Licensed Private Investigator

Based on the California Department of Consumer Affairs, Bureau of Security & Investigative Services, the requirements to become licensed as a Private Investigator include:

1. You must be at least 18 years old or older.

2. Undergo a criminal history background check through the California Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). There are three options to licensure. 

(A)  Three years (2,000 hours each year, totaling 6,000 hours) of compensated experience in investigative work; or

(B)  A law or police science degree plus two years (4,000 hours) of experience; or

(C)  AA degree in police science, criminal law, or justice and 2 ½ years (5,000 hours) of experience.

I created the chart below to assist you in understanding the requirements.

Private Investigator Licensing

Experience in compensated investigative work?

Law or police science degree?

AA Degree in police science, criminal law, or justice?

Hours of experience1    

Option 1




6,000 hours

Option 2




4,000 hours

Option 3




5,000 hours






One year of experience is equivalent to 2,000 hours.

Note 1: Experience must be certified by your employer and have been received while you were employed as a sworn law enforcement officer, military police officer, insurance adjuster, employee of a licensed PI or repossessor, or arson investigator for a public fire suppression agency.

Note 2: Work as a process server, public records researcher, custodial attendant for a law enforcement agency, bailiff, agent who collects debts in writing or by telephone after the debtor has been located, or person who repossesses property after it has been located is not considered qualifying experience.

I recommend every applicant view page 20 of the Private Investigator licensing packet.  This is what your employer will be completing.

3. Pass a two-hour multiple-choice examination covering laws and regulations, terminology, civil and criminal liability, evidence handling, undercover investigations and surveillance.   This exam is very difficult, but don’t let my opinion discourage you.

Tip #1
Employment Outlook

If you are employed, do not quit your full-time job to begin your own private investigation business.  Every experience PI will tell you this industry is very “cut throat”.  You must earn the respect and trust from potential and current clients.  Earning a great reputation as a PI takes time. If anyone is offering you PI work under the condition you obtain your PI license, make sure you do not leave your current job.  If you decide otherwise, you should obtain the promise in writing. I’ve seen too many PIs depend on someone’s suggestion they would hire them if they obtain their license, only to have the promise die.

Tip# 2

I can’t tell you enough the importance of networking.  Network with others like-minded on social websites such as Facebook and Linkedin. More importantly, if you like to become a PI, network with private investigators and detectives in your community. PIs who own their business are more likely to employ those who they know.  Enthusiastic people usually get the jobs over others. Calling a private investigations firm, visiting them in person, or social media is not a bad idea.

Tip # 3

ü  The total costs for licensing as a Private Investigator is approximately $250.00.

ü  If you hire employees (W-2) you must pay employment taxes, roughly 3% of their wages.

ü  If you hire employees, you must purchase a worker’s compensation policy. 

ü  You should purchase an insurance policy and the price of the policy often depends on how much you intend on earning every year.

ü  An office environment since some clients rather you have a secure office to secure confidential information.

ü  Advertising costs---without advertising how do you intend on gathering clientele?

ü  Considering all of the operating costs to run an office, it might be better to obtain your PI license and work for someone until you are financially secure to work independently.


How to become a Private Investigator, Detective, PI, in California?

How to become a Private Investigator (PI) in California?

By Shaun E. Sundahl

August 2, 2011

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As owner of Sundahl & Associates, Detective Agency, I am often asked a simple question of “How do I become a Private Investigator?” To begin, I can only tell you how to become a Private Investigator in California.  As for other states, check the state licensing board. Throughout this article, I will use the terms “Private Investigator”, “PI”, and “Private Detective” interchangeably.

You must decide what type of PI work interest you? If you work on behalf of an attorney you do not need a license. If you intend on working as a surveillance agent (someone who records the cheating spouse or worker’s compensation patient) you can work without a license as long as you are under the direction of a licensed Private Investigator. Loss prevention detectives and process servers do not need to be licensed. As for a SIU (Special Investigations Unit) Investigator, no license is required since in-house insurance company investigators are exempt.

For those who do not know what a SIU Investigator is, the SIU normally consist of an investigations division within an insurance company.  The primary duty of the SIU is investigating claims of fraud.

Becoming a Private Investigator, in most cases requires more education and experience than the requirements for the ordinary detective or investigator (even most peace officer positions) in a law enforcement agency. The reason I suspect is Private Investigators ordinarily do not go through the same formal training as law enforcement detectives or officers. Moreover, many insurance companies require a Bachelor’s Degree from an accredited institution for those applying to the SIU. Some require at least an Associate’s Degree.


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