How to Become a Private Investigator

Are you tenacious, persistent, and logical? Is there nothing you love more than solving a good puzzle? If so, then you might just have what it takes to become a private investigator. Also known as PIs, private investigators act as freelance detectives, who take on cases from individuals asking them to look into anything from identity theft to domestic matters such as infidelity. You might even be asked to take on missing person’s cases. With this in mind, becoming a PI isn’t a job for the faint of heart. However, if you’re good at it, it promises the kind of job satisfaction you won’t find in many other professions. So, put on your deerstalker and load up your pipe as we take a close look at exactly what it takes to make it as a PI, including exactly what the job involves, the qualifications you might need, and the kind of salary you can expect to earn.

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What is a private investigator and what do they do?

Private investigators are hired by people who need them to solve a case, or obtain information that they’re unable to find by themselves. It could be that the police have closed a case because they’re unable to dedicate any more resources to it, or the situation is a domestic matter that doesn’t require police involvement. Either way, these are the kinds of activities you might find yourself doing as a PI:

Conducting research

This task is very important. You might need to locate records, verify information, and compile evidence for your client.

Working undercover

This one is tricky, and can take some practise! Undercover work might be required if you need to closely observe or interact with a ‘suspect’, whilst pretending to be someone else.

Private investigator in trench coat and deerstalker

Leave the trench coat at home for undercover jobs – subtlety is key.
















Performing surveillance

This aspect of the job can be tough, because it might involve long and unsociable hours. Perfectly legal in public areas in the UK, covert surveillance might be necessary to keep an eye on a suspect’s whereabouts, or to secretly observe wrongdoing taking place.

Performing background checks

Sometimes, you’ll be asked to investigate an individual’s past, as well as their current status, so the client can discover whether they’re being truthful.

Interviewing people

As a PI, you’ll have no right to legally hold people for interview, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get plenty of information from people related to a case through skilful conversation.

Working with law enforcement

Police in the UK are often overworked and underpaid, and simply don’t have the time or the resources to dedicate the kind of attention to an investigation that you will. If a case turns out to be serious, the police will want to work closely with you to discover what information you’ve uncovered.

Is a career as a private investigator right for me?

Although working as a PI can be incredibly interesting and promises a varied working life, it’s not quite as glamorous a job as films might lead you to believe. It can involve long hours, monotonous tasks, and uncomfortable situations. Bearing this in mind, what skills do you need to become a private investigator? We spoke to a real PI to find out, and she gave us her top three:

Concentration, and attention to detail

“It’s 3am, and so far you’ve spent five hours scouring a target’s internet activity, trying to determine if they’ve been truly honest with their partner about their past. Lose concentration, and you might miss a crucial clue. Similarly, when performing surveillance, it’s essential that you’re able to stay alert so as not to miss any important action – coffee will be your best friend in these situations.”

person making notes at a desk

Attention to detail is a key skill for any PI.
















Being comfortable working alone

“Unlike your typical office job where you’ll enjoy plenty of interaction with others, working as a PI, you’ll need to be content with your own company. Aside from your client, you might not interact with anyone else during a typical working day. You’ll also need to be able to trust your own intuition, or, as we say in the business, ‘follow your nose’ – you’ll be surprised at how far this can take you.”

Good people skills

“Now this one’s essential. Sometimes you’ll need to conduct research on a target, which will involve speaking with people close to them. Who wants to talk to a pushy PI? No one. You’ll need to be polite, tactful, and make it clear you’re grateful for their co-operation. It’s also important that you’re comfortable speaking with people in emotional distress – I’ve dealt with missing person’s cases before, and being able to calm a client enough for you to work together is a key skill.”

Is work experience essential to becoming a private investigator?

Many PIs choose to enter the profession because they have a background in law enforcement – in fact, around 45% are ex-police officers. Some will be ex-military, or have experience as a paralegal. Although this kind of experience is obviously beneficial, it’s certainly not a prerequisite, and there are other ways to gain work experience in this field. Firstly, you could approach an established firm and offer your services as an intern. Although you’ll likely find yourself doing desk-based research, you’ll gain some useful experience, as well as get the opportunity to watch established PIs in action. Additionally, you could practise some of the essential skills PIs need in your own time – you could conduct surveillance (do not attempt to do this during potentially dangerous situations, or put yourself at risk in any way), you could familiarise yourself with public records databases, or practise explanatory questioning with friends and family. You could also research body language and nonverbal cues – there are some great books and online guides on this subject, so dive in – there’s no such thing as too much research.

