private investigator taking picturesMany people ask us about what it takes to become a private investigator. Their questions often include wanting to know how long it takes, and what type of schooling and licensing requirements are required. To answer those questions, we are providing this quick overview on what it takes to become a great P.I. Keep in mind, it is not a job everyone can do. Although there are legal requirements, there are personal attributes that an individual needs as well to become successful. We will start with the legal requirements.

Getting a License

You will need to have a license to operate as a private investigator. The requirements vary by state, but we will discuss the requirements in the state of California. To work for a California detective agency as a private investigator, you need to be at least 18 years old and have no criminal record. The state, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, will also perform a background check.

Educational and Experience Requirements

There are several ways this standard can be met. The first is by obtaining a law degree. The second is by having a four year degree in police science combined with two years of experience in private investigative work. The third is a two-year college degree with two and half years of investigation experience, and the fourth is to have three years experience working in the field of private investigation.

Keep in mind that the rules regarding what constitutes experience are tough. You must be working with a licensed P.I., and your work must be documented. The reason why these requirements are stringent is that there are many laws that dictate what can and cannot be done in the field of private investigation. In order to become a great investigator, you need to know all of them like the back of your hand.


Once you have the education and experience requirement fulfilled, you still need to pass an examination. The test in the state of California lasts approximately two hours. It is multiple choice, and as you can expect, covers mostly law as it applies to private investigation work. Examples of topics include such things as the handling of evidence, criminal as well as civil liability, regulations concerning undercover investigations and all other laws that generally apply to this line of work. Once you have been notified that you have passed the test, you can apply for your license.

Personal Attributes

Like other professions, there are certain personality attributes that fit this type of work, and if you have them, you are likely to have a better chance at success. At the top of the list is patience. The work often takes time to produce results. For example, waiting at the right spot to record someone on video can take time. This type of work can become boring for many people, so you need to be patient. You will also need good listening skills. Although many of the stories your clients will tell are similar, there can be small differences that dictate exactly how you will approach the problem. Of course, one of the most important attributes for a successful investigator is that of curiosity.

At the very least you should understand by reading the above requirements that a great private investigator doesn’t happen overnight. Like any other successful professional, it is a combination of education and hard work.

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Bruce Robertson

Bruce Robertson is a private investigator and founder of Tristar Investigation, California’s premiere detective agency. Bruce is also a media commentator for the investigation industry, featured in the New York Times, CNN, History Channel, MSNBC, Los Angeles Times and many more. You can find him on Google+ LinkedIn and YouTube.