How to Become a Criminal Investigator

Criminal investigators are individuals who investigate crimes and other events for legal and official purposes. They’re professionally licensed, but they don’t work for a government agency like police officers do. Instead, they work for hire on behalf of private clients. They might end up using the results of their investigation in a criminal proceeding.

What does an Criminal Investigator Do?

An investigator for criminal offenses helps their client prove or disprove facts relating to a criminal allegation. They pursue leads and try to gather information that’s helpful to their client. That helps their client pursue their claim in court. They track down witnesses, make observations, gather records, and otherwise help their clients build criminal defenses or a criminal claim.

In some cases, criminal investigators work on behalf of individuals who are facing criminal charges. In that case, they might try to identify witnesses and gather witness statements. They might return to the scene of the alleged crime in order to conduct their investigation. They might examine aspects of the case such as cell phone records or GPS data in order examine and disprove part of the state’s case. An investigator might testify in court on behalf of their client.Working on behalf of individuals facing criminal charges

Working on behalf of crime victims

A criminal investigator might also work on behalf of a client that believes another person or company has committed a crime. In that case, they might want to gather the evidence in order to ask a law enforcement agency to bring criminal charges. This might include investigating allegations of fraud, falsifying evidence, embezzlement or all sorts of other crimes.

Steps to Becoming a Criminal investigator

  1. Meet the age requirement. It’s 18 in most states.
  2. Get the necessary education or experience
  3. Provide proof of clean criminal history
  4. Apply for an investigator license
  5. Obtain a bond and submit proof to the State

Each state has their own requirements

Each state has their own requirements to become a criminal investigator. These state regulations typically require minimum education, practical experience and character and fitness. Every state is different, but most states have minimum age, character and experience qualifications.

Experience or undergraduate degree

Most states have several ways for an investigator to meet their education or experience requirement. They might allow former military or law enforcement officers to meet the requirement automatically. Many states allow parole and probation officers to use their work experience to meet minimum requirements.

If a candidate doesn’t have former military or law enforcement experience, they can usually apprentice for a criminal investigator. The apprentice period runs between two or three years. Alternatively, some states allow a candidate to substitute a bachelor’s degree in a criminal justice field for the experience requirement. Joining a criminal investigator association may also be of benefit.

Getting your license

In most states, a license for criminal investigations is called a private investigator’s license. It’s the state itself that processes the applications and maintains a database of licensees. To learn how to submit your application, you can look at your state’s informational website.

The web page for your state should have a checklist for what information you need to gather and where you submit the information for processing. You’ll need to submit an application form, a copy of your criminal history and other documents to prove your qualifications. It’s the state’s licensing board that processes your application and makes a decision about whether to approve it.

Bonding requirement

Most states require you to get a bond in order to work in criminal investigations. To get a bond, you pay a small amount of money to a company. In return, the company agrees to pay a certain amount of money if you don’t abide by the terms of your state license.

The bond isn’t an insurance policy for you. Instead, it’s for the benefit of the public. If you don’t do your job properly, the bond ensures that the public doesn’t suffer as a result. There are many private companies that offer bonds for individuals seeking their criminal investigation license.

Work Environment For Criminal Investigators

The work environment for an criminal investigator varies by the day. They spend some of their time sitting in front of a computer preparing reports. They spend time in an office meeting with new clients and reviewing the results of an investigation. The courtroom is another common location for an investigator. When called upon, they might spend long days in the courtroom. They might also meet with police officers at their station or headquarters in order to talk about their investigation.

However, criminal investigators spend a great deal of time in the field. They might spend hours or even days at a time in a vehicle waiting for movement. They might spend their days driving to follow a vehicle or driving to see a scene or speak with individuals. They also may spend a great deal of their time interviewing witnesses or otherwise interacting with people. The days of a professional investigator are varied.