What qualifications do you need to become a private investigator?

At the moment, private investigation is not a regulated profession in the UK, meaning that there are no specific qualifications you need to hold to work as one. However, there’s still a provision available to get an official license if you’d like one; you’d need to gain the IQ Level 3 Award for Professional Investigators, or the BTEC Level 3 Award. You’d also need to pass certain tests, and pay a hefty licensing fee. However, there’s no legal requirement to do this before becoming a private investigator, and clients are often far more interested in your skillset and track record than the specific course you’ve taken. Nevertheless, it is a good idea to check out private investigator qualifications and get a decent one under your belt, because these will teach you all of the specific skills you need to do your job well. For instance, on our Private Investigator Level 3 course, you’ll delve into the ethics of working as a PI, learn how to navigate UK law when conducting your investigations, and how to extract information from suspects and witnesses. In addition, you’ll be coached through the process of starting your own PI business, including how to create a business plan. You might also benefit from studying Forensic Psychology, which will give you a deep insight into criminal behaviour and offender profiles, helping you to stay one step ahead of your suspects.

Surveillance from window of car

Finally, gaining an A-level law qualification would give you a comprehensive understanding of the way the legal system works in England, which will prove invaluable when structuring your own investigations into criminal activity, and will also enhance your reasoning and critical judgement skills. Of course, you might not feel like completing a qualification at all, and that’s fine – just be sure to gain plenty of practical experience before you take on clients.

What career progression can you expect as a private investigator?

To become a PI, you’ll need to be a self-starter, as most are self-employed and remain that way for the duration of their careers. Don’t be put off by this though, as it offers plenty of benefits: you can be your own boss, choose your own rates, pick your own hours, and be selective with your clients. However, it does mean that you’ll need to put some serious thought into creating a business plan, and how you’ll market yourself – you might even consider completing a qualification that will coach you through the whole process. Once you’ve got those skills down, however, running your own PI business can prove to be a lucrative and fulfilling endeavour. Some PIs choose to specialise in certain areas, which often means they’re able to charge higher rates. Alternatively, you might choose to team up with other PIs and create a firm. Sometimes, PIs who specialise in different areas will join forces to create a team of specialists; for instance, one might be an expert in investigating insurance fraud, one might work on missing person’s cases, and one might deal with domestic matters such as infidelity and custody disputes. This also has several benefits; some clients are more attracted to companies rather than freelancers, you’ll always have other professionals to bounce ideas off, and you’ll get the enjoyment of working with likeminded people.

What is the average salary for a private investigator?

It’s somewhat tricky to gauge the average salary of a PI, because it’s dependent on many factors: where you live, if you specialise in a certain area, and if you work freelance or as part of a team. If you’re just starting out as a freelancer and have no practical experience, charge £20 an hour (which is a reasonable starting rate for PIs in most areas) and manage to work for 20 hours per week, you’ll be making around £19,000 per year. Make a name for yourself and prove your worth, and that could raise to £25,000. Moving forward in your career, as you gain more experience and skills as well as undertake more complex tasks, your hourly rate could increase to as much as £85 per hour. At that rate, if you work for 20 hours every week of the year, your salary could be as high as £81,000. If you work as part of a firm of PIs, naturally, overhead costs will be taken into consideration, and your salary could be fixed rather than dependent on the amount of hours you work. Therefore, if this is your working arrangement, you might expect to earn an average salary of between £20-£30,000.

Fancy yourself as a super sleuth? Look no further than our Private Investigator Level 3 course! Alternatively, check out Forensic Psychology or A-level law to gain more of the crucial skills you’ll need for this fascinating career. If you’re still not sure, give our friendly, experienced course advisers a call on 0121 630 3000.

How much does a private investigator earn?


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