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How to become a private investigator – a self-employed guide

5-minute read

Private investigator working on their laptop
Zach Hayward-Jones

Zach Hayward-Jones

27 June 2023

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We all have an idea of what a private investigator does from films and TV. Days filled with long camera lenses, car chases, and hidden microphones. And while that makes up part of the job, the reality is quite different.

It’s an important career that provides a valuable service to people that need support. But what does a private investigator really do? And what does it take to become one? Read on to understand how to become a private investigator.

What is a private investigator?

A private investigator (PI) is hired by clients to investigate something and come back to them with evidence. While lots of the techniques and tasks a PI will do are the same as police detectives, private investigators are not legal officers.

And private investigators can look into anything, it doesn’t have to be a criminal offence. It can be research into a person's background or to find out if somebody is lying – the role is to investigate and provide evidence to a client.

The way a PI conducts this research depends on what they're trying to find out. But it’s common for investigators to use surveillance techniques on people of interest as well as doing interviews and reading through record books.

And there’s a variety of ways you can work as a private investigator. Many PIs work through agencies and are assigned cases while others work freelance or set up their own business.

How to become a self-employed private investigator – a step-by-step guide

What makes a good private investigator?

Lots of private investigators come from backgrounds in law enforcement because there are transferable skills. But that doesn’t mean it’s required – if you have some of the following skills, you may be suited to a career as a self-employed private investigator:

  • analytical and critical thinking – it’s extremely important to be able to think on your feet and make decisions under pressure
  • attention to detail – as you’ll regularly be researching different avenues, being able to spot the smallest details is an important trait of a PI
  • great communication – being able to clearly explain complex evidence and your reasoning to your client helps avoid misunderstandings
  • discretion and confidentiality – client’s usually don’t want people to know they’ve hired a private investigator. Making sure your work remains confidential is important for your client’s satisfaction and your reputation
  • determination – finding the evidence you need can be a difficult process that requires patience and determination to uncover
  • adaptable – working as a PI isn’t a typical job. You’ll need to be able to adapt to unusual working hours and unexpected challenges

The pros and cons of being a private investigator

Working as a private investigator can be a unique opportunity – but isn't without sacrifice. Here are some things to consider if you're thinking of becoming a self-employed PI:

The pros

  • varied – no two days are the same as a PI and you’re always presented with new challenges
  • stimulating – getting to the bottom of a case can be an exciting experience and is one of the most interesting aspects of the job
  • rewarding – you’ll regularly be making a difference in people’s lives when you solve their case

The cons

  • potentially dangerous – as you’ll potentially be involved in criminal cases, there’s an element of danger that comes with being a private investigator
  • demanding – long, anti-social hours, combined with challenging tasks like conducting surveillance or interviews make life as a PI very demanding
  • high pressure – sometimes jobs can be complex to solve but it’s your responsibility to help your client. The pressure of delivering evidence can make working as a PI challenging

Choose a specialty

Depending on your interests and experience, you could specialise in different types of private investigation work.

Here are some areas where you could offer your services:

  • criminal cases – you can investigate criminal cases that are no longer being pursued by the police
  • domestic issues – solving marital or family related cases that aren’t necessarily criminal
  • corporate disputes – producing evidence to a client of fraud in their business is a common job for PIs

There are many areas you can focus on as a private investigator and many choose to work in all of them. But specialising in one area can help establish you as an expert and attract new clients.

Private investigator course – how to become qualified

There aren't any official qualifications that you need to become a private investigator. But there are associations where you can demonstrate your expertise.

The Association of British Investigators (ABI) is considered the most reputable governing body of private investigators. They’re the only association that has the power to punish its members for not following their code of standards.

To get a membership with the ABI you’ll need to pass screening and DBS checks, have private investigator insurance, and register with the Information Commissioner's Office. You’ll also need to pass a Level 3 Award for Professional Investigators.

You could also look into private investigator training, for example:

Private investigator salary – how much can you earn?

A private investigator salary when you’re self-employed varies depending on experience and location. PI agency Investigateuk charges their clients £50 to £55 an hour on average but the full range is between £30 to £85 per hour depending on experience and the type of job.

Many self-employed PIs charge by the hour because of the unpredictable nature of the work. You can spend many hours on a case, so a flat rate payment might not reflect your efforts.

Private investigators must follow the same laws as civilians – you’re not granted any special rights in the way a police detective would. But there aren't currently any specific regulations relating to private detectives.

But in 2013, the government shared their plans to regulate private investigators by making it a criminal offence to work without a licence.

The intention is to give The Security Industry Authority (SIA) the authority to issue a private investigator licence. To become certified, applicants would need to:

  • be over 18 years old
  • gain a government-recognised qualification
  • pass a thorough background and criminality check

The plans are yet to come into effect but they could be introduced in the future.

Tax responsibilities

You’ll need to register as self-employed and pay your taxes through filing a Self Assessment tax return.

If you decide to start a limited company, you’ll need to register with Companies House and complete a company tax return.

You can find all the information you’ll need around tax responsibilities for the self employed on our tax hub.


As you’ll be working closely with people, in potentially dangerous scenarios, private investigator insurance is an important consideration

From mistakes and negligence to defamation and data loss, the consequences of a claim against you can damage your business and livelihood. Having the right insurance can cover you for the unique set of risks that come with being a private investigator.

It’s also necessary for you to have insurance if you want to become a certified private investigator under ABI.

Are you planning on becoming a private investigator? Let us know in the comments below.

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Zach Hayward-Jones

Written by

Zach Hayward-Jones

Zach Hayward-Jones is a Copywriter at Simply Business, with six years of writing experience across entertainment, insurance, and financial services. Zach specialises in covering small business and landlord insurance. He has a particular interest in issues impacting the hospitality industry after spending a number of years working as a pastry chef.

We create this content for general information purposes and it should not be taken as advice. Always take professional advice. Read our full disclaimer

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