Jobs in Criminal Investigation

Criminal investigators typically work in their own business or as part of a company that specializes in criminal investigations. They might run a company that offers investigative services for hire. When a person or company needs an investigator, they might contract with the company for the work. Attorneys might frequently use an investigator to help them gather evidence for their criminal clients.

Corporations can also use criminal investigators as employees. Insurance companies may employ investigators to look into suspected fraud. When an investigator works for a specific company, they spend all of their time focusing on that client’s needs. They’re often paid as an employee.

Combining services

Criminal investigators who run their own companies often combine their criminal investigative work with other services such as private investigating. Attorneys might need investigators to look into civil matters as well as criminal. They might also use an investigator for things like serving legal documents or subpoenas. An investigator might enhance their business by thinking about the client needs and offering a range of services.

Key skills for Criminal Investigators

Criminal investigators need a variety of skills. They need to be comfortable with high pressure situations. Their work involves making observations, gathering evidence and making reports. Investigators have to be comfortable interacting with people effectively even when it’s uncomfortable. Here are some of the important skills for a criminal investigator:


Criminal investigators have to be comfortable with a great deal of modern technology. It’s important to document your investigation. You may need to make recordings and take video in order to have proof of the results of your investigation. Individuals in this profession may need to be comfortable using any of the following technologies:

  • Word processing programs to type reports
  • Typing and using a keyboard
  • Maps and GPS technologies
  • Video and audio recording devices
  • Database research software for researching a criminal or employment history
  • Email software
  • Cell phones

Speaking and interpersonal skills

Criminal investigators often have to approach people to do their work. These conversations might be tense or uncomfortable. Investigators must know when to appear friendly and when to aggressively pursue information. Clients often need their investigators to testify at formal proceedings and trials. Professionals have to be able to testify confidently.

A valid driver’s license

According to O*NET Online, 84 percent of investigators report using a motor vehicle every day. Criminal investigators not only have to drive in order to conduct surveillance, but they also have to drive in order to collect court records and other paperwork. A valid driver’s license is a must for a professional criminal investigator.

Observation and memory

Criminal investigators are paid to be the eyes and ears of their clients. That means they have to pay attention. Investigators have to be able to concentrate on the task at hand. They also have to be able to remember what they observe.

Ability to work varying hours

Events that clients need recording don’t always happen during business hours. Criminal Investigators often have to work on short notice. They often work outside of normal business hours including weekends. Investigators need to have the flexibility to meet their client’s demands.

Responding to changing conditions

Criminal Investigators must be able to think on their feet. When an investigator conducts an investigation, they must be able to react to the information that they find. That might mean changing the course of an investigation. During live surveillance, the circumstances can change quickly. Professionals must be able to respond and react quickly.


The role of a criminal investigator is one of public trust. Investigators have to go about their duties with honesty and integrity. Society counts on them to tell the truth and conduct their business in lawful ways.

Career Outlook at Growth Opportunities

While there are slightly more than 100,000 investigators in the United States, experts expect the industry to grow by 28,000 in the next 10 years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), growth in the industry is going to be faster than average. Investigators have the opportunity to grow their own business and tailor their clients to meet their skills and interests.


According to O*NET Online, a criminal investigator can expect to make $78,000 per year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that average pay is considerably less at $48,000 per year. Pay varies depending on experience, location, client and type of work.

Why Become a Criminal Investigator?

Criminal investigators help their clients with important matters. Investigators perform an important law enforcement function. Their clients depend on them to either fight criminal charges or hold others accountable when they’re the victim of crime. Some individuals enjoy the profession because of the opportunity it gives them to help others.

Others enjoy the work of criminal investigation after a career in law enforcement or the military. They might want to stay active in law enforcement. Working as an investigator often allows an individual to stay in the same field while transitioning to private work. It allows an individual to continue in a field of work that they enjoy.

Finally, many enjoy the excitement of investigative work. Criminal investigators might discover new information that’s helpful to their client’s case. They often have the excitement of conducting surveillance. For adrenaline junkies, criminal investigative work is often a way to get paid to work in a field that they enjoy.