectives can become certified through ASIS International.

Private Investigator Skills & Competencies

Aspiring private investigators should have the following skills and traits to be successful:

  • Interpersonal communication skills: Private detectives must be good at getting people to help them obtain the information they need. They need to be able to persuasively communicate, and some personal charm wouldn't hurt.
  • Analysis of evidence: They need to be able to interpret, analyze, and evaluate evidence.
  • Problem-solving skills: They have to be able to think quickly to solve problems.
  • Curious and justice-seeking: They should be inquisitive and want to right perceived wrongs.

Job Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the number of private detectives and investigators will grow 11% from 2016 to 2026, faster than the average for all occupations. The BLS sees continued demand for investigators in the legal services industry and for conducting more-intensive background checks than can be accomplished only through online methods.

Work Environment

Private detectives spend some time in an office meeting with potential clients and searching for information online but do a lot of work out in the field conducting interviews or surveillance.

Work Schedule

Private detectives often work unusual hours, depending on the needs of the particular investigation. That might mean conducting surveillance overnight or on a holiday weekend.

How to Get the Job


Aside from law enforcement officer, other occupations that can lead to work as a private investigator include bill and account collectors, claims adjusters, paralegals, and process servers, according to the BLS.


The Get Private Investigator Jobs website lists job openings in the field.


Create a resume that plays up your strengths and sets you apart from other candidates. Write a cover letter specific to the job; don't send a generic one that shows you didn't take the time to consider the unique aspects of a given job and employer.

Comparing Similar Jobs

People interested in becoming private investigators might also consider the following jobs. The figures provided are median annual salaries:

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018